"Thank God for film archivist Dennis Nyback. If not for his encyclopedic knowledge of rare films and his tenacity for acquiring them, we would never have the privilege to view some astounding works of cinema." Kim Morgan


Dennis Nyback takes his films around the world. Find out how to book a show, what programs are available, how to arrange for custom programming, and just about anything you would like to know about Dennis Nyback.

For Projectionists Only

On the 35mm Forum I asked if people would contribute to a list of films featuring projectionists and projection booths.

The result, so far at least, is below:

Luke’s Movie Muddle 1916
Sherlock Jr. 1924
Hellzapoppin (Shemp as a projectionist) 1941
Sunset Boulevard 1950
Clash By Night 1951
The Bad and the Beautiful  1952
Smallest Show on Earth 1957
THE BLOB 1958
The Tingler 1959
Cleo from 5 to 7  Agnes Varda’s 1962
Masculin Feminin Goddard 1966
TARGETS Projectionist gets shot in the head through the port glass 1968
Omega Man 1971
The Projectionist 1971
Double Exposure episode Columbo with Robert Culp & Chuck McCann 1973
Spirit of the Beehive 1973
Phantom of the Paradise 1974
Kings of the Road  Wim Wenders 1976
Picture Show Man 1977
Make Me a Perfect Murder episode Columbo with Patrick O’Neal & Trish Van Devere 1978
The Muppet Movie 1979
Gremlins 1984
Night Of The Comet 1984
Demons (Argento Version) 1985
Desparately Seeking Susan 1985
Apartment Zero 1988
Cinema Paradiso 1988
Come See The Paradise 1990
The Inner Circle 1991
GAS, FOOD LODGING 1992
Last Action Hero, The 1993
Matinee Joe Dante 1993
The Shawshank Redemption 1994
Fight Club 1999
The Majestic 2001
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu San) 2003
Mr. Bean’s Holiday 2007
Inglorious Bastards 2010

NY to Portland With 4 Tons of Film part II

 

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It was a very hot day. I came to an overpass. There was no service station. I walked up the ramp to the road. 
Walking north I came to a modern split level house. There were at least three cars parked onthe grass in front. 
A mongrel dog loped up to me, and instead of ripping my throat out, expected to be petted. I rang the bell. 
Nothing happened. I rang it a second time. Nothing happened. I knocked on the door. Nothing happened. I looked at 
the three cars. They were all licensed. I was suddenly struck with the paranoid thought that the entire family 
was cowering inside with cocked assault rifles aimed at me, assuming I was the anti-Christ, or a member of the 
government. That fantastic supposition was followed by a more macabre one. I pictured the entire family lying 
dead inside, having been murdered by some modern incarnation of Charles Starkweather, and that the police 
would find my DNA from petting the dog, and railroad me into the gas chamber, or whatever humane method 
of execution they use in Iowa. 

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I hastily wiped my fingerprint off the doorbell, said goodbye to the dog and went back from the way I
came. I crossed over the overpass and walked to another house. It looked fairly new. Looking through
the un-curtained windows it obviously had never been lived in. A lawn had been planted but had baked
away. I felt like I had stumbled on a very strange place. A place where I was not supposed to be. I hot
footed it back to the freeway and again started walking west.

I had no idea how far it would be to a phone. After I'd walked less than a mile a biker on a Harley
pulled over and offered me a lift. He was a Viet Nam vet on his way to Sturgis. He wore no helmet or
shirt. He did have on the remains of a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off. On one arm was a faded
tatoo that said Semper Fi in script. I climbed on in back of him and grabbed hand holds beside my seat.
The twenty minute high speed ride was merely terrifying. My un-helmeted head was filled with a
recurrent vision of a crash followed by my mangled body lying lifeless in the weeds beside the road.
Just me, dead among the empty bottles and other trash. The biker dropped me off at service station.

For the second day in a row I called the truck company. After a while, around 1:00 PM, a red pick-up
truck pulled up and the driver asked me to hop in. He was a cheerful man named Jim with sandy
colored hair and workingman's hands. We drove back to the dead truck. I was pleased to see that it
was still there and it didn't have a ticket on it. It took some searching, but we finally found the driveline
a few hundred yards behind it. The four-foot length of five inch rolled steel had hit the pavement so
hard it was bent at a right angle. The loud bang I'd heard was the universal joint exploding. The
thumping noise was the bent driveline repeatedly hitting the underside of the truck. That noise had
suddenly stopped when it had completely broken loose and fell to the pavement. We took the driveline,
left the rest of the truck where it was and drove into Iowa City.

Jim gave me a card with the address of his shop. He said he'd arrange for the truck to be towed there
and for me to check in later. He said there would be no need to unload the truck to repair it. That made me happy. He dropped me in town at the only espresso cafe within a hundred miles. It had a 1940's
phone booth with a phone inside that customers could use for free. It came in handy. After seeing the
sights I called Jim and was told they had the truck in the shop and were working on it. A new driveline
had to be custom built in Rapid City. It would take a day or two. The underside of the truck also had
to be repaired. The muffler had a huge hole in it and the gas tank had suffered a fearful beating. He told
me I was lucky to be alive. If the swinging driveline had been breached gas tank a huge explosion
would have probably resulted and I would have ended my trip right there in a huge fireball. “Top of the
world, Ma” I thought after I'd hung up. 

The truck rental company was fine with repairing the truck. They didn't think a driveline breaking was
out of the ordinary. There was no offer of a new truck to replace the damaged one and speed me along.
They refused to pay for my lodging or meals. My budget hadn't included extra nights in Iowa City. In
addition to a couple of hundred dollars on me I had ninety-three dollars in my checking account. I
figured I would need all of it, but that an ATM would only give me eighty. Luckily for me the ATM I
found in Iowa City, unlike those in the Naked City, did not limit withdrawals to twenties, or tens, or
even fives. It gave me all ninety-three dollars. Four twenties, a ten and three ones. 

I found a cheap motel not far from the coffee shop. The only drawback was several bikers staying there
on their way to Sturgis. Some of them were early risers. They were also in no hurry. They would fire up
their bikes and then idle, rev, idle, rev, for half hour before roaring off. Not all of them arose at the
same hour. The noise was continuous from 5:00 am till 9:00. Still, the two nights in the motel
were a welcomed rest.

On my second day in Iowa City I decided to see a movie. At a downtown multiplex there wasn't much
to pick from. I decided on Eyes Wide Shut. I liked Stanley Kubrick films. I assumed this one would
also be extra long and would take up most of the afternoon. I didn't stay to the end. While sitting in
the air conditioned darkness it struck me that I really didn't care what happened to anyone on the
screen. I walked out. The ticket taker asked me if I was coming back. He said “There's only ten
minutes left.” That was fine with me. It was beautiful day outside. I spent the rest of it by taking the
long walk to the shop, eating a leisurely dinner, and watching TV in my room until bedtime. I didn't
find a movie worth watching. The motel cable package didn't include TCM. 

On the third day in Iowa City the new driveline arrived and by three in the afternoon I was ready to go.
The truck seemed just the same as before, sluggish, but willing. I pushed on that night until I got to
Council Bluffs. It was after midnight when I pulled into a motel in a bad part of town. I was on the
truck bypass route. It advertised hourly rates. The desk clerk didn't ask for ID and I resisted renting any
of the porno tapes prominently displayed behind the counter. My room was on the ground floor facing
the street. I parked directly in front of the door. Once inside I surveyed the place. The shower looked
like something out of a Roger Corman horror flick and the sheets didn't look like they'd been changed
anytime recently. I slept like a log and pushed off early the next morning.

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I decided to cross the Rockies in Montana. I didn't base that on any real data. I just decided that it was
the most direct route and hoped the truck would make it. If it didn't, I'd have more time to deal with
the problem. I drove north to South Dakota and headed west at Sioux Falls. I sailed past Rapid City and
stopped for dinner in Sturgis. There were hundreds of bikers there. I didn't see the gentleman who
aided me in Iowa. At nine that night I was in Gillette, Wyo. I decided I'd pushed my luck enough for the
day. I wasted some time trying to find a place that sold beer to go. Strange liquor laws there. I found a
motel called The Mustang. It had a spectacular multi-color neon sign of a rider on a bucking bronco. It
also had a vacancy. It was perfect.

Gillette in the morning had a raw, high desert sort of feel. The wind was blowing with a lot of dust and
grit in it. It was cold. The rising sun cast long shadows. From there to the Divide it's almost all up hill.
Driving west I passed through the Big Horn and Shoshone ranges before hitting the divide between
Bozeman and Butte. The higher the elevation, the slower I got. By the time I made it over the top I was
down to ten miles per hour. On the other side was no picnic either. I had to worry about staying off my brakes so I wouldn't burn them out. I rolled into Spokane at 10:00 PM and looked for a motel. It had
been a nerve wracking and exhausting day. Everything was full up. I pushed on to Ritzville. Not a
vacancy there either. I turned south at midnight and headed for Pasco. I was mostly alone on
the road and very tired. 
 I came to roadwork signs. The speed limit dropped to forty. Looming in the darkness on the roadside
was hulking heavy machinery. When I got to the "End of Road Work" sign I stepped on the gas. Big
mistake. My right front tire dropped off the lip edge of the new pavement. That side of rig was now
on sand and pulling me strongly toward the ditch. I pulled on the steering wheel without braking. The
truck started to teeter from side to side. The front of the truck slowly came around and then hit the lip
in the road a second time and pulled again to the right. Still teetering back and forth I fought the wheel.
 I worried that when getting back on the highway I might over correct and shoot across into oncoming
traffic. I gave the wheel a jerk and all of sudden the truck hit a bump and seemed to lift into the air.
When it came down I was still upright, going straight ahead, and again on solid pavement. The
swaying side to side settled down. I decided right then that I would stop in the next town and sleep in
the cab if I had to. 

At 2:00 am I came to the town of Connell. It was the site of a state prison. I suppose the motels were
there to house people visiting their incarcerated loved ones. Thank God For Crime! 
photo

I safely parked in the near empty lot of a multi story, brand new motel. My ringing the buzzer aroused a
sleepy clerk. My room was clean, comfortable and cheap. It included continental breakfast in the
morning.

The next day a short nervous drive got me to the Columbia River. I crossed at Umatilla before nine
AM. I was happy to be in Oregon. It was a beautiful sunny day. Mount Hood coming into view was a
delight. Multnomah Falls passing on my left was wonderful. I drove straight to the front door of the
Clinton St. Theater, arriving at 2:00 PM on the eighth of August. My journey and safe arrival would
insure that the historic theater, built in 1914, would not close.

 

Post Script

In 2007 I moved my film archive to Marylhurst University. Part of the deal for the University giving me a home for my films was that I would curate a film festival on campus to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Oregon in 2009. The festival started on May first and ran for ten days. A 35mm projection booth was installed on campus. Highlights of the festival included personal appearances of the directors James Ivory, Gus Van Sant, Chris Eyre, and Bill Plympton. Among the films shown, all in 35mm, were Marked Woman (1937), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Smoke Signals (1998) and City Girl (1930).

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Family Meeting

I am a film archivist and my primary work is with films, not people.  I started collecting films, in the days before video, because I loved history and wanted to see it.  We can look at the 20th Century in a way not possible for any earlier time. I create film programs on themes and have shown them around the world.  Most people who see my films appreciate them for individual, if not personal, reasons.  For some people, an old film can be a much more personal thing. I hope everyone has read Mark Edward Hueck’s  post about reuniting an orphan with his long dead mother.

Last week  Christina Duane from Southern Oregon, along with three youngsters, came to my office at Marylhurst University.  I showed them a 1940 film of  her grandfather Ronnie Mansfield.  He had been a popular singer in the thirties and forties, appearing with the George Olsen Band, on his own radio show  and was also a regular on the Fibber McGee and Molly show. She had known him  until his death when she was an adolescent.  Of course her children and grand children had only known him through still photographs and family stories. She had found  an excerpt of the film on line and had contacted me about it.  I had transferred the film with her grandfather in it for a project . The grandfather, then a young man,  was one of the vocal  trio who appears at the beginning of the opening film in the  youtube post.

Also in the clip is a good shot of the  drummer.  He lives in New York.  He had introduced himself to the band leader Vince Giordano.   Last year when I showed the film to Vince, he told me that the drummer had come to one of his gigs and had told him about being in the film when he had been twenty years old.  I hope to show the film to the drummer when I will be in New York in the  Spring.

There  are many reasons to preserve films.  Most reasons are more abstract than personal.  It is good to remember that everyone preserved in motion pictures was a real person with a real life, many of them having families, and not just fans, who loved them.

NY to Portland With Four Tons of Films part One

 

 

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Three days were needed to load the truck. It was July of 1999. My destination was Portland. It was during a hotter than usual New New York summer. That means heat wave. The boxes of films were in the stifling attic of an 1880 building at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island. Each box had to be carried own three flights of stairs. There were over 200 of them, with an average weight of forty pounds. It was the equivalent of walking up 600 flights of stairs, picking up a 40 pound box, and carrying it back down to the bottom. The temperature was over 90 degrees at ground level but it seemed positively cool in comparison to the oven like third floor. I stopped after every three trips to gulp down warm water. Sweat rolled off me and splashed in droplets on the bare uncarpeted floor. On the night of the third day I slept on the floor of the empty room.

The films represented my life’s work. They were mostly 16mm, but there were also a very small amount of 8mm and Super 8, a little more of 9.5mm, and taking up much more room per minute, 35mm. Among the films were shorts by Lumiere, Edison, J. Stuart Blackton, and W.K.L. Dickson, from end of the 19th Century, to shorts and features from the end of the Twentieth Century. In between were mostly subjects that interested me, jazz music, animation, baseball, Hollywood of the silent and early sound era, advertising, propaganda, and over all, history. To quote Caspar Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, it wasn’t schoolbook history, not Mr. Welles’ history, but history, nevertheless.

The next morning at 6:00 am I started driving west. It was August second and I was scheduled to begin showing films at the Clinton St. Theater in Portland on Friday the 13th. I had ten days and two hundred dollars to get there. Gas was around a dollar a gallon. I wasn’t worried.

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Before loading my films on Staten Island I had previously loaded all of my other possessions. They including a 1938 Rockola  juke box, thousands of books, LPs and 78 rpm records, two 35mm DeVry Portable projectors,and several 16mm projectors. Everything I owned was heavy. My film archive had started in Seattle. I had relocated it by rental truck to New York in 1995. Moving to Portland would be completing a circle. I’d be back home. My family had arrived in Oregon, before Portland was founded, in 1843.I trusted that this rental truck would be able to safely haul my possessions. After all, shouldn’t a commercial rental truck be able to haul anything anyone could fit into it? I wasn’t taking anything as heavy as a huge coin collection, gold ingots, or metal scrap.

I had obeyed recommended procedure during the loading and had put most of the weight of the load between the axles. I happily hit the road. Crossing the bridge to New Jersey everything seemed fine. Once in New Jersey I was on crummier roads. Whenever I would go over a bump I would hear a weird noise from the front end. When I would put on the brakes a rubbing noise would last until I came to a stop. Somewhere in New Jersey I stopped for breakfast and inspected the front tires. I found that at standstill the front fenders were an inch or two away from the tops of the tires. When braking the inertia of the load would push down the front of the truck. The rubbing noise was the sound of the tires rubbing against the under side of the fender. In the sun baked parking lot of the truck stop I emptied out most of the truck and re-loaded. I had to move the weight back from between the axles,with more of it near the tailgate. It would make driving more dangerous. It would also make it possible.

Just for luck I did something I never thought I’d do. I tossed a couple hundred pounds of films of little interest into a convenient dumpster. Decisions had to be made.They were mostly faded Eastman color x-rated features from the seventies that a stranger had salvaged from a trash heap in the early 90’s and had driven them to my theater in Seattle. A truck stop employee came out to tell me I couldn’t do it. When I told him what it was he got a gleam in his eye. I’m reasonably sure the films didn’t go directly to a landfill.

Considering how much weight I was carrying I decided to stay off the interstates and instead take slower state routes until I got past Chicago. There was no real rational for that decision. For the rest of the day nothing bad happened. That night I made it to Kent Indiana and stayed at a former Knights Inn. It had been re-decorated and no longer fostered the illusion of sleeping in a medieval castle. It had not been originally a very good illusion. The one I had once stayed in near Nashville was more like sleeping in the Cecil B. DeMille set of a midieval castle. I was too tired to be properly disappointed.

At 7:00 AM I hit the road. It was a beautiful day. Before long I noticed a grinding noise whenever I braked. It was different than the rubbing noise. I stopped for coffee in Huntington Indiana and checked the front brake rotors. Both rotors weredeeply scored. When a brake rotor gets scored it can seize at anytime and lock up one of the front wheels. At sixty miles per hour that can lead to interesting consequences. Death is one of them. I called the 800 number and was directed to a truck repair shop a mile ahead. There I was told new front rotors and pads would take a couple of hours.

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While the truck was being repaired I visited the Dan Quayle museum. Yes, Huntington, Indiana is the birthplace of Dan Quayle. The museum was on the sun lit second floor of a decommissioned Christian Science Church. The room appeared to have been at one time a meeting hall. A small stage with proscenium was at one end. Blond oak glass topped display cases held mementos of Mr.Quayle’s boyhood in Huntington and later career on the national stage. They included high school yearbooks, school awards, and photos with Ronald Reagan. Several portable blackboards had actual news clippings thumb tacked to the cork facing. The clippings included pictures of Dan, and his wife Marilyn, many of them faded from the sunlight. It was the high point of the trip and I recommend it heartily to anyone driving across the US. The truck was repaired by 4:00 PM. I drove west until midnight. Passing through some small town I didn’t notice it when the arterial turned left. I kept going straight and was now on a city street.

I was then startled by a very unexpected stop sign. I slammed on the brakes with little effect. I was halfway through the intersection before I came to a stop. It was obviously time to stop for the night. I found a nondescript motel in Peoria, Illinois, thankful to have made it that far.

At breakfast I got out the map. I was past Chicago and could now get on an interstate. I also had to figure out which pass over the Rocky Mountains would have the gentlest grade. I was concerned that the heavily loaded truck didn’t have the power to make it over the top. My options were limited. Driving South through Missouri and Oklahoma seemed to be the surest thing. It would also add almost a thousand more miles to the trip. The other routes were on 1-80 through Rock Springs to Salt Lake City, or I-90 through Butte and Bozeman to Spokane. I decided to go north to I-80 and make the mountain pass decision later.

I was going up the one of the very few hills in the state of Iowa, and had put my foot to the floor to maintain speed, when the driveline broke, with a tremendous bang. It sounded like a bomb going off, and was followed by a series of loud crashing noises. I had no idea what had happened. I lost speed. Stepping on the gas did nothing. Shifting gears did nothing. All I knew was that the engine was running but no power was getting to the rear drive wheels. The crashing noises suddenly stopped. In an eerie quiet I coasted to a stop. I was barely able to get completely off the road. It was a very narrow shoulder. I was about to open the truck door when a semi truck thundered past, seemingly inches away. I carefully exited the vehicle, went around to the back, and sat down on the rear bumper. I hoped a police cruiser would stop and offer assistance. I finally gave up, cursed myself for not signing up with AAA, and started walking west.

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To Be Continued

 

Grand Riviera Detroit Michigan

Film Preservation can mean different things to different people.  The movie palaces  where the classic movies were shown are part of the picture.  I have written this week about nitrate film.  Today I’ll take you to two theaters that survived the nitrate era but couldn’t survive the changes in values that made them obsolete before the end of the century.  One of them is not completely gone, but lingers in a netherworld of changed purpose.

In the summer of 1993 I was able to get inside two former movie palaces in Detroit.  I had driven to Detroit from Seattle to see baseball games in Tiger Stadium and also Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Cleveland Indians would move out of Cleveland Municipal the next season.  It was demolished in 1996.  The last Tigers game in Tiger Stadium was September 27, 1999.  In 2001 it starred in an HBO movie.  The only catch was that it was made to stand in for old Yankee Stadium in the film 61*

My friend Tim Caldwell took me to the theaters.  We started by driving into a parking garage in downtown Detroit and continuing  up to the top floor.  Above us was the ceiling of a movie palace.

Michigan Theater

In 1976 the Michigan Theater had been partially demolished and turned into a parking garage.  The ceiling  had once hung over an auditorium holding four thousand seats. The sides of the ceiling curved downward until they were truncated by the concrete floor of the garage.

On a lower floor I saw a  balcony that still had seats in it.  On the street side of the building the lower floors did not span the width of the old theater.  Instead they stopped at the edge of the original lobby.

That gave the lobby its original four story open height. It gave me a clear view to the ornate lobby ceiling from the original perspective of a ticket buyer. The Michigan had been built on the site of Henry Ford’s 1892 garage. It was the garage where he built his first car. It seemed appropriate that the theater had become a cathedral where Henry Ford’s progeny now came to worship their creator.

The Michigan was a movie palace of the very grand type. It was designed by Rapp and Rapp of Chicago and was the largest theater in Michigan. It had a full stage for vaudeville. Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, among many many others, appeared there on stage. In the early seventies it became a Rock and Roll venue. Kiss, T-Rex, ZZ Top, Sly and the Family Stone, Iggy and Stooges and many others performed there. The only reason it was still in existence, such as it was, is that it was cheaper to turn it into a car park than to demolish it. To make the irony even more piquant, the Ford garage has also survived. It was moved by Mr. Ford’s to his Greenfield Village. If you’ve never been there, or to his nearby museum, I suggest you go. Mr. Ford didn’t just move his own garage there. He also moved Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, the Wright Brother’s cycle shop, the courthouse in Logan, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, nearly 100 other historical American buildings, and arranged them all in a village setting. In his nearby museum he has an incredible array of Americana including the assassination car of John F. Kennedy, the assassination chair of Lincoln, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and so much more.

Our next stop was the Grand Riviera, a huge atmospheric theater designed by John Eberson.  It was in a neighborhood a little way out of downtown. It had been built by the Nederlander family. The Nederlanders started in Detroit before becoming the biggest theatrical producers on Broadway. Tim told me that the first time he had been in the Grand Riviera he had found Nederlander ephemera strewn across an office floor. There were personal letters, post cards from sons serving in the second world war, and business correspondence. He also found a  program signed by six members of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Jim Thorpe.  Both the sentimental and the collectible were equally devalued.

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Photo courtesy of Allan Barnes

From a distance the Grand Riviera looked like it had been casually walked away from, many years before, being left to gently fade away rather than suffer the indignity of the wrecking ball. The effect was that of Blanche Du Bois’s faded Southern belle, or Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.  None of the upper windows were boarded up to spoil the effect.  The big vertical sign was still there with most of the neon gone. We parked on the street and walked through a vacant lot, overgrown with waist high brown grass, around to the back. Tim walked to a weathered piece of ply-wood leaning against the back wall and pulled it aside. A black hole appeared before us.  He then reached into his bag and pulled out two flashlights, a hunting knife and a tire iron.  He handed me one of the lights and the iron. He said “Sometimes you disturb a bunch of vagrants when you go into a place like this.  You just show them the weapons and they leave you alone.”  With that caveat, we crawled through the hole. I thought of soldiers crawling into Viet Cong tunnels in search of the enemy. Once inside he stopped and reached back through the hole pulling the ply-wood over the opening. “It’s just as well people don’t know we’re in here” He whispered. Once we were inside we could stand up.  We were underneath the stage. Tim walked forward like he knew where he was going. We were on a path between pieces of old theater seats and other debris piled high.  The  flashlights cut the darkness but left  shadows lurking outside the light. We came to a short flight of stairs with a door at the top.  That took us into the auditorium beside the orchestra pit.

Atmospheric theaters were designed to give customers the impression of being outdoors in an exotic courtyard. The illusion was created through ornately decorated walls against, what were at first blush, unadorned ceilings. Through carefully designed artifice the ceilings became  night skies complete with twinkling stars, passing clouds and a moon. The cloud and other effects were created through a special Brenograph “atmospheric projector” made by the Brenkert Company.

We walked down a side aisle between an acre of unoccupied chairs.  There was a curious half light in the auditorium.  I looked up.  Small holes in the ceiling let in tiny shafts  of light.  There were thousands of them, and together added up to just enough light to see by. Our steps had raised a thin cloud of dust. It hung in the air with the pin pricks of lights refracting through it. The walls were decorated with several Egyptian tomb figures of huge unsmiling men.  They looked forty feet tall.  A couple of them had fallen down. They had tumbled forward, broke into several pieces, and lay sprawled across dozens of seats.  We walked into the lobby.

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Everything of obvious and easily carried away value was gone.  It was filled with trash.  Looking past that I could still sense the glorious beauty it had once had. The lobby ceiling was four stories high. From the middle of the lobby ceiling a long chain hanged down that had once held a huge chandelier. A lot of marble had been used in the décor. We poked around in various store rooms, offices, dressing rooms, and rest rooms. Tim told me that the first time he had come into the place he had forced his way into a narrow room and had found movie posters from the 1920’s. They had been  stuffed into a space where two walls joined together.  Tim also found another old movie poster by crawling up into a false ceiling. On a later visit he came across huge, three sheet and six sheet, posters for Kitten With a Whip, The Hustler, and other sixties movies. The only thing I found to take away was a small metal sign, about a foot long and five inches high. It was a no smoking notice, with the fire department directors name at the bottom.  He had probably served during the Hoover administration.

We walked out of the theater the same way we had come in, at last crawling, through the hole into bright sunlight.  I was immediately struck by the heat.  It had been cool inside.  It had been like being in the ruins of a cathedral of a forgotten religion.  It had been like being in a another time.  We drove back to town through a neighborhood that had deteriorated along with the theater.  Many of the storefronts along the four lane street were boarded up.  Others contained businesses of dubious financial means. The only ones that appeared flourishing were the fast food franchises. Popeye’s Fried Chicken,  White Castle,  MacDonalds.   Businesses that hadn’t existed when the Grand Riviera had hosted thousands of customers a night. We were a long way from Depression glass dish give aways and Shirley Temple look-a-like contests. People in the neighborhood now stayed home at night, watching TV and videos, many of them afraid to walk the consequently deserted streets.

The Grand Riviera Theater was demolished in 1997.

Nitrate Film – More Feared Than Frankenstein – Less Understood Than Eraser Head – More Dangerous than repeated viewing of Sleepless in Seattle

There is an interview with me about  nitrate at   http://www.talltalestruetales.com/2010/02/dennis-nyback-on-nitrate-film/ .  This is to add to that.  I’d suggest you read that one first. There is  one thing I should repeat now:  Nitrate film was discontinued in the early fifties because safety film was cheaper, not because of safety considerations.  Safety film had been available for thirty years but was not implemented, because of the inherent superior picture quality of nitrate.

It struck me that for many people the only thing they know about nitrate film, is from the movie Inglorious Bastards, where nitrate film was such a powerful and dangerous thing, sort of a deus ex machina,  that  it was able to kill Hitler, and stop World War II, at least in Europe.  The implication being it was just about as dangerous as the atomic bombs that ended the war in Japan.   Previous to Inglorious Bastards  people got a primer on nitrate in the film Cinema Paradiso. There it just burned down a town.  I would prefer that they got a primer from Spirit of the Beehive, or Picture Show Man, or Sherlock Jr., or just about any other film that shows 35mm projection, or people in movie theaters, which occurs prior to 1950.  The only reason those films aren’t associated with nitrate is that there is no fire or explosion.   What I mean is, for every film that shows a nitrate fire, there are probably hundreds that show the movie experience during the nitrate era  where fire isn’t the only logical ending.  One of the problems is that the almost sixty years that have elapsed since nitrate was the norm has left very few witnesses to the era to shed light on it.   I must admit that I sure wasn’t there.  But I am apparently one of the few people, at least of those willing to write about it, who worked with men and equipment from the era and has also handled, stored, and projected nitrate film.

There does seem to be two schools of thought about nitrate film.  The first is:  Huh?  I’d imagine if you asked a hundred random people you’d find less then a handful who knew anything about it at all .   The second is:  Run for your lives!  The idea that the stuff is DANGEROUS does seem to be the one thing some people know about it.  I have come to that conclusion from bringing up the subject with people over the years.   It is a fact that if ignited nitrate film can create a fire that is almost impossible to put out until all of the nitrate film is consumed. If you want to look at it:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=78…nitrofilm&hl=de

If the fire can be contained it will go out once all the film has been consumed. Most of the safety measures in place in the movie theaters were put in place to assure that if there was a nitrate fire, it would be contained to the projection booth.

There is some information on line.  The Association of Motion Pictured Archivists put out a directive on it.  Under Hazard:  “Nitrate can be very dangerous, mainly because it is highly flammable. Nitrate film burns at a higher temperature than even gasoline. Chemically, nitrate film is very similar to gunpowder. Once ignited a nitrate fire cannot be extinguished, because the combustion process generates its own oxygen. A
nitrate fire also generates nitric acid fumes. These are highly poisonous and can be lethal if inhaled. Nitrate fires are violent and fast-burning. In some countries or states it is even a criminal offence to store nitrate on any premises which has not been approved for this purpose by the fire authorities.”

Further down it says:  “Although some believe that nitrate can spontaneously ignite if it is stored for a long time in very hot and dry conditions, no-one has ever been able to prove this for sure and suspected incidents are rare. Almost all fires begin after a reel has been ignited by another source, usually involving human error.”

The Library of Congress advises:  “Cans of nitrate film that have remained closed for some time should be opened in unconfined, well-ventilated spaces. If gasses given off by decomposing nitrate-based film are trapped in a confined space — such as in a sealed can — they can ignite at temperatures above 100° F. Nitrate film is highly flammable, ignites easily, and cannot be extinguished after burning has begun.”

Kodak has the directive Storage and Handling of Processed Nitrate Film which advises:  “Nitrate base films must be handled with informed care.”   That seems clear enough.   Know what you are doing, follow accepted procedures, and nitrate film can be safely stored, handled and screened.  It also says “Cellulose nitrate base film is relatively unstable. If you store it in large quantities of about 5,000 feet or more and in non approved storage cabinets without proper ventilation, it becomes a fire hazard. Admittedly, it takes a bit of pushing to cause it to burst into flames spontaneously. For example, in one laboratory test, combustion occurred with a decomposing 1,000 foot roll of film only after it was kept at 41°C (106°F) for 17 days tightly encased in a can wrapped in insulation to retain the heat of decomposition.” Our family farm was in rainy Yacolt, Washington.  When I was growing up we were always worried about “spontaneous” combustion.   Wet hay in a barn can explode into flames and burn down a barn.  It doesn’t need to be pushed.

I am trying to get a copy of the book This Film is Dangerous. A review of the book includes this helpful information:

“Naturally, there’s no shortage of fire stories, and a calendar in the book covers over seventy-five incidents dating back to 1896 and ending in 1993.  this followed by comprehensive accounts of individual tragedies reaching into occsion and places both obscure (such as Sunniva O’flynn’s evocative “The Drumcologher Disaster”) and widely known (the connection between nitrate and the Hindenburg disaster.”

This Film is Dangerous  came out of the FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives)  Congress in London in 2002 from the symposium The Last Nitrate Picture Show.  Since the FIAF is an international group I assume the 75 incidents cataloged are from around the world.  Given the world wide extent of motion pictures prior to 1950 it would seem one event or so per year in the world is not a bad safety record.   I am troubled by them saying that there is a “widely known” connection between nitrate and the Hindenburg disaster.  First, researching it, there is no nitrate connection, and in any case, it would have had nothing to do with nitrate film, anyway.

Being a projectionist in the thirties was a good job and it was hard to get into the projectionist union.   Frank McClellan, who I worked with in a reel to reel carbon arc booth in the early eighties, when he was in his late seventies, told me that he had gotten into the union in 1941 and that at the time he was the first new member admitted in over ten years.   The majority of operators appreciated their jobs and took them seriously.    Of course, some were more conscientious than others.  Without naming names I’ll tell a story I was told about a guy who I knew later as a grand old man of the Union.  In 1940 he was working at the Egyptian Theater on University Way NE in the the University District of Seattle.  The Egyptian Theater building is still there.  In is now a chain drugstore.  I was told long ago that above the false ceiling in the store the gaudily decorated ceiling of the theater is still there.  That would not surprise me.  In 1993 I visited  The Michigan Theatre in Detroit.  It had been turned into a parking garage, but much of the ceiling and other decorative walls and such of the great theater were left in place.  Just as with the fire shutters, heat fuses, and fire rollers that I found in place well after  the nitrate era was over, the ceiling in the Egyptian in Seattle could have been left in place just because it would have taken effort to remove it.  Too much of our historic preservation is a result of such capriciousness instead of thoughtful planning. On second thought, maybe we are lucky the way things are. Anyway, back in 1940  a guy I knew stopped in the Egyptian to visit the projectionist there.  As in many theaters, the projection booth was entered through a door in the balcony.  The visitor walked into the booth and found the film running properly and no projectionist present.  Stepping back out into the balcony he saw the projectionist sleeping in one of the chairs.  The assumption, based on past behavior, was the the projectionist had been drinking.  The visitor heard the reel end warning bell ringing in the booth.  He went inside, trimmed and struck the carbon arc lamp, and made the reel change.  He then re-wound the spent reel and threaded up the other projector.  Twenty minutes later he made the next reel change.  He had re-wound and threaded again, with the final reel of the feature, when he heard noises in the balcony.  He stood off  in the shadows while the projectionist came into the booth, checked to see if everything was fine, and then went back out to the balcony  to sleep.

Just about any article about nitrate film will say that smoking is not allowed near it. Just as some operators would drink on the job, some would also smoke.  I have a 16mm Ken Murray short from the forties.  In it he goes into a film vault and looks at 35mm silent films with a moviola while smoking a cigar.  The film ends with an explosion.  That is comedy fiction, based on some sort of reality. I have seen veteran operators strike the carbon arc, turn off the current, open the lamp house door, lean inside, and light their cigarettes off the glowing hot end of a carbon rod. I don’t imagine that process started with safety film.

The most recent nitrate fire was at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto on April 2, 2009.  The theater is operated by David Packard.  He sent out this announcement:

“The recent fire in the projection booth at the Stanford Theatre has stimulated interest and discussion, so I will try to explain the event and its background. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto was built in 1925. For its first 25 years every film shown was nitrate, and I am not aware of any notable event during that period. We purchased the theatre in 1987 and made major renovations and seismic upgrades (being near the San Andreas Fault). We designed the projection booth to comply with all code regulations regarding nitrate film, and we received approval
from the local authorities to run nitrate. The booth has walls with very high fire ratings, two exit doors, smoke and heat detectors, fire sprinklers, and metal shutters to cover the ports into the auditorium. Nitrate reels are stored in specially designed bins.Between 1989 and 2009 we have shown nitrate prints as part of our regular program many hundreds of times. When we show nitrate we always have two skilled projectionists, so neither machine will ever be unattended. We always inspect the film very carefully. Occasionally we have had splices break in the sound head (away from the heat of the film gate) but never any serious problem. On April 2, we were showing a Technicolor nitrate print of Cover Girl (1944). The event happened about three minutes into the first reel. The film broke, or jammed, or somehow got stuck in the film gate and immediately caught fire. The film below the gate continued into the take-up magazine and was not affected by the fire. The fire traveled up the film above the gate and entered the supply reel in its magazine. The entire reel (nearly 2000 feet) burned in the magazine. After briefly trying to control the fire, both projectionists left the booth. The heat detectors did not respond immediately. The fire burning in the upper reel was briefly visible to the audience through the ports. Then the shutters closed over the ports, and the fire sprinker flooded the projector. The fire was over within a few minutes. When we returned to the booth, we found that fire damage was restricted to the projector and was less than I had expected (thanks to the sprinklers). The sprinklers did not prevent the nitrate from burning but did limit collateral damage. We use Simplex XL projectors with carbon arc lamps. After cleaning the projector, we re-opened the theatre two days later. The fire sprinklers continued for about 15 minutes and created an enormous flood of water that flowed into the balcony and seeped into lower floors. The water damage was significant, though not catastrophic. My conclusion is that the proper design of the booth and the skill of our projectionists had their intended effect of minimizing the damage. It appeared to me that the Fire Department had the same opinion. We plan a temporary moratorium on running nitrate until we evaluate whether we can take any further steps to make the booth even safer. One idea is a panic button that the projectionist can push to activate the sprinklers and shutters sooner. We certainly intend to install a floor drain to handle the water from any future sprinkler event. We also believe that we can develop a way to sense a fire in the gate and quickly and automatically cut and isolate the film in the two magazines. Some people may wonder why we show nitrate prints at all. Sometimes they are the only print available. But often we do it for the quality. The afternoon of the event, we had done a side-by-side comparison (with alternating projectors) of our old nitrate print and a newly-made, nearly pristine print. A professional filmmaker was sitting beside me, and we both felt that no one could fail to be amazed by the great difference. This is no criticism of modern film restoration. The plain fact is that the old dye transfer printing process can achieve results that are not possible with current methods. We all hope that future technology may bring back the old experience.”
David W. Packard
President
The Stanford Theatre Foundation

The operators leaving the projection booth at the Stanford jogged my memory a bit.  If you should ever be in Switzerland, you should visit LICHTSPIEL – Kinemathek Bern  . Among the many wonderful and beautiful machines is a nice suitcase style portable 35mm projector from the silent era.  It is maybe three feet by three feet square, six inches wide, and has a handle on the top.  Inside is a clever mechanism that could project a single 1000 foot reel.  It has printed instructions.  It says that in case of a nitrate fire the operator is to pick up the projector and take it outdoors.

One little thing that bothers me is the reference to “heat detectors” that didn’t respond fast enough.  I wonder if that is something other than the “heat fuse” links that used to be the trigger to drop the shutters.  It could be the old technology would have worked better.  Mr. Packard mentioned that they use carbon arc lamps.  It apparently is more than just a personal  decision to use carbon arc with old archive prints.   The prints struck in the era before xenon  were intended to interface with carbon arc light, and were processed accordingly.  It does get a little tricky, as the “color” of carbon arc was changed in the early forties, with the color balance of technicolor adjusted to coincide with the change in carbon arc color.  Old technicolor prints projected with  xenon  lamps have a yellow tinge.

I am far from alone in extolling the beauty of nitrate.  Kevin Brownlow wrote “Nitrate has unique qualities which the modern black-and-white safety stock cannot duplicate.  I saw a few reels of a rare French silent recently, and was very excited by the quality of the production.  apart from its setting…the film wass photographed so beautifully that the film was a pleasure to watch.  The nitrate was then copied and I subsequently viewed the black-and-white dupe.  I stopped after a couple of hundred freet.  it had lost all interest for me.  The information there…but the aesthetic pleasure had gone.” If you have not read Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, and you love silent films, I urge you to do it.  It is a wonderful book.

One thing not touched on in this article is the great loss that the discontinuous of Technicolor was.  A few years ago Paul Allen, who could afford it, bought the Cinerama Theater in Seattle.  I heard at the time he was thinking of bringing back true technicolor.  That is, he would buy all the rights and produce the film stock and processing needed.  It was also said that he was also thinking about producing nitrate film again.  I don’t know if the report was true.   I wish it was.

Since the statute of limitations has now probably ran out, I can admit that I showed nitrate films at every theater I owned.  I have lived to tell the tale. So did those in attendance. I would hope we all were enriched by the experience.