He routinely missed change-overs, treating the audience to periodic tag-ends of reels, with perforations and white space. At the exulted salary of $13.76 an hour (equivalent nowadays to $61.50), why did we cut him a paycheck? We hadn’t paid ourselves in forever. Local 306, the NYC projectionists (and spotlight operators’) union, had a lock on the five boroughs. There wasn’t even, as I recall, a contract: 306 had simply been at the theater since it opened in 1929. Whatever guy they deemed to bestow on you, you took, no questions asked. Gabe more or less came with the theater, along with the dirty carpets and soda-stained movie screen, our inheritance, whether we liked it or not.
We complained often to the union. Dean called our rep at 306, and he invariably promised to talk to our wayward “employee.” Sometimes he did. After these chats Gabe was worse than ever, rolling in moments before screen-time, glaring as he ascended to the booth. For a while there was television silence, but a week or two later, McHale’s (Ernest Borgnine’s) unmistakable bray eventually filtered through the soundtrack of whatever was showing. It was always jarring, but sometimes downright surreal, as when Roy Scheider was trying to stare down the great white shark in Jaws.
One magic morning, following several calls to the union, two representatives of 306 strode into the lobby, to talk about our “problem.” But talk is cheap. We took them to the booth and out its side door there, onto the theater’s catwalk, a railed pathway within the skeleton of the dome. It was a world unto itself, which also incidentally served the booth as a kind of techno burial ground. Amid the dead projector parts and other detritus to the left of the walkway, lay a brand-new Sony Trinitron, as well as a half-dozen discarded portable TVs — two RCAs a couple of Motorolas, even a Dumont, from the more distant past. The reps were speechless.
There was a hearing the following Tuesday, and we never saw Gabe again. On Wednesday, a nice young man strode into the lobby, displayed his union card, shook hands all around and asked for directions on how to get to the booth. I think his name was Phil. Perhaps the reason I don’t remember him as clearly as Gabe was that he did his job flawlessly, he was pleasant, he came and he went.
When you’re going broke in a business, humor is an important survival tool. Woody Guthrie was a hero of mine. He’d written a terrific song I have always admired, which was often sung at rallies back in the Depression. It goes like this:
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
Times were tough in the thirties; my own mother’s best friend had been a union maid, an organizer. But in our case, in 1976, the shoe of desperation was on the other — entrepreneurial — foot. Accordingly, we sang our own parody of Guthrie’s song:
There once was a management maid who wasn’t getting paid.
She was in a fix with 306....
I won’t treat you to the nastier verses of our parody.
After the union did right by us, we went back to the business at hand, going broke. We were a single-screen movie house in the age of TV dominance, fighting for audience share with the multiplexes. But in the larger sense, while Gabe was around, we actually had more than one screen.
1. A lot has changed since 1976. With the advent of digital projection, the job of projectionist in most theaters has devolved to a side-gig most managers can handle. Even as far back as 1996, the once-strong projectionists’ union was struggling to keep its membership up as you can see from this article in the archives of The New York Times
2. The quality projectionist, as he (were there women projectionists?) was conceived has always been a skilled technician and, yes, an artist. The intricacies of trimming carbons, keeping two projectors going — one loaded and ready, the other in process, then siting cue-marks and making the changeover flawlessly from reel to reel, all the while coping with malfunctions in delicate equipment, handling the film itself, requires constant attention. Thankfully, there is still film, projected the traditional way in bigger cities, like L.A. and NYC, and even in rural Pennsylvania (see last week’s blog post on digital vs. film).
3. Ironically, TV, once the enemy of the movies, is side-lined these days too, as smaller and smaller screens take over, implicit in this Variety piece about Martin Scorcese’s new film, The Irishman. He’s made it with Netflix, which pretty much guarantees it will make only a brief appearance in theaters, and in many households, not even on TV. The most troubling aspect of the Variety article is the economics of movie production...read it.