History in the Age of the Internet: Setting the Record Straight on Dan Ireland

It is common online for a willfully deceitful item to be posted that is taken as true and then is replicated and strewn near and far, causing mischief and havoc. That seems most common in the world of politics. For a historian the problem can be the slothfully deceitful item — not at all connected with politics or serving some higher goal — that is slapped online, replicated and strewn near and far, and then in most cases sinks into the slop that is the past to become part of “recorded history.” These items will be left for future historians to sort out. They might even get it right.

The story of the death of Dan Ireland is just one example of where the Internet has it wrong.

Dan Ireland died on April 14, 2016. He was a Hollywood director and producer. He was also a founder of the Seattle International Film Festival. Obituaries appeared in the New York Daily News, The New York Post, the Seattle Times, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. His death was also reported around the world in various languages. All of them said he had died at the age of 57. Most said he had been born in Canada.

In reality he was an American, originally from Portland, Oregon. When he died he was 66 years old.

I first met Dan at the gala opening of the Moore Egyptian Theater in Seattle on December 14, 1975. I was 22 years old. At the time I was attending the University of Washington and working as a projectionist at a Seattle theater called the Movie House. My boss was Randy Finley, who had offered me my first job at a movie theater when I was 19 years old. Randy gave me his invitation to the Moore Egyptian opening and asked me to represent him at the event. I dressed for the event in white tie and tails. After entering the theater I stood at the edge of the large lobby observing the crowd. Dan walked up to me and carefully looked me up and down, and then up and down again, and then, in an invitingly provocative way said, “Who are you?” He certainly did not appear to me to be a teenager. After a brief conversation he offered me the Moore Egyptian projectionist job. He said that working for him would include a path for me to take into the Seattle projectionist union. I did not know that he had previously offered the same projectionist job deal to an acquaintance of mine who had been working in the theater for two months getting it ready for opening night. Apparently one look at me and the other guy was metaphorically thrown out the window. Being unaware of this, I was happy to take the job.

The Moore Theater was built for Vaudeville in 1907. It had two balconies. A projection booth was installed in the second balcony in the mid 1960’s for occasional film screenings. Dan discovered the projection booth there on his first visit. The 35mm projectors were akin to what I had worked with at the Movie House, except they were older and stranger. They didn’t frighten me. They did include carbon arc lamphouses. That was new. I had only worked with xenon lamps, which were then pushing carbon arc into extinction. Carbon arc used a live flame as the source of the light. That living flame made movies possible on the big screen. Dan gave me my first instruction on carbon arc projection. At the end of the demonstration he cut the electrical current to the arc and then lit a cigarette off the glowing end of the dying carbon.Welcome to show biz!

I worked as a projectionist at the Moore Egyptian through the third SIFF in the Spring of 1978. I did get into the projectionist union in 1978. In 1979 I took over operation of the Rose Bud Movie Palace in Seattle. It was a tiny revival theater in Pioneer Square dedicated to screening rare films from the silent era forward. It was at the Rose Bud that I first started buying short films to project before the features. The shorts were my attempt to create the movie going experience of the Thirties. It was at the Rose Bud where I first created feature length programs out of short subjects.

I remained in the projectionist union until automation put projectionists out of work in the early 90’s. The last carbon arc projection booth I worked in was at the King Theater in Seattle in 1989. It included running Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. Carbon Arc 70mm is a thing of beauty now lost to the public. In 1995 I first took film programs to Europe showing Bad Bugs Bunny in over thirty venues, traveling by train, as far South as France and as far North as Norway, for nearly two months. Later in 1995 I moved from Seattle to New York to open the Lighthouse Cinema on Suffolk Street on the lower East Side. In 1999 I moved to Portland, Oregon to take over the Clinton St. Theater. That brought me home. I was born on the Washington side of the Columbia River but I have always considered myself a Portlander and an Oregonian. Foster Road, a major arterial of Portland, is named after my three great grandfather Philip Foster, who came to the Oregon Territory by ship in 1843.

I now operate the Dennis Nyback Film Archive in Portland. I have also been a guest showing films at dozens of film festivals around the world as far away at Iceland (1999), South Korea (2003), Finland (2011) and Switzerland (2013). In April, 2017 I will be guest at the Sleeping Giant Film Festival in Jacksonville, Florida. I would not be where I am today if Dan Ireland had not hired me to work at the Moore Egyptian in 1975.

In a 2008 interview Dan talked about first working in a Vancouver theater when he was fifteen, that he had become a manager of a theater after he graduated from high school, and that he had booked films for the Vancouver Film Festival for its first three years. That festival started in 1969. In that interview he also said that he had been born in Portland, Oregon and that his family had moved to Vancouver when he was five. An article in the LA Times, “A Man of Action,” in 1997 included this:

“My father taught me to love music,” Ireland says, “but I discovered movies myself. By the time I was 8, I was seeing things like Room at the Top (1959) and The Apartment (1960), and was obsessed–I had no idea, however, where it might lead. I never considered acting, for instance, because I had such a strong sense of myself as an audience member.”

Where it was to lead started to coalesce in 1965, when Ireland got that job as an usher at Vancouver’s Vogue Theater. “My first week on the job, I saw Thunderball‘ (1965) 150 times–and thus began my dissection of what a film is,” says Ireland, an autodidact who never attended film school.

Paula Trent, who was the bookkeeper for Dan at the Moore Egyptian, told me that Dan Ireland was born in Beaverton, Oregon, May 11, 1949.

So, how could such a mistake be made? A usual suspect would be Wikipedia. There I found no birth date or birthplace given on Dan’s page before April 16 of 2017. It currently gives his birth date as May 11, 1958. The birth date of May 11, 1958 and birthplace of Vancouver, Canada can be found on the Dan Ireland page at the Internet Movie Database site. The earliest citing of a 1958 birth date that I have found is at Historylink.org (The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History) page “First Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) opens at Moore Egyptian Theatre on May 14, 1976” published on May 1, 2012. It begins “On May 14, 1976, the first Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) opens at the historic Moore Egyptian Theatre at 2nd Avenue and Virginia Street. The festival’s founders, Dan Ireland (born 1958) and Darryl MacDonald, had taken over the Moore Theatre the previous year, cleaned it up, installed a new screen and sound system, and reopened it as the The Moore Egyptian in December 1975. ” I asked HistoryLink to change the incorrect birth date. I was told by them that their search found no evidence to back up such a change.

It is less important just where the age of 57 came from. The problem is that since it appeared, it has multiplied exponentially. The greater problem is how this affects the study of history.

During his lifetime it was Dan Ireland’s business if he wanted to fudge his biography. In Hollywood that might be a given: the silent film actress Corrine Griffith famously tried in 1966 to knock twenty years off her age by claiming that she was in reality her own younger sister. Now anyone can access the true birth date of Corrine Griffith. Those same sources should have the correct birth date of Dan Ireland.

The last SIFF that I was involved with was the third. It started on May 11, 1978. It was Dan’s twenty-ninth birthday. For the previous year I had been splitting the projectionist job with Ray Sage. Ray went to Trinidad for a long vacation during the festival. That left me to run every one of the 45 features that were shown during the month-long festival. That included press screenings in the mornings, public screenings in the evenings, matinees on the weekends, and midnighters. That is all, except one. For some reason, Dan ran the midnight screening of the film Hot Tomorrows himself.

Hot Tomorrows is a curious, black and white film, made in Canada by Martin Brest, who went on to make Hollywood films such as Beverly Hills Cop and Going in Style. Hot Tomorrows is about a young man who is obsessed with death and old movies. It contains a big production number recreating the Busby Berkeley title song production number from the 1932 film 42nd Street. In Hot Tomorrows the singing and dancing includes men rising from coffins. It is an homage to old Hollywood. Dan loved old movies. The film shown on opening night of the Moore Egyptian on December 14, 1975 was The Gang’s All Here (1943), directed by Busby Berkeley. (There was a “secret” film in the first SIFF. It was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also a homage to old Hollywood.)

Before the Moore Egyptian opened Dan devised an ad campaign of teaser newspaper spots that was based on the promotion of the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments. The 1975 ads included such cryptic copy as “Freezing While Dying With Their Boots On” and “All at Moore Egyptian, and Then What?”

Dan’s first directorial effort was the film The Whole Wide World (1996). It was about the writer Robert E. Howard, who died in 1936. Dan’s film starts the action in 1933. If Robert E. Howard had somehow fudged his own birth date by nine years the Robert E. Howard we meet in the film would have been a teenager. It would have seemed patently silly in the film for a teenager to be introduced as “The greatest pulp writer in the whole world.”

It is just as silly for me to picture the Dan I met in 1975 as a teenager. That would be the situation if his birth date of 1958 is accepted as the truth.

Just when Dan was born matters so that historians can give his career proper context. Having his birth date being 1958 places him with Tim Burton, Madonna, and Michael Jackson. Putting his birth in 1949 places him with Terry Zwigoff, Twiggy, and John Belushi. In Oregon film history, his accurate or false birth date is the difference of his being born between Bill Plympton (April 30, 1946) and Gus Van Sant (July 24, 1952) or between Matt Groening (February 15, 1954) and Todd Haynes (January 2, 1961).

One of Dan’s catch phrases at the Moore Egyptian, usually at five minutes before opening the doors, was “We are on display here!” Yes, he cared about getting things right. We should care about displaying his birth date correctly. It will be one less hurdle for future historians to jump over.

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.

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