On May 14, 1976, the first Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) opens at the historic Moore Egyptian Theatre at 2nd Avenue and Virginia Street. The festival's founders, Dan Ireland (d. 2016) and Darryl MacDonald (d. 2020), had taken over the Moore Theatre the previous year, cleaned it up, installed a new screen and sound system, and reopened it as the The Moore Egyptian in December 1975. They show a mix of classic Hollywood revivals and foreign films before launching the film festival, which will run from May 14 through May 31, 1976, and features films from several countries. SIFF stays at the Moore Egyptian for five seasons before relocating in 1981 to the Masonic Temple on Capitol Hill, which will be renovated by Ireland and MacDonald and renamed the Egyptian. The Seattle International Film Festival will grow to be one of the nation's largest and continues to bring a wide variety of foreign and domestic films, both well-known and obscure, to Northwest audiences.
The Moore Theatre and the Moore Hotel, which share a building, were the inspiration of Seattle developer James A. Moore (1861-1929), who opened the theater to the public on December 28, 1907. He had originally planned the theater to be part of an expanded Washington (formerly Denny) Hotel, which he had purchased in 1903. That hotel was perched on the summit of Denny Hill, and Denny Hill would eventually be sluiced away as part of the City's huge downtown regrade project. Moore could not save the Washington, but instead commissioned from Seattle architect E. W. Houghton (1856-1927) an entirely new, six-story hotel with a ground-floor theater to be built at 2nd Avenue and Virginia Street.
At the time it opened, the Moore Theatre was celebrated for its elaborate and revolutionary design. Unique among Seattle theaters of the day, it had no interior vertical supports holding up the balcony, giving main-floor audiences an unobstructed view of the stage. In place of stairs, wide, gradually sloping ramps led from the main lobby to the theater's upper reaches. Little expense was spared on interior details, for which large amounts of onyx, brass, and marble were used. The Moore was at the time reputed to be the third-largest theater in the United States, and it remains today the oldest operating entertainment venue in Seattle.
The Moore opened as a vaudeville house and eventually became part of the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, but over the long decades since then its stage has seen everything from Shakespeare plays to religious revivals to boxing matches. Under an assortment of early managers it was home to the Seattle Symphony (1908-1911), screened silent films and early "talkies," and brought to town other popular entertainments, both on stage and on film. During a notable 14-year reign, from 1935 to 1949, Seattle impresaria Cecilia Schultz (1878-1971) and her "Greater Artists Series" hosted some of the world's leading performing artists -- dancers, singers, and actors -- at the Moore. In the 1950s, manager Hugh Becket (1922-1986) brought Broadway musicals to the venue and turned the Moore's lobby into a gallery that displayed works by all the leading artists of the "Northwest School."
But by the 1960s and early 1970s the theater had fallen on hard times. Owned then by Seattle attorney and real-estate investor George Toulouse (1917-1988) (whose family still owns it today), it operated for several years as a pure rental house, with local and national promoters leasing it by the night or by the weekend to stage such things as rock concerts, motivational speakers, travelogues, and boxing matches. The Moore was a money-losing proposition for Toulouse during those years, but he refused to entertain any ideas that would threaten the venue's historic ambiance. This was rewarded in 1974 when the Moore earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, but by then its physical plant was badly deteriorated and in need of rescue.
Then two young men come to the Moore, stage center -- a Canadian, Darryl MacDonald, and Dan Ireland, an American citizen born in Portland, Oregon, but raised in Vancouver B.C., where the family had moved to obtain affordable medical care for his youngest brother, a hemophiliac. Ireland and MacDonald, best friends and film buffs since childhood, decided they wanted to manage their own theater and began to look for one they could take over. In 1975 they found the Moore. In Ireland's words:
"Because I was American by birth, I went down to Seattle to look there, and we found this amazing theater which was really not being utilized at all, except for rock concerts ... . It was the Moore; we changed it into the Moore Egyptian because we wanted to give it a theatrical name … . We were going to call it the Moore Chinese until we walked in and took a look around and thought, 'We can put an Egyptian motif in here… .' There's nothing Egyptian about the theater whatsoever, but we really wanted to give it a Hollywood kind of spin in Seattle" (Dan Ireland interview).
Working in shifts 24 hours a day, volunteers (who were fed, housed in the theater's dressing rooms, and promised jobs upon reopening) helped Ireland and MacDonald for the next four months, cleaning and refurbishing the fine old movie house. Their initial plans were to bring to its screen a mix of Hollywood classic revivals and new and old, often obscure, foreign films. Seattle audiences got a taste of what was in store when the Moore Egyptian's doors opened on December 14, 1975. The debut feature was Busby Berkeley's (1895-1976) musical camp classic from 1943, The Gang's All Here, featuring Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) and her famous fruit hat. This was followed over Christmas by a double bill of Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) in Casablanca and Cary Grant (1904-1986) in Arsenic and Old Lace, and these would be followed by a retrospective of Federico Fellini's (1920-1993) best films and more restored 35-mm classics from the MGM vaults.
An Audience in Waiting
So large and popular has the Seattle International Film Festival become over the past 36 years that is easy to lose sight of the fact that even before it began, the city had a dedicated cadre of film buffs and several outlets that screened the latest and best films from around the world. The year 1968, tumultuous in so many ways, marked the first broad recognition of the region's appetite for something more than the standard Hollywood fare of rom-coms and shoot-em-ups. In 1968, John Hartl, the film critic for The Seattle Times, traced the development:
"Suddenly, Seattle has become part of the experimental film scene.
"A University of Washington film series devoted to new or award-winning experimental films, a series of near-underground classics at the Edgemont Theater, a local film festival, a U.W. class taught by a nationally publicized underground film maker, and a movie house that regularly schedules underground movies are all in full swing this week" ("Festival, Series Experimental").
Hartl went on to attribute the trend to several factors:
"[T]he University of Washington ... ; the knowledgeable film buffs who run the Edgemont and Ridgemont theaters; the sponsors of the 2nd Annual Bellevue Film Festival, which is part of the 22nd Annual Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair; and the people who run the Rivoli Theater, which used to be a live-burlesque house and which still runs nudie movies along with underground films" ("Festival, Series Experimental").
An essay by Jeff Katz in the Spring 2012 issue of Columbia magazine, also recounts the growing popularity and availability of avant-garde films in the region:
"Among colleges and universities, Cornish School of the Allied Arts and the University of Washington led the way. While both schools lacked full-fledged film programs, they made strong efforts to respond to the growing interest in film studies and filmmaking by offering courses taught by talented film scholars and practitioners. Cornish students in 1968, for example, could register for an 'Introduction to Film Making' course, featuring Arthur Bleich, a motion picture producer and 'former Fulbright professor of communications,' while the University of Washington provided its 1968 students with two class offerings -- 'The Film as Art' and 'Film Making' -- with notable underground film director Stan VanDerBeek. Furthermore, the University of Washington's Henry Gallery, under the direction of another legend in the history of Seattle film culture, LaMar Harrington (with assistance from Robert Dale and Greg Olsen), opened up the world of experimental and non-mainstream cinema to students and members of the public alike with its regular 'Films in Your Gallery' schedule of art films and foreign classics ... .
"[Carol Duke and Mary Jo Malone], both volunteers for the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair, proposed a film festival element for the well-established annual fair in 1967. Since they had no experience organizing such an event, they connected with as many American film festival 'veterans' as possible (thanks to some vital assistance from recently hired Seattle Post–Intelligencer arts critic Tom Robbins). Shortly thereafter, the Bellevue Film Festival was in production, followed by its grand premiere installment, which took place at the Bel-Vue Theater from July 28 to 30, 1967" ("Before SIFF").
Seattle's Allied Arts put on a two-part festival -- "Film as Art and Document" and "International Award Winners" -- at the Pacific Science Center in June 1968. It featured 86 films and was funded in part through a National Foundation of the Arts grant-in-aid awarded by the Washington State Arts Commission. Although the festival barely broke even, it was considered a success and prompted hope that later efforts would be more profitable. But this proved too optimistic and it survived for only one more year.
Also in 1968, the second Bellevue Film Festival was a greater success than the first, and it would grow and improve year by year until its last season in 1981. By that time, the Seattle International Film Festival was well-established and had become the primary showcase for the notable (and occasionally less-than-notable) domestic and foreign films that appealed to the Northwest's growing ranks of knowledgeable aficionados.
The years 1969 through 1971 also saw developments that would have lasting effects on the Seattle film scene. In 1969 Art Bernstein and Jim O'Steen opened the Harvard Exit theater on the city's Capitol Hill, and the Northwest Filmmakers Co-op was formed. The following year Randy Finley opened the Movie House in the University District and the Seattle Film Society was founded. In 1971 it published the first issue of a film periodical, Movietone News, which author and critic Molly Haskell called "The best publication on film in the English language" ("Movietone News"). It would continue in print for the next 11 years
Clearly, there was a vibrant film scene developing in Seattle even before Ireland and MacDonald launched SIFF, and the philosophy of "film-as-art" was well entrenched. But with their takeover of the Moore Theatre, the two young men had all the necessary pieces in place -- a deep love of film, a deep knowledge about film, and a classic venue in which to screen films. With hard work, good choices, and a little luck, they were to put together a festival that would soon draw the attention of film buffs and film makers from around the world.
The First Seattle International Film Festival
Although when Ireland and MacDonald leased the Moore Theatre in late 1975 there were several local theaters showing films of the type found at festivals, there was at that time, in Seattle, no annual festival as such. Ireland had helped program a festival in Vancouver B.C., shortly before and, in his words, the idea of a festival in Seattle "was always in the back of my mind" (Dan Ireland interview). But the two knew that when it came to film, Seattle was a "competitive town," and if they announced a festival before having films committed, there was a substantial risk that someone would beat them to it. Said Ireland:
"So we kept it quiet. I basically went around and booked the festival with Darryl, through foreign contacts, through distributors in town, with the promise that they couldn't tell anyone, and they all agreed to it. So, when we literally made our announcement that we were doing the first Seattle International Film Festival, they couldn't do anything about it -- otherwise we would have been jumped by someone else" (Dan Ireland interview).
The newspapers of the day reflect the secrecy, perhaps even subterfuge, that Ireland and MacDonald felt necessary to avoid being "jumped." A small item in John Hartl's "At the Movies" column in The Seattle Times on April 10, 1976, read:
"The Moore Egyptian Theatre is putting together a festival of 'lost movies' that have never been shown in Seattle, starting May 14. Most of the films will play one or two nights; tentatively scheduled are 'Hedda,' with Glenda Jackson, Louis Malle's 'Black Moon,' Claude Chabrol's 'Just Before Nightfall,' Luis Bunuel's 'Phantom of Liberty,' Maximilian Schell's 'End of the Game,' Lina Wertuller's 'All Screwed Up,' Rainier Fassbinder's "Fox and His Friends,' and Dusan Makavejev's 'Sweet Movie.' Details will be announced later" (Hartl, "At the Movies," April 10, 1976).
No mention of an "international film festival," much less the "First Seattle International Film Festival." Just a casual press handout that a handful of "lost movies" were to be shown. But the truth was not long in coming; just two weeks later, on April 25, 1976, the headline on Hartl's column announced, "First Seattle Film Festival Starts May 14 at the Moore."
Ireland and MacDonald had good reasons for scheduling their festival in the spring (when it clashed with the world-famous Cannes Film Festival) and rapidly expanding both its length and its offerings in the next few years. As Dan Ireland explained:
"We did it at first because it was the best time of the year for us, and to be quite frank it was the time when we made a lot of money ... so any of our losses throughout the year of running a full-time movie theater with a 1,500 seat capacity, with that kind of overhead, it kind of helped us get through. And the festival really brought a kind of recognition to the theater, so by the third year we actually started to get a regular clientele 'cause they trusted us at that point because they liked what we showed in the festival" (Dan Ireland interview).
That first festival appears to have featured 18 films, all characterized as "first run," although Hartl noted in his column that he had previously seen several of them at other festivals or at advance screenings. Hartl also said that a 19th film, "yet to be confirmed," would be shown ("First Seattle Film Festival Starts May 14 ... "), but there is no further mention of such a movie. The 18 films that definitely were shown, and their countries of origin, were:
- The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Germany)
- All Screwed Up (Italy)
- Immoral Tales (Italy and France)
- Hedda (Britain)
- Black Moon (France)
- Mahler (Britain)
- I Am a Dancer (Britain)
- The Phantom of Liberte (France)
- Just Before Nightfall (France)
- The Night of Counting the Years (Egypt)
- The Confrontation (Switzerland)
- Money, Money, Money (France)
- Down the Ancient Stairs (Italy)
- Kathy Tippel (The Netherlands)
- Sweet Movie (Germany, Canada, France)
- The Crazies (United States)
- Dick Deadeye (Australia)
- Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends (Germany)
During that first festival's two-week run, the Moore Egyptian also presented matinee tributes to directors Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini and what was described as "a rare showing" of a four-part Japanese ghost story called Kwaidan ("First Seattle Film Festival Starts May 14 ... "). With afternoons and evenings covered, the festival also came up with offerings for night-owls with a series of 99-cent midnight showings on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Among these late screenings were the rock-festival documentary Woodstock and George Romero's (b. 1940) The Crazies (which was also part of the main festival fare and went on to become a classic of the horror genre).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which went on to become a long-running cult classic, was the unnamed "sneak preview" advertised for the festival's opening night. All who watched it were sworn to secrecy, and somehow the secret was kept. The next mention of the campy film in the local press did not come until July 23, 1976, when it opened as a feature at the Moore Egyptian nearly two months after the festival ended. It went on to play for several years at the University District's Neptune Theatre, now managed by the Seattle Theatre Group, which also leases the Moore Theatre and owns the Paramount Theatre.
A Little Bigger, a Little Better
The Seattle International Film Festival was a huge hit, and it was apparent that Ireland and MacDonald had both a first-class venue and the large and knowledgeable base of film lovers necessary to make a success of an annual event showcasing dozens of films, many not necessarily produced with a mass audience in mind. The following year the second annual festival had a little trouble getting organized, but once it did, it proved as popular as the first. Originally scheduled for April 1977, then moved to early May, it finally got underway on May 27 and ran for two and a half weeks.
The second SIFF was a little more adventuresome than the first. Together with dramatic offerings from France, Spain, Germany, England, Poland, and a joint Russian/Czechoslovakian production, there were three documentaries, including The California Reich (about the American Nazi Party) and A Bigger Splash, profiling well-known British painter David Hockney (b. 1937). The festival also screened a long-lost Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) movie from 1923, A Woman of Paris, and a Chaplin short entitled Sunnyside. Several of the American films shown at the 1977 festival were more than a little outré, and included John Waters' (b. 1946) Multiple Maniacs; F is for Fake, an Orson Welles (1915-1985) film about art and literary fraud; Andy Warhol's (1928-1987) Bad; and David Lynch's (b. 1946) surrealist Eraserhead, produced largely with funds provided by the American Film Institute.
The film that perhaps drew the most comment at the 1977 festival was Werner Herzog's (b. 1942) Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starring a visibly unhinged Klaus Kinski (1926-1991), who for months had tormented Herzog and terrorized his film crew throughout a torturous shoot in the Peruvian rainforest. A three-hour Dutch film, Max Havelaar, continued what would become a pattern of debuting at the festival films from The Netherlands, a country that U.S. audiences had not traditionally associated with great cinema. Ireland and MacDonald became sales agents for the Dutch production, their first venture into another aspect of the movie business that would become a lucrative sideline in future years.
A Lot Bigger, a Lot Better
Ireland, MacDonald, and others involved with SIFF steadily expanded the festival's offerings year by year. The third annual event, which began on May 11, 1978, featured 45 films from 17 different countries. It also presented its first official director tribute/retrospective, honoring Stanley Kramer, who had recently moved to Seattle. The line-up that year was typical of the festival's efforts to appeal to a broad range of cinematic tastes. Among the films presented were:
- A lavish, 1967 production of Anna Karenina, from the Soviet Union
- Summer Paradise, a 1977 Swedish film
- The French film, Voyage to Grand Tartarie, from 1974
- Lulu, a 1918 Hungarian film directed by Michael Curtiz (1886-1962) and starring Bela Lugosi (1892-1956), both of whom would go on to careers in Hollywood
- Operation Thunderbolt, an Israeli film recounting the daring Israeli military raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976
- The American Friend, 1977, by German director Wim Wenders (b. 1945) and starring Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)
- Satyajit Ray's (1921-1992) Indian film, The Chess Players
- Turkey, a travelogue by famed French director Claude LeLouch (b. 1937)
- Mindscape, an award-winning Canadian cartoon feature
- Madam Rosa, a French production that won the 1977 Academy Award for best foreign film
The American director John Waters made a repeat appearance at the 1978 festival with Desperate Living, which The Times' John Hartl described as "a scatological send-up of Disney," and Waters's "most elaborate attempt to 'go beyond the taste barrier,'" ("'Summer Paradise'" Leads Weekend Festival Films"). Also in the out-of-the-ordinary category was Short Eyes, a harsh portrayal of a child molester's experiences in prison.
In 1978 Rajeeve Gupta joined Ireland and MacDonald as a director of the festival, which that year screened 83 films from 26 countries, almost doubling the number of entries from the previous year. The opening feature that year was Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) in American director George Roy Hill's (1921-2002) A Little Romance.
The 1979 festival included one world premiere and 13 American premieres. Among the more popular features were the debut of Ridley Scott's (b. 1937) sci-fi hit, Alien; the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock (which had been scratched from the 1978 schedule); and Empire of Passion, from Japan. Also on the slate in 1979 were
- A Tunisian film, Hyenas Under the Sun, from 1977
- The British film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson (b. 1936), made in 1978
- The Valiant Ones, the first festival film from Hong Kong, 1975
- Two films by previously unknown West German directors, Waller Beckmayer's and Rolf Buehrmann's Flaming Hearts and Reinhard Hauff's The Main Actor
- American horror master George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the second of his "Living Dead" series, which was featured at midnight screenings.
Jeff Dowd (b. 1949), a Vietnam-era antiwar activist and the inspiration for "The Dude" character in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, came on board as a festival director in 1980, which would be the festival's last year at the Moore Egyptian. The most popular presentation that year was the world premiere of George Lucas's (b. 1944) first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (b. 1938) was honored with a three-film retrospective, continuing the festival's steady promotion of New Wave cinema from The Netherlands. Among other screenings that year were:
- The Neil Young (b. 1945) rock documentary Rust Never Sleeps
- A British remake of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes
- Opname ("In for Treatment"), a no-budget 16-mm Dutch film about hospital life that left audiences in tears
- Oscar-nominated The Glass Cell, from Germany
- From France, L'Incorrigible, starring Genevieve Bujold (b. 1942) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (b. 1933)
- Australian director Peter Weir's (b. 1944) The Plumber, widely anticipated in the wake of his popular Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was shown the previous year.
With the 1980 season, the festival also began a regular tradition of bringing in filmmakers for post-screening discussions with the audience. In addition to the Midnight Movies series and director tributes and retrospectives, SIFF has tried out a number of other innovations over the years, including a short-film competition, all-night movie marathons, a "Secret Festival," an annual poster auction, a Films 4 Families lineup, the Fly Filmmaking Challenge, and archival presentations.
Change and Stability
After the 1980 season, the Seattle International Film Festival relocated to the old Masonic Temple at 801 Pine Street on Capitol Hill, which Ireland and MacDonald renovated and renamed "The Egyptian." (Some sources claim, without explanation, that the move happened years later; contemporary advertisements establish the date.) The Moore Egyptian reverted to its original name of just "The Moore." Dan Ireland would stay with SIFF until 1986, after which he went on to a successful career as a film producer and director. Darryl MacDonald stayed until after the 2003 season, when he moved on to head the Palm Springs Film Festival.
In 2009, SIFF celebrated its 35th anniversary. If one does the math, it will be seen that this was in fact only its 34th year in operation; festival management superstitiously did not count a 13th season, but went directly from the 12th to the 14th.
The film showcase that Ireland and MacDonald started and nurtured through the years -- Ireland for more than a decade and MacDonald for nearly three decades -- continued to thrive, and by 2012 was the largest and best-attended film festival in the United States. It had settled into a fixed routine, running each year for three weeks plus one weekend, and regularly brought over 400 films to Northwest audiences each season. It's success continued as the third decade of the twenty-first century approached. What began as the dream of two young film nuts from north of the border took root, flourished, and became both an international attraction and a central component of Seattle's cultural life.