It’s a long way from bed sheet projection in a vacant lot to the original silver screens of the 1920‘s; and another leap to the Cinemascope-era screens I grew up watching. By the time I took a hand in helping to run a movie palace, in 1976 — the St. George Theatre in Staten Island — screens had evolved beyond the wildest dreams of the earliest moviegoers. To get a sense of what the St. George’s screen was like, here’s a nip from an earlier Starts Wednesday blogpost, What’s Behind the Screen?:
It was a real kick to go backstage behind the screen when the movie was running. You could do this and actually look at the audience looking at the movie! — while the audience couldn’t see you. That’s because the screen, a huge piece of heavy white material stretched on a giant frame over thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall, was perforated, with tiny pin-sized holes to let sound from the speakers travel more naturally from backstage to the audience. It wasn’t silver at all, as early motion picture screens apparently had been, with actual silver embedded in their surfaces.
An interested reader posted a question based on his reading of that post, and a conversation has ensued. First, here’s the question:
Victoria: maybe you can help me answer a question. From behind the screen of a movie palace, to what extent might one also see the film image in reverse? I'm particularly interested in the pre-sound era, which I know predates you, but hoping you or a reader may know! —Peter
As in the past, I put Peter’s question to my friend and ultimate projection guru, Robert Endres. He’s an old friend, with whom my husband and I have reunited, thanks to a mutual dentist. Bob served for many years as the head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall. We met him originally when he strode into the lobby of the St. George Theatre — which we were struggling to keep afloat — and volunteered to take free projection shifts, unheard-of in those days.
Here’s an excerpt from Bob’s reply:
In answer to your reader’s question about seeing the image in reverse from behind the screen: It depends on the screen material. If in the silent days the screen was basically a bed sheet, the image in reverse from behind would be quite visible. However as the technology progressed the screen could be a silver painted wall or material with a silver coating thus the term “silver screen”...carbon arc lamps weren’t really very bright in the early days and by having a highly reflective surface the image would appear brighter. The disadvantage to “high gain” silver screens was that the light was reflected back at the projector, so if you were off to the side the screen would display a “hot spot”...the silver screen worked pretty well viewed from the front but probably didn’t transmit that much light through the “Picture sheet” itself. As the industry evolved at least some of the screens were translucent enough so you could see an image from the back. Several mega pictures carried an orchestra and even had a crew behind the screen to create sound effects for the show (I think one of those was Birth Of A Nation). To do that the performers had to be able to see the image from in back of the screen.
I am fascinated that a sound-effects crew might have been situated behind various silent screens. Reminds me of certain hijinks that went on behind our screen.
If only we’d have thought of creating on-purpose special effects!
I’ll close by saying that going behind the St. George’s screen during a movie was an entirely magical experience: the wonder of watching people watch a movie (and knowing that they couldn’t see me), the shadows of the film itself playing on my arms, legs and face...it was as if I’d entered the movie, which, in a way, I had: like being Alice as she stepped through the Looking Glass.
P.S. Thanks again, Bob!