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Q and A with Dennis Nyback

by: L.E. BASKOW, For Oregon Cartoon Institute co-founder Dennis Nyback (with images from the Finnish film “Le Saut,” by Eino Ruutsalo, projected behind him), there’s plenty to learn from old animation. For instance, who knew Betty Boop was a dog?

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

Calling Dennis Nyback quirky really isn't fair. After all, compared to everybody else in his work world, Nyback is downright conventional. He doesn't smash himself flat as a pancake running into brick walls, he's never been pounded into the ground with a giant hammer. Not yet, anyway.

But reputations can suffer when a guy chooses his own reality. And that's exactly what Nyback has done as a film archivist, with a specialty in cartoons. He travels the world collecting old films and putting together programming for museums, galleries and theaters. He's also co-founder of the Oregon Cartoon Institute.

Nyback, 53, has had Portland film buffs reeling for the last month. Two weeks ago, the Dennis Nyback Cartoon Extravaganza drew a crowd to Disjecta Gallery at the east end of the Burnside Bridge to watch ancient Bugs, Porky, Daffy, Tweety and the gang. Tomorrow, Saturday, he will be presenting a show he's calling 'Pinto Colvig and Northwest Animators Night' at Disjecta Gallery.

Portland Tribune: Pinto Colvig. What's that?

Dennis Nyback: He's a human being. He was the voice of Goofy.

Tribune: And you're presenting a show based on the work of Northwest animators and cartoonists - why exactly?

Nyback: It just intrigued me looking into these cartoons I had, how many Oregon names were popping up.

Tribune: Is there an explanation?

Nyback: A famous writer once said to be an Oregonian you have to have a good sense of irony. That's because you can see it's raining all the time and you can say, 'It doesn't rain all that much.' I disagree with that. I think you have to be willfully perverse. Cartooning requires that attitude. Reality? We don't care about reality. We're going to create reality.

Tribune: How many cartoons are in your collection?

Nyback: I'm not really sure. I need to do an inventory.

Tribune: Take a guess.

Nyback: Six hundred cartoons, maybe. I've got several thousand films.

Tribune: How did you get several thousand films?

Nyback: I've been buying them for over 20 years. In the old days I would travel around and get them from thrift stores and out of Dumpsters. The Alpha Cine Dumpster in Seattle was a good source.

Tribune: I'll bite. What's that?

Nyback: They work with filmmakers. In the early days of video, people were taking their films in for transfer. They would get the film transferred at Alpha Cine and they might have like 20 pounds of film. They'd say, 'Here's your video and here's your film.' Customers would look at the four-ounce video and the 20 pounds of film and they wouldn't want to lug that film back to their car. So Alpha Cine would throw the films into the Dumpster.

Tribune: Where you found what?

Nyback: Mainly home movies. But I got a real gem out of that Dumpster. I got an American Cancer Society film called 'On With Your Life' with the crew of the show 'Mission Impossible,' and in this one Peter Graves goes to the proctologist.

Tribune: And what do you do with this film?

Nyback: I show it. I last showed it at the Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum.

Tribune: How did the audience respond?

Nyback: The men squirmed and the women laughed.

Tribune: We were talking cartoons. Where do you get them?

Nyback: Now you get them on eBay. Back in the dark ages of the 1950s and 1960s all the local TV stations in America had libraries of films in 16 millimeter. And a lot of schools and libraries also had stockpiles of 16 mm films. When video came around a lot of these places started dumping all their films.

Tribune: Do you have a favorite cartoon?

Nyback: 'Bimbo's Initiation.'

Tribune: What is that?

Nyback: A 1931 Betty Boop cartoon.

Tribune: Isn't the term bimbo considered politically incorrect these days?

Nyback: No. Bimbo is the name of the dog. Betty Boop was created to be Bimbo the dog's carnal love interest.

Tribune: Come on.

Nyback: Betty Boop started out as a dog because Bimbo came first and the audience was not responding. So they decided to give Bimbo a girlfriend to add sex. Bimbo kept being a dog. Betty Boop evolved into a human being.

Tribune: Most of the programs you put together revolve around themes. Do you have a favorite theme?

Nyback: Bad Bugs Bunny.

Tribune: Who wanted that?

Nyback: Everybody wanted that. It's the most popular program I've ever done. I've shown it all over Europe, Great Britain, Australia, Japan and Korea.

Tribune: But why do people want to see bad Bugs Bunny?

Nyback: I guess it's because it's more unusual. Why do people read the tabloids? We don't want to see the good side of people. You can have Bugs Bunny pulling out a gun as big as Dirty Harry's and sticking it in a dog's mouth and blowing his head off. He did that in the cartoon 'Hare Ribbin' ' and they had to change that ending about a month after it came out in 1946.

Tribune: To?

Nyback: They changed it to suicide. They had so many complaints, 'You can't have Bugs Bunny sticking a gun in some dog's mouth,' so he hands the gun to the dog and the dog shoots himself in the head. And that was an improvement.

Tribune: So people pay you to go around showing your movies. Nice way to make a living.

Nyback: Such as it is.

Tribune: Do you ever feel like your life resembles any of the cartoons you show?

Nyback: No.

Tribune: You run the Oregon Cartoon Institute. Where is it located?

Nyback: It doesn't have a physical presence.

Tribune: Sort of like a cartoon?

Nyback: Yeah. Eventually we want to have a building.

Tribune: But this is your entire work now, right?

Nyback: Yes.

Tribune: You hesitated when you said that.

Nyback: Well, I should be doing more.

Tribune: That's all, folks.

- Peter Korn