With Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely being but the latest example of Seattle-made cinema reaching a national audience, and with serious filmgoers returning to the Harvard Exit and Sundance for the fall season of Oscar contenders, now’s a good time to revisit Celluloid Seattle. The MOHAI exhibit opened with the museum’s relaunch in its new quarters on South Lake Union in January, and it’s proven popular enough to be extended through November, with a new catalog to be published, too. Walking me through the show is its curator, SW film critic Robert Horton, whose connection to the subject runs back to organizing art-house screenings for the Seattle Film Society during the ’70s. (He also writes for the Everett Herald and is heard regularly on KUOW.)
The exhibit is intended to celebrate both Seattle-made movies (or those that merely appropriated our skyline and name) and our actual consumer experience from nickelodeon days to the digital present, Horton explains.
Celluloid Seattle includes archival materials from MOHAI and the UW, local exhibitors and theaters (including STG’s Paramount), and from collectors including Horton himself. (Look carefully and you’ll find his treasured 1966 movie ticket stub for Namu, the Killer Whale at the Orpheum, razed the following year for what’s now the Westin Hotel.) Horton has been informally researching for the exhibit for years, since it was first planned for the old MOHAI in Montlake. There was no central archive or repository of knowledge for the show—the index “was only in my head,” admits Horton.
Seattle became a city because of the Alaska Gold Rush during the 1890s, which neatly coincided with the birth of cinema. The father of American cinema, Thomas Edison, even dispatched a film crew to document our booming city in 1897. “I just think it’s amazing that within a year of the invention of the movies, someone lugged a camera out here,” says Horton. You can see that footage, along with dozens more movie clips, at viewing stations in the five roughly chronological galleries.
In them are also old movie posters and lobby cards, a nickelodeon, antiquated projectors and movie cameras, blueprints and models, old seats and chandeliers from demolished movie palaces like the Colonial and Music Hall, and many photos of those extinct venues juxtaposed with their present use (several taken by Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard for their Seattle Times “Now and Then” feature). There’s a certain pathos and fascination to the Coliseum now being a Banana Republic, the Metropolitan being replaced by the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, and the Roosevelt plowed under for an office tower.
“Every time one of these old theaters dies, part of our history dies,” says Horton as we walk through the exhibit and examine the historical photos.
Our city is always changing, and so is its representation onscreen. Looking at 1954’s The Far Country, with James Stewart herding cattle from Wyoming to Seattle (and thence to Alaska), Horton says “the image of Seattle was still the image of a cow town”—someplace sleepy, uncouth, and provincial (see also: Tugboat Annie). In the same montage are excerpts from MGM’s 1940 short documentary Seattle: Gateway to the Northwest. The city doesn’t look that impressive (our second great boom would come a few years later with World War II and Boeing). The gold rush still loomed large when the MGM short was made.
It was all that Seattle was really known for.
After the war, that all changed, and the boosterish 1963 Elvis vehicle It Happened at the World’s Fair exemplifies our new screen identity. Aircraft, the monorail, natural scenery, and ethnic diversity—signaled by the lost Japanese-American girl Elvis befriends—are added to our brand. “What is the idea of Seattle in people’s movie imagination?” Horton asks rhetorically. More clips provide some clues: the Space Needle in The Parallax View’s assassination scene, Tom Hanks’ romantic houseboat in Sleepless in Seattle, even the sasquatch in Harry and the Hendersons. And such signature tropes extend to TV, which gets a gallery of its own, with artifacts and clips from Twin Peaks, Here Come the Brides, and even a set approximating Frasier’s old living room.
But the age of lattes and photogenic salmon-tossing was preceded by “Seattle’s decline and rough era,” says Horton, “when you had movies actually coming to Seattle to capture all that.” Clips including Cinderella Liberty illustrate that postwar, Boeing-bust era before Starbucks and Microsoft. So does 1974’s McQ, with John Wayne’s cop prowling seedy Pioneer Square. The 1984 documentary Streetwise perhaps best exemplifies that dark period. During the same era, as drive-ins and suburban theaters drew patrons away from downtown cinemas, says Horton, “Some of these places became porno houses.” Not that our suburbs were entirely wholesome. A display of drive-in artifacts includes titles like the T&A-tastic Scorchy (1976), starring Connie Stevens as a sexy Seattle undercover agent.
Horton’s personal connection to the Seattle film scene is felt in these parts of the exhibit. “The drive-in thing came from my own experience,” says Horton. He was also in the middle of Seattle’s art-house boom. Looking at one display, he notes, “When I was 20, I was putting these posters on telephone poles” for Fassbinder and Godard retrospectives. “When I was at the UW, they had an arts-and-lectures film series in Kane Hall, and they would sell out. You didn’t have video and you didn’t have streaming.”
The old Ridgemont in Greenwood, Horton recalls, was “the Woody Allen theater in the ’80s,” where all his films would open and play for months. And it was there, from 1956 to 1971, that James Selvidge was the first local exhibitor to book Bergman, Truffaut, and Fellini movies. It was also there that A Man and a Woman ran for 63 weeks (!) during the mid-’60s. Today, by contrast, even an acclaimed import like Amour is lucky to run a month at the Guild 45th before heading to DVD. And as we see in MOHAI’s before-and-after photos, the Ridgemont was knocked down in 2001. It was replaced by a condo, whose residents today are watching movies via VOD, Amazon, and Netflix.
MUSEUM OF HISTORY & INDUSTRY 860 Terry Ave. N., 324-1126, mohai.org. $12–$14. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Exhibit ends Dec. 1.