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.