Bret Dale

Bret Dale, director of programming and education at the River Music Experience, says the late Ellis Kell won't be forgotten at RME.

Standing on the Adler Theatre stage last Saturday, Bret Dale had one minute and a microphone.

Before Ben Folds performed, as part of the inaugural Alternating Currents festival, Dale wanted to honor the Quad-City music icon Ellis Kell.

It was Kell's birthday.

"When I said that, the crowd just erupted. I didn't have to waste my minute explaining who Ellis was,” Dale said. “Right away, I got goosebumps.”

Adding to emotions, Dale hadn't been to the Adler since Kell’s funeral service in December.

For a second, Dale's mind flashed to all that had happened in the last nine months. Every day since Dec. 16, he had thought about Kell and what he accomplished in the Quad-Cities. Dale had grieved the loss of his mentor, best friend and father figure. Here, on this big stage, he wasn't sure what to say.

Following his example

In the days following the death of Kell, a celebrated musician who had worked at the River Music Experience, or RME, since its inception in 2004, Dale’s phone blew up with phone calls and messages.

Dale, who joined the RME in 2009, had been working directly under -- and with -- Kell for several years arranging the nonprofit’s outreach and programming for kids.

“They were all saying, ‘You've got really big shoes to fill’ over and over,” Dale said.

After hearing that phrase for “about the 60th time,” it became too much. Kell’s shoes? They were just too big.

“You'd be an idiot to even try them on,” Dale said. “You put them in a glass case and you look at it to remind you that those shoes taught you everything you know how to do.”

The pair had talked plenty about Dale taking over Kell's position as director of programming and outreach.

And that's what he has done. Previously, Dale was the RME’s programming assistant.

"Ellis would talk about retirement and he'd say, 'Someday, you'll be doing all of this,'" said Dale, who would quickly respond with something like, "Ellis, I could never do what you do."

"That's what got him excited," Dale said. "He'd say that he already walked in his shoes and he's excited to see where I take all of this."

"Trying to fill his shoes is impossible," he added. "I know how he did things, how he wanted things, what his vision was and I knew what we did together, so I can use all of that to figure out my place at the River Music Experience."

Deb Powers, the RME's CEO, was happy to promote Dale, who she said has already doubled the nonprofit's number of programs.

"Bret was a sponge to Ellis," she said. "You can see Ellis’s influence, the way he inspires children and the way he talks to kids."

Missing his presence

Within the RME family, Kell's presence is missed "every day, several times a day," according to Dale's wife, Kate, director of entertainment, who has worked there for nearly 10 years.

“Ellis being gone is still very fresh for all of us," she said."His fingerprints are all over this place. That will never go away.”

That goes for Kell's desk, surrounded by photos of his family and friends and handwritten notes. Since taking the desk over, Bret Dale has kept much of the clutter and the mementos as Kell left them.

"We miss his presence and his energy," Powers said. 

She also misses moments like this one: “I was walking into work one day and the Mississippi was flooding. And here is Ellis carrying a folding chair and a guitar outside. He told me, ‘I got to go play for the people going to work.’ So he sat in 2 feet of water at the edge and sang and played the guitar for everyone.”

“That's what Ellis did,” she said. “He reminded us why we came to work and why we did this.”

Keeping his vision

In the future, Kate Dale said, Kell’s vision will keep the RME moving forward.

"We're still learning things he used to do every day," she said. "He was such a great teacher to all of us that we're continuing to do his work more than ever because we want to make him proud."

"I feel like the community feels the same way. Everyone knew who Ellis was, everyone knew the things he did for the community. Now that he's gone, it's like everyone is really coming behind his legacy and saying, 'Let's keep it going for Ellis and make it great as he always dreamt it could be."

At the RME, that has already translated into the "biggest year yet," for programming, Bret Dale said.

“We now have two full-time programming employees, which has never happened before,” Dale said. “So our reach is broader.”

Ben Schwind, programming and communications specialist, started in January. Together, Dale and Schwind have taken on programs such as Rock Camp, Kidstock and Ellis Kell Winter Blues Camp as well as lessons at area schools.

“That was Ellis’ dream the whole time,” Dale said. “He wanted to spend 100 percent of the time hanging out with kids in the community.”

They've also stepped up their instrument drive program, which Dale counts as a top priority.

“The demand is huge for kids who can't afford instruments or music lessons,” he said. “That's where I miss Ellis because I'd go to him and say I need $5,000 for instruments and the next day he would have it. I don't know how to do that role.”

Powers and Alex Burkamper, director of marketing, have stepped in to take over raising money. 

“It shows how important he was,” Burkamper said. “What he did had to be divided between three or more different people.”

And Dale has no doubt about this: "I think Ellis would be proud of what we're doing,” Dale said. “I think he'd be crazy overjoyed.”

Out of debt

When Powers was hired three years ago, the nonprofit was over $200,000 in the red. The RME recently made its last payment to be officially out of debt, Powers said.

Additionally, the nonprofit has nine full-time employees and 17 part-time employees.

To become financially healthy, the RME’s business model shifted. It leased its cafe space, formerly Mojo’s Cafe and the RME Cafe, to Wisconsin-based Falbo Bros. Pizzera. Last month, the Bix Beiderbecke Museum and Archives opened in its basement level.

To Kate Dale and other staff, that means, “We can actually do what we're here to do.”

“Now we have the resources and we’re in a financial situation where we can actually do all the things we want to do,” she said. “We’re not worried about our doors being closed next week.”

Meanwhile, the Redstone Room recently went through a $75,000 remodel, funded by SCRA and RDA grants. The stage’s facelift includes new LED lights, mover lights as well as a fresh carpeting.

The 250-person venue, which hosts touring bands weekly, and 100 shows per year, was in need of an upgrade, said Burkamper.

“With all the other venues opening up in Davenport, like Daytrotter, Baked and the Raccoon Motel, the Redstone Room was looking a little dated to say the least,” he said.

'He gave his life'

Back on the Adler stage on Kell's birthday, Dale kept talking.

"It was an honor to have known Ellis,” Dale said. “It’s an honor to have been treated like a son by Ellis.”

He talked about the 100,000 kids Kell reached in 10 years at the RME. As Dale's wife, who recorded the short speech on her phone, said, "You could feel Ellis there."

And then Dale made a promise to the crowd, his colleagues, the community.

"I could never ever fill his shoes," he said. "But I will take the job that he did and try to do everything in my power so that any child who wants (it) has the opportunity to play music. And that's my promise here on his birthday.”

On a “whim,” he led the crowd of 1,500 people in singing “Happy Birthday” to his hero.

“It was surreal,” Dale said, looking back on the moment. “It was one of the coolest things I've ever done to honor him in that way."

If Dale has anything to do with it, Kell's memory -- and birthday -- will never be forgotten.

“What Ellis did for the community the last 25 years of his life is what should be celebrated on a yearly basis,” he said. “He gave his life to this community.”

Follow-up File is a weekly feature on Mondays that updates a story we've published previously. If you have an idea for a Follow-up File story, email us at newsroom@qctimes.com.

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).