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December 21-27, 2005

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Michelle Chavez

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Jewel in the Crown: Michelle Chavez mans the counter at Camera 12, the most ambitious of the company's theaters in its 30-year history.

Lights, Camera, Action!

As they celebrate their 30th year as Silicon Valley's maverick movie houses, the Camera Cinemas have become the stuff of local legend


By Richard von Busack

JUST A FEW showings short of 11,000 nights ago, the Camera One Theater opened in downtown San Jose.

Like most urban cores in 1975, San Jose was shunned by normals at night. The sidewalks were rolled up and the security gates fastened down, and rough and tumble, no-squares-allowed bars like Marsugi's, the 3-Star and Mac's Cockails [sic] opened their doors. Three porn theaters and an adult bookstore lined the corner of First and San Salvador. At night, cruisers took their pick of the pavement life.

During the day, there were a few support businesses for San Jose State University, like Bob Sidebottom's Comix store and Woodruff and Thrush's used bookstore. In the evening, students could head out to the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Pedro Square or Original Joe's, depending on the condition of their wallets.

When Jack NyBlom, Dennis Skaggs and Jim Zuur opened their second-run and foreign-film theater on Sept. 3, 1975, with a double bill of A Man and a Woman and Cabaret, it turned out to be one of the most prescient decisions anyone made about the fate of downtown San Jose.

What became known as the Camera One was a shoe store converted into a movie theater. It had a brief run as a Pussycat Theater in 1971 before it was leased by the Great Western Theaters of Tarzana, an outfit that specialized in fight 'n' fright movies. Skaggs was the projectionist there.

NyBlom was a theater-arts major at SJSU who had done some work for the Syufy (later Century Theaters) chain, and Zurr taught at New College—an alternative school set within San Jose State.

For these 30 years, the three have kept their theaters open, adding Camera 3 at Second and San Carlos streets downtown in 1984 and, later, the Towne Theater on the Alameda, the Los Gatos Cinema and the Camera 7 in Campbell. They survived, or rather, engulfed, the behemoth multiplex that San Jose's Redevelopment Agency erected across and up the street from Camera 3 in 1996. To date they have weathered Ming the Merciless-style threats by their competitors, Century Theaters, to put them out of business. Having negotiated all these changes in public taste is one accomplishment. Building a one-screen theater into a 21-screen chain is another.

Film Finder

To look for films for the Camera Cinemas, Jack NyBlom attends the film festivals in Sundance, Cannes and Toronto looking for films, seeing about 25 films at each one.

"Sometimes I'll fit in Mill Valley, a bit of SFFF, Telluride and of course Cinequest. On the other hand there are older movies and festivals that we feel good to have brought. In rep years, this was much easier. Once a year we used to bring Children of Paradise to Camera One. And the same with Astaire/Rodgers movies. Audiences used to applaud at the end of the music/dance numbers. And it was great fun to have organized various fests—Western fest, "Samurai Night Fever," Cinema Hong Kong, director tributes to Truffaut, John Sayles. ... We would often convince distributors to strike new prints for our fests and would go nuts adding them once we locked in some key films. It was great, too, when we could bring in talent."

As to favorite films he's exhibited locally, NyBlom says, "I guess, of current movies of the time, it's those films that fell between the cracks or initially were ignored. One of the first was Pixote—a memorable Brazilian exposé of the lives of street kids. "I recall also a bunch of French films, and works by directors like Claude Sautet. There are also films that one sees before they are discovered, that you champion because you think so highly of them. My Dinner With Andre was an early one. Breaking the Waves was another of those.

"We played Breaking the Waves far longer than we should have financially because just couldn't believe it wasn't finding a larger audience. There are also films that are 'controversial' and not supported properly and that need real hands-on guerrilla marketing. One of those that we nurtured to surprisingly good result was [Todd Solondz's] Happiness. There is not a single film I'm most proud to have brought, it's just satisfaction that we did something that gave exposure the movie wouldn't have had otherwise. It's kind of rewarding to hear when one of those really touches some."

Throughout the years, the Camera Cinemas brought foreign crowd-pleasers like Cinema Paradiso and Like Water for Chocolate. And the Camera Cinemas were the local theater where the indie-film movement thrived, where Henry Jaglom and John Sayles were joined by Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith. They began when independent film was a novelty. Today, everyone seems to have at least one stashed on a DVD. Cinequest, the San Jose Film Festival, first started playing at the Camera 3.

Fifteen years later, it's a national destination. Camera Cinemas took a chance on the shock of the new films. They screened Blue Velvet, puncturing a hole in Reagan-era reality. Years later, Camera film booker Jack NyBlom personally championed Todd Solondz's Happiness.

This One Goes to 12

The history of the building they now occupy, the Camera 12, is a saga in itself. It began when the Redevelopment Agency approved what was meant to be a 16-screen theater for AMC, authorizing $4 million in funds to build it. Eventually, the plan was downscaled to an eight-plex under the operation of United Artists theaters, which had promised not to open anything that competed with Camera Cinemas. The multiplex opened in February 1996 with Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility—precisely the kind of movie the Cameras would have offered.

Less than four years after opening, on Jan. 15, 2000, the UA Theaters vamoosed. They shooed away would-be moviegoers on the grounds of technical problems, while workmen ripped out equipment in the middle of the weekend. The sound equipment was torn out from behind the screens so quickly they ripped them. The departing regime left the lights on to burn out in their sockets.

The empty theater became a rabbit warren for dust bunnies. Within a year after UA ran along, the RDA's Susan Shick was claiming that the former "UA Pavilion" was going to kiss the wrecking ball ... only four years after it was built. ( "The theater is obsolete," Shick told Metro. "It's not a theater built to modern-day standards." Yet it stood, a monument to futility during the leanest part of the last five years, until it was renovated into the current Camera 12 last year.

Unfortunately, expanding into the Camera 12 meant leaving the Towne Theater and closing the Camera One (and Camera 3, too), the theater that started it all. "Chapel-like" is a word one local writer used to describe the original Camera One, with its exposed wooden beams.

One person who misses the old Camera One is Pam Kelly, who was the theater's promotions director and publicist for 20 years.

Kelly has lived in San Jose since 1971. After leaving SJSU, she went to work for Allstate Savings and Loan. In her downtown apartment, she had the Camera One calendar taped to her refrigerator. "I used to go to there two or three times a week," she says, "and one day I asked them for a job."

She'd met NyBlom through a friend from the dorms, and she started to work part-time there.

In the early years of the Camera One, the crew hung out together. After the movie was over, they'd hit the then-piano bar at Eulipia.

The funk was still thick on downtown San Jose in those days. Some of the Camera's early bills included not just '70s classics like Chinatown and Cabaret, but the soft-core Eurotica that coasted on the tails of the porn boom; the adventures of Emmanuelle.

"And did you see that movie about Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS?" she says. "We booked that one."

Early tasks for Kelly included herding Christopher Lee out of the Camera One during an early version of the San Jose Film Festival.

"It was sweltering hot in there—the air conditioning didn't work right—and I got a phone call, 'We've put a bomb in the Camera One, and it'll go off any minute.' I had to interrupt Lee in the middle of a speech and get him to leave through the back door, and I couldn't tell him why."

The police came, but never found out who the prankster was. Kelly suspects it might have been a disgruntled ex-volunteer who called in the threat.

Speaking of Lees, Pam also drove Spike Lee to San Jose from San Francisco to speak at the opening of She's Gotta Have It. ("He was quiet," she says. "He listened to Miles Davis on the headphones the whole trip.")

Of her 20 years there, Kelly thinks the audience coming out for The Blair Witch Project was perhaps the most movie-struck. ("People were throwing up. They had to be led out of the theater.")

Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film, is "the only time I ever saw people dancing in the aisles of a film theater. The producer came down and personally tweaked the sound system."

Even more robust audience reactions happened during the Three Stooges fests the Cameras used to have. "Every guy who went in there thought he was Curly," Kelly says.

Cross-promotions included the banquet that dinner audiences could sup on after seeing that pioneer food-porn movie Babette's Feast.

Female bodybuilders turned up to flex before a screening of a documentary on musclewomen. Drag queens from the demised gay bar and grill Hamburger Mary's turned out for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But it was something perhaps less ironic that stands out in Kelly's memory: "We showed the Ewok Adventure movie, and a local girl came dressed as an Ewok. She was really good; the kids were so thrilled."

"There's so many memories, that what stands out is that there are so many memories. You don't realize it at the time, how lucky you are. The Camera Cinemas are still doing what they began to do. What they were doing was more than just putting a film up onscreen. And I was lucky to be there—a person like me doesn't get hired as promoter just anywhere. We were trying to do what the megaplexes wouldn't do. Camera Cinemas didn't have enormous advertising budgets, so they had to find other ways to get people's attention."

Tim Sika, who runs the Camera Cinema Club, moved to San Jose from Cleveland 20 years ago. He's been involved with the club for the last decade. When the club's first organizer Ken Karn left to pursue a career directing movies (Karn directed the adult thriller Skin Deep), Sika took it over. The Camera Cinema Club is one of those popular schemes that allow film fans to meet directors and see film releases in advance. Sika says, "I think the first movie I saw there was Ran; the films I remember seeing that impacted me were John Sayles' Lone Star, and Madame Sousatzka. What I probably remember most about the theaters when I went to them is how well the films themselves were projected and presented."

Dennis Skaggs

Reel Commitment: Dennis Skaggs is one of the trio of owners—the others being Jack NyBlom and Jim Zuur—who opened a second-run and foreign-film theater in San Jose on Sept. 3, 1975. It was the beginning of the Camera Cinemas indie empire.

The Big 3-0

A year and a half after the Camera 12 opened, Camera Cinemas had their 30th anniversary party. Under the huge atrium of Camera 12, the crowd downed champagne shots, J. Lohr chardonnay, Gordon Biersch Märzen and mini eggrolls. They joyrode the elevator and took in a set by Kung Fu Vampire. Above the heads of the 300 or so guests hung posters of Ziyi Zhang's powdered face and Naomi Watts contemplating the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.

I got onstage for a sec, and since I had to say something, what came to mind was the scene in Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer. In his reveries, the passive hero remembers a theater on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain that had a banner: "Where Happiness Costs So Little."

That happiness included basking under the neon at the old Towne Theater during Hong Kong nights in the early 1990s. There, local fans got their introduction to John Woo, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark.

"That was very popular for five years. I booked all of those; I had to read up on Hong Kong cinema," Kelly says. It brought people out in droves until the supply of Hong Kong movies became unavailable.

Of the Towne, one commentator notes: "The funky staff. The warm soda, the stale popcorn, the mush [sic] popsicles, R.I.P."—lines left on the shrine for departed movie theaters, Cinematreasures.com.

The Towne's Hong Kong nights contained many examples of Hong Kong cinema at its most irrepressible—consider the debonair double-bill of Raped by an Angel and Chinese Torture Chamber. My personal best was seeing Jeffrey Lau's 1993 The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, knowing nothing about it when I went in.

It had a character wearing silver lamé shoes with wings on them, and a severed spectral head whizzing down a hallway, begging to be told "I love you" by the person it was chasing. It had both Tony Leungs. Most importantly, it had a finale Mel Gibson should filch: At the end, the villain has the heroes cornered and is cackling, "Only deus ex machina can save you now!" And sure enough, God (or at least, a god) turns up to perform a supernatural rescue.

And there was happiness at the 1994 Soma fest when the crowd got to see a free preview screening of Ed Wood—a happy moment; the good feeling of the street fest leaking in through Camera One's notoriously thin walls, and the crowd cheering like football spectators. Here was the man who had seemed most opposed to the way movies were made, a true folk-artist, being exalted by a movie studio.

The Ed Wood preview was the end of something, as if the underground had been made forcibly overground, in the way a vein of coal is unearthed by strip mining. (The 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death is also the 25th anniversary of Darby Crash's OD. There are few performers, musicians or directors today who would take Crash's stance: "What we do is secret.")

But one happiness, unrelated to what was onscreen, was yakking with the cashiers at the Camera 3 when waiting for a sandwich at the cafe. They were the best film critics in town, and they had a sense of humor. One told me a story of how they were trying to close up the till. Fifteen minutes after the last show started, an ancient straggling customer tottered up to the window on Second Street. He fretted over the listings, begging for a sales pitch.

"How do I know if I'll like Howard's End?"

"Did you see Howard's Beginning?"

"No."

"If you didn't see Howard's Beginning, you won't understand it."

I believe this is a true story because I worked at several L.A. movie theaters, and unfortunately the workers there were not treated with the respect they are today. At one movie house, we had a disastrous run of The Passover Plot—a Golan-Globus- produced opus suggesting Jesus faked his death with coma-producing drugs similar to those used by the Impossible Mission Force. Christian bomb threats were phoned in—augmented, when they tapered off, by one of the employees gone rogue—bored into pathological pranksterism by hanging around in a radiation-orange-colored blazer, with the pockets sewn shut to prevent candy pilferage.

There's something about the work at a theater—the tough moments of the rush as customers arrive and depart, bolstered by hours of inaction—that encourages mischief. Consider the case of ex-Camera employee, Unpop artist and arch-prankster Lorin Partridge, last heard from tending bar at Tiki Boyd's, the infamous writer Boyd Rice's tiki lounge in downtown Denver.

Partridge used his time behind the counter to compose eerie love letters to strangers plucked out of the phone book. (Partridge describes his methods in detail on the Modern Drunkard website.) As Vrinda Normand reported for Metro last year, one Camera prank Partridge played was sewing together some beef lips from the ethnic food market, gluing on googly eyes and hurling it into the midst of the crowd of would-be Magentas and Janet Weisses during the Saturday night Rocky Horror Picture Show gang. It was a lucky throw, landing in the corset-induced cleavage of a young woman, "who screamed, vomited a little and ran out to demand what had happened."

Film Schooled

Even for those not trapped behind a counter, the Camera Cinemas were like a local film school.

"I never saw a foreign film before I went to the Camera One," said Kelly. "I know they existed, I just never thought to go see one. The place was just such an education."

"I've spent a good portion of my life in those theaters," said Sean McCarthy, director of Raging Cyclist, a dedicated local filmmaker from the Almaden Valley. "I would take my younger sister there and we would sneak around too. I would get to show her Amélie and some film she might have never seen if we had gone to Century or AMC.

"When I was 14 or 15, I remember hearing about the beginning of something called the Camera Cinema club. I got so excited I used to save up my money to buy my membership each year. I'd walk to the light rail, which would take me downtown. Usually, I would get to watch all these movies in advance, and usually Ken [Karn] would get the editor, actor, producer or director to show up for the Q-and-A. Ken later told me I was the youngest Cinema Club member ever. They used to have response cards after the film to let them know how you felt about the movie. It would always ask what age demographic you were in: 18-24, 25-29 and so on. I always would pencil in my age (which for the first few years was under 18). Years later they made a category check box for 'Under 18.' I don't know if I had anything to do with it, but would like to think I started that revolution."

Another director who started out as a fan was Samuel Turcotte, whose film No Pain, No Gain is currently being prepared for a national release. The Camera 12 was one of 250 theaters he used for a one-day special performance—he hopes to promote the DVD release of his feature film about the world of bodybuilding when the Arnold Classic competition is held in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2006.

Turcotte hopes his film will oppose the popular stereotype of bodybuilders as boneheads. Turcotte himself is a bodybuilder, who studied filmmaking at the University of Texas in Austin. After a stint in the Air Force, he worked in high tech at Sun Microsystems. He made the trip downtown to see Sex, Lies and Videotape at the Camera One. He met his wife-to-be in line at the movie theater; she used to be taken to the Cameras with her father, to see films like Sid and Nancy.

Now Samuel and his wife, Anna, have the distinction of being the first couple married at the Camera 12, last August.

"It was magic," he says. "They threw popcorn instead of rice."

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