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Brother, Can You Spare a Vanity Video?

While he was alive, Houston's greatest business and political godfather, Jesse Jones, knew better than anyone how to control a municipality while wringing the maximum amount of personal profit out of it as well.

Despite a spotty education which ended at the eighth grade, Jones had a natural instinct for manipulating credit lines and loans when he launched his career at the turn of the century. At the peak of his national prominence as Depression-era Reconstruction Finance Corporation chairman and U.S. commerce secretary, Jones controlled the federal spigot for business assistance that kept whole industries alive. Over nearly six decades Jones ruled an expanding empire dominating the Houston political, economic and communications structure. In comparison, Bob Lanier seems like a transient upstart from Baytown whose decade of power was merely a blip in time.

A week ago in the concert hall that bears his name, the keepers of Jesse's memory rolled out a vanity documentary, Brother, Can You Spare a Billion, as stiff and pretentious as an old portrait of Jones -- the portrait simultaneously unveiled on stage by a mute Bill Hobby. Sitting there, this observer could only marvel at how loudly Jesse's money continues to talk. One wonders what Jones would have thought of the bureaucrats who have appropriated his memory and now administer it out of a plush downtown aerie in Chase Tower.

"This is how you pack the house," scoffed a compan-ion, surveying the columns of non-profit agency executives in attendance. Their organizations have enjoyed and hope to continue receiving generous contributions from Jones's philanthropic vehicle, Houston Endowment Inc. foundation. "Just invite everybody you give money to, and they will have to come."

More than $11 million of Jones's wealth seeded Houston Endowment, which has a current $1.3 billion net worth and an annual outlay of $44 million for charitable causes. For anyone with a civic dream or scheme, ranging from the downtown Cotswold Project to the Rice Hotel renovation, it's not wise to offend the endowment if you want a shot at those charity dollars.

Egyptian pharaohs built pyramids in order to remain in the minds of the masses long after human gods had been reduced to mummies. Since the downtown edifices Jones constructed have long been overshadowed by Houston's modern skyline, his foundation has kept his name alive by dispensing more than a half-billion charitable dollars since 1937. In addition to doing good works, giving on that scale is also a source of power for Houston Endowment, although only a ghost of what Jesse himself exercised in his corporeal form.

Oddly, the occasion for the event last week was not the centennial of his birth or death, but rather the year in which the 24-year-old Jones stepped off the train onto Houston soil from Tennessee by way of Dallas. "Maybe they just let the birth date go by," shrugged a friend. "Any excuse for a party, you know."

Attendees not hooked on the endowment's charitable largess certainly weren't adverse to rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of the Houston Chronicle, once owned in title by Jones and later Houston Endowment, and still seemingly in thrall spiritually. A drum-roll of news and entertainment features in the paper presaged the screening. Endowment chairman Jack Blanton gave the publicity a final op-ed gush in the paper's "Outlook" section.

Politicians seemed a bit scant in the audience, though familiar faces like state Senator Rodney Ellis and Sports Authority Chair Jack Rains mixed and mingled with the likes of Chronicle publisher Dick Johnson. Prior to the screening, Blanton informed the crowd, "The board of directors realized it was our responsibility that knowledge of Jones's contributions not disappear in time." As the evening was soon to demonstrate, of such sentiments are glowing testimonials and lousy history made. Blanton was followed to the podium by Mayor Lee P. Brown, who stumbled through a proclamation that sounded like a word-for-word rendition of Blanton's "Outlook" item.

Despite assurances from Chronicle TV columnist Ann Hodges that this was no puff piece, what followed was a largely uncritical recitation of the Jones official biography. It tracked Jesse from his arrival in Houston to manage a family lumberyard, ironically the same enterprise that later suffered an ignominious end in bankruptcy this decade under the ownership of former city councilman Ben Reyes.

From that beginning the familiar litany rolled on, and on, and on. Jesse builds buildings; Jesse spurs the construction of the Houston Ship Channel; Jesse lures the Democratic National Convention to town in 1928; Jesse saves local banks during the Great Depression; Jesse goes to Washington and helps President Franklin Roosevelt pull the country out of an economic tailspin. Then finally, Jesse clashes with rival cabinet member Henry Wallace, is fired as commerce secretary by Roosevelt, and takes his balls and goes back to Houston to play lord of the realm and municipal sugar daddy to all until he dies in 1956.

Along the way, judging by this flick, blacks and Hispanics didn't exist in Houston except as anonymous laborers in the background until, oh, about 1950. Perhaps for the Jones posse, they didn't exist at all.

Jones's larger-than-life achievements might make a compelling historical narrative, and likely a racy one as well. Largely ignored are Jones's storied reign as the monarch of his infamous Suite 8F at the Lamar Hotel and the host-with-the-most at the Old Cap Club. There is an incredible story to be told of how Jones and cronies not only built Houston from scratch, but ruled it as their private fiefdom for more than a half-century, but you won't find it in this flick. Jesse's story should be a lot more intriguing, but Brother, Can You Spare a Billion hardly scratches it.

Instead, the foundation's in-house historian Steven Fenberg and Boston-based filmmaker Eric Stange put together a creaky, sometimes embarrassingly amateurish vanity video. They spiked it with prestigious talking heads, including historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Unfortunately, even Walter Cronkite's voice of God narrative can't disguise what is in essence a sanitized, microwaved history packed full of generic historical footage and wide-eyed, phony celluloid moments -- as when the narrator credits Jesse with spurring rural electrification, and the screen flashes to a farm woman gazing worshipfully at a light bulb.

A filmed ride to Jones's birthplace in Tennessee with a grandniece of Mr. Houston puts the documentary firmly into the milieu of a hackneyed family genealogy with an imagined idyllic past. Production values are more reminiscent of the black-and-white television "Interviews with History" series of the late fifties than anything else.

There are some quirky moments in Brother, Can You Spare a Billion, as when the historian threads through the slightly awkward matter of the fact that Jesse did not marry until he was 45 and was childless. Jones, according to the film, only had one love in his life, but unfortunately Mary Gibbs had already married his cousin Will. So there was nothing for poor Jesse to do but hang very, very close to the pair for 15 years. Then Mary divorced Will Jones and Jesse was free to marry the love of his life.

Of course, there's no mention made of Jones's well-known close friendship with the young and vivacious Oveta Culp, who later married governor William Hobby and went on to publish the Houston Post. The love-life segment provoked a good-natured titter from the crowd, which seemed to sense there was a lot more to be revealed than what seemed an in-house, between-the-lines joke. Just another reminder that there's a great story waiting to be told about Jesse Jones, but not if Houston Endowment has anything to do with it.

Afterwards, before an anointed few broke bread over Jesse's memory at his Hall, the audience stepped outside for a rather tepid fireworks minidisplay over Jones Plaza. A fair number of the sizzle sticks exploded on takeoff. Even so, the show had considerably more pop than Brother, Can You Spare a Billion.

Certainly, you can spare a good news tip for The Insider. Call him at 280-2483, fax him at 280-2496 or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.


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