Remembering Bob Glatzer

Not surprisingly, my last memorable conversation with Bob Glatzer was a lively argument about a movie. I adore Meryl Streep and I thought last year’s Julie & Julia, a clever parallel story about the legendary Julia Child and the contemporary food writer Julie Powell, was a terrific film.

Bob thought otherwise.

“How could you not like it?” I asked.

And in Glatzeresque fashion, Bob unloaded his critique.

Which raised an important question: How do you argue movies with someone who, though transplanted to Lilac City, was widely recognized as one of the nation’s best film critics?

I knew I was going to lose the argument–it was like playing tennis with Andy Roddick, or at least how I imagine that would be–so I went for what I hoped would be a soft spot. It was Jane Lynch, the tall actress who played Julia Child’s sister Dorothy. The on-screen chemistry between Lynch and Streep was, to me, a splendid thing. And that got him. Suddenly Bob was passionately explaining, better than I ever could, the quality of sisterly love that Lynch and Streep brought to the screen in Julie & Julia. He just loved their scenes, though he still didn’t like the movie.

Bob Glatzer, Spokane Public Radio photo.

Our argument over Julie and Julia is one of my favorite memories of Bob, who died yesterday (Friday, October 15th) of a stroke. He will be well-eulogized in Spokane, and well-remembered, in large part because of his talents and his expertise and passion for film. I see only a handful of movies each year but I so enjoyed listening to Glatzer’s film reviews because of how well-crafted they were, and how economic he was with words. His public radio program Movies 101 (in which Bob shared his microphones with the Spokesman-Review’s film critic Dan Webster and Mary Pat Treuthart and Leonard Oakland) was as interesting and amusing as anything Spokane Public Radio put on the air. The show sometimes lurched into a raucous cat fight among film critics, yet it was Glatzer’s persona and rich voice that give it an unmistakable center of gravity, holding it all together.

Oh, and by the way, he was also a great guy, with a wonderful heart and keen sense of humor.

I have other memories of Bob Glatzer. When I first met him thirty years ago, when I was a young reporter, I was struck by his sense of humor and kindness. Bob was a New Yorker but one of several dynamic outsiders who discovered Spokane through Expo ’74. When I met him in 1981, he and his business partner, Mike Delaney, were managing River Park Square. Because the world works in strange and curious ways, it was, at one time, part of Bob Glatzer’s job to manage and oversee the River Park Square parking garage on behalf of the Cowles family.

This is my way of introducing another side of Bob Glatzer, one you won’t read about in this morning’s article about him in the Spokesman-Review and the remembrances broadcast on Spokane Public Radio. This other Bob Glatzer was a prophet in the Spokane political wilderness, in the late 1990s, who repeatedly tried to warn the Spokane City Council about the disaster that awaited the city and Spokane taxpayers in the River Park Square public-private partnership.

The gist of the garage deal was that the Cowleses leaned heavily upon the city to buy the garage from them for $26 million, while also allowing the family to retain the ground beneath the garage, so the Cowleses could also charge ground rent. This was at a time when, according to the city’s top consultant, the garage itself was worth less than $10 million.

In short, Glatzer knew the RPS garage transaction was a fraud. He was not alone in that view, but he had special knowledge upon which to draw that conclusion. More importantly, he had the courage to speak out about it, and he did so repeatedly. The city council listened to him, but did the deal with the Cowles family anyway. It was a mistake that led to a successful federal securities fraud action against the city which, at a minimum, cost the city tens of millions of dollars, a bleed from the city’s coffers that will continue for years to come.

My favorite Bob Glatzer moment came on September 11, 2000, at a city council meeting. By that time, former city manager Terry Novak (desperately trying to put out the RPS inferno before it led to a municipal bond default) recruited Bob to join the small public agency that (on paper at least) ran the garage. Bob did, but he did so with a sober sense of the chaos around him, and an awareness of the fundamental flaw in Spokane’s governance, namely the unbridled influence of his former employer, the Cowles family.

Bob approached the podium in front of the council to testify against a measure to shutter the PDA, the agency to which he’d been appointed. But as much as he objected to the tactics of the garage opponents who (barely) controlled the council that year, he was even angrier at the Cowles family and its lawyers.

That morning, the Cowleses had taken out a large, 6 by 11 inch ad in their own newspaper to excoriate members of the council who were desperately trying to undo the fraudulent garage transaction. The ad accused then-Mayor John Talbott and others of proposing an action that “could cost everyone in Spokane millions [of dollars].”

“So the question before you, of course,” Glatzer told the council, in a steady voice dripping with sarcasm, “is whether to dissolve the PDA. And I realize you wouldn’t have known that if it had not been for this ad that was very thoughtfully placed by the developer in this morning’s newspaper. And I must say, though I’m speaking tonight as a member of the PDA to urge you not to dissolve it, in my opinion this ad is a vicious and a very misleading attack on the mayor and three members of the council. And it was done under the guise of discussing a public issue.”

Bob was holding the clipped newspaper ad up when he spoke, and when he reached that point in his testimony, he wadded the ad up, and tossed it over his shoulder onto the floor.

There was no mention of the incident in the next day’s Spokesman-Review, and the public radio station that so happily carried Glatzer’s film reviews, completely ignored him when he was criticizing the actions of one of the station’s major underwriters.

The fact that so many important people ignored Bob Glatzer’s warnings about the RPS garage fraud and the conduct that led to it says something about the central social and political challenge that has confronted Spokane for over a century. That he could be celebrated for his talents, but ignored for his civic activism speaks volumes, still, about how Spokane works. There’s just this casually unspoken, gentlemen and gentlewoman’s agreement about what is better left unsaid, and unremembered.

The thing is, Bob Glatzer spoke out anyway. He wasn’t alone in seeing the debacle that Spokane was headed toward in the late nineties, but he was virtually alone in trying to stop it because others simply lacked the courage to do so.

So that’s the fuller context and measure of the man that I remember and mourn today. He wasn’t just a wonderful guy with a lot of talent, but a courageous man who fought for his adopted community in ways that others still have trouble even acknowledging. I’ll miss him dearly as I know others will.

–Tim Connor

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