"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


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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.

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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.

Bukowski at Midnight

Sometime in the late 1980’s I was given a videotape from my friend Dennis McMillan.  It was the film Bukowski made by Taylor Hackford for KCET TV in 1973. It had been taped off TV by a rich friend of Dennis who must have had one of the first home use VCRs in existence.  I contacted Mr. Hackford to ask if I could show the 16mm original.  His secretary wrote that  there was no existing print. I then asked if I could pay for a new print that I could show.  That was also refused. He was too busy (being a successful Hollywood writer, director and producer) to bother with it.

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In 1992 I began operating the Pike Street Cinema in Seattle.  It was a store front theater that cost $600 to construct.  That is because I already owned projectors, a screen, curtains, seats and other theater stuff.  I also had help from good friends that without which I could not have succeeded.

In late 1993 I was given a huge and out of date big screen TV.  I then located a VCR.  I was then ready to do my show Bukowski at Midnight.  The one hour tape would play on the big screen TV.  Before that I would sit in front of the TV on the stage and read letters that had been written by Bukowski to my friend Jack Stevenson.  As I read the letters I would drink a beer and smoke a cigarette.  I didn’t smoke, but it seemed like the right thing to do for maximum theatrical effect.  In the picture below you can see the monster TV.  It is to the right of the  Altec A7 Speaker.  Before the show I would ask for a volunteer from the audience to help me lift the TV onto the speaker. That  was a sort of Seattle-ish Brechtian device to bring the viewers closer into the show. It also kept me from hurting myself.

You can see a larger version of this picture at:

http://www.kulture-void.com/motion/kvp/kvp1/nyback.html

Mr. Bukowski died that March which you might guess really helped business.  Every Saturday at midnight the theater would fill up and everyone would enjoy the letters and the film.  You’d like the film if you could see it.  It was shot before Bukowski became really famous.  It opens with Bukowski in a liquor store.  An old lady wearing harlequin eye glasses confronts Bukowski wanting to know why he is being followed around by a cameraman.   He replies “I’m the poet.”   She peers up at him and says “You’re a cola?”  He says, very patiently, “No, I’m Bukowski, the poet, Buke as in puke.”  The film ends with him doing a reading at City Lights where he is delighted to make a couple of hundred dollars.

Shortly after Mr. Bukowski’s death I walked into the theater on a fine Spring day to find an ominous message waiting on my phone machine.  It was Taylor Hackford calling and ended with him saying in a menacing manner  “Don’t ignore this call.”  I called him right  back.  He was on location in Nova Scotia shooting  Dolores Claiborne.  Upon the death of Bukowski he had loaned his tape of the film to the Anthology Film Archives for a Bukowski  postmortem show.  That tape was stolen after the screening.  I explained to Mr. Hasckford that I had had my copy for several years and also had letters in a filing cabinet to and from his company about it.  Things got amicable after that.  He even said it was fine with him if I continued Bukowski at Midnight as long as it kept drawing a crowd.

I might still be showing Bukowski at Midnight if things hadn’t happened.  In the Spring of 1995 I showed films in Europe for over a month. That was arranged by Jack Stevenson. I had announced to a few people that I would be moving from Seattle to New York later that year. A nice young guy, and regular customer  named Neal, offered to buy the cinema.  I told him it really had no value but that he could take it over while I was in Europe to find how he felt about running such a precarious operation.  When I got back Neal said he had learned his lesson and would go to grad school instead of pursuing a career being an art house movie man.  I found the theater very dirty and in disarray. Neal had felt lonely many nights and had invited various friends to hang out with him there.  One of those friends purloined the Bukowski tape.  It was never returned.  If you know anyone with a copy, let me know.  I’d like to watch it again.

Loitering in front of the Pike Street Cinema with Jack Stevenson

Ah, I just noticed the whole film is now on youtube.  I wonder if Jack’s letters to and from Bukowksi are on line?  If you can find them, crack open a beer, light a cigarette, read the letters and  watch the youtube.  It might turn out to be something special.

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