TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Decades ago, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys transformed a Tulsa venue — Cain’s Ballroom — into the Carnegie Hall of Western swing. Step inside and you can hear echoes from the past.
In the future, Wills will have a presence on both sides of Main Street.
The Tulsa World reports that groundbreaking is expected to occur this fall for the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture (OKPOP), which will be constructed across the street from Cain’s Ballroom.
OKPOP will pay tribute to hundreds of creatives with ties to the state who made an impact on popular culture. Thousands of Wills-related items will be available for display because Texas filmmaker Dwight Adair donated one of the world’s largest Wills collections to OKPOP.
“The main reason is so that it can be seen,” Adair said. “It is not going to do anyone, or even Bob Wills’ heritage, any good in my closets. When I go to wherever I go after I die, they always say you have never seen a hearse with a U-Haul behind it, so I can’t take it with me. So what I want, being a true believer of Bob Wills, is I want to spread the heritage about what he has done.”
For instance, Adair said Wills is one of only a few artists who are in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Adair knows all kinds of things about Wills you may not know including this: A person who has owned the TV and motion picture rights to Wills’ life story since 1976 is still trying to get the movie made.
“It’s my life’s dream,” said that person.
That person is the same guy who helped John Travolta learn to speak “Texan” during the making of the movie “Urban Cowboy.”
That person is Adair, who has been collecting Wills-related treasures for decades and made a decision last year to donate his collection to OKPOP. He explained why during a recent trip to Tulsa to attend a Bob Wills Heritage Foundation board meeting. During the trip, he blessed OKPOP with additional Wills artifacts that he has acquired since making the “big” donation.
Said Adair: “What I learned is once you have been a collector for 40-some-odd years, once you make a donation, you don’t stop being a collector.”
Adair is a storyteller.
He told a story about teaching Travolta to say “cain’t” instead of “can’t” on the set of “Urban Cowboy.”
He told a story about directing episodes of “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”
He told a story about sitting in the home of Henry Fonda to help prep the legendary actor for a Texas-flavored role.
It all happened because of Bob Wills.
Adair is from Austin, Texas. He was treated to the music scene there — and the mixing of genres — in the early to mid-1970s. He said you might see Willie Nelson playing with a blues performer. You might see Jerry Jeff Walker playing with a pop artist. Local radio disc jockey Joe Gracey seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and Adair heard the DJ credit Wills for being a pioneer in the mixing of styles.
“I started hearing that over and over again,” Adair said.
He said his father used to go through the house singing ditties. They were Wills songs. That contributed to Adair’s Wills-related intrigue.
In 1976, Charles Townsend wrote “San Antonio Rose,” a definitive Wills biography.
“At that time, I barely had enough money for a hamburger,” Adair said.
But he bought a hardback version of the book and quickly read it from cover to cover. His takeaway: There are at least three or four movies in this book. He hoped to make at least one.
“I was at the very, very beginning of my career as a director and producer and writer,” he said. “I knew just enough about producing to know what the first phone call is to make, which was to the publishers of the biography.”
Adair made up the name of a production company (a mash-up of his name and his wife’s name) and called the publisher. The rights were available, but they couldn’t go to anyone without permission from the Wills estate.
Adair said he flew to Oklahoma with his wife to meet one of Wills’ children, a Norman banker. Adair said they had maxed out a credit card and had $17 in cash when the plane landed. A cab driver became $17 richer.
During a dinner meeting with Wills’ son at a barbecue joint, Adair said he reached for the check, never mind that he was flat broke, and got an under-the-table kick from his wife. Fortunately, Wills’ son insisted that he pick up the tab. He also drove them back to the airport.
Adair said the right things and was referred to Wills’ widow. After hearing Adair’s movie pitch, she was willing to give a green light — with a stipulation. She wanted to see a Hollywood connection.
Adair said he knew two people in Los Angeles at the time. He and his wife trekked to California to meet with a producer, Jimmy Nelson. The producer said he was looking for a project for James Guercio, a music industry figure (produced early Chicago albums) who aspired to be a film director. But in the meantime, how will you two folks from Texas pay the bills?
Adair indicated it would be easy for his wife, Sandra, to find work because she was a film editor. He was proven right: A frequent Richard Linklater collaborator, Sandra was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on the 2014 film “Boyhood.”
But what could Adair do? Nelson said director James Bridges was making a movie in Texas. Maybe Adair could be a dialect coach? The movie was “Urban Cowboy.” From that sprang other jobs as a dialect coach and dialogue coach.
“I would have never gotten the first job in the film industry if we hadn’t gone out there with the Bob Wills project,” he said.
Adair contributed to the legacy of Bob Wills by making a documentary film, “Faded Love.” He described it as a tribute to Wills and the Texas Playboys.
But the documentary is just an appetizer. All these years later, Adair still wants to turn Wills’ life story into a motion picture, and he’s still among partners who hold the rights.
“At first blush, it looked like we had a deal right away,” Adair said of his pitch to make a Wills movie in the 1970s.
“We were selling it as Bob Wills being a legend of country music and what ended up happening was the Loretta Lynn story (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) got that slot, and we got bumped out of it. And once you get bumped out of it, you have got to find your way back in.”
Adair said he has a great screenplay and the music would be incredible but he’s on the hunt for financing partners. He said it would take approximately $25 million to $30 million to make the period-piece movie. If the movie ever gets made, Adair envisions shooting on location in Tulsa (specifically Cain’s Ballroom) and Texas.
“To me, it’s a real anomaly that this movie hasn’t gotten made because Bob Wills was an entrepreneur with a fire burning in his belly just like the software people are now,” Adair said.
“He knew he had something the world wanted, and he was absolutely right, and he carried an era that nobody else did. He made more money and movies than anybody else among his peers. He was a real charismatic character. They say he was just like Elvis Presley. When he walked in a room, all the heads would turn. And when he spoke, it was silent. And when he was on the bandstand doing his jive talk and making his musicians be better than they ever thought they could be, it was super dynamic. It’s just as viable today as it was back in the 70s.”
Adair began collecting Bob Wills items while in California at the dawn of his film career.
He said it was easier to get the “good stuff” then, but because there was no internet, he had to go the boots-on-the-ground route and prowl around at record shows. Sometimes he found vintage records. Sometimes he found posters. Sometimes he found out names of other people who were Wills collectors.
“Any more on eBay, it has gotten to be pretty slim pickings because people like me have scooped most of it up,” he said.
Adair’s collection included unique items (flour sacks?) and a one-of-a-kind item: A piece of homemade pottery that was given to Wills when he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.
“There are a lot of wonderful things in that collection,” he said. “And it’s going to be our collection now.”
Adair loved his collection. He was asked if it was difficult to give up something that he loved.
“At first, it was hard,” he said. “It’s like having a dog for its whole life and you got it when it was a puppy and then it dies. But I quickly got over that because I have always told myself this stuff is not doing anybody any good at the bottom of my closets. Nobody can see this but me and an occasional friend that I badger into looking at it. So I quickly got happy about it.”