DENNIS NYBACK, the rare film archivist and public face of the Clinton Street Theater since last September, has suffered his share of detractors.
There was the New York man who demanded his money back from Nyback's traveling "Politically Incorrect Humor on Film" program because it wasn't politically incorrect enough. (Nyback's reply: "I showed you movies with animals getting abused and that made fun of blind people and fat people-What more do you want?")
There was the person in Seattle who called in a bomb threat to his now-defunct Pike Street Cinema, because Nyback was showing films about child molesters.
There was Ted Turner, who sent lawyers after Nyback when he promised to show "Fuck Mickey Mouse," a collection of "submerged" racist and sexist 1930s Warner Brothers cartoons, at another New York theater.
And finally, there are the impatient viewers in audiences around the world who yell, "Why don't you shut up and start the movie?" after Nyback launches into one of his rambling introductory monologues. To them, Nyback shrugs his shoulders.
"I like to explain to people why I'm showing what I'm showing," Nyback says. "A lot of these films, if they're just thrown out there, people won't really get the point of why they're being thrown out there."
Since the Carter administration, Nyback has made a living of sorts by amassing unusual films and showing them to audiences. Over the past three decades, the 46-year-old Clark County native has run revival theaters in Seattle and New York and shuttled his programs to theaters and festivals all over this country and Europe, with occasional stops in Portland. But in the past 10 months, local movie-goers have had regular access to his unique, 2500-strong and growing film archive. Last September, he and partner Elizabeth Rozier took over the struggling, single-screen Clinton Street Theater on the corner of SE 26th Avenue and Clinton. Since then, they've transformed the formerly proud, but raggedy purveyor of cult and classic films--best known for an indefatigable run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight every Saturday--into a venue for high-quality, new, independent features. Between bookings of national releases, the partners liberally sprinkle programs from Nyback's collection.
His archive is devoted to titles so marginal they've fallen off everyone else's page, a mixture of spectacular forgotten art forms, wallops of kitsch weirdness, and raw snapshots of racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic blemishes on American pop culture through the decades. A glimpse at one of his cramped storage rooms (not much more than a hallway that doubles as his office) reveals government and industry propaganda films ("What You Should Know About Biological Warfare," "PGE Farmers"), newsreels ("Women Get the Vote"), rare cartoons from their protean era ("Molly Moo Cow"), educational films ("Junior Prom," "The Story of Menstruation"), '70s TV episodes (Wonder Woman and Starsky and Hutch) classic footage of Jazz Age music, dance, and comedy acts (like the Nicholas Brothers and Cab Calloway), scopitones (film reels that used to light up jukebox-style contraptions with footage of '60s pop music acts), lots of B-grade monster and sex movies, and some hard-to-pin-down genres ("Chest Surgery in the United Kingdom," for example, which one Seattle film writer has attested is the best movie he's ever seen). And that's just the fingernail on the end of the arm of the archive's body.
"I can actually come up with a film program on almost any subject a person can name," Nyback states coolly. His European booking agent estimates he's curated over 300 distinct programs already, from "I Know Why You're Afraid" (featuring unnerving health education movies for pre-teens) to "The Dark Side of Dr. Seuss," which shows racist World War II propaganda films made by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Last month alone, he estimates adding 100 movies to his archive. Not that he keeps a written catalogue (making it more of a "collection" than an archive, but who cares?).
Ticket buyers often get more than movies. They've also had open access to Nyback himself--a man who takes the business of film exhibition and turns it into a performance art.
Every night, and often twice a night, Nyback greets the audiences at the Clinton Street Theater. Bounding onstage, the smallish, graceful impresario launches into a five-minute salutatory shtick that will leave some people enthralled, others deeply annoyed. Partly, they react to the breach of convention that places a real, three-dimensional body in front of the curtains. But more importantly, they notice that Nyback is obviously a freak. Not a scary or mean freak, but the kind of freak who maybe wore a fedora and suspenders in high school, spoke with an affected cool, and presided over the Thespian Society. The kind of freak who still, after all these years, after growing up and getting married and taking up smoking and getting divorced, is noticeably different from everyone else. Onstage, Nyback emits the nervous energy and anachronistic social impulses of a night club MC from the swing era. Off-stage, he's remarkably similar. He wins jitterbug competitions; last Valentine's Day he won a Swatch watch covered in hearts at a competition in New York. In his opinion, he wins because "the kids out there now, they're not getting into the joy of dancing. I can just improvise and let myself go."
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In addition to a couple of entertaining stories and anecdotes, Nyback's nightly intros give the evening some historical context. The Clinton Street Theater, he explains with a storyteller's practiced cadence, has been in continuous use as a movie house since it was built in 1913. That was the tail end of the Nickelodeon era, just before film promoters started building grand movie palaces with triple the seating capacity. As far as he knows, it's now the oldest operating theater in the country. When the business landed on the selling block last summer, Nyback, then living in New York, called his old business partner, Elizabeth Rozier, then living in Seattle. She said she'd move to Portland and buy the theater, if Nyback would help her run it, and he acceded. Now, thanks to their intervention, the toilets at Clinton Street no longer telegraph an unpleasant stench into the main hall, the curtain opens and shuts breezily, and the building is saved from a probable fate as a music venue or brew-pub. After a note about his archive, a quick intro to the evening's program, and a plug for a coming attraction, it's "Well folks, enjoy the show!"
He leaves out a couple of points, like the fact that he and Rozier were once married. Neither of them like to talk about this, least of all Rozier, who guards her privacy like a reclusive screen actress, hardly making eye contact when she hands Hot Tamales across the counter (she even looks a little like Jean Seberg). What's more, Rozier owns the theater and has final say over all business decisions. Nyback, without whom the theater wouldn't be what it is, has no more legal control than the average ticket-taker. But, he claims not to mind. With only one boss, the partners don't get mired down in conflicts--kind of like a traditional marriage, but with the gender roles reversed.
The rest of the story goes like this. Nyback started collecting movies in 1979, after graduating from college and buying the Rosebud Movie Palace in Seattle. "It was the thing to do in the '70s," he says. "Have a little art theater where you can show good movies, revivals." Like his peers, he showed classic films, but he decided to show them in their original context--a whole package deal with news reels, cartoons, short subjects, and even travelogues that preceded the feature presentation. For awhile, he rented these short reels, until he discovered that it was cheaper to buy them. So he began regularly perusing junk stores and Big Reel magazine; a monthly where people advertised films for sale in pre-ebay days. Soon, he built a solid collection. And then he made another discovery. If he strung the short films together, he could make feature-length programs that people would pay to watch. When there were scheduling crannies to fill between the features that he booked, he could put on a program of shorts. There were no rental fees at all, and the strange, remote subject matter appealed to his bohemian customers.
The Rosebud went under after three years--a casualty of home video--and Nyback left the theater business temporarily to pursue other interests. But by the late '80s, he was working as a projectionist at Seattle's Jewel Box, a 1930s screening room-turned-performance space that "poured the stiffest drinks in town." They let Nyback show movies on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One day, a man named Jack Stevenson from Boston called him. "I've been driving around the country with a car full of films," Stevenson said. "Will you let me hold a screening at the Jewel Box?" The idea of a mobile film show pleased Nyback so much that he agreed to Stevenson's request without even asking for the titles.
After making good on the deal, he followed Stevenson's lead, and began booking screenings of his own rare films in other cities. Of course, if his films were to be seen elsewhere, Nyback had little choice but to carry them there himself, because no other distribution system existed for movies that not only were far out in content and of dubious copyright status, but sometimes also needed special projection equipment. But Nyback liked schlepping his films around. It gave him a chance to travel, give talks, and personally share his archive with people all over the world. Moreover, audiences responded.
Meanwhile, despite their negligible financial return, Nyback continued to run movie theaters. In 1992, this time in partnership with Rozier, he opened the Pike Street Cinema in Seattle. They put 70 seats into an old storefront situated next to an infamous tavern, which averaged one murder and many drug sales to Kurt Cobain every year. Under Nyback's and Rozier's ownership, Pike Street Cinema quickly became an alternative cultural institution, the kind of landmark that people referenced in personals ads. But in just a few years, sick of Seattle and pining for a woman in New York, Nyback quit Pike Street, put all his films in the back of a truck, and drove across the country. In New York, he opened the Lighthouse Theater, again in an old storefront, which lasted only one year before going out of business. He didn't care. Closing shop just meant another chance to go on tour with his films. "For a few years, I lived out my dream. I spent the spring in Europe, the summer on the West coast, the fall in New York, and the winter wherever I could."
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Then, in the summer of 1999, he was in Portland showing films at the Clinton Street Theater, when he heard it was for sale. "I loved the Clinton Street Theater," Nyback remembers. "I'd done a lot of shows there over the years." He also had deep ties to the area; growing up in nearby Vancouver, as well as frequently visiting his family's farm in St. Helens and his grandmother's house in Southeast Portland. Deeper still, back in the 1840s, his Portland, Maine-born great-great-great-uncle, Francis Pettygrove, founded this fair city, winning the legendary coin toss against Asa Lovejoy that would have made us all Bostonians. And his great-great-great-grandfather, Phillip Foster, built the toll road across the Cascades that let wagon trains cross the final hurdle to the Oregon Country.
As for the theater, it was gasping its last breaths. It had already passed through the hands of three owners in the past decade. In 1996, a long-resident film collective had sold it to Adam Moore, who mixed live performances by his experimental theater group, Dreadnought, with screenings of classic and cult films. In 1998, Moore moved to Chicago and passed the business on to his partner, Anne-Marie DeStefano. She'd struggled for a year before putting the building on the market in 1999. Other than Rozier and Nyback, only two buyers showed any interest: a live music promoter and an experimental live theater group. "I was happy to find someone who wanted to keep it running as a movie theater," says DeStefano. "The sale to Elizabeth and Dennis was a really positive thing."
Nyback and Rozier did more than clean, paint, and give the theater a face lift. They gave it a new identity. Though The Rocky Horror Picture Show still has a home there on Saturday nights, the overworked cult classics and unprofitable live shows are mostly gone. Unless there's a special reason, movies that are available on home video are nixed. Instead, the partners show new, independent features as much as possible, with Nyback's rare films thrown in the empty slots. Thrown in, but not indiscriminately. Nyback tries to use his collection to respond to audience interests and the day's news. When he got first dibs on the local release of Jim Jarmusch's latest film, the Kurasawa-inspired Ghost Dog, he partnered it with Kurosawa's classic Shogun, at the urging of an audience member. When he read in the newspaper about the death of Tex Beneke, Glenn Miller's saxophone player and singer on 1941's million-selling "Chatanooga Choo-choo," Nyback pulled out his Tex Beneke reels. When Hollywood came out with film reprise of Rocky and Bullwinkle this summer, he countered with a night of original 1960s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle TV episodes, along with commercials. Sure, most Clinton Street regulars couldn't care less about Tex Beneke. But, like the chef at your favorite lunch spot who cares enough to vary the soup of the day, Nyback's efforts are appreciated. And there's another thing, too. Nestled amongst the retro chic of Dot's Café, the gringo-Mexican cuisine of La Cruda, and the gaggle of vintage clothing and furniture shops that make SE 26th and Clinton a formidable hipster node, it's nice that Nyback offers his brand of cultural appropriation with more than just a wink and a nod.
To Nyback, his archive isn't kitsch memorabilia; it's history written on celluloid. If he mongers his shows with a Howard Stern-like embrace of scandal, controversy, and self-promotion, underneath is a Howard Zinn-like commitment to revealing forgotten pieces of American history. "Because of film," Nyback says reverently, "we can document the 20th century in ways we can't for earlier centuries." To be fair, one should add that film, TV, and radio technologies created 20th century culture as much as they documented it--one can't point to directly equivalent cultural forms in prior centuries. But even so, Nyback is right: his films give a unique kind of access to the past. Unlike most history books, they seem to thrust us right into the arms of our distant relations. There, just like at real family reunions, heroes, and celebrities make rare appearances while weirdos, bigots, and unrecognized visionaries abound. In this company, Nyback doesn't seem far out of place.
It could be that the Clinton Street's new masters have found the right silk hat for their Frosty the Snowman, because the theater is looking relatively pink-cheeked, at least for now. It's not just that Nyback's unique film collection and unusual personality attract customers. It's also that, with an in-house supply of films, Nyback and Rozier have a measure of self-sufficiency in a competitive market, where a small theater's survival can depend on a getting a few good bookings a year (remember how The Secret of Roan Inish saved CineMagic a couple of years back?). The Clinton Street Theater is at the bottom of the pecking order for booking new releases in Portland, admits Nyback, with distributors tilting preference toward larger, more established art houses like Cinema 21 and KOIN. And the pecking order is about to get much longer, with the imminent arrival of the new, seven-screen Sundance Cinemas at Pioneer Place. In the intensely competitive environment that's about to come, Nyback's private movie stash and unique niche will become all the more important. Plus, he's starting to create "found footage features" which he hopes to distribute nationally. As contrasted with the reels of spliced-together shorts he occasionally sends to theaters by special request, these are essentially documentaries, complete with explanatory captions. In addition to "The Dark Side of Doctor Seuss," he's made "Defining the 1970s through Classic Commercials," a collection of 130 commercials grouped in categories such as "Damn the Ozone--Hair is Important," and "Get 'Em While They're Young: The Fine Art of Exploiting Children."
It's hard to say how much time is left on the clock for a relic like the Clinton Street. But no matter what, Nyback will surely find a way to keep showing his films. Consider his story about how, while getting a haircut in Seattle several years back, his barber confessed a love for blues music. Snipping away, the barber asked, "Do you have any movies about the blues?" Nyback replied, "Sure, I could do 90 minutes on the blues." "How about barber shops?" the barber asked. "Yeah," said Nyback. "I could probably do 90 minutes of barber shop movies. In fact, come to think of it, I've got a film called "Barber Shop Blues." He worked out a deal with the barber and screened The Barber Shop Blues and Comedy Festival there in the shop. So stop rolling your eyes and give Dennis Nyback a handshake the next time you stop by the Clinton Street Theater. Tell him about your secret love for movies about orthopedic surgery. You never know what he might have in store.
Beginning September 8, Dennis will show Fuck the Republican Party: Secrets From Their Own Propaganda Films, 1940-1980.