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PIKE STREET CINEMA ESSAY
August 9th, 1995 by Clark Humphrey

Pike St. Cinema Says Adieu:

The Last Rewind

Essay for the Stranger, 8/9/95

Adventurous filmgoers have another month or so to visit the Pike Street Cinema, Seattle’s smallest and most curious film space. In mid-September Pike Street proprietor Dennis Nyback will take his projectors, his old-time movie posters and memorabilia, and his 2,000-reel collection of film oddities to New York, where he’s certain he’ll be better appreciated. The closure marks the end of three and a half years of what Nyback boasts of as “unfunded, unadvertised, and unrepentant” exhibition.

The origins of the Pike Street actually go back to mid-1988, when Nick Vroman and Geof Spencer began the Belltown Film Festival in the Jewel Box Theater of the Rendezvous Restaurant. Vroman and Spencer rented the grand old space on Second Avenue, originally a screening room used by major film distributors, to show the kinds of movies they liked and couldn’t see anywhere else — things like obscure foreign dramas, prewar German dada shorts, and ’80s New York underground films. Despite the special-event implications of the “Festival” name, they had the space one night a week on an ongoing basis. When they began to run short of available, affordable films in their favorite genres, they opened up the Belltown Film Festival to local filmmakers, show-and-tell nights, and other concepts.

To fill other schedule holes, and to help prop up the operations side of their venture, they turned to Nyback, who’d run the Rose Bud Movie Palace in Pioneer Square from 1979 to 1981. Nyback had developed a part-time business as a mail-order dealer in old movie reels and mystery novels, supplemented by various day jobs (including at least one stint as a porno-theater projectionist). Nyback not only owned his own collection of rare prints, he corresponded with similar collectors around the country who had their own peculiarities. He also owned his own 16mm and 35mm projectors, and knew enough amateur carpentry to rebuild the Rendezvous projection room into a workable facility.

In 1989-90, Nyback gradually took more responsibility over the Belltown Film Festival. By early 1991 he was running it by himself. The festival’s programming evolved away from French and Japanese features toward programming built around Nyback’s collection — prewar jazz shorts, cartoons, and comedies; ’50s and ’60s TV commercials and movie trailers; educational and industrial shorts; ’60s music shorts originally made for Scopitone film jukeboxes; and pre-1970 stag films.

Nyback, who admits to preferring total control over his ventures instead of partnerships, broke with the Rendezvous’s owners in September 1991. He held screenings at a couple of other Belltown spaces that fall. Then at the start of 1992 he leased a storefront on the ground floor of a somewhat notorious transients’ apartment building at Pike and Boren, an area of Capitol Hill only now starting to get “upscaled.” He put his book operation, Spade and Archer (named for the Maltese Falcon detective agency) in the front room, separated by a sliding bookcase from the 50-seat screening room in back. For $600 and donated materials he created a funky yet elegant space, complete with old-time theater seats and curtains.

In retropsect, it might not have been the best possible site. People often got lost confusing address, 1108 Pike, with 1108 East Pike; either that or they confused the name “Pike Street Cinema” with the former Pike Place Cinema in the Pike Place Market. And in his first few months at the space, he didn’t even have a sign above his tiny storefront big enough to be seen by drivers heading up from downtown — just a small sandwich board outside and some posters in the window.

Additionally, Nyback had trouble drawing suburban baby boomers, many of whom told him they thought were afraid to venture into Seattle after dark: “People used to say, ‘Go to the Pike Street Cinema and get mugged.'” Nyback admits to the presence of lowlife types in the apartments above the theater and in the tavern next door, but insists none of his audience members were ever hassled by them.

But the space was cheap enough that Nyback broke even for three and a half years on an average attendance of 125 people per week.

Some of the Pike Street’s better attended programs have included a Charles Bukowski bioflick, a show of Frederick Wiseman documentaries, the underground farces of San Francisco director George Kuchar, a package of ’70s Mormon Church instructional films, a festival of old softcore sex films curated by Something Weird Video, the Seattle-made 1970 porno feature The Last Bath, Craig Baldwin’s recent Negativland profile Sonic Outlaws, and Bad Bugs Bunny (a collection of Warner Bros. cartoons no longer shown on TV due to racial caricatures).

Still, Nyback wasn’t earning a living wage from the theater. It didn’t help that “I didn’t charge enough to the people who rented out the space on off nights” for other film programs and cabaret parties. He also couldn’t afford paid advertising and didn’t want it if he could afford it, preferring low-key promotion through flyers and posters.

Yet Nyback isn’t worried about his chances in the New York entertainment scene, a scene even more reliant on high-profile promotion than Seattle’s. “New York just seems like more of a real city, where there’s word-of-mouth, where people my age (he’s in his early 40s) still go out at night.” He’s got friends back east scouting for potential sites, and hopes to be back in business before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Seattle experimental filmmaker Jon Behrens hopes to open a new screening room elsewhere in town with a similar schedule. In the past, Behrens has screened his films at the Pike Street and at 911 Media Arts (including a program held on July 29). But he says he wants to break away from what he perceives as an increasingly institutionalized atmosphere at 911, and to keep the anything-goes indie spirit of the Pike Street Cinema alive in Seattle.


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