Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Once Exciting Life of a Projectionist

Back in the olden days (the mid 1990's) I worked as a projectionist at Loews Theaters. I still look back fondly on those insane, fast-paced, long hour days. It was the best of times - it was the worst of times... Oh wait... 

To be honest, the opening lines to the novel 'A Tale of Two Cities' sums up the job perfectly. It truly was a great/horrible time. I loved being a projectionist, and all the perks that came along with it. But at times, it was a nightmare. 

In The Beginning...

Up until recently, almost every movie theater 
used 35 millimeter film.  

Film was originally made of celluloid. But, around the time I came on the scene, they were making film out of polyester. It was a real big deal at the time. Polyester film was much stronger than celluloid, and didn't get brittle. But there were some awful down-sides to it as well.

I'll explain shortly.
Most people never set foot in a projection booth, so it was always fun to bring friends and family 'up' to see where you worked. The look of shock was priceless - like pulling the curtain away from OZ. We also gave tours to boy-scouts and girl-scouts. The leaders were more impressed than the kids.
I couldn't find a good pic of the booth I worked in, but it was like this - except 5 times as big and covered in posters.
My theater had what was considered an exceptionally large booth, and its walls were mostly decorated with the left-over posters of movies gone-by. There was a lot of room to say... roller-blade from projector to projector or play hockey with small rolls of film called trailers.

They were very close to the size and weight of a puck - and slid well on a freshly mopped floor.
Being a projectionist had some amazing up-sides. First, and foremost, you were the first one to see the movie... before the public. Movies often premiered on Fridays. But, the movies themselves would be delivered to the theater on Thursdays. They arrived in very old-looking metal 'cans' that looked like this...

I was convinced that most of these things held such movies as 'Gone With the Wind' and the like. They were old, dented, heavy, and impossible to destroy. A full length movie often fit in two 'cans'. Each 'can' held 2 or 3 reels, and a reel held about 20 minutes worth of film. So on average, a movie was usually 5 to 7 reels.

(Comedies were usually 5 reels - epics like Titanic -or- Two Towers were much bigger)
I've never seen such a new 'can'. Also, most reels were made of plastic, not metal.
Protocol was as follows: A manager would call you down to tell you the 'cans' were delivered. You would go downstairs, grab hold of the thin, rusty handles, and lug the 40 pound 'cans' up the stairs and into projection.

THIS is where the magic happened.
 You needed these six things to slap a movie together:
(PS - Done right - it often took a few hours to throw together a movie. 
Rushing often caused errors and scratches)

 Cotton gloves.

A Splicer (basically a giant tape dispenser with two sharp blades. List price $500 bucks - so don't break it.)
The 'Make-Up' Table. This is where you took the reels from the 'cans' and loaded them onto larger reels. 

The larger reels were then attached to the 'Auto-Wind'
The Auto-Wind loaded the reels onto the 'platters'
The Platters. This is where the movie itself loaded, ran through the projector, and unloaded while playing.
The platters were part of the actual projector. This was a way for the movie to play without having to change reels, and it also rewound itself for the next show. It was awesome... except when things went bad.

 If you've ever been to a movie when the show stopped, and the manager came into the theater with free passes to come back another time... there's a 99% chance it was because something like those pictures above happened. They were often caused by, what was referred to as 'Brain Wraps', and they were a projectionists worst nightmare.

We often blamed the Booth Goblins. 
(but it was the polyester)

As I mentioned earlier, film was made from polyester. Polyester is very strong. You can't tear it. So if the film fell off a roller, or got stuck around the 'brain', it wouldn't tear or set off the proper alarms. Instead, it would keep playing, wrapping around stuff or fall onto the floor. I've seen it drag a projector platter system (Also called the tree) across the booth floor and smash into the projector itself. 
This is the 'brain' (the cause of a brain-wrap) It sat at the center of the platters and helped keep tension on the film as it was fed through the projector. Sometimes, it failed, and all hell would break loose.
My Old Stomping Grounds.
But, when things went well, it was great.
Once a film was put together, it was a RULE that the projectionist watch the film - to make sure it was put together correctly.

I remember when The first Matrix came out - Lord of the Rings - Harry Potter - Titanic - Star Wars Re-releases - Pulp Fiction - ect. We would wait until closing time, lock the doors, and watch the movies until 3 am. It was one of the most fun times of my life. Most people don't get to watch movies in the privacy of their own 500 seat theater.  

Grab some food, crank up the sound, and kick up your feet.

You can probably imagine how often people tried bribing us...
(legally, we were not allowed to let in anyone that didn't work for us - and the penalty was frighting. Like a "Fifty thousand dollar fine and prison time" kind of frighting.)

But, the employees got to watch with us.

On a Thursday Night, projectionists were treated like Kings! Well, until something went wrong... then everyone wanted to kill us.

Operating Hours...
During operating hours, when there were 5000 screaming and excited people downstairs, fighting for food and seats on a hot, rainy summer day - a projectionist could go hide up in their cave and watch from above (often, while chuckling to themselves). Busy days didn't really effect a projectionist, other than wanting to do a good job and make sure the movies ran on time.
  Start the Movie and pray to the booth 
Gods for no brain-wraps.

But on slow days, when the employees downstairs got to relax and talk, it was depressing to be stuck upstairs. And you often missed out on the insane stories and mishaps that DID happen on a busy day, left to hear the stories retold by coworkers in the break-room. Stories about 'out-of-towners' (we called them bennies) who went berserk because we ran out of pretzel bites.
Or.. the time someone decided to write with poop on the bathroom mirrors. I wish I was joking.
Being alone in the booth for long periods of time would also play tricks on your senses. Every projectionist that worked in our booth SWORE that there was a ghost living in the 'cage' near projector 4. That was the back corner of the booth, where important stuff was stored. 
Fellow projectionists, including myself, have had their share of moments when we 'felt' someone was walking through the booth, just to look up and see... nothing. 
(Add spooky laugh here)

But, nothing gold can stay.
Eventually those rugged, amazingly complicated film-machines were replaced by digital projectors. Gone are the days of needing someone to be trained to run those beasts. 

Gone are the days of wearing this kind of stuff to change a fifty thousand watt projector light-bulb. 
 Again, I wish I was joking...

What was once a highly respected trade has now been reduced to simple pressing a button. Literally something a monkey could do. 

 I can't deny that it makes sense - First off, the picture quality is much better with digital. And gone are the days where the film would get scratched or burnt when it got stuck.
(scratches were those annoying green and black lines that danced around a movie screen - caused by mishandling and continuous showings.)
AND - no more brain-wraps!

It's also much cheaper to produce. 
Printing movies on film was expensive and time consuming. Now, they just mail a mini drive to the theater. No more heavy 'cans'. No more building a film.

No more projectionists.

Me, and the rest of my fellow projectionists, were the last of a dying breed. No teenage kid will ever get the chance to experience the joy and utter fear that came with the job, which is a shame, because it was the best job I ever had.

This is an actual pic of the booth I worked in - with two of my fellow projectionists.
And this is me and a co-worker dealing with a 'problem' in booth on a rainy summer day. I got home around 4am that night.
 Stupid 'Booth Goblins' struck again.


  1. i remember those late nights too...thinking you'd never get home...but knew you were having a blast...great memories for you...and look at you now! so proud of you!

  2. What a great post! I had no idea what was involved. Interesting stuff. :-)

    I'm kind of sorry to see the digitals taking over. So many drive-ins are closing over it.


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