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The Day I Discovered Scopitones With Jack Stevenson

In 1990 I was running films in a small theater in Seattle called the Jewel Box. The Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday, night series was held under the heading of “The Belltown Film Festival.”  Belltown was an area on the fringe of downtown Seattle.  A two block stretch of Second Avenue, in Belltown, was known as “Film Row.” Film Row started small in the twenties and had became the hub through which Hollywood films were routed to Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana.  Located there were offices and representatives for all the Hollywood film companies.

filmrow4

The Jewel Box had been built by the B. F. Shearer Co as a film industry screening room. It was a scale model of the sort of theaters they could build on demand. It seated 50.  B.F. Shearer built theaters on the Jewel Box plan that could seat 1,000.  It was outfitted with decorative items that the  Shearer Company could provide.  In fact, B.F. Shearer handled everything the prospective theater owner could want.  The room was lighted by eight large 1930’s Art Deco light fixtures.  The walls were covered with silk damask cloth.  The seating was provided by padded booths with tables where the customers could set drinks that had been purchased in the Rendevous Bar. It was the only legal place in the state of Washington where you could both drink and watch a movie on the big screen.

There was no sign on the street for the Jewel Box.  Above the street door was a twenty foot long shelf with two-foot tall letters spelling RENDEZVOUS.  The sign had been there a long time.  The V was tipped over a little to the right, giving the sign a rakish attitude.  That was by gravity, not design.  Above that was a six line movable letter reader board.  Entering the street door you could either go right, into the bar, or ahead, into the restaurant.  Farther along the Jewel Box entrance was through a door in the dining room.  When the door was closed no would guess there was a cute, relic, tiny theater inside.


I ran films in the room every Tuesday nights, and often on Wednesdays, for four years.  For special events I could occasionally have a Monday or a Thursday.  On Friday and Saturday it was a host to live music acts. Many of them were of the permanent hearing loss sort.  On Sunday it was used for Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings.  Talk about Daniel in the lion’s den! The Rendezvous Bar was one of the most strong pour dive bars in the city. It was always dark inside and usually crowded. It was sort of like the bar in Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life where the the bartender Sheldon Leonard says to George Bailey and Clarence the Angel “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.” I suppose it was good that any bar drunk who saw the light didn’t have to go far to get help.


Jack Stevenson

It was a fateful July day when I got the phone call from Jack Stevenson.  Here is the conversation:

Jack (East coast accent, speaking a little nervously):  “Hi, my name is Jack.  I got your number from Larry Reid at Coca.  He told me you had a place to show films.  I’m from Boston and I’m driving around the country with a whole bunch of great films in the trunk of the car looking for places to show ’em…”

Dennis:  “What kind of films are they?”

Jack: “ Oh, I’ve got all kinds.  I’ve got great films made by the Mormon Church, the Kuchar Brothers,  Students, The US Army,  educationals,  trash features,  Viva Los Vegas,  Hell’s Angels on Wheels,  Nekromantic.  Really great stuff.  You can’t believe how great the films made by the Mormons are. One of the army films is called Field Medicine in Viet Nam.  It’s one of the greatest films ever made.  The educationals have to be seen to be believed. The films made by the Oklahoma Department of health are fantastic.”

Dennis (breaking in as Jack caught his breath):  “Do you have enough for three nights?”  (I was thinking that this could be a special event worthy of taking a Thursday).

Jack:  “Three nights?  Easy, no problem with three nights, I’ve got lots of
great stuff.”

He waited as I looked at the calender.  I figured it would take a couple of weeks to properly exploit this in the press.  After the next three weeks I had nothing booked at all.  A guy believing so much in the films he owned that he was willing to drive around the country and call strangers out of the blue was both insane and inspirational. It couldn’t miss.

Dennis:  Can you do August 28, 29 and 30?”

Jack (with an awkward pause):  “Yeah, sure, but………………don’t you want to look at the films first?”
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  I met him a couple of days later at the Jewel Box. He was a dark haired six footer wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket.  His face had an oddly cherubic, satanic visage, with twinkling dark eyes.  We went to his car, a venerable full size Mercury. It had an AARP bumper sticker on the rear bumper and a Massachusetts license plate.  He opened the trunk.  It was crammed full with bulky objects encased in black garbage bags.  They contained the films and a Bell and Howell type 567  16mm projector.  That was the rare Marc 350 “Gemini” model, containing a short arc lamp that could put a sharp image on the side of a building blocks away if the night was dark.
Picture of Bell and Howell 567 projector

He was not exaggerating that the films were wonderful. Films made by the Mormons are unbelievably great.  Field Medicine In Vietnam, a training film for medical personal who would serve in the battle theater, has unbelievable and horrific footage of wounded soldiers. It also has an upbeat soundtrack and a cheerful voice-over narrator who says things such as “With out modern equipment and trained personal, this war will have the lowest mortality rate and highest return to service of any war every fought.” When it was made, in 1967, it should have been seen by every person in America.  No mother would have allowed her child to go there after viewing it.  The Kuchar Brothers are America’s great underground film makers.  They started with 8mm in the fifties and graduated to 16mm in the sixties.   Their work has been an inspiration to many film makers, including Martin Scorcese, Brian DePalma and John Waters.  A 1960 student film, Assembly Line, is the best student film I’ve ever seen.  The Oklahoma films are masterpieces of industrial Film Noir.  Nekromantic caused long time Belltown Film Fest customers to flee the theater claiming they would never come back to one of my shows ever again.

Jack’s visit produced an added, unexpected bonus.  The print of Nekromantic, a tale of necrotism, from Germany, had a magnetic soundtrack, common in Europe, practically unheard of in the USA where optical soundtracks are the norm.  It takes a special projector to reproduce magnetic sound.  Luckily, I could call my friend Doug Stewart, the sharpest operator in the projectionist union, a man who could repair any machine that ran on electricity or gasoline, the owner of many oddball projectors, and my friend.  He was happy to provide us with the requisite machine.

He soon arrived with it, a 1960’s  Eiki unit, made in Japan.  He also brought along some short films with mag tracks to help in teaching us to use it.    He threaded one up and put it on the screen.  Both Jack and my eyes goggled at what we saw.  Our mouths hung open.  We were watching what looked like a rock video, except it was unlike any thing we had ever seen.  Three scantily clad chorus girls, brandishing brooms and dustpans, danced around three lined up in a surreal manner kitchen stoves, while a woman in a baby doll nightgown sang an unbelievable reworking of the song King of the Road.   It was a pre-feminism ode to the happiness of housework.   The title was  Queen of the House.  Doug told us the film was a Scopitone.  They were three minute musical films produced in the early sixties to be shown in a sort of visual juke box.  The Scopitone company had quickly gone bust and  hundreds of the short films  were orphaned.  Doug told us that he had often found them for sale for twenty five cents a piece.  He showed us another one.  It had the Hondels,  performing the song Sea Cruise on a boat, singing to a woman dressed as a mermaid.  It didn’t have the jaw dropping cheerful sexism of Queen of the House, but had an innocent lecherous campy-ness lacking in any modern rock video.  The third film was called Belly Dancer and had a fake middle east Pasha leering at women doing approximations of belly dancing. It was in French. It wasn’t by any means good. It also was in its personal way, even weirder than the previous two.

Scopitone-2009

We asked Doug where we might find more. He told us that he had recently given at least a dozen to a guy who had an antique store called Juke Box City.

I knew the owner, John.  We went there.  I was appalled that John now wanted ten bucks each for the Scopitones that Doug had given him.  Jack finally made a deal to buy ten for fifty bucks. Later at home I called several of my film collector friends.  The opinion was unanimous: Nobody wanted them.  The problem with them was there were no rock stars, or jazz stars in them.   They were filled with the performers of the short era called Vanilla Pop that existed just prior to the British Invasion.  Our reaction:  What’s the matter with that?  No matter who appeared in them, they were one of a kind jaw dropping examples of breathtaking  cinema.   Jack and I have since made finding and preserving  Scopitones a major part of our life’s work.  We bought hundreds over the years, averaging about five bucks a piece.  We have lugged magnetic soundtrack projectors to many places to put them on the screen.  I showed them once at a theater in NY and MTV put me on the world wide news.  Unfortunately our proselytizing has brought bitter fruit.  Now Scopitones are offered on ebay and the price has shot through the roof.

The Jewel Box shows would be “Insanity, Sex and the Afterlife” (Tuesday), “Heroes, Nightmares and Bloodshed” (Wednesday) and Nekromantik on Thursday. To promote those shows we did something extra special on the Saturday before. On the night of August 25 we created an urban drive-in just across the street from the Jewel box.  Geof Spenser had been one of, with Nick Vroman, the founders of the Belltown Film Festival. Geof had a storefront across the street. It had a small sign in the window that said Occupied Seattle.  It was a funky used goods store and also a performance space. It had loft and access to the roof.  On the night of the show we walked across the roof, passing over two other stores, which took us to the edge of the building.  Below us was a parking lot.  Across the lot was the white wall of the Plumbers Union building.  We ran an extension cord from Geof’s store to the edge of the roof.  We plugged in the mighty Bell and Howell Marc 300 projector into it.  We were ready for the crowd.  Cars started to pull into the lot and parked facing the wall. Some of the people in the cars got out and lounged on their hoods. Other people brought lawn chairs and blankets.  We started with Elvis and Ann Margeret in Viva Las Vegas.

http://www.elvispresleymusic.com.au/pictures/img/elvis/60s/64/ann_margret_elvis_viva_las_vegas_2.jpg

The sound boomed out from the speaker at the base of the wall.  A wino, sleeping next to the speaker was jolted awake.  The sound of cars arriving had failed to rouse him, but Elvis gyrating in Technicolor really pissed him off.  He stood in front of the screen an screamed at the people in cars and lawn chairs facing him.  They were in a jovial mood and jeered back.  He finally gave up and dragged his bedding around the corner of the building and into the alley.  By the time Hells Angels on Wheels hit the wall many of the original crowd had left and had been replaced by others. Marijuana smoke wafted up from the parking lot.  Even a few winos had joined the crowd.  They passed around a jug.  Pedestrians walking by stopped and watched.  Some entered the parking lot, sat on the pavement and stayed till the end.  I’m sure many in the crowd knew this was a once in a lifetime occasion.  Policemen drove by slowly.  One squad car came up the alley and stopped.  The two cops got out and asked what was going on.  A chorus replied  WE’RE WATCHING A MOVIE!  The cops laughed and left.  The rest of their night would be spent breaking up fights in front of the trendy Belltown bars.  Our night lasted till two AM.  Jack and I sat on the roof and drank beer and watched the crowd below us having a good time.  Everyone, including Jack and I, went home happy.

After arranging the Seattle shows Jack hit the road to Portland. He was back in Seattle from August 20 to August 30. On the 20th he did a show at place called Re-bar. On August 26 he also had a show at the 9-1-1 Media Arts Gallery. I assume Larry Reid at CoCa (Center on Contemporary Art) had helped with the 9-1-1 gig. Larry was always a helpful person. I sure appreciated him giving Jack my phone number.

Jack’s shows at the Jewel Box drew good enough crowds. One nice thing about the friendly confines of the Jewel Box, it didn’t take a lot of people to fill it up. The first two nights were the best, and it was a lucky bunch who got to see the treasures he showed. Seattle probably wasn’t ready for Nekromantik. In fact, I’m not sure if the time has come for that film just yet. The couple who swore they would never see anything I showed ever again soon relented. They also came back in 1991 when Jack came again.

Driving back to Boston Jack’s venerable automobile broke down in Missoula. It was nothing drastic. I got a post card from him about it. Thinking about it now, having a car break down in a strange town can often have an upside. In 1999 I was driving a truck containing everything I owned from New York City to Portland, Oregon. The brakes went out in Huntington, Indiana. If not for that I would never have been able to hang out at, and I am not making this up, the Dan Quayle Museum. While Jack’s car was repaired in Missoula he was able to hang out at The Theater of the Dove, probably the weirdest movie theater in America. It was right out of a Nicolai Tesla dream.  Year round, which included the standard three months of snow, windows were kept open so birds could come in.  During screenings pigeons flying in front of  the screen were often the best part of show. No one ever saw a dove there

Note: On December 28, 1990 William Arnold, film critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, printed his yearly film awards. One of them was “Most Consistently Daring Film Programming – “The Belltown Film Festival, which booked esoteric and rare Hollywood films all year at the historic Jewel Box Theater in the Denny Regrade.”

You can still go to see things at the Jewell Box and I understand it is not changed.

http://vrdcimage.restaurant.com/microsites/386757photo1.jpg

I believe you still have to go through the Rendezvous to reach the Jewell Box. The Rendezvous is a lot different.  It once was a down and out individualistic sort of place.  It is now like most other places around it.  It’s difficult to swim against the tide.

6 responses to “The Day I Discovered Scopitones With Jack Stevenson”

  1. d knott says:

    A college pal of mine distributed films and popcorn for Shearer in the late ’70s. I remember trips east of the mountains to stock the drive-ins out in the orchard communities. And Belltown basement storerooms of gear; projection bulbs as big as a car seat.
    The other day I went to the Rendezvous to see a band called Sons of Neptune. I hadn’t been there since 1978 and had forgotten where it was etc. But I remembered the distribution screening of Midnight Express when it was released – at the Rendezvous. It was a screening I’ll never forget, at a cool venue that’s still there – none the worse for the wear.

  2. fantastic post, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector do not notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

  3. sam Lavington says:

    Hi there
    Im Sam Lavington an ex cinema owner in the uk and also an avid collector of the Scopitone juke box films, Ive recently purchased about 50 still on scopitone reels with advertising etc on them.
    Im looking for a scopitone machine to restore or purchase if working.
    lovely story above reminds me of my days in Cinema.
    Good luck
    Sam Lavington

  4. Karen Sands says:

    My sister sent me this article, sent to her by a cousin, all grandchildren of Benjamin Franklin Shearer. It was heartwarming to read about one of the many things my grandfather did and fascinating to see where things have gone. I truly enjoyed your article.
    Thank you
    Karen Sands

  5. Dennis Nyback says:

    It is nice to hear from Mr. Shearer’s family. I’m glad you found the article.

  6. i want a website just like this one but your posts are way better than mine.

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