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The Sci Fi Center: Las Vegas’ geektastic, underground clubhouse

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Dressed as butchers and caked with blood, two teddy bears rest against an ancient cash register below a decapitated comrade, a plastic Freddy Krueger worm devouring a blonde, and a pink flier for some Rocky Horror Lingerie Fetish Bondage Costume Night. It could almost be a microcosm of the Sci Fi Center, but it doesn’t say enough.

This place is an indie theater for stage and screen, a library of comics, a toy museum, a fringe art gallery and a snack bar where the Geek Combo gets you a soda, candy and popcorn for five bucks. For another $5 or $10, you might see a body-painting “autopsy” or an erotic circus or the full cut of ’20s-era sci-fi epic Metropolis. It’s entertainment Frankenstein, stitched together over many years by William Powell. And it’s something you just have to see.

“My biggest battle is making sure that when you walk through the door, you truly understand,” Powell says, noting the disclaimer on his website.

The Center’s Screening Room is NOT a theater. It is NOT a cinema. It’s a SMALL multimedia room where I do my best to show films that don’t get a lot of screen time in the cookie-cutter venues that litter this city. It’s not for everyone, and that’s not our aim, but if you are into what we are into, then our doors are open to you and we look forward to meeting you. :)

“Click this before you come here, especially if it’s your first time. We want them to know. We don’t want somebody coming down here thinking they’re coming down to the Pantages, and then it’s my basement.”

The eyes (or eye sockets) of Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Michael Myers and Pinhead glower from a massive painting on the wall of Powell’s screening room. It’s a lot of evil for one frame. Once the room is blacked out it’ll be even creepier, though there’s no telling when Powell will have time to paint in the midst of his full-time job at Home Depot and all of the other demands of the Center’s new space.

On this day he’s stretching a virgin screen, the PVC-vinyl tied to tiny ropes looped around 2x4s nailed to anything solid. Sandra Bullock floats through outer space projected on it, her panicked breathing punctuating our conversation about how the Sci Fi Center came to be Las Vegas’ underground clubhouse.

The seed was a comic-book store inside a movie-theater office, 600 square feet in the Mountain View Plaza that Powell rented in 1994. That, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Powell is a devoted fan of the campy musical and its shadow-cast tradition, and when a local cast lost its venue he was inspired to act. Moving his small operation into Commercial Center in 2006, he built a stage and screen specifically for Rocky Horror. As it turned out, it would be another five years before the Sci Fi Center would bring it to life with its own performance troupe, but Powell didn’t let the new firepower go to waste.

“I figured the stage was there, the screen was there, the projection was there. We just started doing movies, and basically science-fiction movies, ’cause that was the genre I was into. Nobody else was doing it.”

The Sci Fi Center has evolved in its mission and location (this is the eighth), though the foundation remains a mix of offbeat film screenings and live events. If a shadow cast performing along with Clue is on the safe end, then showing 1988 scream-queen specimen Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama is closer to the middle, because unholy imps (and gratuitous paddling) aren't the weirdest thing in Powell’s arsenal. In 2013, he and in-house cast Science Fiction Double Feature staged an immersive Night of the Living Dead. By immersive, I mean the undead shambling up the aisles, exploding fake blood and brain matter on the audience in sync with every onscreen kill. And don’t forget the cakes made to look like brains and innards.

“We ended up having to repaint that location,” Powell says with a hint of a smile. “Trying to give somebody something they can’t get anywhere else, that’s like 50 percent of it. The other percentage of it is basically: Now what? You know that there’s brain matter in the movie, but you’ve been watching that for 50 years, so what can we do about that brain matter and the eating of the humans? What can we do about that? The next logical step is having you eat the humans.”

Sometimes his gimmicks are more charming, like 1922 silent feature Nosferatu scored by a live pianist, “the way it was meant to be seen.” Powell has done a parking-lot drive-in with popcorn girls on skates. He threw a Star Trek slumber party. And he hosts niche outfits, including the Spot’s improv on Wednesdays and Monday movies with Cinemondays where material ranges from Groucho Marx to bizarro Western El Topo. But programming can get pretty dark. Powell believes the Center was the only venue in the state to screen depraved Dutch horror flick The Human Centipede and its sequel, and it showed a mashup of every death in the Friday the 13th canon for the first film’s 35th anniversary. “It sounded like a good idea,” Powell says, admitting that 40 minutes of killing is a bit much. “If it’s legal to show as far as its content and it’s not gonna get us shut down, I’ll show it. I don’t have to agree with everything I put on. Otherwise we’d just be watching The Godfather and Blade Runner in a constant loop.”

Underground art: From industry mags to fan art from the Artistic Armory (pictured), the out-there artifacts in Powell’s venue are plentiful.

Powell saw Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece when he was 7, and the richly imagined, replicant-inhabited futurescape of 2019 LA still makes his mind race. Other loves include the first three Hellraisers, anything by Michael Mann and John Carpenter and 50 percent of what J.J. Abrams does (the other 50 percent, Powell forgives). I ask about Star Wars, and he casually says it’s his least favorite of the heavies. Not because it isn’t good, but because pop-culture dictated his relationship with it too powerfully. I think that’s part of why he enjoys unearthing things, whether they make you laugh or cringe or think deeply about what it means to be human.

All of it is shown in this converted garage with salvaged theater seats bisected by tattered red carpet. It does feel like a basement, unselfconsciously. Powell says some of the Science Fiction Double Feature cast members are headed to LA for a curtain, and he’s hoping to polish the overall vibe, but not too much. “It’s still a warehouse where I hung the screen, and that’s what I want it to be,” he says of the space he’s been tinkering with since November, adding that Broadway and Hollywood are both rooted in the humble warehouse.

But the Center isn’t just about the screening room. It’s the last thing he pushes, in fact. Out front, it’s about comic books, graphic novels and collectibles. His own vintage toys (including my personal holy grail, a ’77 Millennium Falcon) are on display near new ones derived from Game of Thrones and Planet of the Apes. The walls are covered with art from the Artistic Armory, nerd odes like a hand-stenciled, spray-painted Doctor Who TARDIS and a lounging Stormtrooper hilariously done in boudoir style. The Murder Bears modeled after horror tropes are made by Powell and his sister Jackie (who manages the business side of the Center). He says he gets ideas on walks, thinking about that same question: Now what?

“We can get fake blood on the walls; we can hang stuff up above your head to bring down on you; we can put TV screens up somewhere—I can pretty much design the environment to what we need to do for that particular night,” he says of the new location, which he thinks is the key to the Sci Fi Center’s next level. “This is the first time I’ve had the dimensions to do what I set out to do.”

Sci-fi/action-themed burlesque? Ghostbusters shadow cast? Mystery Science Theater-style series headlined by The Geek Lounge podcasters and involving audience humiliation by hot-dog suit? All of these things are in the plan for 2015. But one new event has been in the works for years, an evening of horror schlock comically ripped apart by a man who digs European black metal and Elvira. His name is the Sinister Minister when he’s kitted out as a demonic Catholic priest. He sounds different as Sean Smith, a native who created the horror-host persona about a decade ago and appeared on several local stations with his Midnight Massacre Theatre. Now he has an international audience through Roku on Bizarre TV and the Grindhouse Channel, but Smith says he’s always wanted to do a live show. “People that are into this sort of stuff that we are, you just end up finding each other,” he says of meeting Powell. “I think the first time William learned of my show was way back almost 10 years ago when I was on Vegas 35. I think he caught it on that and just really liked it.”

At the end of March—and once a month thereafter—the Sinister Minister will debut at the Center, on a set that riffs on his Chap-Hell of Horror with its chesty Altargirls and Unholy Throne hung with severed heads. Smith says the tone is sarcastic and raunchy, entertainment akin to bad-for-you candy begging to be sneaked.

“For some people, the thought of something darker and more mysterious and unexplored is appealing. It always has been to me,” he says. He adds that the underground is “where all the best stuff really comes from,” but that Las Vegas isn’t an easy place to cultivate it. He observed that while playing bass for heavy-metal band 187—how local talent hits the wall because the city’s focus is catering to tourists rather than building local culture. “William’s the kind of guy that’s really good to have in town, because he’s very passionate about the underground scene.”

If the colorfulness of the Center’s legacy is any indication, Powell takes chances on upstarts, whether it’s Dr. Sexpot or Virginia studio Burnt at Both Ends, which will host a festival in the screening room in May. He doesn’t frame it like some noble thing. He just likes this stuff. But he will say that helping to widen the audience is satisfying.

Sci Fi Center

“It’s really hard to exist, period, on any level. So when you’re doing something that allows somebody else to exist, it’s kinda cool,” Powell says, “because you know how hard it is.”

Projectors have exploded. Bills have piled up. People have come without reading the disclaimer and demanded refunds or posted nasty comments online. Powell says the competition is Netflix and Amazon and Las Vegas itself, and consumers are lazy. He understands that not everyone wants to watch an 88-year-old German silent film in a warehouse, and he’s finally to a point where he isn’t chasing that audience. This move was about a better building, but it was also about getting away from random foot traffic.

“If you came here, there was a reason you came here,” he says, “and there’s a better chance that we’re gonna make a connection. ... It’s not necessarily going to be a fit for you here. Look around. See if it is. If it’s not, no hard feelings. If it is, we’ll reserve a seat for you. Eventually, I want all these seats filled with regulars.”

Sara Galbraith has been one since 2012, going back two locations. The stay-at-home mom says she discovered the Center when her elder daughter was about to graduate from high school and empty-nest feelings set in. She needed to find something that was just for her, and she heard the Center had a night devoted to one of her favorite series, long-running Brit hit Doctor Who.

“I walked in, there were comic books and movie posters on the wall, and people there who didn’t look like they were trying to impress anybody,” she says. “It was just ... comfortable.”

Galbraith went every week for a while, sometimes bringing her daughter. She says part of the fun is sitting around after a screening and talking about episodes and characters (she says Powell loves to debate), and meeting kindred spirits. One introduced her to the comic-convention circuit, and she’s already scheduled to hit 10 this year as a vendor of handcrafted clocks and jewelry nodding to Doctor Who and Rocky Horror and other genre favorites.

“I needed a place to go, and [the Sci Fi Center] gave me a place to go. Because of that, I allowed doors to open,” she says.

The 41-year-old still hits the Center when she’s in town. She says you can’t go expecting something fancy. But if you want to commune with others who love what you love, or sit alone and watch something really different, it’s there. In a city like LA, with a robust theater district and countless devotees, it wouldn’t be that special. Here, Galbraith sees it as one of a kind.

‘He made a monster movie where the monster was in it for six minutes. I paid 10 bucks to see a monster for six minutes and shaky cam, where old people were in the theater with me throwing up,” Powell says, explaining why Cloverfield makes a good case against J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens being awesome. I insist that just the teaser to the trailer got me amped, and he softens. “There’s a chance. I’m willing to give him a shot. He earned that from me.”

You have to wonder what Powell has earned from loyal subjects of his Geek Kingdom. While he says he has had a few backers, and that Jackie and her predecessor Ron Mecklosky and the house cast have carried a lot of weight, the Center exists, and endures, because of him. It’s not how he makes his living. And when I ask about passion, he says the word is overused.

“Too many things had to fall in place to make it to this, what we’ve got now. And by not continuing, you throw away lightning in a bottle. There’s a lot of people who will never make it to this level. There’s a lot of people that are way smarter than me that will drop dead working for someone else, literally drop dead, get wheeled out of their place of business or retire and walk into a place wondering, maybe I could have done that. I don’t know if it’s passion, or fear of knowing that something like this, I could have done.”

So he spends his days off stretching vinyl, wiring sound and plotting the next time Doug Bradley—Pinhead himself—will headline a Hellraiser screening. That kind of spectacle always draws a crowd, but because he answers to himself, Powell makes room for oddities he knows never will.

My first experience at the Sci Fi Center was one of those, on a night the pianist accompanied Nosferatu. The film speed was off just slightly, so it ran really long. The seats squeaked, and there were fewer people in them than you’d see on a late-night bus. It was strange, and totally endearing. I think the place has the same appeal as much of what flashes on its screen. It’s the dream of someone with limited resources who gets really, really creative with what he has.

Sci Fi Center Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m. 5077 Arville St., 702-792-4335.

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