The term “influencers” has come to mean a cadre of people online whose endorsement of a product or service has widespread impact. In my lifetime I’ve met a handful of people who, without the benefit of social media, took on a similar role. Two of them have just passed away, but their impact will continue to be felt for many years to come.
I met Adrienne Mancia, who just died at 95, during her long tenure as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She loved film and lived to discover and nurture creative people. She also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and mounted tributes to American-International Pictures and Warner Bros. Cartoons, honorees that other, more rigid institutions might have sloughed off. I worked alongside her on that animation program and once filled in for her office-mate Larry Kardish when he took a temporary leave of absence. [She and Larry were responsible for me being hired as a Guest Curator for our eight-month salute to American Film Comedy in 1976.] When she set her sights on acquiring a film or boosting an unknown talent she was like a terrier with a bone: she would not and could not be deterred. She detested sham and pretentiousness. I once overheard her on the phone shaming a filmmaker who wanted to shut out his ex-partner from an upcoming tribute. The filmmaker gave in; he had no choice. Adrienne was the kind of person you wanted to have in your corner. That she made it to 95 in spite of chain-smoking was possibly a tribute to her tenacity: she refused to surrender. Her programs for MoMA and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) set a high bar for others who emulated her around the globe.
Bill Pence came into my life when my wife Alice and I attended our first Telluride Film Festival in 1979. On opening night he stood on the stage of the Sheridan Opera House and welcomed us all, adding that if we managed to see everything we wanted to, he and his team had failed. Back then, the lineup of guests and films were a well-kept secret until the program began. He wanted to earn our trust, to believe that he and his festival partners would make it worth our while to make the trek. And he never let us down.
Bill and his incredible wife Stella Pence were an unbeatable team. When they discovered Telluride, Colorado, which sits in a box canyon, making it a destination as opposed to a town one can pass through, they fell in love with it and its jewel-box of an opera house. Being dreamers, they decided that if they built a high-quality film festival, people would come; being doers, they turned that premise into a reality. In concert with Tom Luddy and Bill Everson (who took over for their original archival partner James Card) they developed a world-class event that has mushroomed beyond their imagination.
It was difficult to learn that Bill’s health was fading in recent months. He was a hearty soul, buoyed by confidence and an unquenchable passion for films—and his family. That extended family grew to include many people who dedicated themselves to the Telluride Film Festival because of his and Stella’s leadership. Alice, Jessie and I couldn’t be more thankful.
One of Bill’s finest moments came in the midst of the 1987 festival. Louis Malle flew in from Venice with a print of his wrenching memoir Au Revoir les Enfants for its first U.S. showing, at the Opera House on a Saturday afternoon. The director was nervous, unsure of how a largely American audience would greet his autobiographical story. When it was over, the audience was so choked up that there was no applause. We all filed out of the theater onto the sloping lawn just outside, including Malle, and for some reason nobody left. Everyone lingered, digesting the heartbreaking story we had all watched together. It was Bill who broke the silence. “Louis,” he said, “We just want to thank you for your film.” With that, everyone burst into applause and Louis Malle breathed a sigh of relief.
One doesn’t meet people like Bill or Adrienne very often, but they occupy an outsized role in my life—and I know I’m not the only beneficiary of their selfless dedication to film. I will miss them and think of them often. Some of today’s so-called influencers rise and fall in the blink of an eye. Not so my friends and heroes Adrienne Mancia and Bill Pence.