Extreme Projectionist

Dennis Nyback is EMPHATIC when he states
that the Pike St. Cinema is not located in the Pike Place Market.
Such a location might lead people to believe that he shows standard
art house fare or the latest ubiquitous Hollywood output. The programs
that Nyback creates for his funky theatre on the corner of Boren
and Pike on the west side of Capitol Hill are as personal and unique
as his venue. A veteran of the Seattle independent exhibition scene,
fans of the cinematically obscure will remember Nyback’s previous
efforts like the Rosebud Movie Palace and the Belltown Film Festival.

His latest venture is a space he converted into a forty-nine
seat ("we have gotten seventy-three") theatre and opened
in May 1992. Nyback avoids the usual vintage roster and personality
showcases commonly found in other theatres by creating programs
incorporating movies from his own eclectic collection and from distributors.
Past programs have included Dada: From Z to A, a Mexican horror
film showcase, and his "blockbuster," Bad Bugs Bunny:
The Dark Side of Warner Bros
. Nyback has hired a pianist to
accompany silent movies, but he prefers to use a cellist, or, as
with the Dada run, invited audience members to bring their own instruments
and play along.

As the owner/projectionist/programmer/ticket taker/concessionaire/usher/janitor/manager
of the Pike St. Cinema, Dennis Nyback admits that he feels tied
to a business that frequently runs his life, but which gives him
the freedom to implement his philosophy of life and movies. That
means programs that are challenging, confrontational, and provocative.
And if you go away angry, embarrassed, or just plain confused, then
he believes that he’s done his job.

MM: What is your background?

DN: I grew up in southwest Washington near Portland
and came to Seattle in 1972 to attend the University of Washington
to study psychology. I got a job as a projectionist at what is now
the Grand Illusion Cinema.

MM: How did you happen to start there?

DN: I had an apartment upstairs above the theatre
and one day they needed a projectionist and I was the closest person.
That’s how I paid my way through college and, oddly enough, I did
get into the union and worked as a projectionist while I was continuing
to do a lot of things. I owned a revival theatre here in Seattle
from ’79 to ’81.

MM: Which theatre was that?

DN: The Rosebud Movie Palace in Pioneer Square.
I actually bought it from the people who built it in 1974 and then
I managed to run it into bankruptcy.

MM: How did that happen?

DN: Well, there were a variety of things involved.
I got really tired of what was offered as revival. You know, Rebecca
and Casablanca, the same stuff. I was trying to showcase directors
like Mitchell Leisen, for example, that no one had ever heard of.
What I did differed in terms of revival from what people were used
to. This was also about the time that video and cable TV were coming
in. Partly the fact that I wanted to show a little bit more obscure
stuff and largely the fact that people could get all of this stuff
on video pretty much killed the revival. And it wasn’t just my theatre
that went under. In the seventies you could see so many great revival
movies here in Seattle.

After that, I got out of the film exhibition business
for about five years—except for being a projectionist. Then
I started running what was called the Belltown Film Festival. I
must have done that from about ’88 to ’92. I lost the venue that
I had there to show movies.

MM: Why did you open the Pike St. Cinema?

DN: After I lost the Jewelbox Theatre venue,
I needed to do something to make a little money and I wanted to
run movies. I thought that there was a need in the city for a place
just like this – a low overhead operation that could put things
on the screen that other theatres just wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t
have to work a regular job. I haven’t been in the projectionist
union for about four years, because that is really a dying trade.

MM: Why do you say that?

DN: They [the theatres] don’t really care. That’s
how I look at of movies today: sucker them into the theatre, charge
them ridiculous prices at the concession counter, show them a crappy
movie and if they don’t like it, too bad. If it’s out of focus or
out of frame or it breaks, I don’t think the average moviegoer actually
cares either. They want to talk through the whole movie, they want
to treat it just like they’re at home.

MM: How do you go about creating your programming?

DN: What I really like to do here is create programs
out of films. Stag Party Special and Bad Bugs Bunny are examples
of this. I’ve also gotten into a little bit more esoteric stuff
I did a program called Life and Death in the 1950s which I think
is one of the greatest things that I’ve ever put together.

MM: What kind of films did you show in that
program?

DN: It had films done in the fifties that I call
film noir and existential educational films. I don’t think that
people in the fifties had a real grasp on the whole post-war influences
that were really changing their lives. There was one film called Ulcer at Work made by the Arizona Department of Mental Health.
It’s a look at why this man has pains in his stomach. They point
out that he has an ulcer because his mother tried to gratify him
with food all of the time, so he thinks of food and trouble at the
same time. His wife wants a fur coat and he drives this convertible
and it’s all done in this kind of film noir style.

Then, there was another film in the program called Assembly
line that was a student film made in Philadelphia in 1960 which
is really a great existential film. It shows the hopelessness of
this one guy who works in a factory and thinks that he’s going to
collect his overtime pay and go out in the city and have a good
time, and he doesn’t have a good time. What he sees is that it’s
just one day after another, you work, you work, you work, and then
you die.

Then a friend of mine gave me a live action/cartoon
film made by the Sherwin William company called Doomsday for Pests
in which they marketed a paint that had DDT in it. I thought that
the mass killing of bugs and the mass death of humanity kind of
went together, we’re no better than bugs, really, bugs die, we die.
So, that was We and Death in the 1950s.

MM: Do you take suggestions for your programming?

DN: I listen with half an ear at least. It’s
one thing for one person to say "I want to see this film",
because one thing that I really do understand through my school
of hard knocks is how hard it actually is to get people to come
to the movies.

MM: How about showing independent filmmakers?

DN: The Essential Cinema Group shows their films
roughly once a month. In fact, I talked to Galen Young—he’s
a local filmmaker in charge of The Essential Cinema Group—the
other day and he asked to run something on a certain night. I asked
that they run it on a different night because there was something
that I’d wanted to do. I can get these people to run something on
occasion so I can go out and have fun which I don’t have much of,
believe me. Running this place is pretty much consuming my life
right now.

MM: Do you buy films or rent them from distributors?

DN: Both. I have been buying films for twenty
years.

MM: Where do you look for films to buy?

DN: There is one major publication for film collectors,
it’s called The Big Reel. It comes out once a month and I
subscribe to it. And then I just look around. I just drove to Cleveland
and back and I would stop at every antique mall on the edge of town.
It’s really weird, everyplace now has an antique mall on the edge
of town and they all have exactly the same stuff. But I always ask.

MM: Do you own any particularly rare films?

DN: I have one little cartoon, Charlie at
the Beach
, that as far as I know is the only print in existence.
It’s an original cartoon from the 1920s in 16mm. They made the cartoon
in 35mm and then they released it in 16mm. It’s a Charlie Chaplin
cartoon made by Pat Sullivan, who did Felix the Cat. He’s doing
a lot of things that Felix might do, like with his cane instead
of his tail.

MM: What has been your biggest hit?

DN: My blockbuster here is Bad Bugs Bunny: The
Dark Side of Warner Bros. Cartoons made during the ’30 and ’40s
that are full of standard American values: racism, sexism and violence.
Now the revisionist historians would like to think this never existed.
I bought all of the cartoons that are on that program and I don’t
have rights to them, I’m just showing them. If Ted Turner really
wanted to get pissed off:..

MM: He owns the rights to them?

DN: Yes, most of them, although I think it would
be pretty funny if Ted Turner challenged my right to show these
racist cartoons because he owns the rights to them and he won’t
show them.

MM: What are some of these Bad Bugs films?

DN: Some of these cartoons are legendary. Coal
Black and the Sebben Dwarfs
was voted ten years ago as the single
most popular cartoon of people who collected animation. It’s a brilliant
cartoon and it’s an example of what Warner Bros. did best and that
was satire and parody, vicious, vicious parody.     Coal Black is
a vicious parody of [Walt Disney’s] Snow White. It’s pretty
simple, Snow White becomes Coal Black and from there, where’s it
going to be, well it’s going to be in Harlem. I guarantee you aren’t
going to see this cartoon anywhere.

I’ve also got a cartoon in the program called Fresh
Hare
where in the last ten seconds they go into black face and
they sing Dixie -it’s the punch line of the cartoon. This one you
can see on Ted Turner’s network, they just clip the last ten seconds.
What’s bad about it is there’s no decency there, they don’t say,
well, here we could have shown that the racism of the last ten seconds
of this cartoon, but we’re afraid to because we thought that someone
somewhere is going to object. What they do instead is transfer the
16mm to video and you can really edit slick in video, it’s seamless.
It doesn’t look at all like this cartoon’s been altered.

MM: Are there any other theatres like the
Pike St. Cinema?

DN: There are two things that make this theatre
really, really unusual. One is that it is a commercial enterprise.
I’m supporting myself with this theatre and making money and so
that puts it in league with all of the other big commercial theatres.
But I am different from them in that I don’t buy advertising and
I really try to give [the audience] their money’s worth, which I
don’t think other theatres do. I’m also different from non-profit
theatres because I don’t get money from the government.

MM: Have you received any criticism about
what you show?

DN: I have had people pass out cold and hit the
floor. I’ll tell you a real specific criticism that I got last week.
I asked a woman and man outside the theatre, "Have you seen
a movie here?" She says, "No, I’ve been intrigued by what
you show, but also I object to certain things." I asked what
she objected to,  and she said, "1 object to the fact that
you show pornography."

I was doing this program called Stag Party Special which
I call vintage smut. I think that pornography has a real basic connotation
and stag films are a little bit different. If there are people that
object to certain things, that I’m showing, I think that I’m accomplishing
my aim here.

MM: And what is that?

DN: That is to be very, very broad minded and
show things and let other people be the judge. Even if they like
it or not. MM

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