It’s the booth that suddenly commands my memory, the highest habitable point in our theater world. Once up there, you could step out of a side door onto the Catwalk, a metal pathway that led directly into the dome. Defunct TVs were dumped there (they shouldn’t have been there at all, since TVs were strictly forbidden by union rules). Projectionists snuck them up the stairs anyhow, and watched them while waiting to change reels, often as not missing the change-over, the most important aspect of film projection. To compound things, a television, however mute, somehow competed in an audio sense with the movie, thanks to the theater’s excellent acoustics.
What do I remember about the booth? The cacophony of the place: a tinny speaker, hanging on the wall from its cord, transmitting the movie audio from the auditorium, the working projector grinding away, one bent take-up reel rubbing against something in the works, bell sounds for change-over, the crackle of the carbons. It was a machine shop hovering over a library. The auditorium was a library, in a way. You’d never talk above a whisper while the show was on downstairs, but in the booth you had to shout to be heard. No wonder Gabe, hard of hearing anyhow, turned up the audio on the TV!
Last week an old friend, for the better part of his life a white-glove projectionist from Radio City Music Hall, contributed to this column one of his many stories about booths he has toured, in his long and exceptional life. He reminisced about the booth of the Pantages in L.A., which, by happenstance, he’d toured in the early seventies. Bob Endres has been in projection booths all over the USA — and the world. “That’s an interesting specialty,” I thought, wondering how many other people collect projection booths, or trips to those booths. Gee, how many people even know what a projection booth is — or was? Fewer and fewer, which is, perhaps, why I’m suddenly drawn to write about them.
On this side of the Atlantic, a projection booth is called just that, but in the U.K. it’s a “projection box” (“bio box” in Australia, if you cared to know). In the infancy of film, projectors occupied the backs of darkened rooms full of movie watchers, but film in those days was highly flammable (nitrocellulose), resulting often in theater fires, some of which were infamous enough to cause major fire safety legislation. Because cellulose nitrate contains oxygen, nitrate fires can be very difficult to extinguish, once they’ve started. So beginning roughly in the 1920’s theaters in the U.S. were required to segregate the business of projection from the pleasure of movie-watching, in order to protect the audience from the flammability of film itself. An added advantage to the booth was the separation of projection sounds from the experience of movie-viewing. In 1952, Kodak solved the flammability issue by introducing Safety Film (with an acetate, rather than nitrate, base layer), but until recently nobody has tamed all that sound. Enter digital projection.
With nearly 100% of all theaters equipped in 2017 for digital according to NATO, booths either don’t exist anymore (with the operant equipment suspended from the ceiling of an auditorium, ironically reminiscent of early movie days) or they exist, with piles of rusting antiquated equipment in their corners.
Wax nostalgic for a moment with me. Here’s a snippet of a recent interview on NPR with Bob Mondello (Backstage Pass, July 18, 2017). Before he became a film critic, Mondello worked for a chain of movie theaters; so he knows a lot about projection booths:
...The purr of a celluloid film strip running through a projector, a purr that is actually 24 clicks per second, one each time the shutter closes so that another frame of film can advance. Each frame has to stop briefly in front of the light source, or all you'd see when you look at the screen is a blur. This is how film was first projected by the Lumiere brothers in 1895 and how everyone saw film for the next 104 years. It's been the subject of movies, from a silent comedy where Buster Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams himself up onto the screen to the Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso," where a little boy falls in love with movies in the projection booth.
Funny he should mention Cinema Paradiso, which ends in a fire, involving nitrate based film. Perhaps nostalgias — of all kinds — are volatile! Meanwhile, count me in on missing the sounds of the booth, although the purr he’s describing probably came from a Xenon projector, not the already-outmoded Carbon Arc projectors in our St. George booth. But well and fondly do I remember the machine-shop aspects of the place, once I’d huffed and puffed my way up those projection stairs.
A determined coalition of directors and organizations such as Cinema Conservancy help make sure that at least 20 theaters coast-to-coast still project film. Is this just one more example of our nostalgia for analogue everything (vinyl records, manual typewriters, the 1950’s dial telephone in my living room, actual books)? Or is it proof positive that again and again technology persuades us, often hastily and to our detriment, to throw out some lovely babies with the most recent tub of bathwater?
Check out this YouTube video.
Also, this technological cry-to-arms.
By the way, I always forget to mention this, if you follow Starts Wednesday, don’t forget to LIKE US ON FACEBOOK!