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
BY ANDREA HELM
1108 Pike at Boren – 682-7064
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.
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.
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.
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.