You might not recognize Ruth Hayler’s name, but at some point you probably watched a movie that she chose for you. For nearly five decades, Hayler worked behind the scenes as a film booker, buyer, theater manager and programmer, for the Seven Gables and Landmark chains and for the Seattle International Film Festival. A movie lover with an encyclopedic memory and eclectic taste — she particularly loved literary films, but could be found at the Egyptian enjoying edgy midnight fare — Hayler helped shape Seattle’s rich appetite for arthouse and international cinema.
Hayler died on Nov. 7, a day after celebrating her 74th birthday with friends. The cause of death, said her sister Barbara Hayler, was atherosclerosis.
“I bet Seattle knows Kurosawa because of Ruth,” said her longtime friend Dale Nash, remembering film series that Hayler would book at the local Seven Gables chain. These were pre-DVD days, when “she was showing things you couldn’t just go to Scarecrow and rent”: Kurosawa, 70mm films, Shakespeare series, classic Warner Bros. movies. At SIFF, where she was involved with every edition of the annual festival from its beginnings in 1976, “she had a very specific eye for international films that would attract audiences,” Artistic Director Beth Barrett said. “She was just so smart about audiences.”
Hayler grew up in San Diego and the Bay Area, but made Seattle her permanent home in 1973, after returning from graduate school in London (writing her thesis on the poems of Siegfried Sassoon). She’d fallen in love with movies while overseas, attending screenings at the British Film Institute, and began a lifelong habit of keeping notebooks with details of movies she’d seen. Her first job in Seattle was one she essentially kept for almost her entire life: Curious about the Movie House, a tiny independent arthouse opened by Randy Finley in 1970, she met with Finley, “just to see what was going on, learn a little more about what was possible,” her sister said. He unexpectedly offered her a job as theater manager, and a long career began.
Doing a little bit of everything in those early days — making popcorn, taking phone reservations — Hayler quickly learned the ropes of film programming. She accompanied Finley as he eventually left the Movie House (now the Grand Illusion Cinema) and founded the Seven Gables chain, which included multiple arthouse cinemas in Seattle and Portland. Among them: the Seven Gables theater, opened in 1976 in the University District in an old American Legion hall.
Though the Seven Gables chain was sold to national arthouse chain Landmark Theatres in 1989, Hayler stayed in her job — and in her legendarily cluttered office at the Gables. Never particularly interested in technology other than movie projectors, Hayler liked paper; her office was filled with newspapers, copies of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, movie fliers, posters, faxes and memos. She had an uncanny way of being able to reach into a towering stack of papers to pull out the exact sheet she needed. “It was astonishing to see,” said Nick Collecchi, who worked with Hayler at Landmark for many years. “The order existed to her, even if it wasn’t evident to the rest of us.”
Illustrating Hayler’s movie knowledge, Collecchi described an experience when Hayler was programming repertory films (non-first-run films) at the Crest Cinema Center, when a print of “Lawrence of Arabia” turned up without its “heads and tails” — the identification on each reel that says what order they go in. A panicked projectionist called Hayler, who drove up from the Seven Gables and quickly figured out what went where. “It ran perfectly,” said Collecchi. “That’s an amazing thing to be able to do — just to know, from a couple of feet of image at the beginning or end of a reel, where you are in the movie.”
Hayler’s career at Landmark finally ended in 2020, just before the pandemic, when her position was eliminated. But her work at SIFF continued — another throughline throughout her life. Gary Tucker, a former SIFF employee, remembered working with Hayler in the early days of the festival. “She had an amazing memory, not just of films and what we were considering, but where they were from, what country we needed to get representation for, where we should schedule it in the lineup based on how similar films from that country had performed in the past,” he said.
Hayler loved immersing herself in film and every year would attend the weekend-long Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. In the early years, she’d bring a tent and camp out, or would rent a jeep for some off-road exploring. Her friend Shelley Gibson, who attended Telluride with Hayler in recent years, said that much of the fun was the conversations while waiting in line for screenings. “She was so knowledgeable, people were always coming up to talk to her.”
Tucker, who also works for Telluride, remembered Hayler once winning a contest that involved knowing facts about the festival’s history. “She knew it better than anyone else — more than the people who worked there!” he said.
Outside of the movies, Hayler loved classical music (she and Nash were longtime subscribers to the Seattle Symphony), enjoyed attending Pacific Northwest Ballet, and was a voracious reader of mysteries and science fiction/fantasy. In addition to her sister Barbara Hayler, she is survived by her sister Helen Hayler Barker, her brothers Lewis Hayler and Don Hayler, and many nieces and nephews. There are no current plans for a memorial service, but SIFF plans to honor her with a special screening at the annual festival in the spring. For memorial donations, her family suggests SIFF.
Hayler’s 10 favorite films, listed on her “meet the programmer” page at SIFF, were all beloved classics: “Seven Samurai,” “Children of Paradise,” “Sherlock Jr.,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Big Sleep,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Some Like it Hot,” “North by Northwest,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Taken together, they make up a remarkable course in film history; you can imagine a young Hayler falling in love with them, studying them, disappearing into their worlds.
“She just wanted people to go see movies,” said Barrett, of SIFF. “She loved them so much and she wanted everyone else to love them.”