Whoever remembers Sgt. Friday, the L.A. P.D. (TV) detective, identifies him as the speaker of these words as surely as Bogart, in Casablanca, has been forever tagged with, “Play it again, Sam.” Oddly enough, neither Bogie nor Jack Web — the actor who created Dragnet, and played Sgt. Friday — actually said the oft-quoted words he is tagged with; but these sources are fiction, so lapses are somehow more forgivable. Shakespeare never penned “All that glitters is not gold,” either, (it was “glisters” — The Merchant of Venice) and Cary Grant never said “Judy, Judy, Judy.”
Journalism is another thing altogether.
The facts, dude; what are they, exactly? In this blog I strive for accuracy – though I may inadvertently stray, for which, preemptively, I apologize. Starts Wednesdayis based on my experiences of movie theater operation in 1976 (specifically at The St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island). I check a lot of facts when I write about things beyond the lobby of the St. George. One prime example is the business of our projection booth, and the twin alternating carbon arc projectors that occupied that space, delivering Taxi Driver, Blazing Saddles, The Exorcist, Dog Day Afternoon, and another hundred or so films to our giant grape-soda-stained movie screen daily. Carbon arc projection is a highly technical process, and although I witnessed it, I don’t pretend to be competent enough to write about it unaided. Complex though it was, it was, even in those days, largely anachronistic, if not downright medieval.
The St. George and a handful of older houses, including its sister theater, the Paramount, down the street — and the porn houses on Times Square — still depended, as we did, on boxes of carbon rods. These, when burned, created a spark that kept an image on-screen. More than once we ran out of carbons, generally requiring me or someone else to take the Staten Island Ferry, then the number one train uptown to Times Square, to borrow a box of the precious rods in the porn district. Carbons had to be trimmed as they burned, and were good for only a short period of time. The difference between our fire-driven technology and the tidy long-lasting Xenon bulb, which all newer theaters had switched over to, was like the transition from horse and buggy to horsepower.
So imagine my surprise when a friend recently sent me an article from The New York Times that clearly needs the loving services of a fact-checker. (Do they exist anymore?) The headline of the piece gave me trepidations, “How a Movie Projectionist Keeps the Dying Art of Celluloid Alive.” Celluloid, for safety purposes, hasn’t been in use anywhere since around 1951. According to numerous sources, corroborated by my projection expert, Robert Endres, retired head projectionist of Radio City Music Hall, and currently projection technician for Dolby Sound in NYC, celluloid was phased out in the ‘50’s.
“... The full term is “nitro cellulose”, and as you might guess from the ‘nitro’ it’s the same basic material as gun cotton and is of course quite flammable and even explosive. It was phased out with acetate as a base which, while it will burn, is not explosive. That base was in turn succeeded by a polyester (ester) base which won’t tear or break as easily...”
I knew this, and, intuitively, I know, from reading certain Quentin Tarantino press-releases, that “celluloid” has become an emblematic term, feeding the nostalgia of people who long for a return to real film projection. Still, the misuse of this term has got to be confusing to anyone who wants “the facts,” (sir or ma’am or...).
The author of the article, James Barron, chronicles the activities of Jesse Locascio, a young man who is learning projection from the ground up, but he gets key facts about projection wrong, completely spoiling the piece for me and, presumably, anyone with any degree of knowledge of the subject.
This segment of the text is more or less right:
For generations, movie theaters had two projectors for each screen. The movies were cut into segments, each about 20 minutes long and each on a separate reel. Every 20 minutes, as the end of one reel approached, the projectionist had to start the next reel on the other projector.
Then the trouble begins:
There was a reason for the two-projector arrangement: the bulb in the projector had a life span of not much longer than 20 minutes.” [dead wrong! What had to be changed or at least trimmed, were the carbons]. The author then compounds his error, “The projectionist had to install a new bulb [wrong again] every time he...changed a reel. Longer-lasting bulbs were perfected in the 1960s and 1970s, [huh?] and with them reel-like platters big enough for a whole movie to fit on just one.
I’ll let Wikipedia take it home; good enough in this instance:
The Xenon arc lamp was introduced in Germany in 1957 and in the US in 1963. After film platters became commonplace in the 1970s, Xenon lamps became the most common light source, as they could stay lit for extended periods of time, whereas a carbon rod used for a carbon arc could last for an hour at the most. [underlining mine].
Bob Endres notes, “Another error in that story is that projectors contained a ‘bulb’ that burned out every twenty minutes or so, when of course the light source was carbon arc. That concept was apparently beyond the grasp of the author.”
The New York Times may not have any fact checkers left, or perhaps the writer was on deadline. I’m happy to say, I have a projection expert and friend, who saves my bacon all the time when it comes to projection, screen curvature, acoustics and all sorts of tech-heavy subjects. Thanks, Bob. Surely the Times could do as well? Perhaps they need Sgt. Friday to remind them to stick to the facts...
1. The life span of a xenon bulb was and still is around 3,000 hours, according to film-tech.com
2. Dragnet was a radio show before it found its way to TV, and the first movie spin-off from a TV series, BTW. See this tcm.com article.
3. Check out An Ode to the Lost World of the Film Projection Booth, on Wired.com.
4. I’ve written several blog posts about Robert Endres, a good friend and indispensable projection consultant, but here’s a peek at his rather extraordinary life.
5. What are the odds, that in one week I would receive two articles on movie-theater-related tech topics, both containing blatant inaccuracies? This blog post has dealt with only one of them. The other article was passed on to me by a second friend, and concerns theater organs, which I often write about here. The article showcases a 7 manual digital/pipes organ currently being installedin the Castro Theatre in San Francisco; it claims that organ is the world’s biggest. The article’s writer cheekily compares it to the notable 7 manual/33,00-pipes Midmer-Losh being restored in the vastness of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, and — pulling out all the stops — also to the illustrious (6 manual/ 29,000 pipes) Wanamaker instrument in Philadelphia, which can rightly be called the largest fully-functioning pipe organ in the world. Piling it on, the article deplores the Wanamaker’s light use, claiming it is played for two brief “vignettes” of fifteen minutes each, daily. In actuality, it’s put through its paces six days a week (Monday-Saturday), for two 45-minute recitals, not to mention full-length after-hours concerts, thanks to Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. I can vouch for the 45-minute recitals, having enjoyed at least one such recently, while standing in the (these days, Macy’s) women’s shoe department on the main floor of that iconic, acoustically excellent atrium. If you’re anywhere near Philadelphia, treat yourself!