Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on July 1, 2012
While visiting Portland I finally got to check out the Hollywood Theatre, which prompted me to seek out the head programmer for a few quick questions. Before approaching Dan Halsted I did a Google search on his name and a bloodied picture of his face was the first thing that popped up. This was alongside an article about his being tasered by police five times. It was a case of mistaken identity, but to add insult to injury the city tried to smear his character by citing Dan’s love for kung fu and grindhouse exploitation films as damning evidence.
You’re the head programmer for Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, which started out as a “palace of luxury, comfort and entertainment unsurpassed by any theatre on the Coast,” with over 1,500 seats. That was July 26, 1926. Later, in the early ’60s, it became the first Cinerama facility in the Pacific Northwest. It’s now something very different. How would you describe it now?
The Hollywood Theater has an amazing history. Unfortunately, after the Cinerama “glory days”, the theater fell into disrepair for a few decades. It is now a non-profit theater, and in the last two years, we’ve done a lot of restorations on the theater, including new seats, new sound systems, a new screen, restoration of the classic facade, and a new paint job (HUGE credit goes to Executive Director Doug Whyte). We are currently on a fundraising campaign to install a new marquee.
As to describing the theater now, it’s important to note that Portland is an incredibly unique market because of how many independent movie theaters we have. In addition to the typical megaplexes, there’s also a 10 screen art-house multiplex, and a large number of single screen independent theaters. It’s great for the public, but it puts the Hollywood in a situation where we have to constantly push ourselves to be creative and diverse. What sets the Hollywood Theatre apart in this town is our original programming. Obscure films (both first-run and repertory), as well as original one-night-only events that we put together ourselves.
When did you first get involved with the Hollywood Theatre, and how have those responsibilities changed over time?
I was originally hired as the technical director, since I had a background in 35mm projection and sound/lighting. I started renting out the theater to show older obscure films I love, which is how the Grindhouse Film Festival began. I quickly found that most of the films I wanted to show didn’t have 35mm prints available, since the distributors don’t exist anymore. This led me to the world of film collecting, where so many films that would have otherwise fell through the cracks and be lost, are saved.
For the last two years, I’ve been the head film programmer at the theater. I’ve worked really hard to bring in a younger and more diverse audience than the theater has catered to in the past.
Three years ago you unearthed “the largest collection of 35mm martial arts films in the Western Hemisphere.” It led to you curating the Kung Fu Theater, a popular program at the Hollywood Theatre that you also take out on the road. How often does Kung Fu Theater take place and what are some past highlights as well as future offerings coming down the road?
I’m a huge fan of classic kung fu films. When I first started programming movies, I was shocked to find that most of these movies didn’t seem to exist on 35mm anymore. Even more disturbing was the fact that no one seemed to care. I’ve dedicated myself to finding and saving as many of these films as possible. In 2008, I unearthed 200 films in an abandoned Chinese theater in Vancouver B.C. (that’s over 8000 lbs. of film). Most of the films are the only known 35mm prints in the Western Hemisphere. (See link at bottom for more.)
Kung Fu Theater is a monthly series, made up almost exclusively of the films I’ve found, and is incredibly popular. The screenings average 200 people per show. It’s really amazing to watch a large audience respond and get excited for a film that they otherwise never would have experienced in a theater.
This year, I’ve also been traveling, presenting the films in other cities. On July 6th, I’ll be at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and on July 10th, I’ll be at the New Beverly Cinema in LA, presenting a really great kung fu double feature.
You’re also the organizer and founder of the Grindhouse Film Festival, which recently screened DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE (1979) last Tuesday. As with the Kung Fu Theater, the program seems to be made up of mostly “extremely rare 35mm prints.” With everyone going digital and many studio archives mothballing their prints, do you have any long-term strategies for survival? How many 35mm prints can the Grindhouse Film Festival or Kung Fu Theater show every year before the selection starts getting thin?
What’s really amazing about the 70′s-80′s exploitation heyday was the unbelievable amount of movies that were made. The Grindhouse Film Festival won’t be running out of films anytime soon. Also, with the large amount of kung fu films I’ve been able to find, Kung Fu Theater will be running strong for years. In addition to the large collection of prints from Vancouver, I also have bought a decent number of films from collectors who used to pull 35mm prints out of dumpsters behind theaters. It’s amazing how many films have been saved this way.
When I do a Google image search on your name, the first thing that pops up is a rather horrific image of your face after you got tasered five times by police. On top of that, it appears that the City of Portland’s attorney made a link between your passion for both kung fu and exploitation films as evidence for being prone to violence. How do you sum up that experience?
On a summer night in 2008, I was walking home from a night out with friends, when I was jumped, tased five times, and beaten by the police in a case of mistaken identity. I sued, and earlier this year, I won the lawsuit in federal court. Leading up to the trial, it became apparent that the city attorney was going to try to use my collection of kung fu films against me, and say that since I’m a fan of kung fu cinema, I must have tried to use kung fu against the cops (I’ve never had any martial arts training whatsoever). The judge wouldn’t allow it because it’s totally ridiculous, but when I was on the stand, the attorney still brought up my collection to try to plant in the jury’s mind that I must be a violent person. It was a surreal experience to say the least. The jury didn’t buy it, and they awarded me over $200,000.
On a similar subject, do you find that a lot of people assume you’re violent or deranged simply because you like films that show violent or deranged things? In the hypothetical situation that you had to mount a spirited defense for the genres you love to those who don’t understand your passions, be it a girlfriend, a family member, or total stranger, how would you go about it?
I don’t think that typically happens. What I think is far more common, is for people to assume that these movies are just terrible films. There are definitely people who think that these screenings are done with a huge sense of irony. I could spend far too much time defending these movies, but usually I just try to get people to come see them on 35mm, with the audience. It’s always thrilling to see them leaving the screening, and they say “Actually, that was a REALLY good movie”.
A culture of open-minded cinema lovers hungry for celluloid and off-the-beaten-track titles can be hard to find. Certain cities are known for it. New York City, L.A., Austin, and your own haven of Portland quickly come to mind. As you’ve travelled outside of Portland to screen some of your rare prints, are there some other cities you would add to that list based on enthusiastic response and/or attendance? Maybe some places to avoid?
I’ve always gotten great responses from audiences in other cities. Sometimes it can take a little while for the excitement to get going in the theater though. Modern movies are so tame and boring, and people can be so loud and obnoxious, I don’t think people are used to having a communal audience experience with a film anymore. Now everything is digital and Disney-fied, it really makes oddball exploitation celluloid stand apart.
From my experience, even audiences in smaller towns get excited for these rare films. The only place where the screenings haven’t worked are in suburbs.
For more on Dan’s kung fu adventures, visit: http://salvagingshaolin.blogspot.com/
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