Nightly Rendezvous: At the Jewel Box with Dennis Nyback

The Rendezvous in 1990. Photo credit: Roger Schreiber

When I closed the Rose Bud Movie Palace in 1981 I figured that my days of running a movie theater were behind me. I would still continue to work as a projectionist through the projectionists’ union (I.A.T.S.E # 154 Motion Picture Operators). Occasionally I would take a projector to my son Alex’s daycare and show the kids cartoons. That changed in 1989 when I was asked to be part of a new endeavor, The Belltown Film Festival, that would show films once a month at the Jewel Box Theater, inside the Rendezvous Restaurant. It was located between Battery and Bell on Second Avenue in Belltown. The Jewel Box was a relic from the past. It had once been a screening room for the movie industry. In 1989, aside from occasional punk rock music events, the Jewel Box sat unused like Sleeping Beauty’s castle surrounded by thorns.

The Rendezvous was a greasy spoon; mostly it was known for its dive bar. If you came into the Rendezvous you would never guess the cute little Jewel Box Theater was hidden inside. From the dining room it was through an unmarked door that remained closed during dining hours. The Rendezvous was open for breakfast and lunch, but not for dinner. The bar was open late. To get into the Jewel Box, customers would enter from the street, pass the bar through a hallway, and enter the empty dining room. If the unmarked door was open they could enter the theater. It had been built in 1932. It had Art Deco light fixtures, silk damask wall coverings suspended from the edges like canvas on huge frames, and instead of theater seats, it had booths and tables and chairs. For big crowds the tables could be removed and more chairs moved in. In a pinch it might hold eighty.

The Rendezvous and Jewel Box Theater in the 1930s.
Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives. CC-BY.

I had started hanging out in Belltown a couple of years earlier. I had a business called Spade & Archer. I sold mystery and crime books. My first location was a room in the Seattle Book Center in Belltown. I would have my morning coffee in Kurt Timmermeister’s first Septieme location. I really liked the pastries Kurt made. It was there I met Geof Spencer, who had a Belltown storefront called Occupied Seattle where he sold this and that. Geof also used his space for cabaret shows. One of those shows was the first Seattle appearance of Jim Rose, who later formed the Jim Rose Circus. Kurt moved a couple of doors north when he took over what had been the MGM building at the corner of 2nd and Battery. That location of Septieme was the most pleasant place I ever had a cup of coffee in. It also had a great wait staff that included Dan Savage. I had coffee just about every morning in Septieme up until the time Kurt moved it to Capitol Hill.

At the beginning of the Belltown Film Festival there were three of us involved. The others were Nick Vroman and Geof Spencer. Nick wanted to show underground and oddball films. Geof wanted to host home movie nights. Nick and Geof brought me in because I owned film projection equipment. This was before the day of digital projection.

At the beginning it was a screening once a month. Nick’s first show was the early Todd Haynes film Superstar (the Karen Carpenter story played by Barbie Dolls, a terrific film) in February of 1989. My first show was “The Effect of Dada and Surrealism on Hollywood Movies of the Thirties” on March 22. It was a lot of fun with footage of W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bela Lugosi, various others and a lot of Busby Berkeley. The crowd loved it. Geof’s first show was a Home Movie night with films brought in by the Belltown community on April 12.

My second night on May 16 was the Laura La Plante silent film The Cat and the Canary. I had read that in the sixties the Granada Organ Loft Theatre had hosted a Laura La Plante personal appearance, claiming she was a Seattle girl who went on to become a star in Hollywood.

The Granada was a movie theater in West Seattle that had been taken over in 1964 by a group of theater organ fans, led by Lou Demoulin. They installed an opus #164, four-manual “Special” pipe organ, that had been in Portland’s Liberty Theatre. At the time of its original installation in Portland in 1918 it was, at 34 ranks, the largest Wurlitzer theater installation ever done. The Granada Organ Loft crew dedicated themselves to showing 35mm silent films with live organ accompaniment. The Granada finally closed in 1974.

For my Laura LaPlante night I promoted her Seattle roots. and I got a lot of newspaper ink and a full house. Later I looked for evidence that Laura was from Seattle. I couldn’t find any. Wherever the Granada guys got their information, it was apparently wrong.

Other than home movie nights, Geof really wasn’t interested in anything else, his interests being mostly things to involve the Belltown community. Nick showed the early Peter Greenaway film The Falls, and a documentary about the “Run Bambi, Run” criminal Lawrencia Ann Bembenek. All I remember of that one is long takes of a woman shot from behind using a silk screen loom. All screenings were 16mm with me the projectionist. Eventually Nick and Geof lost interest. There were no screenings in July. In August I moved the Belltown Film Festival into being a once a week event. That started with a six week jazz film series. The first film in the series was on August 16. It was from Murray, the never screened Jivin’ in Be-Bop with Dizzy Gillespie (1948). It packed the house.

In those days the Rendezvous was owned in a partnership between Wayne Shwartzkopf and Fritz Sullivan. Fritz was a big healthy Irish guy who always seemed to be in a good mood. Wayne was a very unhealthy looking guy who spent a lot of time in the Rendezvous bar with a stiff drink in front of him and cigarette in a nearby ashtray. My deal to use the Jewel Box on weeknights was for free. The upside for the Rendezvous was that I could attract a crowd that would spend money in the restaurant and bar. The deal had originally been made by Geof and Nick. The deal was made with Fritz. I took my side of the deal seriously. I brought in both 16mm and 35mm projectors. I put something on the screen one, two or three nights a week for three years. Shows were usually at 5:30, 7:15 and 9:00. The 5:15 show was surprisingly popular. Most of that crowd were people just getting off work. The stiff drinks from the bar were a big part of the appeal.

One reason I could fulfill that obligation was I had my films and I could also borrow films from John Ochs, Bob West and Doug Stewart, and of course, get cheap rentals from the Em Gee Film Library. That was run by Murray Glass in Reseda, CA. He had a treasure trove of public domain films available only in 16mm and rentable at dirt cheap prices. Business was almost always good. Most of the programs featured jazz music or silent films. All of the silent films featured live accompaniment. It was there I first had the cellist Lori Goldston accompany silent films.

One Jewel Box problem was there was no ventilation. Filling the place up, during winter with the heat on inside, or in the summer with it hot outside, would make it miserably stifling in the room. Fritz told me there was nothing that could be done about it. Doug Stewart told me to go up on the roof of the building and see if there was a blower up there. I followed Doug’s directive. Sure enough, on the flat tar paper roof, was a great big blower, with an electric motor at least two feet tall. It looked like it had last been used during the Eisenhower administration. The belt was shot. Bare wires stuck out from the box on the motor. Whatever electricity that had once activated it, was now long gone. I reported all this to Doug. He advised me to replace the brushes in the motor. I was then told to run an extension cord up to to roof and stick the bare wires into it. If the motor worked, the next step was to get a new belt. Sure enough, new brushes revived the motor. The new belt revived the blower. I cut the end off the extension cord and soldered the motor wires to it. The other end of it was in the projection booth. From then on the only thing needed to ventilate the room was for me to plug it in.

Dennis Nyback in the Jewel Box Theater, 1990. Photo: Roger Schreiber.

Oh, there was one other little problem. The blower sucked out the stale theater air through vents in the ceiling. Since the room had no windows, and was in the center of the building, the fresh air input was from a big screened opening in back of the movie screen on the alley. Everything would be fine except when the garbage was picked up. The garbage truck would stop in the alley just even with the screened opening. It the blower was going the stench of the garbage would envelope the room. I had to develop a sixth sense to detect the approach of the garbage truck and unplug the blower before it would arrive. Luckily, the garbage truck would shake the building in a distinctive way when it rumbled down the alley. I came to recognize it and would react accordingly. If I missed it, a weird sort of moan would arise from the seated movie goers, which would spring me to action.

Another problem took more finesse to solve. The state liquor control people came in one day and said there needed to be more light in the auditorium because people were drinking there. That was because the liquor control people were concerned that if there were dark corners in a bar there would be sex in those shadowed margins. It was a vestige of old blue laws. They wanted little lamps on all the tables. Of course that would be awful for people trying to watch a film. I asked how much light was needed. I was told enough to read a menu by. Well, with a picture on the screen there was a enough reflected back light for that. Explaining that mollified them and they went away. If I had wanted to be more helpful, I could have told them that if they were looking for sex they should drop into Tugs up the street.

One very successful series in April of 1990 was called Blacks in Black and White that featured all Black films of the 20’s through the 40’s. I opened with the silent film The Scar of Shame. It was shot in Philadelphia in 1927. I followed that with Imitation of Life made in 1934, which was not all black, but did feature Fredi Washington in the role of a light-skinned black woman trying to pass for white. Oddly, the fifties remake of the movie had a white actress play the passing for white part. I followed that with King Vidor’s all-Black 1929 musical Hallelujah featuring Nina Mae McKinney. Then was Vincente Minnelli’s all black 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky featuring Ethel Waters. The rarest film was Dirty Gertie From Harlem, an all black production, including the producer Alfred Sack, director Spencer Williams, and a cast featuring Francine Everett, Don Wilson, and Katherine Moore. The last week of the run was a program of shorts. From my films came Black and Tan with Duke Ellington and Fredi Washington and Pie Pie Blackbird with the Nicholas Brothers and Nina Mae McKinney. From Murray I rented a Buck and Bubbles short (with Ford Lee Washington and John W. Sublett). Both Buck and Bubbles were in Cabin in the Sky. I also rented from Murray the short Yamekraw (1930) which was a ten minute interpretation of James P. Johnson’s most serious composition: a black answer to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The Jewel Box was a lively place. Usually my former wife Beth would sell tickets and I would be in charge of the projection booth and what not. One night a young woman came up to me and timidly asked if I could remove a man from the ladies room. My first thought was that the bathrooms were the responsibility of the bar. I then looked into the upset eyes of the young woman and realized she was a customer of mine, not the bar’s, and dealing with the problem was my responsibility. In the ladies room I found a very disheveled drunk sitting on the single toilet, his pants around his knees, passed out. What a sight. I figured the young woman was one customer who wouldn’t be coming back a second time. I grabbed him by his shoulder and shook him awake. I told him to get up and get out. I didn’t help him pull up his pants. He barely managed to do that himself and left.

Another time I heard a commotion in the bar. A guy had pulled a knife. Several other guys had taken it away from him and were hustling him toward the front door. He wasn’t a big guy, but halfway down the hallway, with a show of great strength, he threw off the guys who were holding him. He then literally jumped up and down in rage. He yelled “Give me my knife back. It’s dangerous out there!” Reinforcements arrived and eventually threw him out the front door. They did not give him his knife back. I had to agree with him, though. After dark in the Regrade, he just might need it.

The damask decor of the Jewel Box interior. Photo: Roger Schreiber.

I could do no wrong with jazz on film. Mainly because none of it was on video and what I showed was flat out great stuff many people were dying to see. From my own archive I had hours of music films that included Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Eddy Peabody, Cab Calloway, Artie Shaw,
Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers, and much, much more. From Murray I got the one hour TV show, The Sound of Jazz. It had aired on live TV in 1957 and is single greatest assemblage of jazz stars ever filmed in one place. I showed the even rarer Rhythm in a Riff with Billie Eckstine’s great 1946 bebop band; it was a wonderful 1964 TV pilot for a show that was never made called After Hours. Set in a closed night club where musicians would drop in and jam, it featured Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge; then there was Vout O Rooney with the Slim Gaillard Trio filmed live at Billy Berg’s nightclub in Hollywood. Hardcore jazz fans came just to get a glimpse of the inside of Billy Berg’s. That was because Charlie Parker had a famous gig there. There was a lot more from Murray, but the last I will mention, was Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a perfect look at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. With Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, and pretty much all the jazz acts in the festival, it is much more than a concert film. It is a sweet movie.

Most of the time trouble in the bar didn’t spill out into the dining room or into the Jewel Box itself. One of the most famous events had almost nothing to do with the bar, but with my piano player. For silent movies I would get him to play for the 7:15 show. His pay would be twenty five bucks. A perk was a couple of drinks from the bar. One night he showed up so early that I hadn’t arrived. He went to a nearby bar and got hammered. When he came back I was in the projection booth. He went into the Rendezvous bar looking for a free drink. The bartender, Jan, didn’t know him from Adam. In the past I had gotten the drinks and delivered them to him. When he mentioned my name, it didn’t pull any freight either. Jan knew me by sight, not by name. When she demanded payment, he grabbed the drink and walked away with it. He was being thrown out of the place when I came down. I had to convince Jan to let him stay. She said he’d been 86’d and that was that. The bar was her domain and no one 86’d was ever forgiven. Letting just one person slide might make her lose control of the menagerie in the bar. It took a lot of convincing. She finally gave in after I assured her that I would keep him out the bar itself and would be responsible for him and there’d be no further disturbance.

I thought that was true. Right then he told me he had never been so humiliated and he would not play the piano that evening. A full crowd was in the theater. Most of the them were listening to what was going on. I did my best to placate him and get him to stay. Finally he said he’d play if he was paid in advance. I gave him the cash. He then turned and walked out the door. I chased after him. Walking down the middle of Bell Street I tried to get him to listen to reason. I tried to lean on our many years of friendship. Nothing worked. At Third and Battery I stopped and watched him walk away.

Back at the Jewel Box, now twenty or thirty minutes past show time, I had to announce to the crowd that there would be no live music with the movie. I got a very nice, sympathetic, round of applause. For the next several years people would bring up that night and claim they were there. The following week the piano player was back on the job.

The bartender Jan not knowing my name, even though she’d been handing me free vodka and orange juice Screwdrivers a couple of days a week for three years, wasn’t unusual around the place. A lot of people came and went. There was a second story to the building. To get there you used a staircase in the bar. Halfway up was the door to the projection booth. All the way up were offices. The offices had been tricked out in the fifties. They had padded Naugahyde walls and doors. Very chic at one time. Now those rooms were vacant. There was also one very large room in the back. About once a month a Native American named Fred would lead a drum circle up there. Luckily it was rarely on nights I was showing movies below.

Jack Stevenson calling out of the blue was a lucky day. You can read about that in my Kuchar Brothers story. That was the summer of 1990. The highlight of his first appearance was the urban drive-in show we did. Across the street from the Jewel Box was the parking lot for the plumber’s union building. It was slightly below street level with one end against the blank white wall of the building. From Geof Spencer’s store we had access to the roof of the building at the other side of the lot. Jack and I set the projector on the roof of the building and put a 20 foot wide image on the wall across. People came in cars and on foot toting beach chairs. They were in a party mood. Jack provided the features Viva Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Didn’t have any permits for what we did. During the Elvis flick a police cruiser came slowly up the alley and stopped at the entrance to the lot. The cop asked “What are all you people doing?” As in one voice the crowd replied “We’re watching a movie!” The cruiser rolled on. Oh yeah: Jack’s visit was also when we both discovered Scopitones.

The Rendezvous also had a basement. Part of the basement was rented out cheap to rock bands for rehearsal rooms. I would often run into musicians on the stairs. I had no interest in current music but was on friendly terms with several of them. One of the bands was Alice in Chains. I’m sure most of the other Sub Pop bands hung out there too. A couple of years later I was talking to one of the guys at the Pike Street Cinema after a show. To me he was just a guy who’d been coming to my shows. A young woman quietly stood by and watched. After he left she came up to me and said “Do you know who that is?” I said, “A guy who comes to my shows.” She said, with a certain reverence in her voice “That was Eddie Vedder.” I was later told that Mr. Vedder had bought a Scopitone Machine.

Photo: Dennis Nyback.

I thought I had a couple of great ideas for the beginning of 1991. Doug Stewart had a half hour film of strippers in a club that was filmed in a Seattle bar in the early sixties. I had some older footage of vintage strippers. The show was called Queens of Burlesque. I press screened it and got some reviews. It sounded like a lot more fun than it was. The Seattle film presented a sleazy look at an unhappy bunch of women who didn’t enjoy their work. Crowds still showed up for it.

The following week, Tuesday and Wednesday January 22-23 was a more serious show, War: Is It For You? At the time, the Gulf War was really getting going. Iraq had invaded Kuwait six months earlier. The path to war ratcheted up after that. The aerial bombardment of Iraq had started on January 17. I thought I could get a lot of press with an anti-war show in the face of all the pro-war hoopla. I was wrong. I got no press at all and very small crowds came to see the program. It started with a 1960 ten minute US Army film The American Soldier. It starts with an atomic bomb blast and mushroom cloud. Its purpose was to extol our great military and explain how it is the individual soldier who is bedrock of it. It included very early footage of US “advisers” in Vietnam. I rented a WW II Government film called The Japanese Zero. It featured Ronald Reagan as aviator who sloughs off on studying plane recognition and almost mistakenly kills one his flying buddies. I borrowed Field Medicine in Vietnam from Jack Stevenson. I ended the show with a clip from a 1950’s religious TV show called The Christophers. After the last bloody image in Field Medicine fades away the image changes to black and white with a Catholic Priest saying, “There is no better way to end the show than to have Dennis Day come out and sing God Bless America.”

The people who did come to the show left the theater with anti-war fire in their eyes. One woman was visibly shaken and told me she very much objected to what I had done. She said that she didn’t like to have her feelings manipulated, and finding out that she wasn’t strong enough to not become enraged, made her disappointed in herself, and also mad at me. There were some older men having a few drinks while sitting at a table in the restaurant. They objected to the anti-war remarks of a small group who lingered after the screening. A heated argument ensued. It stopped just short of a fist fight.

On the following Sunday I found out how badly I had misjudged the temper of the time. That was Super Bowl XXV. The climax of the pre-game show was Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem with a color guard that seemed like thousands of soldiers, and a revved-up crowd all waving small flags. A camera panned past a row of flags of the the United Nations. In the middle of them was the iconic Battle Flag of the Confederacy. The picture faded from the Confederate flag into a close up of the face of a saluting black soldier. The announcer introduced Ms. Houston with “And now to honor America, and especially the brave men serving in the Persian Gulf, and throughout the world, will you now please join in the singing of the National Anthem. The Anthem will be followed by a flyover of F16 jets from the 56th Tactical Training Wing of McDill Air Force Base.”

The halftime show was put on by Disney and titled “It’s A Small World (After All).” The TV audience didn’t see it. Instead there was a special report on the Gulf War with Peter Jennings. Ms. Houston’s singing of the National Anthem was released as a single and rose to number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. She has been the only artist to make a hit record out of it.

Jack was scheduled to come back to the Jewel Box the first week in April. Things happened that prevented it. Instead he shipped us three programs and we handed out to everyone who attended 8 X 10 xeroxes of Jack posing in front of his car from his 1990 appearance. One reason he couldn’t make it was that he was busy preparing for me to show films in Boston. I’ll tell you about that in another story.

In May I got a letter from Jack telling me he was moving to San Francisco. He felt the market for his film shows was better there. In July he loaded up the Mercury and headed west. I got a post card from Minneapolis, color photo of an ersatz Native American in front of a tepee paddling a birch bark canoe, telling of well attended shows in Detroit. A week later a card came from Reno, color drawing of the “Sporting Map” of Nevada, telling me he’d like to show films at the Jewel Box right after getting settled in SF.

July was mostly music films. The 1964 music film The T.A.M.I. Show was the biggest hit. I got it from Murray. In June the movie star Jean Arthur had died. Responding to that I showed her in The More the Merrier (1943). My favorite screening was Frederick Wiseman’s first film Titicut Follies (1967), a look inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Boston. It had been suppressed for many years, due to an injunction based on the privacy of the inmates (in reality it was because it made the hospital look like a horrible place). I got the print directly from Fredrick Wiseman. Oddly, the Titicut screening was not in the Jewel Box. The JB must have been rented out for some other purpose that week. Instead I showed Titicut across the street at Occupied Seattle. I had found out Titicut could only be screened for members of the legal or medical community. To comply with the law I asked everyone who attended to sign cards that said they were from one or the other. It worked.

On August 20, 1991, I started an ambitious series of historic Blaxploitation feature films. I called it Black Film Views. The series would feature films rarely, or in some cases never, shown in Seattle. It opened with Boy What a Girl. That features the wonderful Tim Moore in a farce about cross-dressing. You haven’t lived until you have seen Boy, What a Girl. It would end with Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song.

Jack Stevenson was back at the Jewel Box for a rare Saturday-Monday slot August 31-Sept 2. It must have been a slack weekend for bands to have the Jewel Box available. I got him good press and big crowds showed up.

That Tuesday Black Film Views continued with Shirley Clarke’s 1964 film The Cool World. It had never been screened in Seattle. It was followed by Cleopatra Jones (1973) in which Shelley Winters gets to really chew the scenery and die in the inimitable way she owned. After that was the one and only Super Fly (1972).

Sometime during the summer of 1991 the very healthy looking Fritz dropped dead of a heart attack. Sometime later a couple of guys approached Wayne about showing movies in the Jewel Box. They offered to pay rent on the room. In mid-September, Wayne told me our deal was off and he wanted all of my stuff out of the projection booth immediately. I told him I had films booked through the end of the month and would be fine with leaving by the first of October. He agreed to that. On the morning of September 23 I went into the projection booth and found that four of my 16mm projectors had been stolen. Before discovering the stolen projectors I had found the door to the projection booth locked. It could only be locked from the outside with a key.

Only two people had a key to that door. One was me. The other was Wayne. I accused him of stealing the projectors. He said he had absolutely nothing to do with it. They were very nice projectors, two Eiki change-over models with rare inch and a half lens, and two Bell and Howell 302 Magnetic/Optical models also with inch and a half lens. They were practically irreplaceable. I went to the police. I was told that just because he had wanted me gone and that he had a key, there was no proof he had committed the crime. I was later told by a friend in the projectionist’s union that Wayne had asked him about selling the projectors. I had to bring other projectors to end the run with Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song on September 25. That was the end of three fun years in Belltown.

On April first 1992, at 1102 E Pike, on slope of Capitol Hill, I opened the Pike Street Cinema.

Categories Cinema

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.