Outside the projection booth, six stories above the stage of the St. George Theatre, a Staten Island movie palace I helped run in 1976, was a world of iron lace, the skeleton of the dome. The catwalk. Yes, it was possible to walk — or, catlike, to crawl — inside the dome, a feat I never attempted. One of my colleagues did, managing to unscrew all the dead lightbulbs in sockets around the lip of the dome, some of which might well have dated to World War II. Bulbing the recesses of the dome, was a perilous activity. The dome leaked on rainy days; who knew if the ancient iron walkway would hold?
Access to the catwalk was possible via a door at the back of the projection booth. Opening that door revealed something which, at first, seemed unlikely: a graveyard of old televisions. DuMont Philco, Motorola, Muntz, RCA, Admiral, Zenith, were piled on the ironwork all around. Some probably dated back to the late 1940’s, the infancy of television.
TV was the movie theater operator’s adversary, our entertainment enemy. On the catwalk of a failing movie palace, these discarded televisions, seemed like the other side’s dead soldiers, remnants of a fierce battle. What were they really doing there?
The answer lies in the ennui that confounded the art of movie projection. In our digital age, the job more often than not involves computers and drives, making it possible for theater operators to dispense entirely with the services of a projectionist. But In 1976, in New York and other major cities, projectionists ruled. They couldn’t (easily) be fired; their jobs were shielded by an iron-clad union contract that guaranteed more money ($13.75 an hour) than we poor theater managers could ever expect to see if, by some accident, we suddenly began to break even. His hourly rate, BTW would be approximately $58.00 by today’s standards.
Local 306 took care of its own — but the job was pretty boring. Most of the work came in the first half hour: spooling the film onto the take-up reels of both projectors, cleaning and trimming the carbons, waiting for a well-publicized showtime, hitting the switch on the first projector. Assuming no broken film, no mechanical malfunction, there was nothing much to do after that until the first projector’s reel had exhausted itself, at changeover time. Changeovers required some finesse — or at least competence — and careful attention. You had to line up certain cue-marks on reel one that roughly corresponded to marks on reel two, loaded and ready in the second projector. After the first changeover, and the reloading of projector one with the third reel, there was very little, if anything to do again for about twenty minutes. If you happened to have a small (contraband) TV, time might pass a little faster.
A clause in the projectionist’s contract clearly stated “No television or radio in the booth.” In addition to making the projectionist more likely to miss a changeover (resulting in a blank screen and audience ire), Hawaii Five-O can actually upstage a movie.
The second week we were open, our announced double feature was Smile and The Sunshine Boys —showtimes listed in the papers. But folks who attended the six o’clock screening were treated on several occasions to a triple or quadruple feature, the audio from McHale’s Navy or Gilligan’s Island which Gabe happened to be watching in the booth — filtering through the movie’s soundtrack. These discrepancies were less obvious later in the evening, but at six the house was often nearly empty, and sound traveled. Long past his prime and just coasting until retirement, our grizzled projectionist hardly cared.
How many of those TVs on the catwalk were his — and how many the cast-offs of projectionists long gone? The researcher I am today would pay some attention to their relative ages. Why had numerous projectionists disposed of them on the catwalk? Better to toss them into the theater’s voluminous attic than risk carrying them out the front door.
I only ventured onto the beginning of the catwalk one or two times. It was a dream space in iron, like the habitat of an aerialist. These days, whenever I’m under a dome, I wonder if it has a catwalk. One of my favorites, Grand Central Terminal has something a lot more glamorous than a catwalk. From all appearances it’s a lot more solid than the one I remember at the St. George — bet there are no TVs.
Most movie palace domes, I recently learned, are even more provisional than the St. George Theatre’s, if you peek beyond the plaster, just lathe! A catwalk, it turns out, is fairly special after all.