On Thursday, February 6, James Keblas announced that after nine years as director of Seattle’s Office of Film and Music, he’d been let go. New mayor Ed Murray wasn’t reappointing the beloved Keblas—under whose tenure directors Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths had become national names—and the blowback was intense; there were angry tweets, a petition to reinstate Keblas, and statements of support for him from Shelton and Griffiths. But then came word of his replacement: Kate Becker, the longtime advocate for the local nightlife scene, Keblas’s former partner in the Vera Project, and all-around arts ninja. And everyone relaxed. Change is hard, but they knew that with Becker at the helm, the show will go on.
Spinning. My head is completely spinning. But I’m fine.
I moved here from Massachusetts with a boyfriend in September 1991. I got out of college and we decided we would go across the country on a giant road trip to figure out where we were going to settle. It was a seminal moment for the music community here, and I could definitely tell something was happening. It was the month that Nevermind was released. It was the month that The Stranger went into publication. And it was the month that 107.7 The End went on the air. So it was a giant month, and it just happened to be the month I came to Seattle.
Honestly, I have loved independent film all of my life, but aside from some hobby efforts along the way, I haven’t been making serious films since I got out of college. I got out of school thinking I would be a filmmaker. I moved briefly to New York and checked out the film scene there, but simultaneously I was very invested in working with young people. So there were these two pulls: Am I going to be an artist, or am I going to do this work with young people that I committed in my heart to doing long ago?
Society has a bad habit of sticking with young people until they’re about 13 or so and reconnecting with them as they come into adulthood. So there’s sort of a gap in there, where people get afraid of teenagers. In fact, when I was running all-ages shows at the Old Fire House [in Redmond], sometimes parents would show up and say, “Hey, could you find my daughter in there? She’s blonde and has a blue T-shirt on.” In the midst of 500 kids, right? So I’d say, “Come on in with me, we’ll find her together.” And they would not. Many of them would not come into the very place that they were allowing their teenagers to be. Which I could never, ever understand.
I had some of the best times of my life at all-ages shows. And even though I was older than the crowd, I was very much accepted by the crowd. I was able to work with them effectively. Ironically, I think sometimes adults alienate themselves from young people more than young people push away from adults.
In 1999 I testified at an Arts Commission meeting, lobbying for their support in repealing the Teen Dance Ordinance. At the end of the meeting these two people came running up to me—it was James Keblas and Shannon Stewart, whom I’d never met—and they said, “Can we go have a beer? We really need to talk with you.” They were mightily ambitious and very, very smart, and we quickly became friends and then we became allies and colleagues and decided to do this crazy thing together and opened an all-ages venue in Seattle. And, well, the rest is history.
I don’t know how much I’m supposed to be talking about this, but I had been aware for a few days that James had been let go from his position. It was hitting the film community like a shockwave.
The response to James’s departure was crazy, but it was no surprise to me that he is dearly beloved and keenly respected. I can fully understand why the people who had been working with him and felt like there was good momentum building—which there certainly has been—would be concerned that that could be disrupted. Just the sheer disruption alone is justification for concern. So it’s just absolutely gigantic boots to fill, and I will attempt to do that with all due respect for the great work that has been done.
The day after word got out, Friday, I was jumping on a plane to New England for a family trip that had been planned long ago to take my nieces skiing in Vermont. My entire family—my husband, my daughter, and I—were all jumping on a plane. Even with this coming down, I didn’t see how I could reschedule that trip. So I prepared a statement literally as I was dashing to the airport. My daughter was pulling my suitcase and my husband was managing getting us through security and whatnot so I could knock out that letter on my iPhone before I stepped on a plane for six hours. I wrote it on the notepad app on my phone.
There has been a weird tension. It has been hard to simultaneously be in tune with a community that is grieving the loss of someone they have really loved working with while also being excited. It’s also been hard because I have a personal relationship with James; he’s heartbroken right now. Meanwhile, I’m taking over his work. So yes, it has been a tumultuous, emotional landscape, for sure.
I don’t think one person can make or break the Seattle film community.