The Kuchars at the Lighthouse

The screen of the Lighthouse. Photo by Dennis Nyback.

In early 1996 the Lighthouse Cinema at 116 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of New York City had been up and running since February 8 and getting rave reviews in various New York publications, but attracting few customers. That all changed on June 12 when a big crowd showed up for the first night of the first major retrospective of the films of George and Mike Kuchar.

The Lighthouse Cinema was created out of the contents of Seattle’s Pike St. Cinema. In the Fall of 1995 I emptied the storefront at 1108 E Pike and loaded the projectors, seats, screens, curtains, films, juke box, and everything else, into the largest truck that could be legally rented with a general driver’s license. I then drove the truck from Seattle to New York. All of the trucks contents went into the storefront at 116 Suffolk St. on New York’s Lower East Side to create what Cinema Treasures called “The last of true experimental film houses in Manhattan, the Lighthouse Cinema ran everything from Japanese avant-garde shorts to vintage gay porn from its opening in 1996 to closing a year later in 1997.”

The mention of gay porn puzzled me until I realized it was referring to my showing Thundercrack!

Front of Lighthouse Cinema, 1996. Photo by Silke Mayer

Previous to the Lighthouse retrospective there had been a 1993 single retrospective of George’s work at the American Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens: Gossamer Garbage: A George Kuchar Film and Video Retrospective, poverty-row classics by a master of underground film and video. Mike’s solo work was not included. Earlier in 1993 George, Mike and Marion Eaton came to Seattle to show films at the Pike St. and stayed at my apartment.  There is an interview by Marc Madenwald with all three in Issue 1 of the magazine Essential Cinema. It ends with

George:  “They are having a festival in Queens of a whole bunch of stuff–16 programs or something, films and video.  That’s not even all of it.  Mike got a couple in there.” (laughs)

Mike:  “Fuck them.  The hell with them.  I’m not going to recommend people go to that show. I’m completely ignored.” (laughs)

The Lighthouse would present films by both George and Mike, working together and separately, over nine days, with films projected in 8mm and 16mm.

The Moore Theater, before the Moore Egyptian. Photo from private collection.

The path to those nine days of films had started twenty years earlier when I’d first been exposed to Kuchar greatness. I was a projectionist at the Moore Egyptian Theater in Seattle. The Moore Egyptian opened in December of 1975 in what had been before, simply, The Moore Theatre, built in 1907 for vaudeville. Two guys from Canada, Dan Ireland and Darryl MacDonald, arrived in Seattle in 1975 and turned the dowdy old Moore into the sexier Moore Egyptian. They put on the first Seattle International Film Festival there in 1976.

Among the films shown at the second SIFF in 1977, as the festival’s “secret movie”, was the film Thundercrack! At the time I knew little about “underground” film. I’d been an art house projectionist for four years. The majority of the films I projected were 35mm. Since I worked at a theater I also got in free to other theaters through “professional courtesy” and saw a tremendous number of films on my own. I learned much more about Luis Buñuel and Dada and Surrealism than films from the American Underground.

My real education about the Kuchars started with Thundercrack! I projected it, and watched it. It was unlike any film I’d ever seen.

Thundercrack! is a black and white 16mm feature starring Curt McDowell, Marion Eaton and George Kuchar. Curt directed with a screenplay by George. The story was an updated, or maybe better said, camped up, version of The Old Dark House (directed by James Whale in 1932), only this time with straight out porn, including the use of an interestingly disappearing cucumber in the hands of Marion Eaton as she peered through a peep hole to watch a sex act performed by a couple who had arrived earlier at her spooky mansion during a storm. Thundercrack! was given a well deserved X rating. Sex was not the only attraction. George’s script included wonderfully artful over-the-top dialogue. Marion said “I was absolutely thrilled with the script. I found George’s language fascinating, it reminded me of Tennessee Williams. I loved her [the character Gert Hammond] long gorgeous speeches.” George himself was funny in everything he did and was at the top of his form here. There was also a near hurricane and a gorilla in the picture. John Russell Taylor, writing for Sight and Sound called it “a genuinely erotic and genuinely frightening picture.”

The unique quality of Thundercrack! was not the only part of my underground film education. For one thing, no one seemed to care much about the actual print. After the festival showing it stayed on the projector, tails out, waiting to be re-wound and shipped out, for what seemed like months. It just sat collecting dust and became as much a part of the projection booth as the clock on the wall. Obviously the people who’d made the film were marching to a wildly different drummer than the producers of most films, who were very much on top of their prints and would scream if something was shipped out a day late.

George Kuchar in Hold Me While I’m Naked. Courtesy of Jack Stevenson.

It was not the only underground film I projected at the Moore. Previous to my screening Thundercrack! I had shown all of the early John Waters work in 16mm including Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, The Diane Linkletter Story and others. We screened Pink Flamingos in 35mm. That film posed an odd problem for a projectionist. To make reel changes the projectionist watches for a small circle to appear in the upper right corner of the frame. The first circle, that appears for a sixth of a second, is the motor start cue before making the reel change, seven seconds later. The end of the third reel of Pink Flamingos is the scene of a man’s pulsating asshole to the song “Surfin’ Bird.” So, there is the pulsating asshole filling the screen while I am trying to keep my eye out for the a different circle in the corner. I made that changeover dozens of times during the one run of Pink Flamingos. Later at the Moore I projected my personal favorite of the John Waters films, Female Trouble (1974).

The third Seattle International Film Festival was the last I worked. I was the only projectionist for all the press screenings, matinees, evening shows and midnighters for twenty-eight days. The relief operator had decided the festival was a good time to take a trip to Trinidad. Most nights I would sleep on a sofa in the Moore Egyptian’s spooky and bug infested basement. Shortly after the third festival I became a member of the Seattle Projectionist Union and moved onto somewhat better working conditions.

Dan and Darryl and the Moore were far back in my rear-view mirror when the next Curt McDowell and George Kuchar film played the 1984 Seattle International Film Festival. Or it almost did. By then Dan and Darryl had moved out of the Moore to create a new Egyptian Theater, in what had been a Masonic Temple, at 801 Pine Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The 1984 McDowell/Kuchar film was Sparkle’s Tavern and again featured George with Marion Eaton, written and directed by Curt McDowell. I was busy working as a projectionist and probably wouldn’t have heard anything about it — except it locally became famous as the the biggest disaster the festival had up to that time. Curt and the cast had arrived at the festival with an unfinished movie. What they had what was called an “unmarried” print. That meant the picture was on A and B reels. The A reels were the picture and the B reels were the sound. To run such a print required special interlock equipment that could run the reels concurrently in sync. A capacity crowd showed up. They tried the interlock system and it failed, and it failed, and it failed. They kept starting and stopping the film, and some say they eventually got through the whole thing, but by then almost all of the crowd had given up and left disappointed.

The Jewel Box Theater, c. 1990. Photo by Dennis Nyback.

In 1990 I was running films in a very small theater in Seattle called the Jewel Box. The screenings were held under the heading of “The Belltown Film Festival.” Belltown was an area on the fringe of downtown Seattle, just a few blocks north of the Moore Theater. A two block stretch of Second Avenue in Belltown was once known as “Film Row.” Located there were offices and representatives for all the Hollywood film companies. Film Row had started in the twenties and became the hub through which Hollywood films were routed to Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana

The Jewel Box had been built by the B. F. Shearer Co as a film industry screening room. It was a scale model of the sort of theaters B.F Shearer could build on demand. It seated 50. Shearer built theaters on the Jewel Box plan that could seat 1,000. It was outfitted with decorative items that Shearer could also provide. In fact, B.F. Shearer handled everything the prospective theater owner could want, from projection equipment to theater furnishings and decorations. The Jewel Box was lighted by eight large 1930’s Art Deco light fixtures. The walls were covered with silk damask cloth. The seating was provided by padded booths with tables where the customers could set drinks that had been purchased in the Rendezvous Bar. It was the only legal place in the state of Washington where you could both drink and watch a movie on the big screen.

There was no sign on the street for the Jewel Box. Above the street door was a twenty foot long shelf with two-foot tall letters spelling RENDEZVOUS. The sign had been there a long time. The V was tipped over a little to the right, giving the sign a rakish attitude. That was by gravity, not design. Above that was a six line movable letter reader board. Entering the street door you could either go right, into the bar, or ahead, into the restaurant. Farther along the Jewel Box entrance was through a door in the dining room. When the door was closed no one would guess there was a cute, relic, tiny theater inside.

I ran films in the Jewel Box every Tuesday night, and often on Wednesdays, for four years. For special events I could occasionally have a Monday or a Thursday. On Friday and Saturday it was a host to live music acts. Many of them were of the permanent hearing loss sort. On Sunday it was used for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Talk about Daniel in the lion’s den! The Rendezvous Bar was one of the most strong pour dive bars in the city. It was always dark inside and usually crowded. It was sort of like the bar in Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life where the the bartender Sheldon Leonard says to George Bailey and Clarence the Angel “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.” I suppose it was good that any bar drunk who saw the light didn’t have to go far to get AA help.

It was a fateful day in early August 1990 when I got a phone call from Jack Stevenson. Here is the conversation:

Jack (East Coast accent, speaking a little nervously): “Hi, my name is Jack. I got your number from Larry Reid at COCA. He told me you had a place to show films. I’m from Boston and I’m driving around the country with a whole bunch of great films in the trunk of the car looking for places to show

Dennis: “What kind of films are they?”

Jack: “Oh, I’ve got all kinds. I’ve got great films made by the Mormon Church, Students, The US Army, educationals, trash features, Viva Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Nekromantic. Really great stuff. You can’t believe how great the films made by the Mormons are. One of the army films is called Field Medicine in Vietnam Nam. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. The educationals have to be seen to be believed. The films made by the Oklahoma Department of health are fantastic. ”

Dennis (breaking in as Jack catches his breath): “Do you have enough for three nights?” (I was thinking that this could be a special event worthy of taking a Thursday).

Jack: “Three nights? Easy, no problem with three nights, I’ve got lots of great stuff.”

He waits as I look at the calendar. I figure it will take a couple of weeks to properly exploit this in the press. After the next three weeks I have nothing booked at all. A guy believing so much in the films he owned that he was willing to drive around the country and call strangers out of the blue was both insane and inspirational. It couldn’t miss.

Dennis: Can you do August 28, 29 and 30?”

Jack (with an awkward pause): “Yeah, sure, but………………don’t you want to look at the films first?”

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I met him a couple of days later at the Jewel Box. He was a black-haired six-footer wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket. His face had an oddly, both cherubic and satanic visage, with twinkling dark eyes. We went to his car, a twenty year old full size Mercury. It had an AARP bumper sticker on the rear bumper and Massachusetts license plates. He opened the trunk. It was crammed full with bulky objects encased in black garbage bags. They contained the films and a Bell and Howell 16mm projector. It was the rare Marc 350 “Gemini” model, containing a short arc lamp that could put a sharp image on a dark night on the side of a building blocks away.

He was not exaggerating that the films were wonderful. Films made by the Mormons are unbelievably great. Field Medicine In Vietnam, a training film for medical personnel who would serve in the battle theater, has unbelievable and horrific footage of wounded soldiers. It also has an upbeat soundtrack and a cheerful voice-over narrator who says things such as “With our modern equipment and trained personal, this war will have the lowest mortality rate and highest return to service of any war ever fought.” When it was made in 1967, it should have been seen by every person in America. No mother would have allowed her child to go there after viewing it.

Jack also had with him, in true exploitation huckster fashion, books to sell on a table outside the door to the Jewel Box auditorium. Among the books were copies of three issues of his own publication, Pandemonium, which he’d published in Boston in the 80’s. In the pages of Pandemonium I became reacquainted with Thundercrack! I also read about other films made by George and Mike Kuchar in articles written by Jack, and in interviews he’d done with them. Jack was a proselytizer for the Kuchars.

Photo by Anne Rozier.

I opened my own movie theater, The Pike Street Cinema, in Seattle in 1992. It had 49 seats, except when there was a hit movie, and the fire department wasn’t looking, when it could seat 75. About that same time Jack Stevenson moved from Boston to San Francisco. He called to tell me he had gone to see George, who had films in his apartment, and that he, Jack, could get them to me for screenings. I did the first Kuchars screening in September of 1992. It was Hold Me While I’m Naked, The Mongreloid, Ascension of the Demonoids and Corruption of the Damned. Hold Me While I’m Naked is simply one of the best films ever made. You don’t have to take my word for it. It has been listed in the Village Voice as one of the 100 best films of the 20th Century. Another George Kuchar film, I An Actress, is in the Library of Congress Film Registry of protected for posterity films. I am afraid to say, as good as I An Actress is, Hold Me While I’m Naked blasts it to smithereens. It could be the Library of Congress passed on it and went for the other so as not have the Jessie Helmses of the world scream. Later I did more Kuchar screenings. Jack would go over to George’s apartment and get them out of the closet and mail them to me.

Still from Hold Me While I’m Naked.

Jack had also gotten a print of Sparkle’s Tavern from the Curt McDowell Foundation. He told me I could run it and then send the print back to Marion Eaton along with 35% of the gross. I ran it in October of 1992. It was well reviewed in the papers and attracted good crowds. Several people who had been at the SIFF show in 1984 were happy get a chance to finally see it.

In July of 1993 I drove from Seattle to Cleveland to watch a baseball games in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which would be replaced by a new ballpark the next year. In order to get out of town I made an arrangement with Johannes Schoenherr in New York City to come to Seattle and run my theater for a month. Jack Stevenson had seen him in New York and told him I wanted to take some time off. I had met Johannes a couple of years earlier when he visited Seattle and looked me up. Johannes was a film nut who grew up in Leipzig in East Germany. He first tried to escape to the West at the age of 16 and was jailed. Working as a gravedigger toughened his muscles and his resolve. He was expelled from the country as “unredeemable” when he was 22. In 1985 he joined the Kino im Komm cinema collective in Nuremberg and fell in love with cinema. At the KOMM he arranged Europe film tours for film makers Richard Kern, Mike Kuchar, Marion Eaton and others. He then came to New York to attend the Tisch School of the Arts and major in Cinema Studies. After completing school he lived semi-legally in a mean apartment in the East Village.

Pike Street Cinema under construction. Photo by Dennis Nyback.

For the month at the Pike St. Cinema he got right back to me with a list of the films that he wanted to run. I looked it over and told him to whip up a schedule, call it The Alternative Seattle International Film Festival, and get to Seattle soon. He arranged to show films made by film makers that he knew. They included Todd Phillips’ Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies; Subway Riders with John Lurie and directed by Amos Poe, Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn, Thundercrack! and a program of Kuchar Brothers films. He also convinced George, Mike and Marion to come to Seattle for the festival and to appear with the films in person.

In New York Johannes bought an early 70’s Dodge Dart from Jeri Rossi, which had belonged previously to Karen Finley, and also Joe Coleman, called the Jesus car. I have no idea if Ms. Finley did anything artistic with it that Jesse Helms might have objected to. Coleman had painted Jesus faces onto the headlights. Johannes’ plan was to drive to Seattle, meet me, then drive to San Francisco to bring George, Mike and Marion up for Thundercrack! and also the Kuchar Brothers’ films in 8mm and 16mm including Lust For Ecstasy, Sins of the Fleshapoids, and Hold Me While I’m Naked.

Donna Kerness in Sins of the Fleshapoids

When he pulled up in front of the theater my first thought was that it would have trouble getting out of the parking spot, much less to San Francisco. Although it was a cool day, all of the windows were down. The back seat was filled with numerous copies of the yellow pages. The engine didn’t sound good. Johannes explained that the windows were down because of a major exhaust leak. I hope that was the worst of it, and an explanation for the loud noise. He never explained about the yellow pages. He stayed at my place for several days while I took him around to all of the newspapers in hopes of getting him interviewed. He was ecstatic about the theater, the stacks of fliers for his show that I had distributed, and my apartment, which he felt was big enough to put up George, Mike and Marion. Those guys, in the Bay area, hearing of the car’s dubious future, scotched the idea of being driven to Seattle. They bought plane tickets. while I was on the road George and Marion stayed in my apartment.

About the same time I got back from Cleveland, Jack moved from SF to Denmark. He wrote and told me from then on if I wanted to show Kuchar films I would have to deal with George himself.

In 1994 I called George and asked him if he could ship me some films. I wish you could hear George’s voice in explaining why that was impossible. It was hilarious to hear a man who had somehow made close to a hundred films in defiance of what would stop almost everyone who have ever lived tell me it was just too much trouble to find the films in the back of the closet and then find a box to put them in and then wrap them up in brown craft paper and then take them all the way to the post office, especially if it was either too hot or raining. In just that conversation I heard the gentle humor and acceptance of an absurd world that was the special ingredient that made all of his films so great. Instead of getting film from George I rented them from Canyon Cinema.

Donna Kerness and the cast viewing the rushes. Photo courtesy of Jack Stevenson.

In 1995 Jack booked my first tour of Europe. I was over there for more than a month and showed films in almost forty places. When I got back from Europe I dismantled the Pike Street Cinema and put it in a truck and drove it to New York. There I unloaded the truck and created the Lighthouse Cinema at 116 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side. I was helped by Johannes.

I again took films to Europe in the Spring of 1996. Johannes ran the theater while was away. I was gone from March 28 to May 7. When I got back Thundercrack! was playing. I projected it the last two nights of the run. On the last night a big storm hit New York. As the audience watched the storm raging on screen, the storm raged outside, and to the wondrous eyes of the crowd water came cascading down from the ceiling on each side of the screen Yes, rain water had overwhelmed the drains on the roof where it had sought release to find it in ceiling air vents in the back of the room. Luckily the water drained through the floor and into the basement without damaging much. It did create a natural effect Hollywood or William Castle would have paid big money for.

A few days later I got a phone call from Jack telling me that his book Desperate Visions: The Films of John Waters & the Kuchar Brothers was going to be published by Creation Press with the first edition due out in a month. I wrote back and told him he could have a book publishing party at the Lighthouse and I’d show a bunch of Kuchar films. Thinking about it, I decided to show all of the Kuchar Brothers films; at least all of them the Filmmakers Co-op had. I’d also do my best to get George and Mike to appear at the the screenings.

I talked to M.M. Sera at the Co-op. She thought the money from the ticket sales should go straight to the brothers and not with the the Co-op taking a cut. The deal was I would only pay to the Co-op a one dollar per reel film cleaning fee. I would then split the gate money with the brothers. I would pick up and deliver the films myself to avoid shipping charges. The date for the retrospective was set for June 12 through June 20. Every day of the series I would pick up films for that night at the Co-op.

George Kuchar, c 1994. Photo courtesy Jack Stevenson.

When I called George he told me both he and Mike were in SF and they would fly to New York for the screenings. When they flew in a couple of days before the first screening I met them at JFK. I took the subway there. Although I had exchanged many letters and phone calls it was the first time I actually met them. As I walked with them toward the subway George asked where the car was parked. He was amazed that I’d come on the subway. He must of assumed that since I was able to move from Seattle and open a movie theater that I was rich; or at least had enough wherewithal to get a car. I did spring for a taxi and took them to their mother’s house in the Bronx. After I dropped them off I had the cabbie drop me a the next subway station.

In the afternoon of June 12 I took the subway to JFK to meet Jack’s plane. He was tired and jet lagged; coming in from Copenhagen.

The Creation Press people came by with boxes of books and a keg of beer and many bottles of cheap champagne and OK wine and set things up for the party. The boxes of books cheered Jack up. He found a quiet place in the back of the theater and went to sleep. The Kuchars arrived. They’d taken the subway from the Bronx. They had reel to reel tapes with them that were the soundtracks for the 8mm films. Jack came awake and we all went around the corner to Ratner’s and had a bite to eat and caught up on things. When we got back it was time to open the theater.

It was more like a party than a film show. Many people came who the Kuchars recognized and a few who had actually been in their 60’s pictures. Jack and I secretly hoped Donna Kerness would materialize. I showed the 8mm films twice, at 8 and 10. Before, during and after people hung out in the lobby and came in and out of the auditorium. Much beer and champagne and wine was consumed. It was a hot night and hotter in the theater. The Creation guys stayed busy selling books and pouring drinks and Jack stayed busy signing them. Things were still going great after midnight. The Kuchars had left earlier. By the time everyone had left it was too late for me to go to Brooklyn. Jack again found the quiet place in the back of the theater. I crashed in the box office.

The next night it was more of the same using the left over wine, beer and champagne. It was almost as much fun. There were many from the night before and more who’d missed the first night.

Seated around the table from front left: Ruth Jacobson, Charles Gatewood, Jack Sargeant, Jack Stevenson, Tia Foss, Joel Shepard, George Kuchar, Biba Djordjevic, Sam Green, Sarah Jacobson. Photo by Dennis Nyback.

To show all the films it took nine nights. The first two nights, Wednesday and Thursday, June 12 and 13, had both George and Mike there. George and Mike previously mailed me hand written descriptions, George’s in cursive longhand script and Mike’s in careful block print, of each of their films, that I then copied the info onto the fliers.

The June 12 opening night was an all 8mm collaboration program all with descriptions by Mike:

I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960 by George and Mike) ….This is one of the Twin’s earliest and most unforgettable 8mm films. It features three of their most BIGGEST stars: Arlene, Eddie and Harry….each one weighing in at almost 400 pounds.

Lust for Ecstasy (1963, George and Mike) The most ambitious production in the Kuchar’s 8mm career; this torrid hospital psycho-drama of sweeping scope and plunging necklines features the largest cast ever assembled on a Kuchar set.

Lovers Of Eternity (1963, George) A moody, beautifully photographed 8mm love story with the added enjoyment of the participation of the legendary filmmaker Jack Smith in a memorable cameo performance. Shot on the rooftops of the lower East Side in the 1960’s.

From then on it was all 16mm. The June 13 program was collaborations. Descriptions by Mike.

Mosholu Holiday (1966, George and Mike) Made for Canadian television in conjunction with an interview the Kuchar’s had to do; this little “Ode to Nonsense” features the interviewer and his wife, participating in the film’s profoundly brainless mayhem. Shot entirely in the Bronx.

Corruption of the Damned (1965, George) George stars his brother Mike in this lurid B-movie about wayward souls on a ‘collision course’ driven by vengeance, sexual curiosity and spite. ….it’s fast, it’s furious, and has the most “fight scenes” of any Kuchar picture.

Friday June 14: Three of George’s films. Descriptions by George:

A Reason to Live (1976) The film stars Curt McDowell and Marion Eaton (the duo that brought Thundercrack! to filmic life) and they battle depression in the this shadowy tale of meteorological misery.

Color Me Shameless (1967 starring Bob Cowan, Gina Zuckerman and Donna Kerness) A dramatic document of the outsider locking himself inside and throwing away the key.

Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966 starring George Kuchar and Donna Kerness) A colorful study of personal drabness where the grass is always greener on the other side of the tracks.

Saturday June 15: Three films and descriptions from Mike.

Tales of the Bronx (1969 starring Floraine Connors, Jane Elford and Donna Kerness) What is meant to be a sincere and sympathetic documentary about people living in Bronx building, – all suddenly takes a “nosedive” when nobody being interviewed by Mike, cared to “lend and ear” to his personal problems. The the results are horrendous and completely unsympathetic.

The Craven Sluck (1967 starring Floraine Connors, Bob Cowan and George Kuchar) Mike Lights up the black and white screen with his bleached blonde mega-star; Floraine Connors in a roll so memorable , turbulent and bloated with plot excesses, that she needed a girdle and aspirins to sustain her through to the picture’s final confrontation sequence. …..A camp classic, not seen for many years!

Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965 starring Bob Cowan, Donna Kerness and George Kuchar) ….What more can be said about this Sci Fi epic, subtitled with comic book bubbles, and decorated with sets that look like left-overs from an ‘Arabian Nights’ movie. This 1960’s film is Mike’s most famous and influential work.

Sunday June 16: Four by George with comments by George:

Wild Night in El Reno (1977) An interlude of electrified clouds ignites a landscape of isolating flatness in the center our nation.

Cattle Mutilations (1983) The crew of a documentary on barnyard atrocities confronts the beast within.

The Sunshine Sisters (1973 starring Jan Lash and Ainslie Pryor) ….looks like a 1944 postcard that was shot in black and white but colored with garish grease pencil reds, yellows and greens. The score sounds like scores of a at least two dozen grade B melodramas mixed together with an egg-beater. Hilarious, ludicrous and incongruous–a love comic book of doomed women and handsome, nefarious young men caught in a web of dramatic cliches pushed ad absurdum

House of the White People (1968 starring Donna Kerness, George Segal, Helen Segal, Walter Gutman) Filmed where it actually happened, in a New Jersey chicken-coop, it stands as a plaster monument, not only to the chickens that once lived there but also to one of the great artists of our time and his collection of human shells.

Monday June 17: Five by George with his comments:

Leisure (1966) A dramatized social commentary with the horrifying impact of a three-hundred ton chunk of margarine. it shamelessly shows the wanton bombardment of soft, female flesh, by the phalluses of audio-visual atmosphereperturbations. The youthful, the sinful, the senile, all victims in the biggest mass poisoning since the Horn and Hardart riots of 1906.

Pagan Rhapsody (1970 starring Jane Elford, Lloyd Williams, Bob Cowan and Donna Kerness) Since this was Jane and Lloyd’s first big acting roles, I made the music very loud so it would sweep them to stardom. Being as the picture was made in winter, there are no outdoor scenes because it’s too cold and when the characters have to suddenly flee a tense situation, it’s too time consuming to have them put on a coat and gloves.

Portrait of Ramona (1971 starring Bob Cowan, Jose Draganac and Jane Elford) Many of the stars appear nude and all I can say is that because of the heat and the general, overall feeling of the film, which is one with the usual desperation and explosive emotions, I couldn’t see any other way of playing it. The general tone of everything was “Why bother to get dressed.” I sing the vocal at the end and it’s rather frightening but I only meant to sing it with some gusto….not in the way it came out; like the final screams of a species doomed to extinction.

The Mongreloid (1978 starring Curt McDowell and Bocko) A man, his dog, and the regions they inhabited, each leaving his own distinctive mark on the landscape. Not even time can wash the residue of what they left behind.

Tuesday June 18: Four films by Mike with Mike’s comments.

The Secret of Wendel Sampson (1966 with Red Grooms, Floraine Connors and Mimi Gross) Who is Wendel Sampson? He is a Universe himself, but perhaps even more complex. The Cosmic Bubble is governed by the forces of of electrical magnetic inertia. He s governed by a need. Unstable, a hunger to understand the impossible. Himself maybe. A quest to find the equation to happiness in a cosmic structure where happiness is not a physical property. He is a Star in the cluster of stars. A solar speck in the speckled nebula of souls. A silent phantom radiating in the heavens of shining phantoms. Floating on islands with islands, in a bubble, fifty trillion light years curved.

Green Desire (1966 starring Marshall Hall, Bob Cowan and Mary Flanagan) A delicate color film that roams breast high grasslands and yellow meadows with a lanky youth in a quest for a boulder studded brook that bridges the adolescent to the other side, into manhood.

Variations (1968) Green spills over purple ridges and into deep cut valleys. Blue surge up from rounds and hollows, blending with incandescent pink plains, revealing what seems to be the outline of a human face.

Fable For a New Age (1984) No info provided.

George Kuchar in Sins of the Fleshapoids.

Wednesday June 19: Three by George:

Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967 starring Deborah-Ann and Edith Fisher, Larry and Francis Leibowitz. This chilling montage of crimson repression must be seen by the victims of perversity, regardless of sex or age. Painstakingly filmed and edited. It will be painful to watch, too. A glowingly colorful burlesque on life, love and supper in the Bronx. Dedicated to the behemoths of yesteryear that perished in Siberia along with the horned pachyderms of the pre-glacial epoch.

The Mammal Palace (1969 starring Frank Meyer, Zelda Keiser, Donna Kerness and Hope Morris) Brings back three big stars of my 8mm movies: Zelda Keiser, Tony Reynolds, and Barbara Newman. Miss Keiser has gained in talent and weight, all to her advantage. The male lead is Frank Meyer, young, handsome, desired by many (a role I usually play). He is excellent and only screamed at me once during a climactic scene. Miss Keiser seems to scream a lot. The movie takes a rather negative look at things despite the fact it was shot on reversal film. Donna Kerness and her husband Hope are lurid together and they are also pretty lurid when they are alone.

Knockturne (1968 starring Frank Meyer, Joyce Wieland and Bocko) The rising moon is the main theme in this short movie of three people and an animal going about their nocturnal rituals. This movie is evidently part 3 of my trilogy that started with Hold Me While I’m Naked and Eclipse of the Sun Virgin. It evidently is, since part 3 never really came out.

The Nocturnal Immaculation (1980 starring Michelle Joyce, Forrest Hutchinson, Pedro Perez and Beatrice Bowels) Two men, two women, one God and many devils. Add a pinch of vengeance and dash of mental illness, let simmer with high ideals, then take a mouthful and hang over the railing.

Thursday June 20: One feature film by George with comments by Chuck Kleihans:

The Devils Cleavage (1975 starring Ainslie Pryor, Curt McDowell, Virginia Giritlian, Kathleen Hohalek) A lovingly farcical re-creation of those forties and fifties melodramas . A camp parody that sometimes steals directly from the genre, sometimes burlesques it and often travesties it. As you might expect it soon begins to mock all kinds of cinematic references, from Hitchcock to Preminger. But leave the exact details to the pedants….Laughter’s the thing here. With imagination and inventiveness and technical ineptitude we end with a marvelous hybrid, as if Sam Fuller and Sternberg collaborated in the shooting of a script by Tennessee Williams and Russ Meyer.

I let all the films pile up in the projection booth after each night At the end of the festival it was a very large pile. I decided the easiest way to get them all back to the Co-op would be to hand truck them. Just rolling them all the way seemed easier then navigating the subway system. A more sane person would have taken a taxi. Unfortunately taking cabs was not in my world view. Through judicious stacking the load was just a little over five feet high and must have weighed several hundred pounds. The Co-op was at 33rd and Lexington at the time. It was a warm sunny shirtsleeves day. Schlepping the load I traveled west to Bowery and up from there to continue north on 3rd Avenue. It was a time before curbs were cut down for wheelchair access. Up and down or down and up on every corner curb. At 21st I went over to Lex and from there straight up to the Co-op. I arrived not quite exhausted. It was an absurd trip. It was aptly in accordance with the absurd greatness of the films.

The Lighthouse Cinema didn’t last much longer. There is story in that, which you can read in the Jack Stevenson book, Land of a Thousand Balconies. It is titled “On the Rocks with the Lighthouse Cinema.”

In 1996 Dan Ireland directed his first Hollywood film. It was The Whole Wide World starring Renee Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio. It was about Robert E. Howard, the man who wrote Conan the Barbarian in the thirties. In the film it seemed obvious, at least to me, that the character of Robert E. Howard’s mother was based on Gert Hammond in Thundercrack! It was also nice to see Marion Eaton in a crucial role in the The Whole Wide World as a woman who befriends Renee, playing Novalyn Price, on a bus at the end of the film after Novalyne had learned that Robert E. Howard had killed himself at the age of 33.

George framed. Photo courtesy of Jack Stevenson.

On May 12, 1999 I was in San Francisco. I ran into George on the street. It was near the Roxie Theater. He looked fine and was as funny and engaging as ever. I had no idea I wouldn’t see him again for over ten years.

In February of 2010 I was in SF and dropped in the ATA Gallery to see Craig Baldwin. He mentioned Mike Kuchar had moved to SF, after their mother died, and he was sharing an apartment with George, nearby. I got the address from Craig and walked over there. I found George in a fine mood and we had nice chat. Mike said hello me and then went into another room to work on something he was editing. George told me he been busy traveling around and getting both honored and paid.  He said he got $1,000 for an appearance at Arizona State University.   I told him he deserved more.

I was in SF five months later. I ran into Noel Lawrence. He said “Let’s drop in on George and Mike.” I certainly had time for that. We walked over and found both George and Mike at home. Mike seemed the same as ever. George didn’t look so good. He was certainly thinner. He also appeared frail. He was still in a good mood and entertained us as only he could.

In August, 2011, I got an email from Jack Stevenson. He wrote:

I just thought I should write and, if you didn’t already know, deliver the bad news: George Kuchar has terminal cancer. We both noticed he was frail in recent years…. I was only just told he had a cancer operation a year ago and apparently its gone from bad to worse. Staggering news, really.

George died on September 6, 2011.

On February 26, 2012 I watched the Oscars presentation on the big screen of the Hollywood Theatre in Portland. There was a packed house and a comedian on stage to keep us docile during commercial breaks. The In Memoriam section featured the song “What a Wonderful World” sung by Portland’s own Esperanza Spalding. The dead from 2011 started with Jane Russell and ended with Elizabeth Taylor. Practically smack in the middle was George Kuchar. He was listed as an “Experimental Filmmaker.” Yes, I guess he experimented in making flat out great films on minuscule budgets. It was bittersweet to see him on the screen. It was a tribute to his greatness to be included when all his life he had been an outsider. It was sad knowing I was probably one of a handful in the crowd who recognized him. Toward the end of the show the comedian asked if there had been any surprises in the show. I said I was surprised to see George Kuchar in the In Memoriam section. He asked me who George Kuchar was. I said he had made Hold Me While I’m Naked and other great underground films. The comedian tried to make a joke about Hold Me While I’m Naked. It didn’t work. It is hard to make a joke about something you have absolutely no grasp of. It took me forty years to fully appreciate George and Mike and their films.

Lucky me.


A couple of years after George died I was guest at a film festival in Europe. Also at that film festival was a young man from America with a program of Kuchar films. In his introduction to the audience preceding the screening he astounded me with a statement. He said there was no intentional humor in Kuchar films. The implication was that George and Mike were cinema idiot savants and all the laughs in the films were a result of camp colliding with cluelessness. To his credit, the young man did not even attempt to defend that position when I talked to him after the screening. He just needed to have it pointed out how both silly and insulting the statement was. Who knows? Maybe when I was 22 I would have had the same reaction, that the films were somehow created by magicians barely in control of their medium. The young man’s view was probably influenced by seeing other underground films from the same era. Let’s just say humor and underground don’t usually go together. There is certainly not much humor in Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow’s films. The early Andy Warhol films don’t have a lot of laughs in them either. Lonesome Cowboys wouldn’t have laugh in it if Taylor Mead hadn’t shown up. To appreciate the work of the Kuchars it helps to forget everything you know about films and accept them as unique works of art. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film Hold Me While I’m Naked an approval rating of 49% In comparison the new Star Wars film Rogue One is at 88%. I imagine the audience of Rogue One would be utterly mystified by Hold Me While I’m Naked. That’s not their fault. They just have a preconception of what a film is. It doesn’t leave much room for the singular work of an artist. Of the few things in common among the disparate group of directors, Martin Scorsese, John Waters. Brian DePalma, David Lynch, Guy Maddin and Gus Van Sant. is that they all are fans of the Kuchars. Yes, there is humor in their films. It was put there on purpose. Just like everything else in them. We, in the audience, are all the better for it.

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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