There are, as I dimly recall, 13 steps, very high risers, that lead from the space at the back of the St. George Theatre’s upper balcony to the tiny pair of rooms we used to call “the booth:” a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, two sash windows and a skylight with stairs to the roof. Two hulking carbon arc projectors, circa the 1950’s, brought the image to the screen, a half a football field away, thanks to a spark of fire ignited by the charge between two carbon rods. (They were expensive, these rods, and running out of them was a tragic experience.) The film arrived weekly in steel canisters, each reel containing only around 20 minutes of viewing pleasure, which is to say, three reel changes an hour. That’s how it was in 1976, when I was part of the last effort to run a 2,672-seat Spanish Baroque palace as the movie theater it had always been. It was the end of an era. After we left, the St. George went dark, so the booth never did go through the revolution in movie projection that followed the seventies (resulting in the “platter’ system), let alone digitalization, which has liberated theaters almost entirely from the need to hire projectionists.
The corners of projection booths are strewn these days with the wreckage obsolete equipment: reels, carbons, xenon bulbs, platters. But the booths remain: holes in the theater’s back wall, like carved eye-slits. The booth was once the lonely haunt of a single worker who, in our theater at least, never did get to know the ushers, concession people, or even the manager, except in a passing way. Watch The Projectionist (1971) some time, for a sense of this loneliness; or Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior, (1924) an early piece of silent genius, for the dangers of dreaming in the booth.
As for Gabe, our local union projectionist, he smiled his way into the theater lobby, did his shift, and, six hours later, waved absently as he headed for his car and Brooklyn. Most nights we hung out by the candy stand in a state of despair, counting the scant receipts, but Gabe never joined us. He was, to quote Kipling, “the cat who walked by himself.”
For another analogy, if the projection booth were part of a sailing ship, it’d be the “crow’s nest,” highest point of the main mast, where the lookout looked out. That’s how it was on ships, and how it was in theaters too.
The projectionist looked out, if he was any good, watching for the cue-marks on the film to make a smooth change-over. To hear projectionist Keith Madden talk about it on NPR...
You had to just completely get into the Zen of it...The cue marks were a sixth of a second in the upper right hand corner. A sixth of a second is about the time it takes you to do kind of a normal blink. So if you had a normal blink, you could have — oh, did I just miss that? (Laughter) And until you learn the film, you wouldn't know. And one of the worst things for a projectionist was to get emotionally involved in the content. In a horror movie, that used to happen to me. Somebody would jump out with an axe, and, oh, you'd miss the cue mark.
You can tell Madden was a good projectionist because his danger was that he might become “emotionally involved in the content.” Our projectionist — Gabe — on the other hand, often had no idea at all what was on screen. Case in point: when we ran Enter the Dragon (1975, a classic Bruce Lee Kung Fu), Gabe laid an egg. He called down to the candy stand —“Hey, I’m sorry man!” — but nobody knew what he was apologizing for. He’d apparently run reel 1, then reel 3. But with minimal plot and maximal punching and kicking, nobody’d noticed, so no harm done. Dean directed him to run reel 2 then reel 4, followed by 5 and 6. The audience left without complaint.
1. For a really smart treatment of the art of projection, check out the source of the NPR quote.
2. Our friend Robert Endres, the projectionist’s projectionist, was interviewed for a post on May 27, 2015. it is entirely possible that he knows more about projection than anyone else on Earth, though he’d modestly deny that statement, if asked. Check out his view from the booth. Bob, BTW, started out at his local theater in Streator, Illinois, when, as a boy, he was caught peeking through the keyhole at the projectionist’s world.
3. A comment from the post’s original comment column:
Thank you so much for featuring my photograph on your blog. I wanted to mention that this photograph was captured at the Variety Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio.
The photograph, as a matter of fact, is what caused me to write the blog post, so, once again, I thank Diane.