How many carbon-arc projectors still exist today? I’ve seen at least one demo of this archaic system for projecting film, on You Tube, and I happen to know that, even now, there are theaters out there that pride themselves on this “ancient” technology. If you built a ground fire with a mirror and a lens, and spooled film past it, you’d have a primitive version of what carbon arc does: a spark generated in the brief distance between two sticks of carbon, one positive, the other negative, a spark that lights film one frame at a time.
Poor as we had become by the end of 1976, and expensive as a box of these fourteen-and-a-half-inch carbon rods were ($175.00), we implored our union projectionist to burn even the broken ones, and give us plenty of warning when the box was about to run out.
Well-paid as he was, he went on vacation one week and forgot to tell us we were running short.
One Saturday night in November, the substitute operator called from the booth to report there weren’t enough carbons to last the night. If the carbons ran out, the screen would go dark, and people would demand their money back. We’d sold a couple of hundred tickets and had already deposited our take from the first show in the night drop down the street at the bank.
How many carbons were left? Four? Enough to last for two and a half more hours.
There were no carbons in Staten Island — all the local houses had gone to the newer Xenon bulb technology. Manhattan by ferry was an hour away, but if I hotfooted it down to the next boat, I could just make it to Broadway!
In the porn district, just off Times Square, the older houses still used carbon arc. With this in mind, Dean called the New Amsterdam, and soon I was on my way, with cash I’d robbed from the concession stand. What was the New Amsterdam showing that night? Naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty, Forty-Second Street? As I recall, it was Emmanuelle 2, soft porn.... I remember how shabby, yet elegant their lobby was, and how grateful I was to fork over the cash, grab the precious heavy box of carbon rods, and head back down to the number one train for my trip to South Ferry.
I still have a box of carbons — found it in the attic closet of our house several months ago. Absently, I wondered what its worth might be on E-Bay — or to a collector. Funny that Xenon was the hot new projection method back then, and now film itself, with sprocket holes and everything, is obsolete.