When worlds collide: How Baylor Greek Life and Hollywood created the ‘Fandango’ story

Photo courtesy of IMDb

By Hank Holland | Reporter

Decades after being considered a 1985 box office bomb, “Fandango” is now known as a cult classic. Behind it all is the story of a brief encounter among Hollywood, Baylor Greek Life, Steven Spielberg, the son of a university president and the rolling expanse of Texas.

“Fandango” tells the tale of five college students making the most of their last hurrah before going their separate ways, with the two main characters being drafted into the ongoing Vietnam War.

The quintet, known as “The Groovers,” makes its way from Austin to the Mexican border to fulfill the ritual of “digging up Dom,” a bottle of Dom Pérignon buried next to the Rio Grande. The trip itself is marked by hijinks such as impromptu skydiving, cemetery firework battles and car failures.

“Fandango” director Kevin Reynolds, a Baylor alumnus and the son of former university President Herb Reynolds, was 19 years old at the time of the events of the film. In an interview with Chron, he described the culture that fueled it.

”People don’t think of Baylor as having hell-raisers, but these were based on Baylor guys,” Reynolds said in the interview. “Wild things did go on.”

Dr. Thomas Waggener, a friend of Reynolds and a dentist in Waco, was the basis and namesake for Sam Robards’ character, Kenneth Waggener. He said “Fandango” is a compilation of stories lived and told during his time at Baylor, as well as in Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

“They were going down to Mexico to buy favors for the members in the fraternity, and so that’s where it all started — but all sort of rehashed and relived, and stories passed down, ” Waggener said.

Waggener said some stories of their friend group, the real-life Groovers, ended up making the final cut of the Hollywood production.

“We’d go have these bottle rocket fights in the veterans’ section at night, and that’s in the movie,” Waggener said. “That’s true. That all happened, because we were at war. We were fighting each other.”

Looking at the credits of the movie, one may question how a film with future superstars like Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson in front of the camera — and some of the biggest names in Hollywood behind it — ended up making less than $100,000.

After graduating from Baylor, Reynolds decided to pursue film and enrolled at the University of Southern California. His thesis film, a 20-minute short titled “Proof,” made its way to famous director Steven Spielberg, who was in the middle of producing another film: “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The premise of “Proof,” although starring different actors, was a shot-for-shot parent for the skydiving sequence in “Fandango.” Spielberg, impressed by the short, provided funding for an entire film to be made around the scene — and so, “Fandango” was born.

“I asked Spielberg if he had any advice in making my first feature,” Reynolds said in the interview with Chron. “He said, ‘Just survive it.’ For that, I’ll always be grateful.”

Today, “Fandango” is just shy of its 40-year anniversary and has undergone something of a cult revival, even being shown in some Baylor film classes.

Dr. Zachary Sheldon, a lecturer in film and digital media, held a screening of “Fandango” in his sight, sound and motion class last fall. He said he believes the message of “Fandango” for current Baylor students is to recognize the importance of savoring the college experience.

“College is a time where you meet your best friends and you have some of the most defining experiences of your life, and that’s something to be enjoyed and pursued and valued in a really crucial way,” Sheldon said. “It’s not necessarily something to not move on from. I think the movie also kind of communicates that everything has its time and its place, but that’s kind of the important part, is recognizing the value of the moments while you’re in them.”