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Remembering film archivist Dennis Nyback

Nyback, who has died at 69, toured his collections of old films internationally and once owned the Clinton Street Theatre.

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Dennis Nyback, a legend on the Portland film scene, has died at 69. Photo: Sheldon Renan

“Nobody loved old movies more than Dennis Nyback,” said Sheldon Renan, who founded both the Pacific Film Archive and the Northwest Film Center, and who was one of Nyback’s oldest friends. “He loved any kind of old film, from the rough-and-tumble cartoons of animation pioneers to cheesy French music loops of the sixties — and everything in between. He loved old movie equipment, especial carbon arc projectors with their golden-hued light. And he loved dressing up in old tweed suits and showing those films any place he could set up a projector — in old storefronts, on the sides of buildings, and at film festivals around the world. One of a kind.”

A tribute is being planned for Nyback, film archivist and onetime owner of Portland’s historic Clinton Street Theater, on Nov. 15 at the Clinton Street Theatre. Nyback died October 2 following a long battle with cancer.

Film curator Greg Hamilton, whose programs often screen at the Hollywood Theatre as well as the Clinton Street, added: “Losing Dennis Nyback is a huge blow to the film community in Portland and all over the world. He was a brilliant and thoughtful film programmer with a deep knowledge of cinema and history. He brought an incredible amount of amazing cinema and cultural ephemera to light with a spirit of curiosity and fun that was one-of-a-kind. His programs drew me into the world of 16mm film and the amazing discoveries that it holds. I will miss his unquenchable enthusiasm for unseen cinema and will do my best to keep sharing that enthusiasm with others.”

Dennis was best-known for his traveling film shows, which he toured across the country as well as to Europe and Asia. “I can actually come up with a film program on almost any subject a person can name,” he often boasted. His strong belief in the preservation of analog film and audio led him to rescue reels that were headed to the dumpster, and to hunt down obscure films in venues that ranged from Paris flea markets to eBay. His collection of features, cartoons, and short subjects numbered in the thousands, and in many cases boasted the only known print of a film.

Some of his most popular shows featured cartoons that had long been removed from television and from video collections for their racist, sexist, or violent content. These screenings, “Bad Bugs Bunny” and “Fuck Mickey Mouse,” attracted cease-and-desist letters from Turner Entertainment and the Walt Disney Company, which Dennis collected but otherwise ignored.

Dennis Nyback, all a-goggle. Photo: S.W. Conser

Dennis William Nyback was born July 30, 1953, in Yacolt, Washington. His storied ancestry included great-great-great-uncle Francis Pettygrove, who won the legendary coin toss against Asa Lovejoy that gave Portland its moniker, as well as great-great-great-grandfather Phillip Foster, the namesake of Portland’s Foster Road.

According to his sister Debra Nyback Rogers, young Dennis had outgoing and anachronistic tendencies from the start. As a teenager at the University of Washington, he studied jitterbug dancing and taught himself to be a bandleader. Footloose but often short of cash, Dennis would hop freight trains to see the country. Rogers remembers that his two favorite phrases were “I’m a lucky man” and “Sometimes all you have to do is show up.” Occasionally Dennis would show Rogers his press clippings from newspapers around the country and remark, “Debbie, your brother is half-famous.”

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Dennis’s interest in cinema began, like most of his ventures, largely by happenstance. He had been moonlighting as a projectionist while a student in Seattle in the 1970s when the Rosebud Movie Palace became available for purchase. The Rosebud was known for showing movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, so Dennis began collecting short subjects, cartoons, and even old newsreels and travelogues to screen before the main feature. The Rosebud was the first of a series of storied but short-lived independent cinemas run by Dennis in Seattle that included the Jewel Box Theater and the Pike Street Cinema.

It was in Seattle that fellow film archivist Jack Stevenson introduced Dennis to Scopitones, a nearly-forgotten short-film technology from the 1960s akin to proto-music videos. Scopitones were originally played on specialized jukebox-type machinery with a top-mounted screen. Dennis began an extensive collection of Scopitones, and would later issue a DVD collection that found its way into the hands of celebrated musicians such as Neil Young.

In 1996, Dennis moved his collection to New York City and opened the Lighthouse Cinema on the Lower East Side. It was at the Lighthouse that Dennis mounted the first major retrospective of underground filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar. The Lighthouse garnered major press attention but closed after a year when Dennis moved back to the Pacific Northwest after accepting a buyout offer from landlord Mike Glass. As it turns out, Glass was later charged with attempted murder and arson against tenants who had turned down his buyout offers.

In 1999, Dennis recruited ex-wife Beth Rozier to finance the purchase of the Clinton Street Theater for a mere $2,000. According to Steve Tenhonen, who helped Dennis manage the theater, the interior was in serious disrepair, needing, among other things, wiring and projection upgrades. “It was in such bad shape that the McMenamin Brothers had refused to buy it,” Tenhonen said. “The plumbing was shot to hell. The seats were older than God, complete with springs that often poked viewers in the ass.”

Dennis and Steve set about to transform the space, working on a shoestring and doing most of the renovations themselves. When Steve heard that Regal Cinemas would be closing downtown Portland’s Movie House, he rented a U-Hall truck. “I called Regal Cinemas and was able to cut a deal with the district manager, who agreed to sell us the seats, curtains and screen for two dollars per seat,” he recalled.

Once at the theater, though, the seats proved a challenge to install. Any blueprints that might have existed for the theater had long been lost. As Tenhonen tells the story, “The concrete had been poured back in 1911 when no OSHA laws existed, therefore the concrete was full of rebar and other random hard objects. I continued to break drill bits, so we were forced to purchase titanium bits. I would have to lean into the drill with all of my body weight as it slowly struggled to grind through this metal, then pull out the drill to discover that the tip resembled a red-hot fireplace poker. My friend Tom would use the red-hot titanium tip to light his cigarette.”

The Clinton Street Theater is now owned by a collective. One of the collective members, Aaron Colter, is grateful to Dennis for his Herculean efforts to preserve the venue as a cinema. “As a transplant to Portland fifteen years ago, I missed out on the weird, wonderful experiences Dennis cultivated at the theater,” Colter said. “But his impact as its operator two decades later can’t be understated. We still hang a poster of the Kuchar Brothers festival behind the register — an event that wouldn’t have happened without him playing their films at the theater for years. There’s simply no way the Clinton Street Theater would be the home for independent and odd cinema without his time at the helm. He remains an inspiration for what the venue can be with enough dedication and a unique imagination.”

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Although he had a well-known fondness for analog film and projection equipment, Dennis appreciated technology that allowed for large-scale outdoor projections. In 2006, he teamed up with artist Mack McFarland for the PICA TBA project “The Portland That Was,” a site-specific installation that featured projections on the sides of downtown buildings. And during the Platform Animation Festival in 2007, an event that explored emerging technologies, Dennis participated fully. The most popular activity he led during the festival was his free-walking tours of the South Portland neighborhood that had given birth to animation legend Mel Blanc.

Nyback, behind a projector, in his element. Photo: S.W. Conser

In 2007, Dennis and his late wife, Anne Richardson, co-founded the Oregon Cartoon Institute (now the Oregon Cartoon Project), which elevated the profile of Oregon’s homegrown film and animation industries and developed projects on Blanc, Harry Smith, James Ivory, Pinto Colvig, James Blue, Joan Gratz, and Homer Groening, among others. The OCI’s main event was the annual Oregon Film History Conference, held at Lewis and Clark University until the Covid pandemic hit in 2020. The OCI also produced “Underground USA,” a 2016 arts education event at the Oregon Historical Society focusing on Oregon print cartooning history.

While an adjunct professor at the now-defunct Marylhurst University, teaching Social History Through Animation, Dennis — along with Anne Richardson — coordinated the Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival. Oregon filmmakers featured at the 2009 festival included Gus Van Sant and Bill Plympton; Chris Eyre, who introduced his film Smoke Signals; Penny Allen, who introduced her film A Soldier’s Tale; James Ivory, who introduced his film Shakespeare Wallah; and writer Tad Savinar, who introduced the film Talk Radio.

Dennis wrote dozens of articles for the Seattle Star, chronicling regional history as well as his personal adventures. His eclectic interests led him to become a prolific Wikipedia editor who initiated and expanded hundreds of entries. His favorite subjects were twentieth-century jazz and blues artists, but architecture, history, and baseball also found their way into his writing. He also dabbled in stage comedy, writing and mounting two cabaret musicals, Ten Cents a Dance and Calvin Coolidge Goes Crazy.

A week after Dennis Nyback died, fellow film collectors gathered with family members for a wake at the house on Mt. Tabor where he spent his final years. Greg Hamilton set up a projector on the lawn while Gary Lacher looked through some of the film reels Dennis left behind. Gary mused on their decades-long friendship and collaboration: “He never left a reel ignored, exploring all the merits of history and artistic significance, especially long-forgotten musical talent.”

An old proverb was brought to mind at the gathering: “They say that when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” In Dennis’s case, it might have been a library complex.

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  • A tribute to Dennis Nyback has been scheduled for November 15 at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland. Details will follow in the coming days at the theater’s website, CSTPDX.com. Plans are also being considered for a sale of Dennis’s film equipment and memorabilia to benefit the family.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

S.W. Conser is a Portland-based storyboard artist and audio producer who hosts the long-running public-affairs show Words and Pictures on KBOO-FM. His work can be found online at Conch.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Alas, Dennis has shown his last film and danced his last dance in the earthly realm. I became aware of Dennis when I first saw him dancing, appropriately attired for the event of course. Later, I got to know him when my neighbors, who were great friends, often hosted him when he came to Seattle, and I was fortunate to see some of his films in their backyard.

  2. A life lived at 24 frames per second. Dennis and I both collected Soundies, the movie jukebox films of the 40’s, as we had a shared interest in old jazz, blues, and musical short subjects. He was truly one of a kind: may his arc shine brightly evermore.

  3. I crossed paths with Dennis may times over the past 20 years. He was admirable and he was fun. When he took over the Clinton Street Theater in 1999, I was a movie critic at Willamette Week, and we instantly enjoyed his sense of showmanship. I also happened to attend the series of outdoor screenings he curated for PICA’s TBA Festival, which was fantastic; I remember one site in the South Park Blocks downtown and another in a vacant lot across from the Ford Building on SE Division. And on two occasions in the 2010s, Dennis invited me (and two others) to provide ongoing voice-commentary over the silent films he was running at the Hollywood Theatre. When I hear the sound of a projector starting up, I’ll probably think of Dennis.

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