He told me about when his piano player canceled out of a silent movie performance. “I walked outside during the kiddie matinee and saw some young people loading musical instruments into a station wagon. I asked if they had a band. They said yes. I told them I would give them 25 bucks to accompany the film that evening. They said they had a rehearsal schedule for that evening. I told them they could rehearse in front of the film with the audience watching and be paid as well. They liked the idea. The show went on and they were great.”
* * *
I am not his oldest friend. I had never heard of Dennis Nyback when I set sail from Boston in a rusty 1979 Mercury Cougar in the summer of 1990 and ploughed due west with a trunk full of 16mm films. I was armed with a few tenuous contacts and hoping to find some screening gigs to at least pay for gas.
On a hot summer day I pulled into Seattle and rented the cheapest hotel room I could find. I laid on a lumpy bed with a phone book, my money quickly running out. Everyone told me, “Call this guy.” So I found Dennis and started giving him my pitch.
He cut me short – “we’ll show ’em.”
We lived on opposite sides of the country but we both had a lot in common. We both sought to show found films and prints obtained on the collector market, to create film screening events and get paid for it. I ran a series at a dive bar in Boston, Chet’s Last Call, showing films in between sets by punk bands and losing lots of money, and Dennis had managed the Rosebud theater until it went under and now he was showing films at the Jewelbox Theater. He was more into classic Hollywood and I was more into grindhouse, but we were both “showmen” – or rather he was. When he helped create my wiki page, he called me a showman, which I disagreed with and we got into a ridiculous back-and-forth; “no, you’re the showman!” Granted, I could get up in front of a crowd and talk a lot of nonsense, but he was the showman, in the old school sense.
Our friendship would last 32 years until he lost a valiant almost five-year battle against cancer on October 2, 2022. Since then all who knew him have been compelled to reflect on what a unique individual he was. For much of that time I had a front row seat.
He had an easygoing manner and an unflappable sense of calm despite the unlikely circumstances he often found himself in (or had engineered). He would get himself involved in crazy situations, but he was no lunatic – he was a gentleman. He didn’t have the demeanor of a man possessed but he was possessed, easygoing nonchalant possessed.
He could often appear to be the happiest guy on earth, always humming an old show tune or breaking out into a song from the ’30s or ’40s in his trademark velvety high tenor. He once wryly remarked as we strolled the streets of Copenhagen that his lyrical outbursts must be something akin to Tourette’s syndrome. He was staying with my wife and me at the time, and she found his incessant harmonizing to be irritating but soon realized that if we were to be sharing our abode with a human jukebox, she would go with the flow and make a request: “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
He was happy to oblige.
He was the proverbial snappy dresser, his personal style wedded to a vintage aesthetic born in the ’40s. He was a baseball fan and once told me a long story about chasing fly balls during batting practice in various stadiums dressed in the height of 1940s fashion, and had enough self-awareness to know this image was a bit weird. Over the years I frequently booked him into a small cinema in Munich, and the manager there, Erich Wagner, recalled their first encounter: “He struck me as a true individual when I first met him at the Central Station in Munich, where he wore plaid Knickerbocker trousers complete with a peaked cap. He seemed to be a vision from a time long forgotten.” He could also act like a guy from a time long forgotten: I remember once we were driving in Denmark and I was in a dour mood and him pissing me off by telling me to “keep your sunny side up” – the kind of folksy wisdom my grandfather use to dispense. I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time, but it really was the key to his personality. He was an optimistic guy and thought we all should be too. Such advice could sound hopelessly uncool, and he was uncool. He was never at home in the hipster community, and that was reflected in his verbal style, which was not overly clever or cynical or ironic.
At some point later on he got someone to snap a publicity photo of him sitting in a car, at the wheel, with an engaging smile. It was a large steering wheel, so it was a vintage car, probably his car, which means more likely than not it wasn’t operational at the time – so he was likely sitting in a broken-down car. But just by the way he projected, the image conveys a sense of adventure and journeys about to unfold in a manner that almost nobody else could master in such a simply arranged setting. At first I thought this is some damn cheap-ass publicity still, totally shorn of any film props, and then I had to marvel at the fact that it just worked so effectively.
I booked many film-show gigs for him in Europe in the 1990s, and many of these were at squats and in underground type venues with a pronounced punk or DIY vibe where people often wore black and sported fashionably hostile expressions. He was a total fish out of water in this milieu in his herringbone tweed overcoat, Toby Tyler cap (Peaky Blinders tweed cap, or a newsboy ivy cap) and dress shoes. I can only imagine him telling some brutish punk in the throes of a nihilist rage to “keep your sunny side up,” but what these punks might not have understood immediately was that Dennis was the essence of DIY. His life was one long self-booked gig. He never fit in.
You could say he was self-absorbed, but it was more than that, like he was in his own world. You’d be sitting at a table with other people talking about something, or other and he would interrupt with a story about some obscure actress or singer from the ’30s nobody had ever heard of who had nothing to do with the conversation. It could be distracting. You could be explaining to him some complicated financial arrangement, and he would start singing a song from an old movie. It was like he was always daydreaming. He must have driven his teachers insane.
A mutual pal from San Francisco, Jim Morton, whom he stayed with a couple of times recalled one visit: “I remember chatting with him one day when he filled my head with useless sports trivia. Then later that day I happened to be visiting someone who was really into sports. I was able to regurgitate all that sports trivia and impressed the guy greatly. Dennis made me look like a sports genius when the opposite is closer to the truth.”
After our first meeting, I drove down to SF to screen films, then back to Seattle later that month where Dennis got me a show at the aforementioned Jewelbox Theater, a beautiful little preview theater in the back of the rough Rendezvous Bar in the semi-sleazy Belltown neighborhood. We screened the 16mm print I had in my trunk of director Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik (1988). Like I say, he was open-minded. Even though his first love was classic Hollywood, he had no problem with showing this demented, low-budget underground movie from Germany. Only four people showed up. I would meet one of the audience members years later, and he was still a bit traumatized – not over the content of the film, but because another attendee had been jerking off in his seat, a detail that fortunately escaped us at the time. It was a fiasco of historic proportions; four people – one masturbating, one rendered deeply uncomfortable by noticing it, one leaving the cinema soon after it started, and one far too enthusiastic patron staying to the end of the credits and forcing us to stick around long after the film ended with his endless gratitude and discussion. It was indeed an inauspicious start to our many collaborations, but one good thing came out of it: the film had a magnetic soundtrack, and we had to find a special projector to screen it. We needed to find a film to test it with that also had a mag soundtrack, so we visited a junk shop he knew and bought a couple of small spools with mag tracks the owner had, and these turned out to be the amazing Scopitone films – ’60s music shorts played in jukeboxes. Out of the ashes of the abysmal Nekromantik screening, Dennis and I would go on to start, with articles and public screenings, what might be considered the modern Scopitone revival.
Dennis also got us access to the roof of the building across the street where we projected Hells Angels on Wheels against the far white wall in an adjacent parking lot near Second and Bell. People showed up, cars parked in front of the “screen” like a real drive-in. Later a group wanted to hire him to do it on a regular basis, but he balked when they told him it was sponsored by Budweiser and he always (proudly) remembered that as proof of what a lousy businessman he was. Returning to Boston, I booked him packed shows at the Coolidge Corner, the Primal Plunge Bookstore, and the Somerville Theater, where he screened, respectively, an offensive animation package, a vintage jazz-on-film show, and a program of Scopitones.
In 1993, I married a Danish woman and moved to Denmark. Having no employable skills and zero ability to learn a foreign language, I threw myself into building up a network of venues in Europe that would pay me to screen my films. I was helped in this endeavor by Johannes Schönherr, a German film event-maker who had actually booked me the tour in 1992 where I met my wife, and who had in the summer of 1993 guest-programmed Dennis’s next screening project in Seattle, the Pike Street Cinema, about which more will be said.
I did manage to assemble a good network of venues and would go on to book Dennis four tours of Europe in 1995, 1996, 1998, and 1999 where the money and perks and respect was better. At a festival in Amsterdam in 1996 at the Desmet Theater, I booked a bunch of his films and they farmed out some of the prints to other Dutch cinemas in the same time period, and he did a few in-person shows. He told me that he sat in the organizer’s office and was handed like 14 separate stacks of bills while the guy explained what each was for, and he had no idea what he was talking about but was happy to get the cashola.
His calling-card shows were variations on the twisted or offensive animation concept that had filled the Coolidge Corner Theater, and packages of vintage jazz films, but his real ace in the hole was his “Bad Bugs Bunny” show that packed them in everywhere. (For a description of this program see http://www.dennisnybackfilms.com/272-2/169-2/.) In his efforts to be invited back to places and get another payday, he was always trying to stitch together other theme shows from bits and pieces in his sprawling collection, and he came up with a lot of left-handed themes. Like a collection of beer and cigarette commercials, and a bunch of shorts and public service ads about nuclear power (later rejected for lack of any “fun” component). And a show that centered on car accidents that he was peddling in the mid-2000s that utilized long outtakes from the gory driver’s-ed scare film “Mechanized Death” (which he once played for a single customer in Copenhagen – a friend of the theater owner who was hanging around – who felt assaulted and complained at the end it was both gross and way too long). He began to look at life through the prism of a film collector. Whatever happened to him or came within his field of vision, he could make a film show out of it, equipped as he was with a computer-like recall of all the scenes his films contained. Had he ever climbed a mountain and found himself teetering on the edge of an active volcano, he would have paused to muse for a second, “I could do a show about volcanos …” before falling in.
He would show almost anything. Sometime around the early 2000s he was playing an old b/w silent pornographic short from the ’40s called “Slippery Eel,” with a woman getting intimate with said species. He screened it at a bar in Kiel, Germany, operated by a leftist group, where it caused much commotion and consternation among these ideologically committed patrons. They demanded that Dennis explain and defend his reasoning for showing it, but he had disappeared and they couldn’t find him. Finally he was located out in the back alley, leaning against a dumpster reading a paperback book that he always pulled out when he needed to kill time. They were greatly offended.
But “Bad Bugs Bunny” was his big hit, and he showed it repeatedly in many places.
Over the 32 years we knew each other we had some great adventures in the world of renegade film exhibition, but we were an odd couple and our dispositions could not have been more different. He was an engager and I was an avoider – mortified when he told a waitress at a San Francisco café that she “sure was pretty.” He loved to sing and dance and I hated both. I was wrapped too tight and he was wrapped too lose. That was also reflected in the way we, well, wrapped boxes. He chided me with good-natured barbs that the film boxes I mailed to him were taped and tied so heavily that he couldn’t get them open, while I received boxes he had shipped me half way around the world bound with just a string and a prayer and addressed with the world’s shittiest handwriting. And yet they always arrived.
He gave me valuable feedback on my books and I contested every word where he had another suggestion, and we got into absurd arguments like what was the actual percentage of alcohol in medieval beer. I overplanned everything (not a bad trait for a tour manager to have) and he operated more on whimsy. He told me about when his piano player canceled out of a silent movie performance. “I walked outside during the kiddie matinee and saw some young people loading musical instruments into a station wagon. I asked if they had a band. They said yes. I told them I would give them 25 bucks to accompany the film that evening. They said they had a rehearsal schedule for that evening. I told them they could rehearse in front of the film with the audience watching and be paid as well. They liked the idea. The show went on and they were great.” At the end of one of his self-booked European tours that I knew had featured setbacks, mostly of his own making, I asked him in a blush of false concern how it had gone, hoping he would own up to the mistakes he had made and that I had warned him about. He just replied that he hadn’t gotten run over and killed by a beer truck so he considered it a success and I was left snapping at flies.
He was super smooth. He didn’t sweat the details and was relentlessly devil-may-care, and it drove me mad on occasion. (Who was it that said: “Your enemies will ruin you but it´s your friends that will drive you crazy”?) We inflicted our peculiarities on each other; him being ceaselessly happy-go-lucky, and me – as noted above – with my micro-managing, telling him he couldn’t possibly leave Copenhagen on the night train and make it Munich the next day on time to catch a plane out and that it was insane. (He did but he couldn’t explain how. “Somehow I caught this train but it broke down . . . somehow I caught that train . . . somehow I got to the airport. . . .” It was an explanation with about 23 “somehows.”)
As noted, he was a natural-born showman and entertainer, and he wrote radio plays and theater pieces and engaged in swing dance and jitterbug marathons (I imagine), but I think he best loved showing movies to people, be it in theaters or living rooms or backyards or even barber shops. Sometimes he was compelled to call on all his talents at once: One evening at the Antwerp Film Museum technical problems forced a half-hour break in his program. “I got up in front of the audience,” he told me with casual matter-of-factness, “and told them all the non-pornographic jokes I knew.” They loved it. And when he got his cue to introduce a show in Osnabrück, Germany, he dashed down the aisle and leapt upon the stage, to the delight of the typically reserved German audience. At subsequent shows there the cinema manager would invariably ask him with an expectant grin if he was going to leap upon the stage again. He got a kick out of that.
I remember that also happening at a packed show at the Danish Cinematheque in Copenhagen, where he was screening Bad Bugs Bunny to a typically excited crowd. My co-organizer had told him we weren’t doing any Q&A, and when the film ended the show was over, but as the lights came up and applause rang out, he saw he had an open lane to the stage, and to the organizer’s dismay he ran down the aisle and jumped up on it to offer some closing pearls of wisdom as the audience went nuts.
The four proper tours I booked him in Europe were typically around 25 to 28 gigs over a four- or five-week period, a totally insane pace, all on trains, no rest days unless I couldn’t find a gig, and there was nothing ever called a “rest day.” It wasn’t in our vocabulary. It was a typically American thing to do, just racing around Europe thinking “what country am I in now, and why is passport control waking me up at 3 in the morning?”
Dennis screened films on ships (floating down the Seine and docked in Copenhagen harbor), in national film museums, festivals, dive bars, galleries, the rare movie palace and basement clubs and concert venues that ran a film program. I often had him booked to arrive on the same day of the show, which was ideal for creating fuck-ups. Like coming into Bern late at night, hours behind schedule, to find no one was there to meet him at the station, so he just struck out into the city and unfurled his great tweed coat under some bushes, and with his cap pulled low and his duffle bag for a pillow he went to sleep, just like he did in the ’70s, riding the rails through the great American West. And the next day he made the show none the worse for wear.
More than a few times he arrived in cities he had never been in before, and where few people spoke English, and missed his contacts at the station and just headed out into the madding crowds thinking he would find his way by just walking around (lugging heavy baggage). In Nuremberg, he wandered all over the city before sitting down in despair and exhaustion on the steps of a random building. In the meantime the cinema had filled up, but organizers were sure the show would have to be canceled. A girl in the audience who had never met him and didn’t know what he looked like volunteered to search for him in the city streets and dashed out the front door to end up almost tripping over a blond guy sprawled on the steps with all his bags – it was Dennis, who had by chance washed up on the steps of the building that contained the cinema, and he made the show in time. In Cologne, he set out from the train station and somehow, for some reason, thought the venue was in this direction when it was actually in the opposite direction. And after getting hopelessly lost, he showed a maintenance worker in a rail yard a crumpled slip of paper with the address. The guy spoke excellent English and knew exactly where the venue was. He hated the job he was on and wanted to kill time, so he drove Dennis over in his van, and he made it in time. God had sent him to the right building, and God had sent him the disgruntled maintenance worker.
He booked himself gigs in the US, mostly on his home turf of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, and rented out his films for shows as far away as Australia, and Johannes Schönherr even booked him a festival gig in South Korea. But the shows that comprised the four tours I booked him on in the ’90s were on average the best paid and came with travel, meals and accommodation. After 2000, he booked his own gigs there, basically right up to the very end. Programmers would hear about him, and if someone would cover his flight he would say yes and try to build a small tour around that. These could be more low-budget, and at one point when he didn’t make enough to buy a rail pass, he travelled on buses.
His last tour in 2020 was travel hell; he flew over from Portland to Oslo with four plane changes, crossing 11 time zones and getting stuck on layovers when connections were delayed in both the Newark and London airports, to arrive jet-lagged to give a talk, go to sleep, and the next day take the night train down to Nuremberg. (He also, after all these years, still thought Nuremberg was just a “hop, skip and jump” south of Hamburg.) I advised him that was folly but he hated to fly. Unlike myself he always denied he ever got jet-lagged. OK, then why did he once end up drinking a single beer and passing out into a comatose-like slumber for two days in a hospital bed (that his host in Århus had curiously installed in the room where he was staying)?
Venues continued to ask him over on an ad hoc basis to the very end, to Switzerland, Finland, Norway. He had a legacy over here; he was interviewed a lot and was in the media (one Danish film magazine gave him generous feature coverage every time he came over). Lots of venues had him back more than once, and he revisited small towns off the beaten path that I would never see. He made an impression as the entertaining and eccentric American guy, and a few times fell in love.
But the money wasn’t nearly enough to live on. Once arriving back in NYC after the 1996 tour, he didn’t have enough money to buy a subway token, but then searching through his suitcoat for a butt to smoke he found 400 francs he had forgotten about and stuffed into an inside vest pocket. On rare occasion he had company on these tours, but usually he was on his own and gutted it out and tried to save every penny. Even up to his last tour, in his late ’60s, he often took overnight trains in order to save on buying a hotel room – just like some college kid bumming around Europe on a rail pass. He always tried to save a buck. He should have just enjoyed it more.
In 1996, he was on an overnight trip from Hamburg to Paris with his girlfriend at the time, and instead of sleeping across seats he ponied up to buy them a sleeping compartment, and he forever cherished the memory of how much they enjoyed that experience. But he rarely “binged,” and was more often than not a legendary skinflint. On a night train from Hamburg speeding south deep into Switzerland he refused to buy a sleeping compartment or even a seat reservation. He argued with the ticket checker on multiple occasions. He tried to just hang out in the dining car until said train official lost his patience and threatened to stop the train in the smallest town they could find in the middle of the night and throw him off. That he had provoked such an unhinged response from an otherwise impassive and duteous train official caused him some chagrin. Just for the record, he never forked over any cash – even though he was in the middle of a tour, was getting paid only in cash, and had plenty of different currencies stuffed into various hidden pockets.
In 1997, I had us both booked into a festival in Lille, France, and I went to meet him at the station. I grabbed his duffle bag in order to help and was almost crushed. In addition to the 16mm spools he was showing, it contained a 35mm print of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She Devils on Wheels he was lugging around on his tour rather than pay to have it shipped back to the US. If it wasn’t a 35mm print, it was a junk projector someone had given him that he would drag back as carry-on luggage on the flight home against all possible airline rules – and get away with it.
He wrote a lot of stuff, but he was not only a story teller, he was the story, all style and dash and getting into weird situations using weird logic, and very much in on the joke himself, or parts of it.
His way of doing things put him in unusual positions and situations that normal people didn’t end up in. Had he been a “normal” person working a regular job and making logical career choices, the stories would not have flowed, but via a mix of incurable optimism, a detachment from reality ,and a determination to pursue an occupation (film exhibition) that would only make him a living wage in glancing blows, the stories flowed.
He founded, co-founded, and operated a number of theaters, most notably the Pike Street Cinema (Seattle) and The Lighthouse (NYC), each a wellspring of tales of uphill battles. The Lighthouse was a movie theater created out of a rough space that at the time was a toxic waste dump of old hair care products.
Who bothers to do that?
He got it up and running with help from Johannes, who also booked a couple of well-attended parties in the space when it was under construction. The first screening was in February 1996 with the Japanese filmmaker Takahiko limura, and the official opening was in March. By the end of the year it was all over. Considering what an against-the-grain project it was, he got some remarkable media attention in the Post, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and others.
The most unlikely bit of press attention came from a visiting Japanese TV crew producing a TV series on interesting New Yorkers, and they made an episode on him, following him on his day’s routine. It survives as a fascinating window into his philosophies and approaches as a renegade exhibitor, complete with downbeat moments and existential ponderings over where the fuck his life was going. It was here he repeated his long-cherished mantra: “I’m doing what I want to (in life) – it doesn’t pay well.”
He had moved to NYC at the behest of Carin, his then current girlfriend, but after less than a year they had parted company. He ended up sleeping by turns in the projection booth and the lobby of the cinema he was now forced to close after pressure from the landlord. He did get a settlement to leave, but that money would not arrive for some time, and for a while it looked like he would be homeless. (In a mail I sent him on New Year’s Day, 2022, I reflected on his struggles to create the Lighthouse. “I am still in awe of what you did – insane as it was,” I wrote. “Thanks for putting that in print that I am borderline sane,” he replied, “I have had to point that out to people occasionally.”)
In the meantime, Dennis had encouraged his ex-wife, Elizabeth (co-founder with him of the Pike Street Cinema, which closed in 1995), to purchase the decrepit Clinton Street Theater in Portland, which she did for a mere $2,000. The plan was that he would travel back and join her on the project.
He packed up everything in the theater; seats, drapes, films, projectors, dirty clothes, and oddball collectibles that had nothing to do with film into a U-Haul truck, and when he pulled away from the curb it was so grossly overloaded that the tires were almost flat and it creaked and listed like an old ship. Somehow he got it out of the city and onto the highway.
The truck broke down a number of times on the Interstate crossing the country, and he would have to hitchhike to the nearest town to wire Elizabeth for money and find a mechanic – at one point flying down the highway on a Harley, Easy Rider style, after some Hells Angel stopped to give him a lift. Elizabeth and I followed his progress with baited breath, exchanging many nervous faxes wondering if he would make it. But he finally arrived and rolled to a stop at the curb in front of the Clinton, where the great unpacking of the truck could commence. He successfully got a full reimbursement from U-Haul after threatening to sue them, even though the breakdowns had clearly been caused by the massive overloading.
They did succeed in taking over the Clinton Street Theater in September 1999, and tales flowed from that, but that’s another story.
I was on a West Coast swing in 2003 to show films and had a gig at the Clinton. Dennis and Elizabeth had gone their separate ways by then and had just sold the theater. She was with a guy called Steve at that point, and Dennis was doing some gigs in Europe. I did not see him, but since I had nowhere else to stay, they gave me the key to his one-room apartment in the flophouse that occupied the floors above the theater, and I slept there. It was almost impossible to even open the door to get into the room as there was a massive 7-foot mound of films and equipment and even a jukebox in the middle of the floor that you had to climb over to get to the bed – his personal property that Steve and a helper had to move out before the new owner could take over.
Dennis often boasted about his archive of films, which had a number of homes over the years. It might have been well organized in some locations, but it was also kind of a “homeless archive” since – aside from a stretch when he was affiliated with Marylhurst College – he was unattached to any institution that would have provided the kind of temperature-controlled and dust-protected settings that stuffy “film archivists” insist on, and financial limitations forced him to move between storage spaces and garages. He ended up forever dismantling his metal racks and reassembling them elsewhere. It became kind of a thing in Portland film circles, “Dennis and his metal racks.” (He might have gotten sick of the racks himself since when I helped him organize his last space in a Portland garage in August 2019 he let me put them together. In truth he had a more urgent task, cutting down vines that had grown up into the roof and opened up gaps where it rained in.) Anyway, although it was not directly of his making, it’s perhaps in-character that I saw his films then as films are rarely seen – piled up into a mountain. His films and equipment were like a 10-ton gorilla chained to his ankle.
In the mid-2000s, he married NYC-based writer Anne Richardson, and they moved back to Portland, where she was from. For some years they lived in Anne’s family’s house as they took care of her elderly mother. They collaborated on many projects including the founding of the Oregon Cartoon Institute in 2007 and in 2009 the hosting of a film festival at Marylhurst, where Dennis now stored his prints and where he had rebuilt their projection booth.
For years he had speculated to me about a plan to do a never-ending film tour, like Bob Dylan does a never-ending tour. But times were changing and fewer venues were screening celluloid, and now YouTube was flooding cyberspace with the kind of visual oddities and discoveries that had been our stock-in-trade in the 1990s, while archivists like Richard Prelinger had digitized and made their archives publicly accessible online. Of course, it had never been entirely about the films, it was more the overall experience you got with him and that was still top-rate. Anyway, he put the never-ending tour on hold and got a door-to-door salesman job with OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting), where his naturally engaging personality stood him in good stead. He was a top seller there for years even though he didn’t particularly like the job.
When Anne’s mother died, they left the house and Anne found her own apartment, although they stayed married, for the most part happily. Dennis was often out on the road at this point but was as usual broke, and when in Portland he slept across the front seat of his truck, washing and shaving in Starbucks restrooms. Literally for years. That truck was also a kind of gorilla chained to his ankle, breaking down in every conceivable way over the years. Once he and his mechanic took out the transmission and disassembled it on the mechanic’s driveway until his old lady came out and yelled at them. Dennis came to know everything a human being can know about gas pumps. Back in August 2019, we were headed over to his storage space to organize his films, and Dennis warned me that when we pulled out of his driveway onto the busy main road it would probably stall, and sure enough it did. Somehow we avoided causing a pile-up. He got it going again and it stalled again, but we were at the top of a hill and managed to coast eight blocks until we luckily came to rest gently against the curb in an empty parking spot, and we took a bus the rest of the way.
Eventually through the intervention of a friend, S. W. Conser, he moved into their house on Mount Tabor. Now he had a beautiful porch to read the New York Times in the morning and make good coffee, and a small study to pore over his films. In return, he hauled a monstrous Scopitone jukebox into their living room, filled the driveway with vehicles that didn’t work, did film shows on the lawn, and covered the rent in a pinch.
On December 29, 2017, to our shock, we learned he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Over the next almost five years he had radiation and chemotherapy on and off. In March 2020 he writes, “I need acupuncture for my knee. It works. When I went in the knee was buckling and I had fallen down a flight of stairs. I could also not pedal a bike. The left leg would not follow through. After three sessions the knee was good. Unfortunately, there is still chemo in me, a goddamn month later, and missing the last session my knee is worse than it was.” For long stretches the cancer seemed to be in remission, and he had hopes right up to the summer of 2022 that it would be cured and he could run and dance and enjoy life and play baseball again and chase down fly balls in the outfield with the grace of a gazelle as he had once boasted to me while we were waiting for a bus.
On that visit in 2019, Anne was there too. I had not seen her since the mid-2000s when I ran into them in St. Etienne, France – she having accompanied him on the French leg of that tour. At one point, having lunch with them in a bar, she told me with a great beaming smile that I had never seen the “other” Dennis – the family man who was so great on camping trips with her kids. He showed no signs of wear at this point, and we ended up walking lost for three miles through an industrial area on the other side of the river because he thought they were running buses on Sunday but they weren’t. That convinced me along with his probably overly optimistic mails that he would beat the cancer.
But it continued to bounce around in him. The expectation was clearly that Anne would outlive him, and therefore it was a shock when she herself was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in May 2020. She died on October 14 of that year, having chosen “death with dignity” over chemo or radiation therapy, which she could not tolerate.
He was gutted, obviously, and some of his mails veered into understandable depression.
One missive on May 17, 2022, simply read:
I’m being treated for cancer.
My wife Anne died.
So it goes.
He had every reason to become embittered, but he didn’t have it in his DNA to become embittered, and in spite of everything he eventually regained his optimism.
During 2022, he wrote a lot about things he had experienced and witnessed, not just film stuff but generally things in his life. “It’s been a fun ride,” he was prompted to reflect.
By early fall his mails grew less frequent, and, although I do not know what he said to the people around him in Portland, he never told me that the end was near. He bought films and equipment on eBay right up to the end and was trying to get ahold of a Bauer zoom lens for a 16mm projector.
He had no intention of dying.
His last message to me was telling me he was in room 60 of some hospital if I could come and visit.
* * *
There were trademark “Dennis Nyback shows.” For silent films he encouraged the audience to bring their own acoustic instruments to provide the sound, and other times he just showed what was laying around the projection booth and called it a pot-luck special. And for all who knew him there were classic “Dennis Nyback moments.” He just wasn’t like anyone else.
I remember a few.
At one point, in the basement film club called Slagtehal 3 co., in Århus, Denmark, he was screening films on a 16mm projector to an appreciative audience when someone called out in alarm, having notice a big pile of 16mm film on the floor under the projector. Dennis spotted it, then turned off the projector. The back “take-up” spool that winds up the film after it passes through the machine had for some reason stopped turning, and the film had looped onto the floor and started piling up there into a big mound without anyone noticing. Normally a film collector would freak out at the sight of his precious celluloid laying in a heap on a dirty floor, but Dennis just calmly started to turn the back spool by hand and wind up the pile of film. The audience had gone silent, and in this silence Dennis started to . . . sing.
In January 2020, he was on a short, self-booked Nordic tour and was for a few days in Copenhagen screening at my theater. One day he got lost wandering around the city, and, (proudly) having no smart phone, he called out to a group of people if anyone could help him find his way back to the cinema. It so happened that in that crowd was a Danish actor called Roland Møller, who volunteered to walk him back to the theater. He was the perfect person on earth for Dennis to meet, the roughish outsider of Danish cinema who had come from a life of crime and prison to become an award-winning actor. On top of that he was making a documentary about the life of an American actress from the Golden Age, I forget which one, but of course one that Dennis knew everything about. On the way back they traded stories, and later in his hotel room Dennis befriended him on Facebook and showed me his biography and told me I should show his films at the cinema at some point.
One of his stories that stayed with me was when Dennis was riding the Copenhagen-bound night train departing from Trondheim, Norway, and going via Stockholm. He told me about the few souls who boarded the train at desolate outposts at that ungodly hour as it rattled through the forests of the Swedish outback. He ended up engaging them all, including a cute gal travelling to the next town over to take tango lessons. He liked people. He had a boyish sense of wonder right up to the end and felt we should all be grateful we hadn’t been flattened by the proverbial beer truck. He never preached it, he just lived it.
He never failed to remind me that I had booked him this godawful-long 25-hour (or whatever) train trip, and I had to remind him that it was in sum total a positive experience, and he would say “yeah, you’re right.” The last time he brought it up, we unpacked it a bit more and came to the realization that I had booked him on the train from Trondheim directly to Copenhagen, which is relatively due south, but it departed hours after the one that made a huge detour to the east, via Stockholm, so he jumped on that one instead rather than having to loiter in the station.
In the last years, much of our communications involved arguing these kind of trivial details. He tended to repeat his stories, and I had to point out how various versions over the years differed, how the first five times he told me this had happened and in recent tellings how that small, meaningless detail had changed, and yet now it changed back. So what was it? I knew his past life better than he did. But if I was an irritating friend, maybe he forgave me. After his aforementioned last stay in Copenhagen, he mailed me: “Thanks you so much for everything: hotel, taxi to the airport, dinners, and being my great friend.”
Recalling that Nordic train trip, I would say that even when he was on the right track and where he was supposed to be, he was still a little bit adrift, but in a positive way. Because of that he was always compelled to reach out to people. That’s how he met people, zillions of them, and how his life was rich with experiences.
Obituaries tend to portray their subjects as universally loved, which is maudlin crap and why I am not a big fan of the genre. I won’t say he was universally loved, but he made an impression on people and usually positive. He was such an individual that of course some people didn’t get him and some people were almost allergic to him. He told me a story about a café that he and Anne went to every Sunday for brunch until in a bewildering turn the waitress grew hostile and stopped serving them or communicating with them, and they never went back. He couldn’t quite figure it out, although he was well aware he was not everybody’s cup of tea.
On that previously referred to August trip in 2019, where I stayed at his house in Portland, sleeping on his dining room floor, we roamed the town. We travelled mostly by bus since taking his pickup truck was a game of Russian roulette. We waited endlessly at bus stops, and that gave me a chance to hear some new stories. And we visited many of his beloved local attractions. One night we attended the screening of the new musical Blinded by the Light, down the hill at the Bagdad Theater, only because that’s what happened to be playing and he wanted me to experience the place.
The movie ended and the lights came up. I liked the film OK, but I felt obliged to voice a few half-hearted complaints, since after all I was in the company of a guy who relentlessly preached against Hollywood crap and studio crap for decades, but he was oddly quiet as we slowly rose up out of our seats, and he shrugged it off.
“I like musicals,” he said, like in a “what can I say?” kind of way.
And I said no more.
It could seem like he was living a musical. He could give the impression he led a charmed life, but he didn’t. He had it tough plenty and took some big hits that would have flattened most of us, particularly toward the end, but he got back up. He had some kind of rare reserve of positive karma. He summed it up to me in one of his last mails:
“It’s been great.”
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the author’s collection.