Dennis Skaggs, Co-Founder of Camera Cinemas, Dies at 67

If you ask anyone aged 50 or older if the world is getting better or worse, you can guarantee the response; folks our age tend to superimpose our own physical and mental decline on the world as we see it.

That said, I think the era of San Jose when I used to see Dennis Skaggs on a weekly basis was a better one than now, full of more risk, and more pleasure—much more lively, with a sense of artistic community that seems to have gone away for good.

Dennis passed away Sept. 3 of ALS, which is often called Lou Gehrig's disease, a few days shy of his 68th birthday. He was a showman. It’s bemusing that he left us on the exact anniversary of the opening of the Camera One theater in 1975. Along with Jim Zuur, a teacher at San Jose State University’s New College, and Jack NyBlom, who had worked for the predecessor of the Century Cinemas chain, Dennis was the co-founder of the Camera Cinemas, a second-run and foreign-film operation. Longtime spokesperson Pam Kelly handled the PR.

When the Camera One at 366 S. First St. opened, Dennis had already been working at the existing theater on the location, a former shoe store turned-porn house. At the time he was working there, it was a Tarzana-operated theater that screened grindhouse and samurai films. Its opening night as the Camera One was a double bill of “Cabaret” and one of the 1960s most liquifying date movies: “A Man and A Woman.”

That one theater became a 21-screen chain that included the Towne Theater on the Alameda, the Camera 7 and the Los Gatos Theater.

The secret of the Camera Cinemas success was easy to guess. Dennis, Jim and Jack were as much movie lovers as they were businessmen. It pleases me that the picture of the Camera One on cinematreasures.org, a web shrine for dead movie theaters, has Todd Solondz’s 1996 “Welcome to the Dollhouse” on the marquee. NyBlom was a huge fan of Solondz and did a sterling job of personally promoting 1998’s “Happiness,” one of that director’s most difficult films.

And then there was the adventure of the acquisition of the Camera 12. That hulking multiplex theater in Downtown San Jose—currently being renovated into shops and housing—was a threat to the Camera’ business. It was funded with millions from the city’s Redevelopment Agency. The UA Theater chain that leased what they called the UA Pavillion theater pledged not to open anything that would compete with the Camera Cinemas. In February 1996, the UA Pavillion opened with Ang Lee’s adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility,” similar enough to one of the Camera Cinemas’ real mortgage lifters, “A Room With A View.”

The theater tanked within two years. The UA vamoosed, ripping out the equipment and leaving the lights to burn out in their sockets. In the fullness of time, the Camera Cinemas engulfed the theater that was supposed to engulf them. Reopening the UA Pavillion as the Camera 12, meant the sacrifice of the Camera One. Dennis told me it broke his heart to close his first theater.

But the theater itself still stands. The building is currently occupied by the Anno Domini gallery, and the exposed wooden beams inside make it feel—as an old acquaintance put it—“chapel-like.” I can’t remember the last movie I saw at the Camera One, but my happiest afternoon there is easy. During a 1994 SoFA fest, the crowd got to see a free preview screening of “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s lovable celebration of a berserk American folk artist. There was a standing room only audience inside, while the people outside in the streets were faintly audible through the theater’s famously thin walls.

One had a sense, that day, that there wasn’t a wall between the theater and the outside world. That's how the Camera One was in its day: a town square, a landmark.

I can still see the hardworking Dennis up on the third floor of the Camera 12, in an office cluttered with reels and equipment, papered with movie posters. I’d stop by for the post mortem of a good or bad picture right after the press screening. Dennis was as even-tempered and laconic a man as I’ve ever known in his position. There’s a lot of telephone screaming involved in running one theater, let alone many of them. Yet, I only recall him bringing an unvanquishable Californian coolness to obstacles and annoyances.

Last time I saw him was at the Continental Lounge during Cinequest. He’d suffered a stroke, but he was working on a new business that would match up screening rooms with corporate communications. He gave me his card so we could talk about it sometime. Never saw him again.

The kind of work Dennis did is mostly gone. But it’s hard to imagine a man who could have done it better.

12 Comments

  1. Such sad news.

    Jim, Jack, and Dennis gave me one of my first jobs in high school at Camera One.

    Those guys will forever be a great troika of arthouse cinema.

  2. As the movie representative for the San Jose Mercury news, I always felt I had the best job at the newspaper. Working with people like Dennis, Jim, and Jack was a joy. So much passion doing what they loved, Plus the fact they are all such great guys! RIP Dennis.

  3. Camera Towne was where I saw my first Anime (Fists of the North Star) in a theatre. From there I was hooked seeing things that would never see the light of day in Century.

    I didn’t know Dennis, but I appreciated his work. RIP

  4. The Cameras where a big support for bohemians such as Bruce Meisel, Meg Murphy, Bret Marion, and the like. Dennis was great. I painted a few murals for them and am eternally grateful for the support of Dennis, Jack, and Jim. I learned so much about great cinema sitting in that theatre.

  5. Thank you for recognizing Dennis Skagg’s place in downtown’s cultural landscape. His impact was significant whether opening one of his beloved movie theaters early in the morning for a public event or helping launch the Downtown Doors student artist project. You are remembered and missed, Dennis.

  6. I have such fond memories of the Camera Cinemas, including Rocky Horror Picture Show at Camera One. End of an era when a legend like this passes.

  7. Dennis was interesting and kind. He is forever embedded in the modern history of San Jose, a cultural founding father.

    RIP Dennis.

  8. Still remember reading in The Metro that William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, To Live and Die in LA) was coming to speak in person to The Camera Cinemas after showing The Sorcerer. A film I had only seen the last 2/3rds of after waking up late at night after falling asleep watching TV about 30 years ago. It was mesmerizing with Roy Scheider. What a movie AND we get a question and answer with a top director. Probably will not see that again, thanks to Dennis, et al for making me much more of a movie buff years after being a kid watching just the big box office main stream movies and not the ones most didn’t see but we’re so much more engaging. RIP.

  9. While I never met Skaggs, Zuur or NyBlom, I was a regular at Camera Cinemas and reveled in the cinematic artistry they promoted. I was fond of the film selection, engrossed by the old downtown locations (One and Three) and thrilled to have such cultural fixtures in my town. Along with the former Upstart Crow Bookstore and Cafe (Pruneyard), Mighty Like a Rose Cafe (Downtown Campbell) and the old San Jose State University library, the Camera Cinemas were islands of sanity and cultural exploration and fermentation in the 1970s in a town and region mostly devoid of such things. The obliteration of such venues, and thousands like them all over the country, is attributable to the overpowering and destructive influence of the business and pecuniary values that promote the commercial, the least common denominator and the profitable over all else. To counter such a wave we would have had to have city, county and state government promoting non-commercial cultural production, activities and venues in a significant ways, something our political leadership has shown itself time and again incapable of sustaining.

  10. While I never met Skaggs, Zuur or NyBlom, I was a regular at Camera Cinemas and reveled in the cinematic artistry they promoted. I was fond of the film selection, engrossed by the old downtown locations (One and Three) and thrilled to have such cultural fixtures in my town. Along with the former Upstart Crow Bookstore and Cafe (Pruneyard), Mighty Like a Rose Cafe (Downtown Campbell) and the old San Jose State University library, the Camera Cinemas were islands of sanity and cultural fermentation in the 1970s in a town and region mostly devoid of such things. The obliteration of such venues, and thousands like them all over the country, is attributable to the overpowering and destructive influence of the business and pecuniary values that promote the commercial, the least common denominator and the profitable over all else. To counter such a wave we would have had to have city, county and state government promoting non-commercial cultural production, activities and venues in a significant ways, something our political leadership has shown itself time and again incapable of sustaining.

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