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Landmarks & Legacies: Nancy Gates, from tot on Denton stage to Hollywood starlet

In April 1929, the Aces of Collegeland, the North Texas Stage Band, took a break to introduce their newly anointed Sweetheart. Tiny 3-year-old Nancy Gates appeared on stage in a white gown. It may have been her first onstage appearance, but it wasn’t her last.

Gates was born in Dallas, but she grew up in Denton. A 1932 Denton Record-Chronicle article on the Lee School Easter program reported 6-year-old Nancy opened the show with a soft-shoe number. Later that year, Nancy opened and closed the Denton Kiddie Review and performed a Russian dance solo. The paper called her a “child wonder.” Today, a dancer/singer/actor is called a triple threat.

When Nancy was 7, the North Texas Stage Band billed her as the “diminutive star deluxe” when she performed a song and dance to “Lazy Bones.” In 1935, the 9-year-old performed in A Kiss for Cinderella alongside Brenda Marshall and a Kiwanis Club Minstrel Show with Ann Sheridan. All three women were Denton residents who became Hollywood stars.

Nancy was an 11-year-old Denton High School student when she began her radio career with her own show at WFAA in Dallas. An RKO Studios talent scout discovered her and negotiated a contract with 15-year-old Gates in 1941. Gates returned to Denton as the featured singer in a 1942 North Texas Stage Band concert.

By 1942, a San Bernardino Sun newspaper article called Gates Texas’ gift to Hollywood. She made her national radio debut a year later alongside Orson Welles on The Orson Welles Show.

Although she had a couple of uncredited movie roles in 1941, Gates’ first credited movie role was in The Great Gildersleeve. She worked her way up to leading roles after a series of B movies.

When North Texas State Teachers College, now the University of North Texas, opened Vets Village in 1946, residents named streets after former Denton women who became Hollywood stars: Ann Sheridan, Joan Blondell and Nancy Gates. Gates returned to Denton, where her parents still lived at 2019 N. Bell Ave., to pay for the Vets Village playground.

Gates met husband William Hayes as a passenger on a plane he piloted while she attended the University of Oklahoma. He became an attorney and one of Hollywood’s top business managers. Their marriage produced twin girls in 1960 and two boys who became Hollywood producers.

Gates appeared in two Frank Sinatra films, Suddenly (1954) and Some Came Running (1958). She also starred in Comanche Station, a 1959 Western. “Because I’m from Texas, I get a lot of Western parts,” Gates said in a 1961 interview. “I’ve been on so many horses I’m beginning to feel like they are a part of me. The funny thing is I’m not much of a rider.”

Others took Gates seriously, but she didn’t. She was in constant demand for movies and television shows, but she turned down parts if they took her away from family. In a 1961 Desert Sun interview, she said, “Frankly, since my twin daughters were born last December, I do only one or two TV shows every six weeks, and really, it’s like a vacation. ... I like to do an occasional movie if it comes along, but my life suits me just fine.”

After making 34 films and 55 television appearances on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, Wagon Train and Mod Squad, Gates retired in 1969 at age 43 to be closer to her family.

Gates died in Los Angeles in 2019 at age 93. Her ashes were cremated and returned to her family.

Denton County continuing to see best early voting turnout ever
  • Updated

Update: This story was updated to reflect a quote from a Democratic election liaison.

About 70,000 more Denton County residents have voted early in the 2020 election than this time four years ago, based on numbers from the first seven days of early voting.

Denton County has continued to see its best daily turnout in early voting during the first week, save for the weekend. But even with the smaller turnout Saturday and Sunday, 205,738 ballots had been cast by late Monday — accounting for 36.4% of registered voters in the county.

By the seventh day of early voting in 2016, 137,607 registered voters had cast a ballot in the county, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

Despite the record turnout, Denton County Elections Administrator Frank Phillips said he thinks turnout will taper off this week.

“I then expect the third week to steadily climb and probably exceed the first week,” Phillips said. “I think the first few days we had a huge turnout because of those excited to get their vote in, and we’ll see the same the third week when they turn out to get their vote in before the end of early voting.”

A total of 35,944 people voted in person Oct. 13, the first day of early voting. That was the county’s highest single-day turnout. It easily broke the previous record set in 2016 on the last day of early voting, when 24,983 people voted in person.

Monday’s turnout dropped to 22,934, but the figure is still higher than most of the daily voter turnout for the 2016 election.

Although turnout is high right now during early voting, Phillips said he still expects a large turnout on Election Day.

“There are always ‘traditionalists’ that really enjoy voting on Election Day,” he said. “They like the excitement of Election Day, and they like to savor the moment.”

Phillips also showed the Denton County Commissioners Court on Tuesday that residents ages 40 to 70 are outpacing voters younger than 40. Through 1 p.m. Monday, 106,380 residents in the older age range had voted, compared with 50,080 voters under 40. Three residents older than 100 have voted in the early voting period.

Data from the Denton County Elections Administration office also shows Carrollton Public Library is the polling place that has seen the largest number of voters come through. Almost 8,000 voters have cast their ballots at the library at 4220 N. Josey Lane.

A Lewisville polling place closed Thursday after a poll worker tested positive for COVID-19. The Herring Recreation Center polling site at 191 Civic Circle was sanitized and reopened Friday with a new set of poll workers managing voting, elections staff said Tuesday.

Emily Meisner, a Democratic election liaison, said she has seen a big issue with Republican poll workers refusing to wear masks.

“Republicans who refuse to wear masks are willing to risk people’s lives, shut down polling locations and deprive voters of their right to vote,” she said in a Denton County Democratic Party news release. “Should having the right to not wear masks infringe upon another’s right to preserve their health and vote? No, this is reprehensible behavior.”

Jayne Howell, chair of the Denton County Republican Party, said election workers from both political parties have chosen to not wear masks.

“They do appear to be proper distancing and taking sterilization precautions along with the spacing of the equipment and the plexiglass screens,” Howell said in an email Tuesday evening. “I am not aware of anyone bullying for wearing a mask. We all have our opinion on mask wearing. Our main objective is to help voters vote in the safest manner possible.”

Poll workers and voters are exempt from Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order on face masks.

“There has been some reports of friction, but we have to remind [everyone] that the governor exempted poll workers and voters from a mask mandate,” Phillips said.

He said anyone with concerns about face mask usage can reach county elections personnel by emailing elections@dentoncounty.com.

Early voting for Texas Senate District 30 runoff begins Dec. 9

Drew Springer

With an election date set for Dec. 19 in the runoff between state Rep. Drew Springer and Shelley Luther for Texas Senate District 30, early voting is scheduled to begin on Dec. 9.

In official results from the 14-county area that makes up the district, Luther, a Republican and Denton County resident who became known for being jailed for defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders by opening her Dallas salon during the pandemic, received 22,242 votes (32.04%). Springer, R-Muenster, received 22,127 votes (31.87%) in the Sept. 29 election.

Under state law, a candidate must receive just over 50% of the ballots cast to win a race.

Springer currently represents Texas House District 68.

“I feel about where we ended up and talking to voters who said they voted for one of the other four people in the race — I feel really good about the people who know me the best in the counties I represent,” Springer said.

Luther had not responded to requests for comment by Tuesday afternoon.

The District 30 office is being vacated by Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, who won the Republican nomination to run for the 4th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to replace John Ratcliffe, R-Heath. Fallon is on the ballot for the Nov. 3 general election.

The lone Democrat in the Sept. 29 special election for District 30, Jacob Minter, an electrician, received 14,825 votes (21.36%). He carried Denton County. Outgoing Denton Mayor Chris Watts, an attorney and real estate broker, received 4,321 votes (6.22%) in the district race.

Also running on the Republican ticket in the Sept. 29 special election, businessman and entrepreneur Craig Carter received 3,448 votes (4.97%), and Andy Hopper, a software engineer and adjunct professor at the University of North Texas, received 2,456 (3.54%).

The Denton County Elections Administration had not set early-voting locations by Tuesday afternoon.

County health director: COVID-19 case and hospitalization increases are concerning

Denton County Public Health director Matt Richardson spoke on rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and active cases, an upcoming change in how the county works with the state to report deaths and the ongoing progress on a vaccine during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

County leaders met via Zoom for the second consecutive week due to Precinct 3 Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell and County Judge Andy Eads testing positive for COVID-19. Both were in attendance virtually.

As part of his weekly presentation on the state of the virus in the county, Richardson addressed several statistics trending in the wrong direction. Of particular concern, he said, is the county’s active case load, which has consistently increased in recent weeks and came in at 2,438 Monday afternoon.

Several hospital capacity metrics have also seen an increase since last week’s meeting. Total inpatient occupancy rose from 63.4% to 68.9% and ventilator usage from 19.8% to 22.5%. The county’s percentage of total inpatient hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients has also increased, with the seven-day average jumping from 7.5% last Monday to 11.2% this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott previously set a threshold of 15% for the COVID-19 hospitalization metric that, should a trauma service area go above it, would disqualify counties in that area from being able to reopen bars. However, Richardson pointed out that the text of Abbott’s executive order changed the reference metric to the percentage of all available inpatient beds taken up by patients with the virus, rather than just the percentage of hospitalizations.

In the new metric, the county’s seven-day average comes in at 7.6% as of Monday, though it is also increasing on a similar curve to hospitalizations. Richardson said the department will continue to update both metrics.

During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding between the county department and the Department of State and Health Services, which Richardson said will allow the county more efficient access to state coronavirus-related death reporting.

Richardson has previously addressed the differences in coronavirus death reporting between the county and state, with the state reporting more for the same area due to the county having a stricter and more time-consuming process for validating deaths. He said that even with the increased access, a disparity will likely remain, as the local department will continue to conduct its own investigations.

“The state does include any COVID-19 notation on a death record,” Richardson said. “We still require a progression of disease and additional information.”

Richardson also spoke on the development of a vaccine for the virus, for which he said there are six “front-runners” as potential options, five of which would require two doses. The county is working with the state as development continues, and he said the department is making plans for patient tracking and a reminder system for the second dose. There are also storage challenges, he said, as many of the vaccines would need to be frozen.

“All of these things are to come in the next few months,” Richardson said. “There will be a prioritization of who gets the vaccine that will likely come from federal recommendations.”

2020 election

County elections administrator Frank Phillips addressed commissioners regarding the 2020 general election, which he said has proved popular locally, with over 188,000 residents having voted early as of Tuesday morning — a figure he said translates to about 40 votes per minute.

Phillips addressed several questions regarding the election, including how to view sample ballots and voting statistics online, both available on the county’s elections website at votedenton.com. He shared a breakdown of voters by age group, including for ages 18-20 and each subsequent decade of age.

“It’s very interesting to look at,” Phillips said. “Not sure exactly what it tells you, but I would note if you take the age groups from 18 to 40 and compare them to the age groups from 41 to 70, the 41-to-70-year-olds are outvoting the 18-to-40-year-olds on a 2-to-1 ratio.”

Council members ask for safety requirement for building around plugged gas wells

Denton City Council members have asked staff to require that developers create 20-foot easements around plugged gas wells after concerns were raised about public safety.

Jesse Davis

“There is no good reason to build something on top of a well,” council member Jesse Davis said. “I think we ought to have some kind of no-build easement.”

The Texas Railroad Commission, according to city documents, requires that wells be plugged no later than a year after they have been abandoned or are non-producing. State law allows municipalities no authority to regulate plugging.

“Currently the Denton Development Code (DDC) contains minimal requirements related to plugged gas wells. Per Subchapter 6, an operator is required to follow RRC regulations for plugging and provide the city … copies of the RRC plugging reports. An operator is required to notify city staff of their intent to begin plugging activities at least 24 hours in advance of starting activities and to provide the GPS location of the well if that information is not already on file.”

Furthermore, city officials inspect well-plugging activities and monitor site remediation.

“Staff researched studies conducted in Texas and was unable to locate any studies that specifically examined risks associated with plugged wells in Texas,” documents show. “In Texas, the Railroad Commission (has) worked to minimize the risks of orphaned or abandoned well locations through the statewide Plugging and Abandonment program, which plugs orphaned or abandoned wells, and by maintaining a GIS database of plugged well locations.”

Data provided by the city shows that 276 gas wells are not plugged in the city limits, and 38 are plugged. The discussion Tuesday centered on whether mandating a 20-foot radius around a plugged well is warranted, even after reviewing what other cities require when land is developed in the immediate vicinity of plugged wells.

Paul Meltzer

“It’s not clear to me what we’re protecting against,” council member Paul Meltzer said. “Is it the small probability of methane coming out of it or not wanting to disturb structure of the plugs? Or is it that we don’t know?”

The risks, according to documents provided by the city, include groundwater contamination and methane emissions. When wells are plugged, cement must be used to “protect groundwater by preventing the intrusion of oil and gas into water strata.” Typically, that requires a 100-foot minimum plug.

Texas Railroad Commission rules “have been in place and vetted for decades,” the documents show. “The city is preempted by state law and cannot regulate the plugging process.”

And city ordinance does not prohibit developers from building on top of plugged wells, officials said.

Aaron Leal

“It just depends on the developer” on where the company chooses to build, City Attorney Aaron Leal said. “Some of those plats are 200, 300 or 400 acres.”

Denton Mayor Chris Watts said he doesn’t believe requiring 20-foot easements is about safety but instead about whether crews can move equipment onto and out of the property where wells have been plugged.

Chris Watts

“I’m okay with the 20 feet. If you’ve got something that happened … and they need to get in to recement it, you don’t have the room to get the equipment in” without the 20-foot radius.

Sara Hensley of the city’s Department of Development Services said that no new wells have been drilled in Denton since 2014.

“A lot of these wells are drying up,” Watts said.

Non-annexation agreements approved

Also Tuesday, one by one, council members Tuesday unanimously approved non-annexation agreements for 11 properties with little discussion.

“What happens to the outstanding ones?” council member Keely Briggs said.

Ron Meguita, principal planner for the city, said that the “plan is to come back at a later time … to approve them.”

The non-annexation agreements are “for agricultural, wildlife management, or timberland use properties.” Such agreements are allowed under the Texas Local Government Code, which prohibits municipalities from annexing areas appraised for ad valorem taxes for agricultural, wildlife management or timber management unless development agreements are made with landowners.

The agreements cover 1,555 acres, according to city documents.

The Denton Record-Chronicle reported in August that the agreements are a promise from the city of Denton to not annex property bordering the city under a few conditions: Property owners must have an agricultural exemption, and they must adhere to certain development standards set by the city.

Essentially, it keeps substandard development from harming the city, and it helps Denton officials manage its growth without bringing uninterested property owners into the fold.

It’s also a guarantee that property owners won’t be burdened with higher taxes and city fees during the length of the non-annexation agreements.

The city sent 148 affected property owners notices about new expiration dates in August.