It’s OK with Dennis Nyback if you don’t like the image he projects.
by Paula Hunt
Movie Maker Issue #3, February 1994
Dennis Nyback is EMPHATIC when he states that the Pike St. Cinema is not located in the Pike Place Market. Such a location might lead people to believe that he shows standard art house fare or the latest ubiquitous Hollywood output. The programs that Nyback creates for his funky theatre on the corner of Boren and Pike on the west side of Capitol Hill are as personal and unique as his venue. A veteran of the Seattle independent exhibition scene, fans of the cinematically obscure will remember Nyback’s previous efforts like the Rosebud Movie Palace and the Belltown Film Festival.
His latest venture is a space he converted into a forty-nine seat (“we have gotten seventy-three”) theatre and opened in May 1992. Nyback avoids the usual vintage roster and personality showcases commonly found in other theatres by creating programs incorporating movies from his own eclectic collection and from distributors. Past programs have included Dada: From Z to A, a Mexican horror film showcase, and his “blockbuster,” Bad Bugs Bunny: The Dark Side of Warner Bros. Nyback has hired a pianist to accompany silent movies, but he prefers to use a cellist, or, as with the Dada run, invited audience members to bring their own instruments and play along.
As the owner/projectionist/programmer/ticket taker/concessionaire/usher/janitor/manager of the Pike St. Cinema, Dennis Nyback admits that he feels tied to a business that frequently runs his life, but which gives him the freedom to implement his philosophy of life and movies. That means programs that are challenging, confrontational, and provocative. And if you go away angry, embarrassed, or just plain confused, then he believes that he’s done his job.
MM: What is your background?
DN: I grew up in southwest Washington near Portland and came to Seattle in 1972 to attend the University of Washington to study psychology. I got a job as a projectionist at what is now the Grand Illusion Cinema.
MM: How did you happen to start there?
DN: I had an apartment upstairs above the theatre and one day they needed a projectionist and I was the closest person. That’s how I paid my way through college and, oddly enough, I did get into the union and worked as a projectionist while I was continuing to do a lot of things. I owned a revival theatre here in Seattle from ’79 to ’81.
MM: Which theatre was that?
DN: The Rosebud Movie Palace in Pioneer Square. I actually bought it from the people who built it in 1974 and then I managed to run it into bankruptcy.
“We go out and invent the film on location. To me, that’s what it’s all about… using film as a medium in it’s own right, not as a way of including the decision of various committees.”
MM: How did that happen?
DN: Well, there were a variety of things involved. I got really tired of what was offered as revival. You know, Rebecca and Casablanca, the same stuff. I was trying to showcase directors like Mitchell Leisen, for example, that no one had ever heard of. What I did differed in terms of revival from what people were used to. This was also about the time that video and cable TV were coming in. Partly the fact that I wanted to show a little bit more obscure stuff and largely the fact that people could get all of this stuff on video pretty much killed the revival. And it wasn’t just my theatre that went under. In the seventies you could see so many great revival movies here in Seattle.
After that, I got out of the film exhibition business for about five years—except for being a projectionist. Then I started running what was called the Belltown Film Festival. I must have done that from about ’88 to ’92. I lost the venue that I had there to show movies.
MM: Why did you open the Pike St. Cinema?
DN: After I lost the Jewelbox Theatre venue, I needed to do something to make a little money and I wanted to run movies. I thought that there was a need in the city for a place just like this – a low overhead operation that could put things on the screen that other theatres just wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t have to work a regular job. I haven’t been in the projectionist union for about four years, because that is really a dying trade.
MM: Why do you say that?
DN: They [the theatres] don’t really care. That’s how I look at of movies today: sucker them into the theatre, charge them ridiculous prices at the concession counter, show them a crappy movie and if they don’t like it, too bad. If it’s out of focus or out of frame or it breaks, I don’t think the average moviegoer actually cares either. They want to talk through the whole movie, they want to treat it just like they’re at home.
MM: How do you go about creating your programming?
DN: What I really like to do here is create programs out of films. Stag Party Special and Bad Bugs Bunny are examples of this. I’ve also gotten into a little bit more esoteric stuff I did a program called Life and Death in the 1950s which I think is one of the greatest things that I’ve ever put together.
MM: What kind of films did you show in that program?
DN: It had films done in the fifties that I call film noir and existential educational films. I don’t think that people in the fifties had a real grasp on the whole post-war influences that were really changing their lives. There was one film called Ulcer at Work made by the Arizona Department of Mental Health. It’s a look at why this man has pains in his stomach. They point out that he has an ulcer because his mother tried to gratify him with food all of the time, so he thinks of food and trouble at the same time. His wife wants a fur coat and he drives this convertible and it’s all done in this kind of film noir style.
Then, there was another film in the program called Assembly line that was a student film made in Philadelphia in 1960 which is really a great existential film. It shows the hopelessness of this one guy who works in a factory and thinks that he’s going to collect his overtime pay and go out in the city and have a good time, and he doesn’t have a good time. What he sees is that it’s just one day after another, you work, you work, you work, and then you die.
Then a friend of mine gave me a live action/cartoon film made by the Sherwin William company called Doomsday for Pests in which they marketed a paint that had DDT in it. I thought that the mass killing of bugs and the mass death of humanity kind of went together, we’re no better than bugs, really, bugs die, we die. So, that was We and Death in the 1950s.
MM: Do you take suggestions for your programming?
DN: I listen with half an ear at least. It’s one thing for one person to say “I want to see this film”, because one thing that I really do understand through my school of hard knocks is how hard it actually is to get people to come to the movies.
MM: How about showing independent filmmakers?
DN: The Essential Cinema Group shows their films roughly once a month. In fact, I talked to Galen Young—he’s a local filmmaker in charge of The Essential Cinema Group—the other day and he asked to run something on a certain night. I asked that they run it on a different night because there was something that I’d wanted to do. I can get these people to run something on occasion so I can go out and have fun which I don’t have much of, believe me. Running this place is pretty much consuming my life right now.
MM: Do you buy films or rent them from distributors?
DN: Both. I have been buying films for twenty years.
MM: Where do you look for films to buy?
DN: There is one major publication for film collectors, it’s called The Big Reel. It comes out once a month and I subscribe to it. And then I just look around. I just drove to Cleveland and back and I would stop at every antique mall on the edge of town. It’s really weird, everyplace now has an antique mall on the edge of town and they all have exactly the same stuff. But I always ask.
MM: Do you own any particularly rare films?
DN: I have one little cartoon, Charlie at the Beach, that as far as I know is the only print in existence. It’s an original cartoon from the 1920s in 16mm. They made the cartoon in 35mm and then they released it in 16mm. It’s a Charlie Chaplin cartoon made by Pat Sullivan, who did Felix the Cat. He’s doing a lot of things that Felix might do, like with his cane instead of his tail.
MM: What has been your biggest hit?
DN: My blockbuster here is Bad Bugs Bunny: The Dark Side of Warner Bros. Cartoons made during the ’30 and ’40s that are full of standard American values: racism, sexism and violence. Now the revisionist historians would like to think this never existed. I bought all of the cartoons that are on that program and I don’t have rights to them, I’m just showing them. If Ted Turner really wanted to get pissed off:..
MM: He owns the rights to them?
DN: Yes, most of them, although I think it would be pretty funny if Ted Turner challenged my right to show these racist cartoons because he owns the rights to them and he won’t show them.
MM: What are some of these Bad Bugs films?
DN: Some of these cartoons are legendary. Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs was voted ten years ago as the single most popular cartoon of people who collected animation. It’s a brilliant cartoon and it’s an example of what Warner Bros. did best and that was satire and parody, vicious, vicious parody. Coal Black is a vicious parody of [Walt Disney’s] Snow White. It’s pretty simple, Snow White becomes Coal Black and from there, where’s it going to be, well it’s going to be in Harlem. I guarantee you aren’t going to see this cartoon anywhere.
I’ve also got a cartoon in the program called Fresh Hare where in the last ten seconds they go into black face and they sing Dixie -it’s the punch line of the cartoon. This one you can see on Ted Turner’s network, they just clip the last ten seconds. What’s bad about it is there’s no decency there, they don’t say, well, here we could have shown that the racism of the last ten seconds of this cartoon, but we’re afraid to because we thought that someone somewhere is going to object. What they do instead is transfer the 16mm to video and you can really edit slick in video, it’s seamless. It doesn’t look at all like this cartoon’s been altered.
MM: Are there any other theatres like the Pike St. Cinema?
DN: There are two things that make this theatre really, really unusual. One is that it is a commercial enterprise. I’m supporting myself with this theatre and making money and so that puts it in league with all of the other big commercial theatres. But I am different from them in that I don’t buy advertising and I really try to give [the audience] their money’s worth, which I don’t think other theatres do. I’m also different from non-profit theatres because I don’t get money from the government.
MM: Have you received any criticism about what you show?
DN: I have had people pass out cold and hit the floor. I’ll tell you a real specific criticism that I got last week. I asked a woman and man outside the theatre, “Have you seen a movie here?” She says, “No, I’ve been intrigued by what you show, but also I object to certain things.” I asked what she objected to, and she said, “1 object to the fact that you show pornography.”
I was doing this program called Stag Party Special which I call vintage smut. I think that pornography has a real basic connotation and stag films are a little bit different. If there are people that object to certain things, that I’m showing, I think that I’m accomplishing my aim here.
MM: And what is that?
DN: That is to be very, very broad minded and show things and let other people be the judge. Even if they like it or not. MM