Belltown Messenger - Documenting Downtown Seattle

Belltown Messenger #77 - March 2010

DENNIS NYBACK shares sweet memories of Mormonism, Elvis, necrophilia
Misadventures in the Seattle Film Scene

In 1990 I was running what we called the Belltown Film Festival in the Jewel Box Theater, located in the back of the Rendezvous Tavern. The Jewel Box was, and is, a remnant of the two blocks of Second Avenue between Bell and Wall once known as Film Row. Starting in the 1920s, Film Row had been the hub through which Hollywood films were routed to Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana, and many Hollywood film companies had offices there.

The 50-seat Jewel Box had been built as a film industry screening room by the B. F. Shearer Co. in 1928. It was a scale model of the sort of theaters they could build on demand; Shearer built theaters on the Jewel Box plan that could seat 1,000. It was outfitted with decorative items that the company could also provide.

In fact, B.F. Shearer handled everything the prospective theater owner could want: the room was lit by eight large Art Deco fixtures; the walls were covered with silk damask cloth; customers sat in padded booths with tables where they could set their drinks.

I ran films in the room on weeknights for four years. On Friday and Saturday the place was host to live music acts. Many of them were of the permanent-hearing-loss sort. On Sunday it was used for Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings ... talk about Daniel in the lion’s den The Rendezvous was one of the strongest-pour dive bars in the city. It was always dark inside and usually crowded. I suppose it was good that any bar drunk who saw the light didn’t have to go far to get help.

Back in 1990 the Jewel Box Theater was the only legal place in the state of Washington where you could both drink and watch a movie on the big screen. If you could find it. There was no street sign for the Jewel Box Theater. The words “Jewel Box,” with no explanation as to what they referred to, were stenciled on a large sheet of plywood that covered the only window in the bar. Also stenciled on the plywood were the names of all the sports teams in Seattle.

Above the street door was a twenty-foot long shelf with two-foot tall neon letters spelling RENDEZVOUS. The sign had been there a long time. The V was tipped over a little to the right, giving the sign a rakish attitude. That was by gravity, not design. To the right of that, above the sheet of plywood, was a six-line movable letter reader board.

Entering the street door, you could either go right, into the bar, or ahead, into the restaurant. The Jewel Box entrance was through a door in the dining room. When the door was closed no would guess there was a cute relic of a tiny theater inside.

It was a fateful July day when I got the phone call from Jack Stevenson. Here is the conversation:
Jack (East coast accent, speaking a little nervously): “Hi, my name is Jack. I got your number from Larry Reid at COCA. He told me you had a place to show films. I’m from Boston and I’m driving around the country with a whole bunch of great films in the trunk of the car looking for places to show them.”
Dennis:  “What kind of films are they?”

Jack: “Oh, I’ve got all kinds. I’ve got films made by the Mormon Church, the US Army, educationals, trash features, Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Nekromantik. Really great stuff. You can’t believe how great the films made by the Mormons are.

“One of the army films is called Field Medicine in Viet Nam. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. The educationals have to be seen to be believed. The films made by the Oklahoma Department of Health are fantastic.”

Dennis (breaking in as Jack caught his breath): “Do you have enough for three nights?”

Jack: “Three nights? Easy, no problem with three nights, I’ve got lots of great stuff.”

He waited as I looked at the calendar. I figured it would take a couple of weeks to properly exploit this in the press. After the next three weeks I had nothing booked at all. A guy believing so much in the films he owned that he was willing to drive around the country and call strangers out of the blue was both insane and inspirational. It couldn’t miss.

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I met him a couple of days later at the Jewel Box. He was a dark-haired six-footer wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket. His face had an oddly cherubic, satanic visage, with twinkling dark eyes. We went to his car, a venerable full-size Mercury with Massachusetts plates. He opened the trunk. It was crammed full with bulky objects encased in black garbage bags -- the films, plus a Bell and Howell 16mm projector. It was the rare Marc 350 “Gemini” model, containing a short arc lamp that could put a sharp image on the side of a building blocks away if the night was dark.

He was not exaggerating about the films. Films made by the Mormons are unbelievably great. Field Medicine In Viet Nam (1967), a training film for medical personal who would serve in the battle theater, has unbelievable and horrific footage of wounded soldiers. It also has an upbeat soundtrack and a cheerful voice-over narrator who says things such as, “With out modern equipment and trained personnel, this war will have the lowest mortality rate and highest return to service of any war every fought.”

His visit produced an added, unexpected bonus: a print of Nekromantik, a tale of necroeroticism from Germany. It had a “magnetic” soundtrack, common in Europe but practically unheard of in the USA, where optical soundtracks are the norm. It takes a special projector to reproduce magnetic sound. Luckily, I could call Doug Stewart, the sharpest operator in the projectionist union, a man who could repair any machine that ran on electricity or gasoline, the owner of many oddball projectors, and my friend. He was happy to provide us with the requisite machine.

Nekromantik caused many longtime Belltown Film Fest fans to flee the theater, claiming they would never come back to one of my shows ever again.

To promote these shows, we did something extra special on the Saturday before: we created an urban drive-in just across the street from the Jewel Box. Geof Spencer owned the storefront there. (Geof had been, with Nick Vroman, one of the founders of the Belltown Film Festival. I was brought in because I owned 16mm projectors, and also films.) Geof’s store had a small sign in the window that said Occupied Seattle. It was a funky used-goods store, and also a performance space. It had a loft and just what we needed for the Drive-in Movie: access to the roof.

On the night of the show we walked across the roof, passing over two other stores, which took us to the edge of the building. Below us was a parking lot. Across the lot was the white wall of the Plumbers Union building. We ran an extension cord from Geof’s store to the edge of the roof.  We plugged the mighty Bell and Howell Marc 300 projector into it. We were ready for the crowd. Cars started to pull into the lot, and parked facing the wall. Some of the people in the cars got out and lounged on their hoods. Other people brought lawn chairs and blankets. We started with Elvis and Ann Margaret in Viva Las Vegas. The sound boomed out from the speaker at the base of the wall. A wino sleeping next to the speaker was jolted awake. The sound of cars arriving had failed to rouse him, but Elvis gyrating in Technicolor really pissed him off. He stood in front of the screen and screamed at the people in cars and lawn chairs facing him. They were in a jovial mood and jeered back. He finally gave up and dragged his bedding around the corner of the building and into the alley.

By the time Hell’s Angels on Wheels hit the wall many of the original crowd had left, replaced by others. Marijuana smoke wafted up from the parking lot. Even a few winos had joined the crowd. They passed around a jug. Pedestrians walking by stopped and watched. Some entered the parking lot, sat on the pavement and stayed till the end.

Policemen drove by slowly. One squad car came up the alley and stopped. The two cops got out and asked what was going on. A chorus replied, “WE’RE WATCHING A MOVIE!” The cops laughed and left. The rest of their night would be spent breaking up fights in front of trendy Belltown bars. Jack and I sat on the roof and drank beer and watched the crowd below us having a good time. Everyone went home happy.

One nice thing about the friendly confines of the Jewel Box, it didn’t take a lot of people to fill it up. The first two nights were the best, and it was a lucky bunch who got to see the treasures Jack showed. Although Seattle probably wasn’t ready for Nekromantik. In fact, I’m not sure if the time has come for that film just yet.
Driving back to Boston, Jack’s venerable automobile broke down in Missoula. It was nothing drastic. I got a post card from him about it. Thinking about it now, having a car break down in a strange town can often have an upside. In 1999 I was driving a truck containing everything I owned from New York City to Portland, Oregon. The brakes went out in Huntington, Indiana. If not for that, I would never have been able to visit – and I am not making this up – the Dan Quayle Museum.

While Jack’s car was being repaired in Missoula he was able to hang out at The Theater of the Dove, probably the weirdest movie theater in America. Year round, which included the standard three months of snow, windows were kept open so birds could come in. During screenings, pigeons flying in front of the screen were often the best part of the show. No one ever saw a dove there.

Dennis Nyback currently houses his film archive at Marylhurst University. More at dennisnybackfilms.com.



Belltown Messenger
© 2010 Belltown Messenger