How Dennis Nyback Became One of the Most Prolific Film Programmers in the World

The former Clinton Street Theater owner died on October.

Dennis Nyback (Courtesy S.W. Conser)

On Oct. 2, esteemed film archivist Dennis Nyback quietly passed away from cancer at age 69. He was a true renaissance man and storyteller who lived a life as iconoclastic as the films he rescued—a collection of features, cartoons and short subjects, numbering in the thousands, that became known around the world.

Nyback (whose legacy will be celebrated at the Clinton Street Theater’s Nov. 15 event Dada Dada Dada: A Tribute to Dennis Nyback) began collecting films in 1979 while he was working at the Rosebud Movie Palace in Seattle, which he would eventually own. The small theater specialized in films from the ‘30s and ‘40s, but Nyback took it a step further: He screened films in their original context, including newsreels, cartoons, short subjects, and even travelogues that preceded the feature presentation.

When the theater closed in 1981, Nyback took his show on the road, working around Seattle as a projectionist and slowly accumulating prints of old films and cartoons from as far away as Paris. After eight years, he was hired to help run a monthly film series at the Jewel Box Theater.

Three years later, Nyback and Elizabeth Rozier opened the Pike Street Cinema, where some of his most popular shows featured cartoons banned from television and video collections for their racist, sexist or violent content—drawing the ire of Turner Entertainment and the Walt Disney Company (and leading to a bomb threat). Yet word of Nyback’s collection of eclectic films spread, becoming the catalyst to screen programs, like his famous “Bad Bugs Bunny,” at theaters as far away as Europe.

Nyback would eventually end up on New York’s Lower East Side, where he opened the Lighthouse Cinema in 1996. He ultimately accepted a buyout offer from landlord Mike Glass, who would later be charged with attempted murder and arson against tenants who had turned down his buyout offers.

In 1999, Nyback relocated to Portland, where he partnered again with Rozier (to whom he had once been married) to take over the Clinton Street Theater for a reported $2,000. There was a good reason the theater was so cheap.

“It was in such bad shape that the McMenamin brothers had refused to buy it,” says Steve Tenhonen, the theater’s current co-manager. “The plumbing was shot to hell. The seats were older than God, complete with springs that often poked viewers in the ass.”

Tenhonen and Nyback headed up a massive renovation, while Nyback elevated the programming with as many new and independent features as possible—and brought in his own unique material to fill empty slots (he also went on to found the Oregon Cartoon Institute with his late wife, Anne Richardson, in 2007).

“Being one of the new owners who just took over operations in April,” says co-owner Aaron Colter, “I marvel at how unique Dennis was in his programming at the Clinton Street Theater and in places like Seattle and New York. I hope Portland still has some of that weirdness and audiences who want to experience peculiar events. It’s my hope that we can revive some of that energy and pay tribute to someone who forever left a mark on the community.”

That energy will live on at Dada Dada Dada: A Tribute to Dennis Nyback, at which audiences will be welcome to play their own acoustic musical instruments. Confused? Allow radio host S.W. Conser, who often worked with Nyback on Oregon Cartoon Institute events, to explain.

“Dennis loved to create screening events at the Clinton Street that were more than just screenings,” Conser says. “One of his favorite events, which he scheduled on a somewhat random basis, was Dada Dada Dada, where he would unearth some of the more surreal silent films in his collection, then invite the audience to bring instruments to the theater and provide a live soundtrack to the films.”

Conser adds, “Initially, the effect would be cacophonous, but then over the course of the show, a strange collective harmony would often emerge from the chaos.  We’re hoping to bring back some of that spirit on the 15th.”

SEE IT: Dada Dada Dada: A Tribute to Dennis Nyback plays at the Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 971-808-3331, Tuesday, Nov. 15. $8.

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