BY MAC MONTANDON
The first time he calls, he leaves a message: “Why hello. This is Dennis Nyback,” he says slowly, drawing out his surname in a remotely sinister, breathy sigh. “I understand you’re interested in talking to me about my films I’m going to show at the Clinton Street Theater. I’m really busy, busy, busy in New York City right now, getting ready to rent a truck and load everything I own into it, including my entire film archive, so I might just be a little hard to catch.”
In 25 seconds, Nyback has effectively distilled himself on the machine. A peripatetic archivist and collector of thousands of classic, obscure and rare films–current favorites of his include a “Mormon melodrama” called How Do I Love Thee? and the revealingly named Four Men Sit Around a Table and Talk About the Shape of a Beer Bottle for Fifteen Minutes–Nyback has certainly packed up his life before.
Later this month, he takes over as a new co-owner of the Clinton Street Theater in Southeast Portland; it will be the fifth independent cinema he’s run. Since opening the Rose Bud Movie Palace in Seattle’s Pioneer Square in 1979, Nyback has operated the Jewel Box Theater and Pike Street Cinema, also in Seattle, and, most recently, the 65-seat Lighthouse Cinema in New York City. Nyback and co-founder Johannes Schönherr converted the Lighthouse from a Manhattan storefront once occupied by a children’s clothing store.
Two days later, when he calls again, this time from a New York pay phone, I answer. “It’s going to keep asking for quarters, so if I get cut off that just means I’ve run out,” he explains. Then, undaunted by fiber-optic arrhythmia and the periodic, recorded demand that he feed the phone, Nyback began to explain himself.
Of the theaters he’s run, he says, “They generally go broke because I have a philosophy: No Hollywood crap.”
This dictum will guide the Clinton’s new programming under Nyback and his longtime business partner, Elizabeth Rozier. The cinema’s schedule will include a variety of films from Nyback’s stash, including film appearances by Billie Holiday, naughty cartoons starring Betty Boop, and caustic versions of Bugs Bunny, along with first-run independent movies that won’t play at Cinema 21, like Bingo: the Documentary and The Ogre.
Nyback articulated his perception of Hollywood’s artistic meltdown in an unpublished essay titled “Hollywood Garbage and How to Smell It.” The paper begins with these lines:
“The continuing waste of Newspaper space in the Arts and Entertainment pages on Hollywood movies mystifies and appalls me. Please be advised that I use the term Hollywood very loosely and intend it to cover 90% [of] current films. For roughly twenty years the films being churned out have had nothing to do with art and everything to do with money. If these films should be reported on at all it should be in the financial section.”
The essay later offers “ten suggestions” for helping “people just say no to Hollywood Garbage.” Here, Nyback advises against going to movies that “feature product tie-ins with any multinational Burger chain,” have “an advertisement with guns pointing at you, or that has a number after its title,” or are “associated with Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone or anyone else you care to add to this list.”
Nyback’s commitment to filmic alternatives to Hollywood and his apparent unconcern with material comfort have been well documented in piles of press clips from Europe and shorter notices from many regional news outlets in the States.
“I’m much more well-known in Europe than in the U.S.,” he says. “A lot of people still watch films over there–there’s not as much access to video and generally more money available for the arts.”
The 46-year-old has been flown to Europe four times by different film organizations and has shown his films in 20 to 25 cities there. During one trip to Paris he wandered through a shop and discovered a box full of old films, which he bought for 600 francs, or about $100. The loot included home movies of Nazi airplane inspections and a mysterious Andy Gump short, the third in a series Nyback said was previously believed to consist of only two installments. The box also contained an extremely unusual 91Ž2mm film. When I asked how he could ever view it, Nyback said he knew of a 91Ž2mm projector in Bordeaux, France, that he would have to retrieve some day.
For all his Euro-hopping, the collector’s stateside lifestyle has been, at times, far from glamourous. When Nyback arrived in New York in 1995, he slept in the Lighthouse’s office. “I’d be dozing off and I’d hear kuh-whack!” he says, recalling the traps he used to clear out unwanted rat roomies. “Then, half a second later it’d go thud! The trap was so big, the torque it generated caused the trap to fly into the air.”
Nyback’s digs improved considerably when he moved in with a psychic playwright who wanted to cast Dennis in his play. The playwright performed psychic evaluations for a very affluent woman who owned a cat. The woman’s husband, however, didn’t want the cat in the couple’s apartment, so the woman paid for a separate apartment where the playwright lived with the cat. For several months Nyback occupied part of the psychic’s midtown apartment, paying no rent.
If strange fates have blessed the archivist over the years, perhaps it is because of the purity of his professional intentions and the integrity of his desires. Having rejected television in the 1960s, Nyback instead reads rabidly: Joseph Conrad, Henry James and George Eliot are among his favorite writers. He is also an enthusiastic jazz singer and dancer (he is especially adept at the jitterbug). Passionate about baseball, particularly the Mariners and Yankees, he played outfield in a men’s hardball league while living in Seattle.
But more than anything else, Nyback wants to show films to people who might not otherwise get to see them.
It is for this last reason that he calls back again from a different New York pay phone; this one takes nickels.
Wasting no time I ask him the question he says he gets more than any other: Dennis, where do you get your movies?
“I look, look, look, look. Sometimes I get them from the Big Reel, a publication for film collectors. Sometimes from people I’ve bought them from before. I’ve bought lots and lots of films here at a flea market at 6th Avenue and 26th Street. And the garbage cans outside of places that do [film-to-] video transfer used to be great spots, but a lot of those places started putting padlocks on their dumpsters. But I travel a lot; I walk around and go into any shop that looks interesting and ask, ‘Do you have any movies?'”
As he was speaking, Nyback occasionally interrupted himself to count down his remaining coins: “Three more…two nickels left…last one.”
I panic, wondering if I’ve gotten enough information from him for the story. If not, will I ever hear from him again? Then I realize: How much is enough, anyway?
“I’m out of nickels. I’m going to get terminated any minute, I can tell,” Nyback says.
Suddenly I’m holding a lifeless receiver. “Dennis? Dennis?” I call through a dead line.
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Willamette Week | originally published August 11, 1999