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CONSUMER SELECTIVE SERVICE

Want a date? Don’t touch that dial.
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ONCE EVERY WEEK or so Patricia stops by her dating service on the way home from work and shops for a man. She sips a glass of rosé provided by the management as she browses through a bank of catalogs, looking at portraits and taking note of pertinent details -height, occupation, “what I like to do,” and “what I’m looking for in a woman.” Patricia is a professional woman, over 45. She’s been divorced for several years and has a grown daughter. She is very particular about what she’s looking for in a man. Out of some 250 men listed in the catalogs, she picks out three or four and jots down their videotape numbers.

In the videotape viewing room, she lights a cigarette and listens to Mark, an older professional man, also divorced.

“Mark,” asks the interviewer, “what are you looking for in a woman?”

Mark smiles, perhaps nervously -after all, he’s on camera -puts up a hand to straighten his tie, thinks better of it, and puts his hands on his knees. “Well, I’m looking for a woman who’s warm and loving, who enjoys the same things I enjoy … and a woman who is strong, who knows her own mind, and who isn’t afraid to work for what she wants.”

Something about Mark-possibly that anxious tie-straightening gesture -puts Patricia off. She fast-forwards the tape and goes on to Bill, an account executive about her own age.

“Bill, are you looking tor a permanent relationship, or are you just looking for a companion to go out with?”

“I’m, uh, looking for companionship mainly. I’m not in a hurry to get married again, although if the right woman came along I’d certainly be interested in marriage … if it was the right woman.”

Patricia listens to a few more tapes, then indicates on a card provided for the purpose that she’d be interested in seeing two of the men. They have possibilities. In the next week or so they’ll be asked to come in and look at Patricia’s tape. If they’re interested, too, phone numbers will be exchanged, a date will be made, and maybe a relationship will begin.

Loneliness is a malady that afflicts everyone sometimes, and singles on a regular basis. It’s a vicious and crippling disease, especially in the high-pressure social climate of Dallas. It drives its victims into country/western disco bars and Sunday school singles classes, into square dance clubs and civic volunteer work. It keeps hordes of psychologists in business. And recently it’s spawned a new industry that, in spite of traditional stigmas, shows signs of rising from the lonely-hearts-club netherworld into the fresh air of lucrative enterprise and acceptable business. It’s not just for losers anymore – losers don’t photograph well on videotape. And losers rarely have $500 to $700 to spend on getting dates. That’s the average yearly rate for dating services in Dallas. If that figure makes you gasp, you’re not alone. Most services, in fact, won’t quote their prices on the phone, preferring to have the prospective client come in and get the sales pitch.

If you can believe the membership claims of the three dominant dating services in Dallas, almost 3000 people bought the sales pitch last year. Patricia likes to look at it this way: “What if I went on a cruise? That costs anywhere from $600 to $1000 for two weeks. And if I met one nice guy on the cruise, one guy I really liked, I’d say it was worth it.”

Or, as Richard Burross, who with his wife, Mary, owns and operates Video-Dates Unlimited, puts it, it’s advertising. “When you break it down it usually comes to about 50 to 75 cents per introduction. Compared to the cost of driving around to clubs, that’s cheap. It’s just like any advertising medium -we’re running their ad. We give them the leverage of $100 to $1.”

None of the dating services have put together precise statistics describing their clientele, but at a glance, clients generally are divorced, in their late twenties to early forties, and involved in a professional career that takes up most of their time. Often they have a child or two, and they live in the suburbs. (“We don’t get your Greenville Avenue types,” Burross says.) They are almost overwhelmingly looking for that warm and loving person who enjoys the same things they enjoy; someone who knows his or her own mind and isn’t afraid to work for what he or she wants. They’re looking for a companion but would be amenable to marriage if the right person came along. No one pays that kind of money to find an itinerant saxophone player. And, to a man (or woman), they deplore the singles bar scene.

Jim owns a financial planning company, has two sons, and was divorced for the second time eight months ago. He joined VideoDates because it seemed to him a comfortable and honest way to meet women. “I’m just trying to meet someone I can really have a relationship with,” he says. “I meet people really well, but you meet so many weird people. I’ve got no time to spend hanging around buying booze just to get acquainted with them.

“I’m a lover,” he continues. “I do real well with women, but in Dallas it’s gotten to where the women are as crazy as the guys. I’m interested in going out with someone who has real values – I’m looking for a lady. This [dating service] is the only conceivable way to look at someone in a relaxed situation. You’re not having to go through a lot of trash to get to the person.”

The basic idea of a service that puts singles together is not new. What is new is a growing sense of respectability attached to some dating services. Not to mention the almost ostentatious respectability of the members. It’s respect won the hard way, and that still suffers setbacks. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the number of less-than-respectable agencies on the market.

A quick glance through the introduction service section of the Yellow Pages reveals a surprisingly long list of 15 services. Of the 15, at least four are “escort services”-like Cowgirls of Texas, a service that started last November as an adjunct to the company’s main business of supplying nude models.

Another four companies on the list are “800” companies -that is, services with headquarters out of town but providing a toll-free number. The call will get the prospective client nothing in the way of information. However, a brochure is quickly sent to your home with details and an entry blank. One such service, Datique, advertises in the Yellow Pages that it has been “serving the Metroplex since 1970.” For $55 a year, Datique will enter the applicant into its listing and begin immediately sending copies of the same. The application form includes an extremely brief questionnaire and an agreement at the bottom. Part of the agreement indicates that all information received and disseminated by the company is unverified and unscreened and, further, that the company does not guarantee authenticity or maintaining of confidentiality. The applicant is asked to waive all claims for omissions, errors, facts, or conduct by any member or non-member.

To round out the list, one service’sphone has been disconnected, one simply doesn’t answer its 24-hour, seven-days-a-week line, one is for Christians only, andone is similar to the “800” services, but hasa Dallas office. The remaining three-Particular People, VideoDates Unlimited,and Someone Special Introduction Ser- vice – represent the major dating market !in Dallas.

Someone Special is Dallas’ oldest dating service, and the office has a sort of mom- and-pop-operation flavor. Zella Case and Ann Seher bought the business 14 years ! ago from a fellow who told them making money with a dating service was like taking candy from a baby. They haven’t found that to be true.

Someone Special matches members by computer -the input being a list of some 170 questions the applicant is asked to answer, ranging from hobbies to religious beliefs to frequency of underwear changes. Someone Special also requires character references and double-checks all information given. Falsifying information is grounds for expulsion. A personal interview is also part of the screening process, and Zella turns down people who don’t seem up to the agency’s standards or who they just don’t think they can match. And to top it all off, they have a professional graphologist analyze a sample of the applicant’s handwriting.

While Someone Special advertises “scientific compatibility matching,” Zella and Ann give rather more the impression of aunts who would love to fix their loved ones up with perfectly nice ladies and gentlemen. They profess to know all their 1150 members well, and admit to sometimes bypassing the computer’s verdict and matching members on instinct.

According to Zella, the service provides an answer to society’s fast pace. “Relatives and friends used to provide a way to meet people-on picnics, at parties … years ago the world was just not so fast. Now people don’t want to get involved.”

Both Zella and Ann have seen attitudes change in their 14 years of operation. They believe the stigma of a dating service may be fading. “People used to ask right off, ’Is this confidential?’ ” Zella says. “Now they don’t care.”

They’ve also seen about 14 competitors open and close their doors in the last four years, they say -fly-by-night outfits that take the money and disappear, companies that give the business a bad name. But some of the competition has stuck, and the relatively new concept of video dating is beginning to change both the market and attitudes toward dating services.

Richard and Mary Burross opened Vid-eoDates Unlimited four years ago and pioneered the use of video to match singles in Dallas. Richard had been in the electronics field; Mary had taught school. Both had been married previously, and before they met -at their apartment complex-both got a taste of what it’s like to be single. The business has been successful – they’re currently working on a Fort Worth branch -and they, too, have seen attitudes changing.

“Most people are embarrassed when they first call,” Mary says, “but once they get here they realize they’re not depending on anyone to get them dates -they’re just utilizing a new technology.”

Like all dating services, VideoDates offers no guarantees, and that’s a fact that is apt to put off the consumer-conscious.

“People ask us how successful we are,” Mary explains. “That’s a tricky question. It depends on what you’re looking for. We can’t make guarantees. People are choosing for themselves. People who sometimes get discouraged here, we tell them to keep looking.”

The atmosphere at the VideoDates offices, of an evening, is rather lively. Christine, a petite, good-looking blonde, age 30, a personnel consultant, sits in the viewing room with her shoes off, eating pretzels and running rapidly through a series of tapes, flicking the fast-forward button with appropriate comments (“yech” being the most prevalent).

“What I really like about this,” she says, “is that you can hear their doo-dah, see what kind of sense of humor they have.” Christine’s main requirements in a man are good looks and an off-the-wall sense of humor. She is particularly attracted to one man who insists, with a sly grin, that he is strictly interested in Hindu women.

“What really finally drove me here,” Christine continues, “was this CPA I was dating. I was having a great time – then he told me I was too aggressive. He dropped me on my face New Year’s Eve. I decided never to have anything to do with men again. Then my roommate [a member] dragged me in here.

“I went to work the next morning thinking ’I’m not going to tell anybody about this.’ You know, people think it’s for people who can’t get dates. Well, I can’t get dates. Men in Dallas are intimidated by women who are attractive and intelligent and have a good sense of humor.

“If someone picks my tape, they’re willing to take me exactly as I am,” she says. “It takes away all the apprehension to know that they’re ready for you, ready for your personality.”

Christine said she hasn’t found all that many men at VideoDates that are right for her. Harry, on the other hand, has been a member for seven months and has dated about 10 women, only one of whom was a disappointment.

“It’s kind of a marvelous thing,” he says gleefully, “like having access to the sheik’s filing cabinet. But,” he sighs, “sometimes you can have an embarrassment of riches.” Harry adds that his dates have almost always wound up in the bedroom, a subject that doesn’t get much play in the official rooms of the dating service world. He hasn’t found the right lady, but “I expect to meet the absolute perfect lady through this service soon,” he says. “Sometimes you may find out, in the strange hours of the night, that this is the one.”

That’s rather a romantic statement from someone involved in a business that is often considered cold and impersonal. Any further doubts as to the existence of romance in dating-service relationships is put to death by the sight of Kathy and Bill, who met five weeks ago at VideoDates and can’t take their eyes off one another. They’re an older couple, and both were the very first -and last -dates the other got through the service. Kathy has been single for eight years and has participated in church singles groups and Parents Without Partners. “Bill is the first man I have met anywhere that really shares my values,” she says. “It’s immaterial where we met, yet without this service our paths probably would never have crossed.”

Three years ago, Nancy Barnes opened Particular People, which she describes as “the Cadillac of dating services” and which is, at least, the most expensive of the dating services. She says there are now 500 members on the rolls and “it could be 5000 if we took everybody.” Particularity is the hallmark of Particular People, she claims, and acceptance is based on Nancy’s own gut instinct. The first step in joining Particular People is an interview with Nancy, during which she decides if the applicant has the right stuff. The high cost is also a very effective screening technique. Members of Particular People expect to meet others in their own lofty tax bracket. Nancy glibly shrugs off the idea that this is a tad on the mercenary side.

“Everything in life has its price tag,” she says, “but what price can you put on happiness? We deal with people who are positive and realistic. The right person isn’t going to just appear -you have to take some positive action.”

The matching system at Particular People is a bit more complicated than that of other services. The process begins with a perusal of large bound books that include a brief questionnaire in the member’s own handwriting, accompanied by studio portraits that are taken as part of the agency’s service. Members pick out possibilities from the catalog and then view the videotapes. The questions Nancy puts to the members for the video interview are weightier than those asked at VideoDates: What do you have to offer in a relationship? What are your short- and long-term goals?

The high cost and serious tone are precisely what appeal to the membership at Particular People. They tend to be older and more career-oriented than the members of other services. They also tend to be disciples for the cause.

Janet, a 36-year-old executive secretary with two children, joined when Particular People was still new and has seen the organization grow. She says she shares Nancy’s enthusiasm. “I believe in the commodity-it’s people.”

Janet was married for 13 years before her divorce three years ago. “After being married for 13 years, all of a sudden society had changed -morals had changed,” she says. “And 1 wondered ’Where do I go? What do 1 do?’ 1 didn’t want to meet a ditchdigger.”

She figures a man who is willing to pay the price of Particular People is in her category: “When people come in here they know spontaneously whether they’ll fit or not. The dogs are at the bars.”

There’s no doubt that dating services aren’t for everyone. The idea will always repel some people. There’s a feeling that an organized dating industry infringes on a part of life that is better not tampered with. But apparently a growing number of people are saying otherwise.

Now that romance has become a business, it behooves the consumer of dates to be just as shrewd as the consumer of foreign automobiles or color television sets. Jeanette Kopko, vice president for operations for the Better Business Bureau of Dallas, has been keeping an eye on the dating industry and reports that, so far, there have been few complaints from members of dating services.

“The main thing people complain about is infrequency of matches,” she says, “or some people are dissatisfied with their matches. It appears that many complaints arise from misunderstanding or unrealistic expectations. The companies we have received complaints on have always answered, giving their point of view and offering compromises.”

Four Dallas dating services -Someone Special, Particular People, VideoDates Unlimited, and Town and Country Introduction Service (for Christians) -are members in good standing with the bureau, which Kopko says indicates good intentions, since businesses must meet and maintain certain standards to be granted membership in the BBB.

Complaints have been made at one time or another against both Dallas-based services and those that operate in other cities but serve a national clientele, but as Kopko points out, complaints are not necessarily an indication of bad business practices. No matter how honest the business, there is always somebody out there who will complain.

“You have to have a healthy attitude,”Nancy Barnes of Particular People says.”If you have a healthy attitude it can work.We offer the concept but it’s based on thecooperation of other people. We give youthe tools -you have to make it work. Youdo it on faith that somewhere around thecorner is Mr. Right. Any intelligent person will look at it as a resource, not ananswer. Single people are special people.It’s a world of doubles. Singles deservespecial treatment.”

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