What caused you to wander into the St. George Theatre that day in 1976, and introduce yourself to us?
This gets weird. I dreamed about a theater one night, I was coming up behind the stage-house, I swear I am not making this up. And in those days, when I was first in NYC, I was going to all the boroughs. So one day I got off the ferry, and I was walking up the hill, and I came up behind the stage-house of the St. George, and I’m thinking, “That’s it! That’s the theater that was in my dream!” I know that sounds weird, but it’s happened a couple of times...I’ve dreamt of other theaters. Anyhow, the minute I saw it, I thought, “I’ve got to look into this more!” So I walked around to the front. I don’t think the theater was even open when I came up that time. I used to come out to Staten Island, because it was the closest thing in New York to Illinois, and I’d get homesick for Illinois. So one time, the St. George was open, and I walked in the door.
If you happened to read the blog post for April 14 (“Projectionist”), then you already know that Bob got his start at the age of nine, in Streator, Illinois, peeking through the projection port — the hole through which the movie shines onto the screen. Because of his height, he had to balance on the backs of several theater seats. Not able to see well enough, he crept around the corner and continued spying on the fascinating world of projection through the keyhole to the booth, until apprehended by the manager, who, remarkably, let him come inside. At age twelve Bob was learning to thread film in that booth — his beloved Majestic Theater — which still stands. Bob made his way slowly at first, operating 16 mm. He received a degree in Radio/Television (Communications) and joined the projectionists’ union. He worked local booths, then got that lucky break in New York City, at Radio City Music Hall, where he remained for 25 years, as Head Projectionist. These days, he does projection for Dolby Laboratories in Manhattan, only a few blocks away from the music hall.
Did Movies always fascinate you as a kid?
Yeah, I think it was one of the first toys I had...my uncle was a salesman and had a sixteen mm silent projector. He gave that projector to me and it was one of my favorite things. And of course growing up at that point, there wasn’t television. Movies were our main form of entertainment in Streater.
How often did you go to the movies?
Oh probably at least once a week...We had three theaters in town: the big house was the MGM house, it was a Paramount Publix theater, so they got top top films. The independent house in town had made a deal with Warner Brothers—they played Warners exclusively along with Fox and some B pictures. The big house, because it had been owned by Paramount, obviously played all the Paramount films first run. The third house, the one that I got caught peeking through the keyhole in, was only open on Saturdays and Sundays and played B Westerns and monogram pictures, which I loved. I am always amazed at monogram pictures because they were so tacky, and yet they filled a role which sit-coms on TV were to fill in later years. So almost every Saturday I’d go to the Y in the morning, and have lunch at a hamburger place downtown, and then go to a matinee at the Majestic. Then if my parents were going to a movie in the evening on Saturday and Sunday, I’d go with them as well.
There was always more than just a movie...right? A short subject, a cartoon...?
Not so much at the Majestic, which was a grindhouse, it played cowboy movies and the like, reel-to-reel. The big house did have cartoons, and newsreels and short subjects.
A lost time...
Yes, the whole concept. Today, people might be annoyed. Audiences are so used to coming in and just having the feature and trailers. I wonder how they’d react if someone put on something ahead of the feature? Would it just be in the way?
How often do you go to the movies — not as part of your job, of course?
Not so much these days. I find even with the art houses one of the things that, curiously, bothers me, is people talking. Not just kids in theaters making noise.... These days, as a senior citizen, I find my fellow senior citizens doing the same thing at movies — ”Hey look at that!” I remember going to The Sound of Music on a reserved seat basis in San Francisco once with my friend after a technical conference. Two ladies in the row in front of us...“Oh isn’t she sweet?” You want to smack ‘em! I have no patience for that.
Once I was in L.A. for a conference — we could get tickets — first-run 70mm reserve seating at the Beverly Hills. I wanted to see the theater and the booth as much as I wanted to see the movie so I ended up in the booth. I remember asking one of the operators, “How’s the movie?” and he goes, “They pay us to run ‘em, not to watch ‘em!”
The booth has to be one of the worst places to watch a movie...
Yes, it is. Today we sat down in the second row [Dean and I went to a screening in Dolby’s screening room with Bob, before doing the interview]. It’s the first time I’ve been that close to a screen in twenty years! I don’t get down to the front of the house at all. These days I have noise-canceling headphones for booth noise. It used to be the sprocket noise and the projectors...now the projectors have gotten quiet, but the fans are noisy.
Here’s a topic change: have any favorite movies?
Well back in college it was Sergei Eisenstein...he created a whole new vocabulary. But my all-time favorite now is Cinema Paradiso, for obvious reasons. They released the full cut of the movie, and the operator downstairs says, “You’ve gotta see this!” But I have to admit I like Harvey Weinstein’s cut the best, the original.... The parallels between that and my life are such that...well. Miramax actually had a screening just for projectionists in Manhattan when the film opened, you know.
How much do you appreciate, then as opposed to now — the aesthetics — the old palaces as opposed to theaters these days?
I will always have a warm spot in my heart for them [sigh].
That’s what you were doing walking up the hill and into the St. George that day in 1976?
Yes. They represent an era that may be gone, they represent showmanship. I don’t want to romanticize: some of them weren’t the best for projection. A lot of them were built as Vaudeville houses, and they were very good for that purpose, and even when they had a stage show, it was a great theatrical concept, but as for projection and sound, some of them were terrible. Even at Radio City I had some acoustical problems — may have been fixed since they refurbished it in 2000. But if you sat in a certain row in the orchestra at Radio City at one point and turned your head, you could hear two sound tracks, one from the screen and one from the back of the theater. I know people who are really distracted by that. It certainly bothered me when I was a kid and sat there, when I was in high school—that echo. Fortunately, if you sat under the first mezzanine or any of the mezzanines you wouldn’t hear it. But the back wall above the third mezzanine is curved, it focuses sound towards the center of the house.
Originally there was acoustically transparent wallpaper that let the sound through, sound absorbing material, but it fell down. And then in ‘79 when we changed formats, they replaced all the wallpaper — it looked exactly like the original, but it was printed on cloth, rather than acoustically transparent material. It sealed up the sound absorbing panels, and the echo was greater. So, even though it was praised for being exactly the same as the old wall treatment, you had an even worse problem. Radio City was actually built as a Vaudeville house.
Did you ever fear the theater concept would be lost?
I still do. Every development has come about because of some crisis. Widescreen was a reaction to television. Automation was about efficiency. Multiplexes changed the experience from going to see a particular movie to “What are we going to see?” Everything’s available on-line. Now we have rocking seats, and dine-in theaters.
S.H. Fabian, movie theater entrepreneur of another era (whose Staten Island Flagship Theater, the St. George originally, was) will have the last say here — well, almost the last. Those of you who want to keep on, can pick up the rest of the interview below, which poses some more technical questions. The rest of us will walk back to Bob’s office, the upstairs Dolby projection booth, to look around, and read this manifesto, pinned to the wall under his clock. Please note that it was probably written some time in the 1950’s:
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An Exhibitor’s Credo
"We have unbounded confidence in the future of the motion picture industry. Nothing has appeared upon the technical horizon to suggest that the motion picture theatre has lost its primacy. It is still the indispensable setting for the finest presentation of motion pictures.
The theatre communicates an aura which is not present in any non-theatrical place of entertainment. There is a magic in sitting in a theatre seat which is the exclusive power of theatre architecture, decor and the proscenium arch. These elements embody the glamour which persuades millions around the world to go out to a movie.
And as long as this allure pervades the theatre, it will remain the supreme edifice for entertainment.
President, Stanley Warner Corporation"
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(Fabian, come to think of it, never imagined Netflix, HBO or, of course, the Internet, without which, no blog?)
The interview continues here:
Can you talk about how projection has changed in your lifetime, technologically?
I always think I’m going to be thrown out as a heretic, but I like digital. I think we’re kind of in the early stages as when sound came in, but with advancements in technology, digital will exceed film. There is so much I do like about it. It’s steady I don’t have side motion, I don’t have weave, I don’t have scratches on the print, I don’t have dirt on the print. That picture we saw today will look exactly the same 142 screenings from now, and I like that.
One thing that intrigues me: we did a lot of split screen here, digital and film, and there are differences. Film does better on dark scenes with a bonfire. On the other hand, bright scenes? Digital can blow you away — look sharper and brighter. We’re closing that gap and I often wonder, if you took the two systems to an island where people had never seen movies and asked the people which one looks better, I would think, if they didn’t have the expectation of film or the prejudice, then who knows? Sometimes we grow into liking the flaws: like a vinyl LP with clicks and pops. You learn to listen through the surface noise to the music. I was talking to a friend in San Francisco — about the Blu-Ray he saw of Casablanca — it bothers him, such a good transfer, it looks like it was made yesterday.
Starting with film and sprocket holes, what one single improvement or change in movie exhibition is the most important?
Well, there was Cinerama. I saw This Is Cinerama when I was fourteen years old, not knowing what to expect, although I’d read about it. Not ever having experienced it, then sitting in the third row of a theater where the screen actually came out even with us on the sides, and that transition to the full Cinerama screen and stereophonic sound, which no one had heard since Fantasia. Fantasia, by the way, came out in 1940 and was the first film to feature stereophonic sound in some select locations. Disney hoped to expand it, but it took an enormous amount of equipment, and the coming of WWII took away the ability to manufacture it, as supplies went to military applications instead. So we had to wait for that, but it blew me away when I first experienced it. That’s the era: we came from Cinerama to CinemaScope to VistaVision to Todd-AO, all those processes. But, as far as projection was concerned, none of them, as game changers, were equal to the Xenon Lamp.
Such a small thing...
Yes, but it made automation possible, and it put many of us out of a job — not necessarily a good thing.
The projectionist didn’t have those reel changeovers to make...
Right. Because of the big platter, you didn’t have reels anymore, so no change-over errors. And Xenon lamps are preferable, I think, to carbon arc, because carbons can drift as they’re burning if you don’t stay on top of it... Xenon gave you a constant focus. There are people who still complain, “Oh Xenon isn’t carbon arc...” as they do about nitrate film, and in that way they’re right, nitrate film is silver-based, so it has a much higher contrast ratio. So you have these people—we talked about this before—who resist these changes.
But the real game changer—talk about paradigm shifts—is from analogue to digital. It’s got to be the biggest transition, because the applications are so broad, you can do so much more in digital with files than with a photographic system.