Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

Dennis Nyback: The show must go on

Fifteen months after the death of the legendary showman and collector of rare and offbeat films, friends and colleagues are rescuing his films and bringing them back into theaters.

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The show must go on: Dennis Nyback gets the Hollywood treatment. Exterior shot of Portland's Hollywood Theatre, with readerboard announcing "The Nyback Show." Photo: Stan Hall
The show must go on: Dennis Nyback gets the Hollywood treatment. Photo: Stan Hall

The only thing missing was the showman, but thankfully the show goes on.

About 15 months after the death of Dennis Nyback, longtime Portland and Seattle movie theater owner and film archivist, his collection came alive once again last Thursday at the Hollywood Theatre.

“The Nyback Show,” curated by a group of Nyback’s friends and colleagues led by Greg Hamilton, was a fun evening’s entertainment:  a portal into popular culture from the 1920s through the 1970s, through a program of cartoons and educational films, movie trailers and TV commercials. This was also the culmination of a yearlong volunteer effort to rescue an archive scattered amongst storage outlets, seeking caretakers.

“Quite honestly, Dennis’s collection is world class,” says Hamilton, who operated the projectors (with Schroeder and Cherascu) at the January 25 screening. “I’ve seen a lot of people’s 16 millimeter collections, but Dennis just takes it to a whole different place.”

A Buoyant Cinematic Tribute

The late, great Jim Henson serves up a doozy in 1965's "Time Piece." Still from YouTube video.
The late, great Jim Henson serves up a doozy in 1965’s “Time Piece.” Still from YouTube video.

Thursday’s “Nyback Show” screening was the first in a new screening series of the same name, which next moves to the Clinton Street Theater in March. While its namesake presence was certainly missed—Dennis Nyback possessed undeniable showmanship: a kind of P.T. Barnum with a twinkle in his eye, unabashedly excited about the show about to unfold—his personality came through in these films.

Some of the Nyback Show titles could be found on YouTube, but there were also obscure films you won’t find anywhere else. Besides: YouTube can’t replicate the communal experience of seeing these in a darkened theater. And with Hamilton running two projectors from the back of the auditorium (rather than hidden away in the projection room) their mechanical flicker became, by intent, part of the evening’s soundtrack.

First up was a familiar Gen X-friendly crowd-pleaser: 1974’s animated short Interjections, from the Schoolhouse Rock educational series running on Saturday mornings between cartoons in the 1970s and ’80s. Though familiar, it seemed to put the audience in a buoyant, sing-song mood.

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Next were two films that would be hard to see outside of this screening room, and my two favorites of the night.

1971’s Pencil – Le Crayon is a charming and poetic, almost Busby Berkeley-like documentary about pencil manufacturing, commissioned by the Quebec education ministry and directed by Hungarian-Canadian filmmaker George Kaczender (later a Hollywood movie and TV veteran). 1975’s Topsy-Turvy House features the velvety narration of Ken Nordine, famous in the 1960s for his spoken-word jazz songs, here paired with stop-motion animation depicting domestic ephemera from shoes to bedspreads moving by themselves.

After a succession of movie trailers (including 1972’s Black Girl from director Ossie Davis) and TV commercials (including Portland’s own Blitz beer) came early short films from two television icons: Jim Henson and Matt Groening, creators, respectively, of The Muppet Show and The Simpsons.

Arguably the most impressive cinematic work in “The Nyback Show,” Henson’s Time Piece from 1965 is experimental though accessible, a jazzy 10-minute puppet-free jaunt that includes the director’s face first served on a dinner platter, then peering from a soon-to-be-flushed toilet bowl. Groening’s 1972 film with Tim Smith, and Jim Angell, Drugs: Killer or Diller, is an amateur yet fun parody of anti-drug documentaries made the same year Groening graduated from Portland’s Lincoln High School.

Old cartoons were a Nyback fascination. Above, Willard Bowsky’s 1930 "Wise Flies." Still from YouTube video.
Old cartoons were a Nyback fascination. Above, Willard Bowsky’s 1930 “Wise Flies.” Still from YouTube video.

No night of films from Dennis Nyback’s archive would be complete without cartoons, especially given that the archivist and his late wife, Anne Richardson, founded the Oregon Cartoon Institute (now the Oregon Cartoon Project). The Nyback Show offered two classics: Tex Avery’s Drag Along Droopy (1954) featuring Droopy Dog; and Dave Fleischer and Willard Bowsky’s Wise Flies (1930), featuring a captivating ragtime-jazz soundtrack. Once again, though, the real treat was getting to see 1976’s surreal Ouverture 2012 from Croatian filmmaker Milan Blažeković, which cannot be found online.

All of which is to say nothing of Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), a fantasia in which a Louis Armstrong fan, after being knocked cold by his angry wife, imagines a leopard-skin-clad Armstrong singing and playing his trumpet in a heavenly realm filled to the waist with soap suds.

Group Rescue

Greg Hamilton mans the projector at last Thursday's screening of selections from Dennis Nyback's capacious collection of short films. Photo: S.W. Conser
Greg Hamilton mans the projector at last Thursday’s screening of selections from Dennis Nyback’s capacious collection of short films. Photo: S.W. Conser

Last Thursday’s Nyback Show debut came after Hamilton and a few colleagues—including Garrett Schroeder and Ioana Cherascu of the Hollywood Theatre’s Astral Projections series, as well as filmmaker Ian Sundahl, film preservationists Gary Lacher and Ned Thanhouser, and former Northwest Film Center programmer Thomas Phillipson—spent the past year finding and cataloguing Nyback’s archive.

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“There was a big question mark about his collection,” Hamilton says. “We didn’t even know where it all was.” Through Nyback’s sister, they eventually found the films scattered amongst numerous local garages and consolidated the collection in one storage facility. Then began the task of cataloguing the films, some 4,000 in total. “We were swimming in all these reels,” he adds.

A hand-scrawled sign at last Thursday's screening announced the cinematic treasures inside. Photo: Brian Libby
A hand-scrawled sign at last Thursday’s screening announced the cinematic treasures inside. Photo: Brian Libby

Though the volunteers began uncovering some of their known favorites, as well as past Nyback shows like “Bad Bugs Bunny” (featuring politically incorrect and racist cartoons removed from syndication) and “The Mormon Church Explains It All To You,” they also encountered many mislabeled reels. “I’d open a film canister and it’d have a different title on the reel,” Hamilton remembers. “Then I’d run the film and it’d be something completely different.”

Over the summer, Hamilton and the other volunteers began taking films from Nyback’s archive home to watch, then they’d reassemble them for a series of backyard film nights featuring their favorites. Last Thursday’s first Nyback Show was culled from these screenings.

“I want to show people things they’ve never seen before,” Hamilton told me the night before last Thursday’s screening, “and just get Dennis’s collection in front of people, because that really was what Dennis was about. He loved to share. He was a hard person to know in some ways, because he was such an enigmatic, charismatic person. But it’s really been a privilege to try to take care of this collection and preserve it.”

Future Shows

The late Dennis Nyback, a legend on the Portland film scene. Photo: Sheldon Renan
The late Dennis Nyback, a legend on the Portland film scene. Photo: Sheldon Renan

The hope is to eventually create a nonprofit organization devoted to the archive, allowing programmers nationwide to access the films, as is the case with the San Francisco-based Prelinger Archives (also devoted to pop-culture history). An intermediate step will probably be collaborating with existing nonprofits, including the Hollywood Theatre.

“It’s terrifying, the prospect of running a nonprofit. But I want this collection to be saved and available for people to see and enjoy,” Hamilton says. “That’s what it boils down to.”

For those who missed the first Nyback Show screening, not only is the next one already scheduled (Clinton Street Theater, 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 12), but Hamilton and friends are planning for it to be interactive, with projectionists creating the show on the fly, based on audience taste and whim. It’s just the kind of showmanship Nyback would appreciate.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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One Response

  1. Fantastic article about our beloved, forever missed Dennis Nyback. Thank you Brian Libby, Greg Hamilton , S W Conser, Debra Nyback Rogers, family and friends of Dennis!

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