A Life: Bill Pence ‘was all about the show’

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-19-2023 7:44 PM

HANOVER — For someone who devoted his life to the glitziest of businesses, Bill Pence kept out of the light.

His career in film had a profound influence on the medium, but he came at it from the perspective of a fan and a theater operator, not a star.

He was also a private person, so when he died in December at age 82, no obituary was forthcoming, and many of the people who worked with him didn’t know of his passing until weeks later.

Most of the second half of Pence’s career was set in Hanover. He was hired in 1983 as the first director of the film program at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. Until his retirement, in 2016, almost everything that appeared on the big screen in Hanover passed through Pence’s hands. He programmed not only the college’s movie theaters, along with the members of the Dartmouth Film Society, but also the Nugget Theaters.

“This job is a culmination of who I am,” Pence told a Valley News reporter in 1983. “It will enable me to use the resources I’ve gathered in the last 20 years and influence the future.”

Above all, Pence loved movies and wanted more people to see them on the big screen, Sydney Stowe, who worked with Pence at Dartmouth for 20 years and is the current Hopkins Center film director, said in an interview. As the founder of the Dartmouth Film Awards, he brought stars to Hanover, but he was in service to filmgoers.

“What I love about him is he made film feel accessible,” Stowe said.

Before he arrived in Hanover at age 42, Pence had built a deep and broad résumé in film, particularly for someone working outside Hollywood.

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He’d grown up in Minneapolis, where he’d worked in the city’s movie theaters, according to an appreciation of Pence by Jim Bedford, a longtime colleague of Pence’s, published in the Telluride Daily Planet. Pence started a film society in college, at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.

After presenting films to students, Pence served in the Air Force, and when he left the service spent a year in France, going to movies and crashing on the couches of people in the film world. As Bedford describes it, one of Pence’s first great services to American filmgoers took place when he realized the version of “King Kong” screened in France contained footage cut by censors from the American version. Pence bought a print of the film and brought it back to the American company Janus Films, which made new 35mm prints for distribution to college and art house theaters.

Pence went to work for Janus, which developed a market for classic and foreign films. In the 1960s and ’70s, he expanded Janus’ collection, which became the basis for the Criterion Collection of classic films.

What he became best known for was co-founding the Telluride Film Festival, along with his wife, Stella, film historian James Card and film archivist Tom Luddy (who died in February). The Pences were living in Denver and owned a handful of movie theaters there. Holding a festival in a small Colorado town was meant to be a lark, a one-off.

“When we decided to do a festival in Telluride, Stella and I would say, ‘Gee, we’re having a party, this is going to be fun, you know? Francis Coppola, Leni Riefenstahl and Gloria Swanson are going to be there.’ ” Pence told Jeffrey Ruoff, a Dartmouth film professor who wrote an ebook about the Telluride Film Festival. That first festival sold out, so they kept going. What started on one screen now has 10.

What sets the festival apart is its focus on people who love movies, not on stars or producers or executives. To show a film at Telluride, a director must attend, and there’s no special treatment, so ordinary movie-goers rub shoulders with moviemakers.

“We wanted to create a festival that ordinary people who loved movies could go to,” Pence told the Carnegie Mellon alumni magazine after he’d retired from the festival in 2007. “You couldn’t have people more capable in presenting the art of film. We knew and loved and understood film — and wanted to present it under the best possible circumstances. It’s been that way ever since.”

And since a memorable occasion when actress Jeanne Moreau was supposed to attend but backed out, the festival’s organizers haven’t announced the lineup ahead of time, another feature that sets it apart. (The Telluride at Dartmouth mini-festival of six Telluride films that screen in Hanover, which Pence started 38 years ago, adheres to the same rule. Only once the Telluride lineup becomes public at the start of the festival are the films screening at Dartmouth announced.)

It was Shelton Stanfield, director of the Hopkins Center, who recruited Pence to Dartmouth, Stowe said. Before Pence arrived, the Dartmouth Film Society was overseen by faculty in the Film Studies program, said Joanna Rapf, a longtime visiting professor at Dartmouth whose father, Maurice Rapf, had grown up in Hollywood and was a fixture in Dartmouth’s film program for decades.

While the Pences kept Telluride going, and had started another festival in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1980, they had sold off the theaters they owned, because Pence wasn’t able to book movies he liked. Dartmouth offered a steady paycheck, a place for the Pences’ two daughters to grow up, and it brought Pence full-circle, back to his student days of film programming.

In addition to starting Telluride at Dartmouth, Pence organized part of the festival from Hanover. The festival had three offices, named after the Three Stooges: Larry oversaw feature films, Curly the student films, and Moe the short films. Moe lived in an office in the Nugget Theater building. Pence and members of the Dartmouth Film Society helped narrow down the hundreds of short films submitted to the festival. The director of the film society got a coveted paid summer job, and part of the payment was a job at Telluride.

The college’s influence on Telluride is ongoing. Two of the festival’s 10 theaters are managed by Dartmouth graduates, and many, many more help run the festival, said Stowe, who works there herself each year.

And through the festival, Pence exerted an influence on filmmaking. For example, Barry Jenkins, director of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” worked on the program of short films with Pence for a decade and still presents them at the festival.

Pence said he came to Dartmouth because he liked the college’s emphasis on film as a part of life, not just as a profession. He wanted everyone, not just film majors or future screenwriters, to feel like the movies were for them. He paid fanatical attention to the small details of screening films, Stowe said, from the volume of the music playing before the movie started to how quickly the curtains opened to reveal the screen.

He and Stella also screened films at their house, often inviting the film society over to watch. “He would say ‘Come over, I’ve got a movie,’ ” Stowe said. He had a 35mm projector at his home on Hanover Center Road and could get prints from multiple sources. He screened new films as well as new prints of old movies. Stowe was among a small audience that watched “Titanic” at the Pences’ house before it was in theaters.

Rapf remembers Pence chiefly for creating the Dartmouth Film Award, which brought major figures in filmmaking to Hanover. “Wow, did he bring exceptional people to campus for that,” she said, adding that “you really feel connected to the film world through Bill.”

Star power makes movies, but that wasn’t Pence’s end of it. He was responsible for bringing such luminaries as Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Sidney Lumet, Thelma Schoonmaker, Werner Herzog and Mira Nair to Hanover to receive the Dartmouth Film Award. But he wasn’t particularly comfortable among the famous people he’d lured.

“He actually got a little bit quiet around celebrities,” Stowe said. He would make sure all the arrangements were taken care of, then take off, she said. Even the stars were less about fame than about attracting viewers.

“It was never about him,” Stowe said. “It was always about trying to get movies in front of as many eyeballs as possible.”

To this day, all the posters for Telluride screenings must contain the word “show,” Pence’s reminder that the festival, and all screenings, really, are more about the viewers than the artists.

“He was all about the show,” Stowe said.

The Hop plans to honor Pence with film screenings — shows — later this year.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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