We were showing that most profitable of all horror movies and, wonder of wonders, not losing money! Despite the fact that the movie was two years old and playing at another theater in Staten Island, we’d filled the house. Our palace was spooky, a veritable house of shadows, it had drawn people of every age and demographic to see Linda Blair throw up pea soup and spin her head like a top. Just as we were congratulating ourselves on actually making a little money — could we pay off some of the loan we’d taken out on the concession stand? — the phone next to the hot dog warmer rang. My heart fell, as from the dome, into the orchestra pit. The only person likely to call on the concession phone at such an hour was the projectionist, and I knew he only called with technological trouble in mind.
Sure enough, he told Dean, “Your exciter lamp is about to fail.”
Dear reader, if you’ve followed this blog in the past, you know that everything we had at the theater was at least somewhat out of date, including and especially our ancient carbon arc projectors. Theaters that could afford to do so had, by that time, gone to something called Xenon. Audio in either system was delivered on a separate optical track that ran down the length of the film and was translated into sound by something called an “exciter lamp.” Exciter lamps for the older projectors were scarce: ideally, we should have had three in the booth at all times, one for each projector, and a third in reserve. Again, if you’ve been following this blog, you know that we had nothing in reserve: spare change, candy, popcorn, toilet paper, carbons, money to pay anybody, no safety net, nohow. An extra exciter lamp, when we hadn’t paid ourselves in several months? Foolish extravagance.
“How long does it have?” Dean wondered.
“Well,” Gabe yawned (hoping for the rest of the night off), “it may make it through the night, but when it goes you ain’t gonna like what you hear.”
When an exciter lamp begins to fail, it picks up only part of the optical track, which causes an intermittent effect, not dissimilar to the sound of an outboard motor layered over spoken words.
So there we were on a Saturday night, last show: around fifteen hundred people in the house, the balcony actually open. Sam and I had already taken the night’s receipts--a considerable amount of cash — to the night depository two doors down. We couldn’t have refunded anyone’s money if we wanted, and we didn’t want that. I was just settling into the notion that we would make it through on what was left of this old lamp. Max Von Sydow — the senior priest in the movie — had commenced the rite of exorcism, driving the Devil from the soul of the possessed little girl, when the sound track went to mud. Dialogue became harder and harder to discern.
To reconstruct what this sounded like, try an experiment:
“The power of Christ compels you,”
The power of Christ compels you...”
While pronouncing these words (Max Von Sydow’s lines from the movie) keep your mouth slack and shake your head violently from side to side, so your lips shimmy. That’s “motorboating,” the effect that used to happen several technologies ago, when an exciter lamp was about to die.
A brave group of seven or eight patrons gathered near the orchestra pit, making its way up the aisle to the lobby.
“We need to see the manager...” a self-appointed leader stated.
When Dean appeared, they sang out in unison, “We want our money back!”
“What’s the problem?” Dean queried, feigning ignorance.
“Hey man, can’t you hear? ...the whole thing’s under water in there — can’t make out a thing...”
Dean paused, then took his best shot, “It wasn’t well advertised, but this version of the movie is actually the director’s cut!”
“The director put back some scenes originally taken out, with special effects. The Devil in this version possesses the entire room, everybody: little girl, priests and all!”
Silence. The stunned complainants absorbed this new information.
“Really?” asked one gullible young man.
“Sure! ...And you’re missing the best part of the film right now!”
There was some grumbling, a little discussion, then the posse, including its skeptics retreated back into the theater. Five or six rows in, I heard someone say, “No, no — it’s, well, special effects of some kind — a director’s cut.”
Next day one of us — was it me? — trekked into the city, to 42nd Street, the porn district, where equipment of the same vintage as ours still existed, and borrowed a spare exciter lamp to see us into Monday.
But wait, there’s more!
Twenty years later at a neighbor’s Christmas party, a short balding man with gray hair, who seemed an older version of someone Dean had met once, approached.
“Didn’t you manage the St. George Theater?”
Dean nodded. “A long time ago.”
The man grinned and poked his right index finger into the center of Dean’s chest. “ I don’t care how long it’s been — that was no director’s cut!”
Dean grinned back and reached for his wallet, “You want your buck fifty back?”
“We had a damn good time anyway,” his interlocutor insisted.
Dean doubled over with laughter, sheepish and amused all at once.
Download The Exorcist sometime, it’s a great Halloween movie, and be sure to get the actual director’s cut!