Bill Davidson and his son Ethan

A documentary by son Ethan Davidson leaves a legacy for Bill Davidson’s family and the world.

By Suzanne Chessler

Featured photo courtesy of the Davidson family

Ethan Davison readily reveals what he considers the most important lesson learned from his late father, William Davidson, a philanthropist and businessman who headed up Guardian Industries and owned the Detroit Pistons.

If someone offers an opportunity and says the decision must be made then and there, always say no, William Davidson advised. The reasoning was that people need time to think through choices, and any rush is taking away the freedom to think.

Although that lesson is not part of the film Call Me Bill: The William Davidson Story, which is kicking off this year’s Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival, it is likely to be part of small digital vignettes being contemplated to follow up on the documentary.

The 90-minute film, being shown free at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2, at the Jewish Community Center, precedes the showcase of international films scheduled May 5-15.

“The thing I like most about the film is that it preserves my father’s story and his philosophy in business and life,” says Ethan Davidson, 49, executive producer with his wife, Gretchen, through their El Studio 444. “I think it could be a benefit to audiences because people like to hear these kinds of stories.”

The film project, begun seven years ago, wasn’t intended for the public. It was meant to be a family legacy with archival film footage.

“My father would not have been interested in a film for public consumption,” Ethan explains. “Just a couple of weeks before my dad died, he said he was going to make a short film explaining something about himself so that his grandkids would have it. He must have been feeling his mortality at that moment.

“To my knowledge, he never got around to making that 10-minute film. The next few years went by and other people in our family passed away. We thought we should, at the very least, interview people so we could preserve stories of the people who knew him best.”

Pistons owner Bill Davidson celebrates after the team’s championship victory in 1989. Courtesy of Allen Einstein

Facets Of Bill’s Life

The film goes back to the early years, describing extended family summers at a cottage in Port Huron, moving on to military service during World War II and the tragic loss of his father at a young age in an auto accident. The documentary also outlines the initiatives that developed his business successes — including the turnaround of Auburn Hills-based Guardian Industries into the world’s largest glass maker — which now support the William Davidson Foundation to enhance Southeast Michigan, Israel and the Jewish community.

Extensive numbers of interviews — from family members to basketball celebrities — give a personal touch to the information and a sense of William Davidson’s personality. Especially informative are the comments of Karen Davidson, Bill’s widow, who was very moved by the film and family reaction to it.

“The film tells this great love story that Ethan has for his father,” she says. “We’re all lucky that he included us in it, too. It’s so sweet that it’s dedicated to Bill’s grandchildren.

“I loved everything about it, especially the clip where the Boston Celtics announcer is announcing the game between the Pistons and the Celtics and shows what the NBA was years ago, and I loved seeing Bill’s grandchildren during the premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts. They watched the film so intently and celebrated their grandfather.

“I think the biggest takeaway is that this man spent his whole life taking over a failing business and building it. I think it’s a great model for patience in building. It just doesn’t happen overnight. He just worked.”

Ethan stayed close to film segments.

“I was there for 80 or 90 percent of the interviews,” says Ethan, who built a career in composing and performing before working on the Davidson foundation. “For the editing, there was a team at Push Media. After the interviews, we had to have everything transcribed. We would read transcriptions and would identify various themes.”

Bill Davidson with sister Dorothy Gerson Courtesy of the Davidson family

Bill Davidson’s sister, Dorothy Gerson, voiced her recollections for the film and says she appreciates that her nephew Ethan began the narration in the early years to present the essence of the close family ties held tight as time went along.

“My brother was very much his own person,” Gerson explains as part of the core film message, particularly for viewers who did not know him personally. “He was giving and loving, and he was a visionary in a lot of the things he did. In business, sports and charity, my brother left those worlds better places.”

Among the 30 people interviewed before stories became tied together were sports celebrities, such as Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, who were part of the championship-winning Pistons Bad Boys, who celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. Many of the players attended a March 31 premiere of the film at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“My father really loved puzzles,” recalls Ethan, who worked on the final edits with director Deb Agolli of Push Media and her team. “I had never done puzzles, but I felt like my father putting a puzzle together.”

That puzzle unfolds in part by showing the way Bill Davidson used parenting skills to become a father figure for players on the sports teams he owned.

“The most important aspect of his personality was that he was very steady,” Ethan says. “I always looked up to my dad and loved my dad. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I lived with my dad through my teenage years. He was sort of my only parent at that time, so I was attached to him.

Karen and Bill Davidson in Israel Courtesy of the Davidson family

“My father sent me to Hillel Day School, which was a great experience for me. He was also the president of Shaarey Zedek. I like to travel throughout the Jewish community. During the week, I may go to an ultra-Orthodox place or Shaarey Zedek. On Sundays, I take the kids to Temple Beth El.”

When Ethan became part of the foundation, he resigned from other boards so he would be removed from any perception of conflict. He is glad the family remains close and participates in foundation governance.

“When my dad called me back here to help out with the foundation, a big part was organizing a business,” Ethan says. “I was able to do that with my relatives, Ralph Gerson, particularly, and Eli Saulson as well as my stepmother.

“I learned a lot about how to organize a business and the kinds of things you have to do to make these organizations run as efficiently as you can so they can have the largest possible impact for the greatest number of people. It ended up sort of being like a mini MBA degree.

“I had some of the experience of my father, but I’m still a different person than he was, and I should be.”

That difference can be particularly noted in the credits, where Ethan is listed as composer for the film’s music.

Read more:

Private screening of Call Me Bill on March 28