"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.

A Reel of Fire

Published Otherzine  Issue Seven  Sep 2004

projector, ca 1938It happened at the Green Parrot Theater in Seattle in the late 1930’s. The Parrot, or Dirty Bird, to its later low-life customers, lasted until 1979. At the end it was a bottom-of-the-gutter porno theater on First Avenue. Sadly, it was destroyed by an arson fire. Although it had descended from its lofty beginning during the silent film era to cinema degradation it was part of the protected Pike Street Market historic area and could not be torn down. It took a “fire of suspicious origins” to make it give way to what many call progress. Or maybe it was the hand of fate. Fate that had not been cheated, but merely delayed, when it escaped a firey end forty years before.

It had been built in the early twenties as a legitimate movie theater. It was built in the glory days of the silent film. It was before selling popcorn and Coca-Cola became an integral part of the show. Not needing a snack bar, it had only a small lobby. It had a long, narrow auditorium that seated five hundred. There was a small balcony. The square marquee jutted out over the sidewalk. Originally hundreds of incandescent lights adorned it. Later they were replaced by neon. The incandescents only remained as a frame around the edges, controlled by an ancient mechanical chaser circuit device. By the mid 1950s, as the skid road neighborhood grew rougher; it became a sub-run, or sub sub-run house. In the sixties you could see a western triple feature for 35 cents. In the seventies you could see hard-core sex for five dollars. By then much of the neon was broken. There was a Coke machine in the lobby. The incandescents on the marquee still happily chased each other. The patrons inside chased each other in the dark.

On the night of the fire it was still a respectable downtown theater. Just down the street was the beautiful Liberty Theater. Within a short walk were other grand movie palaces. It was the era of reel to reel projection. It was before multi-plexes and automation. A union operator manned the projection booth at all times. Every twenty minutes he would make a seamless reel change without the rapt audience being any the wiser. He would start the show by dimming the house lights, opening the main curtain and projecting the first image, usually a Hollywood studio logo, on the scrim curtain. As the logo faded to black he would open the scrim, bring down the colored foot lights, and the credits would appear on the naked screen. The film stock swiftly running through the projector was called Nitrate. It was aesthetically the best film stock ever created. It was discontinued in the 1950’s. It possessed a black that defined black and white. A black that was black. A black that few filmgoers have ever seen. A black that does not exist in modern film stock. Unfortunately, it could also burst into flame.

In accordance with strict fire codes all projection booths were lined with fire proof metal. Metal walls, ceiling and door. Over the port windows, through which the projection beam passed, were suspended metal shutters. They ran on tracks, much like a guillotine blade, poised to fall at the first sign of flame. Slim chains restrained them. The chains ran through pulleys, over the projectors, and were linked to the projection booth door. Directly above the projector the chain was joined by a heat fuse link. This link would melt at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. If the film caught fire, the heat fuse would melt, all of the port window shutters would slam down, and the booth door would slam shut. This would contain the fire to the booth, protecting the theater’s patrons and the theater owner’s investment. The projectionist was on his own.

All projection booths contained a carbon tetrachloride type fire extinguisher which produced phosgene gas in the presence of flame. Phosgene gas is poisonous. It was used in trench warfare during World War I. By both German and Allied armies. Phosgene often had a delayed effect; apparently healthy soldiers were taken down with phosgene gas poisoning up to 48 hours after inhalation.

safety projectorAt the top and the bottom of the projector the film would pass through tight rollers. They were called fire rollers. They were designed to snuff out the flame. Sometimes they worked. A typical fire would start when the film broke and lodged in the aperture gate. The flame would travel upward. If it passed through the fire roller the upper reel, with up to two thousand feet of film, would be in full flame in ten seconds. The fire would produce copious amounts of smoke and poison nitric acid gas. At the first sign of flame the sensible projectionist would run for the door, jerking the chain as he passed through.

On the warm summer night in question the projectionist was the intrepid Ash Bridgham. He had joined the Union in 1927, making the transition from silent to sound. He was also a pioneer aviator and member in good standing in the OX-5 club, open only to those who had flown in Ox-5 airplanes in the teens and twenties. He wasn’t likely to panic in the face of fear. When the fire started he was standing near the projector. Quick as a cat he grabbed the upper reel and jerked it away from the projector, breaking the film. Unfortunately the burning end of the film came away with the reel. The fire rollers snuffed the fire out before the flames reached the lower reel. Luckily, there was a window in the projection booth. It opened onto First Avenue. A couple of feet below it was the top of the flat marquee extending several feet over the sidewalk. In one motion Ash tossed the burning reel out the open window. He grabbed the extinguisher and ran to the window intending to snuff out the flame. He expected to find the burning reel resting on the flat roof of the marquee. Ah, tis many a slip twixt cup and lip. The burning reel wasn’t there!

Fire extinguisher in hand he clambered out the window onto the marquee. He looked down the street. Maybe it was adrenaline that had made him toss it too far. Maybe it had just bounced. Maybe the hand of fate of had reached out and carried it. In any case, the reel, in full flame, was rolling down the middle of First Avenue. The avenue sloped gently downward to the south. The reel rolled and rolled and as it rolled it unspooled the burning film behind it. Passing cars gave it wide berth. Ash watched until it rolled out of sight.

The Green Parrot remained in business for another forty years before flames finally closed its doors forever.

Getting There is Half the Fun

Published in Otherzine  Fall 2001

What would a film tour of Europe be without an overnight train ride? Leave it to me to figure a way not to find out.

I got out of Nurnberg a couple of hours behind schedule. At 11:00 there was no one to let me into Kinokomm so I could grab my bags am as promised. I killed an hour and a half by sitting on the cement step and doing the Sunday crossword. Around midnight I would regret it. By 2:00 I was finally off and rolling toward two days of rest in Leuven before flying back to America. Things were fine until I changed trains at Koln, a little after five. I blissfully boarded a Thalys train. Unbeknownst to me, it required a supplementary fee. This was explained to me by the conductor.

The train was nothing special, and being in no rush, I balked at paying the extra eight bucks. As a result, I had to get off at Aachen. The next train would do as well. The rub? The next train was in three hours. I decided to take the eight bucks I’d saved and eat dinner. The only problem was I had no German Marks. Here is where the introduction of the Euro screwed me up. I had 9 Dutch gulders in change and a ten gulder note. The Dutch border was nearby. The coins would be worthless the next time I went to Holland with the introduction of the commom currency.

I boarded the milk run to Herleen. It took 24 minutes and I was soon eating a burger and fries in that sorry ass town. I finished eating and took the train back to Aachen. I would have five minutes to make my connection to Brussels. Snag? The milk run ran ten minutes late. Back in Aachen I found the next train to Belgium wasn’t till the next morning. Double snag? My rail pass would expire at midnight.

Two trains came in at the same time. One went to Koln and the other to Dortmund. I asked a conductor if there was a way to get to Leuven by backtracking and working around. It was 9:10. He consulted many pages in his master pocket schedule and finally came up with the answer: take the train out of Aachen in the morning.

I went to the train info desk. The harried clerk was being screamed at by a woman. I asked him about bus service. He told me “In the morning”. I explained my problem to him. He felt that since the late train had caused my problem (not my Euro addled stupidity) that I could get an extra day added to my pass. He also said the night train, not on the schedule, would stop to change from German to French crews, at four in the morning. He told me to come back at 3:30 and he would fix it up. I could do that.

It would help if I had a book to read. I was fresh out. I thought a youth hostel would have a few. I would read anything. Unfortunately, I was informed, the youth hostel was out of town. I killed an hour walking to the only big hotel in town on the long chance some English traveler had left one in the lost and found. A pretty blond desk clerk told me they had no such thing, managing to do it while looking at me like I was a lunatic. That got me to 10:30.

At the Aachen station there is a small doorless waiting alcove off the main lobby. It has five chairs in a row. Opposite are five pay phones. There are three vending machines at the closed end. One of the vending machines talks and makes annoying noises. The noises grew more annoying as the night wore on. It also made it hard to sleep. Other things also contributed to that. A young, well dressed, Japanese girl, her long black hair pulled back in a jaunty ponytail, used the phone. She used it for two hours. She would make a call, heatedly bark into the receiver, for what seemed like forever, get hung up on, and call back and repeat the exercise. She did the same thing to several different people. She barked in Japanese, German, and Italian.

A spry old man with silver hair came in and exchanged greetings with the info guy. He wore gray and black checkered slacks, black socks, black oxfords, and a navy blue pea coat. He had the deep tan you can only get by living in LA or living on the street. There was an inch and a half long gash on his brow that had been not too recently repaired with stitches. He looked like William O. Douglas.

He sat in the chair next to me, pulled his coat up around his ears and went to sleep. He smelled horrible. I wanted to move to the chair at the end of the row, but a bicycle leaned against it. It had been pushed in by a small woman with short curly red hair. It was laden down with tent, sleeping bag, camping gear and who knows what else. The woman had a wrinkled face and couldn’t have been a day under sixty-five. She sat next to the bike carefully studying a map. I wanted to ask her how far she had come, but fearing a language barrier, I remained mute.

I stayed where I was, smelling the fragrant William O., who slept on blissfully undisturbed by the barking Japanese woman, the talking vending machine, and the occasional drunken men who wandered in and out of the station, always speaking in very loud voices. I got up and walked around the corner to the bathroom. It had a turnstile and required 50p to get in. I only had 95p left and decided it wasn’t worth it. When I returned to my seat I found that the woman with the bike had finally left, bound for god knows where. I changed seats. The Japanese woman finally ran out of people to yell at and left at 12:30.

I closed my eyes and nodded off. Nearby drunken voices awakened me. It was one AM. Four men and a woman had invaded the alcove. They each clutched a 16 ounce Tuburg in their hand. They seemed to be arguing about money. The woman didn’t say much. After she’d had enough to drink, she carefully placed her beer on the floor to get ready to talk, opened her mouth, and accidentally kicked the beer can over. She finished talking before righting it. A large puddle of beer moved toward my feet. I moved them.

The arguing drunks left. I was now left with the odor of spilt beer to mingle with the odor of William O. who continued to sleep like a baby. It was one thirty. It went on like that for the next hour. I would close my eyes and immediately drunken men would start singing, the click click click of women’s shoes would pass by on the way to the vending machines, or someone would start speaking angrily into one of the phones. It seemed that every third person who used the machines would drop all of their change on the floor.

At 2:00, I looked once again at the prices on the vending machine. I was 5p short of a candy bar. I decided I really wanted one. I took everything out of my bags searching for a lost coin. I didn’t find one. I then remembered the sound of people dropping their change on the floor. I carefully scanned the floor around the machines. Nothing. I then scanned the floor around the photo booth, instant business card, zodiac bracelet, and other odd machines scattered around the lobby. Nothing. I then did a systematic search of every inch of floor in the entire station. Still nothing, but at least it was now past 3:00. I suddenly realized I was being a fool in not spending 50p to use the toilet. Next spring, with the advent of the Euro, the coins would be worthless. I walked to the turnstile to find it only accepted 50p pieces. I looked both ways and hopped over the turnstile.

At 3:30 I approached the info guy. He was reading a newspaper, a cigarette dangling from his lip, with a small radio playing 70′s pop music by his side. He didn’t seem glad to see me. It had been quiet for all of fifteen minutes. I thought he would make some official notation on my rail pass, or issue me some sort of ticket. He just told me to get on the train and explain the problem to the conductor. Great I thought. I had never found a conductor who spoke English on a night train between Berlin and Paris. It turned out that it didn’t matter. The train was a mile long, and since there was a fifteen minute layover, I could take my time looking for a seat. I walked along a dozen cars with the curtains of the compartments closed, and sleeping passengers within. No one disturbed them. In years past I would have been one of them, only then, before the European Union, we would have all been rudely awakened to show our passports before crossing the border.

I finally came to a car with the curtains open and several empty compartments inside. I entered it, dumped my bags, and was soon asleep. I awakened with a start. Sunlight crept past the curtains. I wondered if I had slept past Brussels and was now on my way to Paris with my expired rail pass. I looked out the window. We were entering a large rail yard. The sign said Brussels Midi. I had awakened just in time. It was 6:00 am. I got off, and after a half hour wait was on the train to Leuven. I sat in first class. The conductor came by. He glanced at my now fraudulent rail pass and handed it back with a “Merci”. I got off in Leuven and trudged through the deserted Sunday morning streets to Stuc. At 7:10 I entered the dorm room and was soon fast asleep. And so goes the end of the race, staggering toward the finish line. Stuc is deserted. All I have to do is find someone to tell me how to get to the train station in the morning and I will be on my way home.

Is It Safe To Watch?

Google Maps

The second time it happened I was able to handle the situation with less panic.  It also didn’t produce as good of a result.  The third time it happened no one even noticed, but it was explained to me later by the person it happened to.  All three events happened at Seattle’s  Pike Street Cinema: people passed out cold while watching films I was projecting.

The Pike Street Cinema  was a sort of microcinema, although that phrase hadn’t really caught on then, which was in 1993.  It had been created in a storefront at 1108 Pike that originally was a large open space.  During an earlier incarnation it had been a day labor office.  It still attracted an occasional laborer who would show up at dawn only to look quizzically at the stuff in the window.  There was also a drug dealer who lived in one of the SRO apartments above the theater.  The “Villa Hotel” had no intercom or buzzer system for guests.  The drug dealer went by the name Cowboy.  Junkies would loiter under his window at all hours expectantly yelling “Cowboy, hey Cowboy” over and over.

There was a sturdy loft four fifths of the way to the back.  In back of the loft was a  room we called the Smoking Parlor,  the Phyllis Schlafly Memorial Uni-Sex Toilet, and the  stairway to the small balcony and projection booth.   One critic said the Pike St. Cinema  had “Ratty shoebox charm.”  Others  called it an “intimate” theater.  That is because it legally only seated 49 people and the wall I had built to form the projection booth, across the front  of the back loft, was very flimsy and allowed me to hear sounds and murmurs from the customers, which usually weren’t all that much.  Flimsy wall or not, no one could have missed the loud thud that came from the auditorium during a screening of   of the 1967 Army Training Film “Field Medicine in Vietnam.” Along with the thud was a tremor that slightly shook the projection booth floor.  I hurried down the stairs and entered the auditorium from the back.

Halfway down the aisle, against the side wall, was the body of a man sprawled out and twitching.  I helped him to his feet and got him into the back room.  I asked if he needed water or if there was anything else I could do to help.  He snarled at me “Just open that window and leave me alone.”  I opened the window and went back to the projection booth.

Shortly after that I had reason to go downstairs again.  Passing through the back room I was grabbed by the guy.  He seemed to come out of a shadow, grasping my shirt with one hand and waving a pair of broken eye glasses in the other.  I noticed he  was bleeding from his forehead and beneath one eye.  I guessed that he had been wearing the glasses when he keeled over and fell on his face, which both broke them and started the bleeding. He said “Look at my glasses!  Look at my glasses!”   I must admit my first thought was about liability.  I mean I was sure he wasn’t seriously injured.  I said in a noncommittal way “That’s too bad.”  Increasing his grasp of my shirt he brought me closer and said “Too bad?  Too bad?  TOO BAD!  No!  It’s ………….GREAT!

I could only stare at him as he continued.  “I am a performer.  I demand that people watch my act and not avert their eyes.  Watching the film I wanted to avert my eyes, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t ask less of myself than I would ask of my fans.  I watched until I passed out cold.  And that shows………………… THE POWER OF FILM!

I became friends with the man.  His act was called Boffo The Clown.  He was most famous for performing his clown act naked on public access tv.  He later did a performance art piece where he led his fans into every bar on Pike Street for a drink before doing his act at midnight in the middle of Pike Place in the Public  Market.  He could also play a little piano and more than once accompanied silent movies at the Pike St. Cinema when I couldn’t find anyone else.

REEL UNDERGROUND FILM REVIEWS
AND CALENDAR
BY ANDREA HELM

Oct/Nov 1993

Pike Street Cinema
1108 Pike at Boren – 682-7064

Oct. 22-28
Steal America is San Francisco filmmaker Lucy Phillips’ debut feature. Realism is alluded to through the use of a grainy, black and white cinema verit� documentary-type look at three imported slackers and their subsequent inertia. One of the film’s main characters looks, acts and talks like a character from an Anais Nin novel. Yum.
Oct. 29
Just in time for Halloween: the resurrection of a Mexican vampire double-feature with The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy and Dracula’s Coffin. These two are not to be missed.
Oct. 30
Hey kids! It’s Boffo the Clown! Live and in person! I’m scared.

It was during a screening of the black  and white film “Chest Surgery in the UK” (c1955) that again I heard a thud from the auditorium. It also shook the floor of the projection booth.  Going down the stairs I had a good idea what I would find.  Sure enough another man was sprawled out in the aisle.  Luckily he was not wearing glasses.   I was able to get him into the back room and into a chair.  I opened the window and got him a glass of water and stayed with him until he seemed all right. He made no comments about the power of film.   Eventually he returned to the auditorium and watched the rest of the show without incident.  A few weeks later an article appeared in the Seattle Stranger where the movie critic said “I don’t even know the name of the greatest movie I have ever seen.  It was at the Pike Street Cinema and was in black and white from the fifties and had something to do with chest surgery.”  For those of you who have never seen the film.  I can only say it is the closest thing to a nightmare I have ever seen filmed.  The only film that approaches it in that capacity is Eraserhead.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/18/Eraserhead.jpg/220px-Eraserhead.jpg

The third time there was no thud and no floor shaking.  The film was “Primate,” a documentary by Frederick Wiseman.  My friend, the artist Friese Undine, told me after the show that in his seat he had passed out while watching the footage of chimps being used in research and eventually came back to his senses with no one around him noticing.  It occurred to me then that there could have been others.  The two most notable events had been with men seated on the aisle who had tried to stand up just as they passed out. It would seem more likely that a person would just lose consciousness in their seat and later come out of it with out making a stir.  I guess I will never no just how many times that might have happened at the various theaters I owned both before and after the Pike St.

John Waters once said that the greatest promotional stunt ever done was by William Castle who had parked ambulances outside theaters with nurses standing by in case anyone suffered “death by fright.”  That was just a gimmick.  I doubt that anything he showed caused people to pass out cold.  It takes a very certain  film to achieve that.  More than that, they show the AMAZING POWER OF FILM.

Dennis Nyback with Jack Stevenson looking down Pike Street hopefully.

Elwha On the Rocks: A Cocktail of Disaster

[ main route map ]

Is it  possible that the Costa Concordia was taken close in to the rocks to impress the girlfriend of the captain?  Of course it is.  Is it possible that a similar thing happened in the state of Washington on the sunny waters of Puget Sound on October 2, 1983?  Well, absolutely.  Here is the sordid tale of that infamous date.

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The Washington State ferry Elwha first set sail in 1967 and was one of only two Super Ferries in the Washington ferry system.  Super is capable of going out on the ocean and could sail into international and other nation’s waters.  Her normal route is from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands.  She  also makes  run to Sidney in British Columbia, Canada.  She can handle 2,500 passengers and 144 vehicles.  The only other Super ferry in the WSOT system is the Chelan

http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/images/pages/boat_drawings/4-issaquah130.gif

It was a beautiful fall day when she set sail on her fateful cruise.  At the wheel was her captain, Billy Frittro.  He had made the run many times and saw nothing ahead but blue skies and getting laid.  That was where the trouble began.  Beside him that day in the wheelhouse was the winsome Peggy Warrack.  She owned a house on the shore of Grindstone Harbor.  Suave Cap’n Billy said “How about pointing to where your house is and I’ll take us by for a look.”  Exactly what he was looking at as he said this I am not sure of, but I would guess it was part of Ms. Warrack’s winsome anatomy and not out toward any navigational hazards.  It wasn’t very long after that the the Ferry Elwha struck a submerged rock and ran aground.  There is no official record of what this did to to the little romance Billy had in mind.  There is official record that Captain Billy eventually resigned as the truth eventually emerged from murky depths. His boss Capt. Nick Tracy was later fired for trying to cover up the embarrassing mess.

All passengers and crew escaped death in this debacle. I wish that was the same with the Costa Concordia.

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That was not the end of the story.  Shortly after that the Island City Jazz Band released their one and only hit record “Elwha On The Rocks.”  The band consisted of trumpter Tom Skoog, Don Anderson on trombone, Bill Bassen on clarinet,  Skip McDaniel on banjo, Tom Bassen on piano, Vern Conrad on drums, and Gary Provonsha on tuba.  George Burns, no not that George Burns, did the singing.

In 1989 the submerged rock was formally named Elwha Rock by the Washington State Board on Geographic Names.  That was in response to efforts made by Seattle used book deal Greg Lange.

You’d think that Captain Charles Peterson would have learned from the event.  Nope, he took the Elhwa fifteen miles off course in 1996 and scraped  bottom but escaped grounding.  He was summarily fired.  I wonder if his wife was pleased that he tested positive for marijuana after that crash. Wouldn’t  that be better than being distracted by another woman?

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When I get time my next blog post will be the even more sordid tale of the Freighter Chavez and the ill fated captain Rolf Neslund.