Film — the real thing, with sprocket holes, that runs through a projector — is rare these days, but in 1976, when we ran a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, it was plentiful and thankfully not explosive. This didn’t keep the fire inspectors from fining us if fire buckets in the projection booth weren’t precisely 12 inches off the floor, a regulation that dated back to the bad old days of nitrate film. Almost all movies, certainly major motion pictures, were on a nitrate base before the late forties and certainly after 1952, when Kodak finally stopped making the volatile stuff, and switched entirely to a variation of acetate, the base they’d been using all along for home movies. In the heyday of the movie palaces, going to the movies, let alone working as a projectionist, were risky activities. Theater fires as dramatic as the one depicted in Cinema Paradiso were, before 1952, common, if not somehow likely.
How likely? A 1936 issue of International Projectionist estimated that one American projectionist died, on average, every 18 days, probably not of a heart attack. Nitrate often simply exploded.
And get this: while projectors were carbon arc (which we still had at the St. George in seventy-six), nitrate film, whose base is essentially a solid form of nitroglycerin, had all the aspects of a bomb (fire, volatile material).
The very existence of projection booths in theaters had been established early in the silent era, largely as a safety feature, an attempt to contain anticipated fire. Should a fire begin in the booth, the wax that lined the projection ports — if not a fuse of some sort — melted, and flame-proof shutters sealed the booth from the theater, like a tomb, which, as a matter of fact, it might become. Case in point, the June 1947 issue of the aforementioned International Projectionist eulogizes a fifteen-year-old — presumably breaking into the craft of projection — Marion Shea, who lost his life in a theater fire.
What is it, or was it, about nitrate film stock? A US Navy instructional movie about the safe handling of celluloid/nitrate film includes footage of a full reel of the stuff burning underwater. Water, in fact, is the worst thing you can add to a nitrate fire: it only encourages dangerous gases.
Beginning in the thirties, the fact that practically the whole history of movies as an art form was laid down on unreliable stock that might explode spontaneously, meant that a number of archives were destroyed on hot summer days, in storage vaults that lacked ventilation. Everything Fox ever made before 1937 went up in an archive fire that year, requiring seven fire companies to extinguish.
A similar calamity happened to MGM’s archives in 1965.
We hardly show movies on nitrate anymore, except in rare circumstances, which still doesn’t solve the problem of preservation of rare reels, because, over time, in the presence of the kind of heat you experience in a hot car in a parking lot in July, these films will either explode or bubble and degenerate.
This leads me to the anecdote that started off this post. My friend, Robert Endres, now retired from his long-time job as Chief Projectionist at Radio City Music Hall, reminisced recently about his attempts to save some archival footage of the Center Theatre’s opening. The Music Hall had, in those days, vaults for the storage of nitrate film, and Bob was trying to get the fragile newsreels converted to acetate before they disintegrated altogether.
One of my great regrets was that I couldn’t save newsreel footage of the opening of the Center Theatre. There’s very little documentation about it, and I had the footage in our vault. It was nitrate and when I opened the can I noted that it had started to bubble. Our Chief Operating Officer suggested taking it to Technicolor and having the Lab director take a look at it. I did. When I walked into his office, he closed the blinds over the inside window. He opened the can, took one look, and said, “Get it out of here!” I said, “Can’t you do something?” and he repeated, “Get it out of here!” I picked the can up and put it under my left arm, and he said, “No, put it under your right arm. That way if it blows up it only takes a lung and not your heart.” Needless to say, I took it back to the Hall very gingerly!
I couldn’t resist asking Bob what happened after that...to which he replied,
I held the can out at arm’s length most of the way back. I took the subway and I’m sure violated a number of rules of the Fire Department and the MTA in doing so, although they probably wouldn’t have known about the hazard of nitrate film by that time.
Nitrate film seems to be a perpetual hot potato. Michael Zahs’ collection of early Miele films, which he kept in a shed on his Iowa property for many years, were nitrate; this didn’t keep him from mailing a number of them to the Library of Congress, which duplicated them and mailed them back!
You might be wondering why, if Kodak had acetate as far back as 1909, which it happily sold to amateur filmmakers, it kept producing nitrate materials to sell to the studios? The myth surrounding nitrate’s beauty, the dense blacks and luminous whites, is probably the answer. To which I say, what price beauty?
Here are a few more hot potato anecdotes from Bob Endres, and one other afterthought besides;
1. We actually had a nitrate film vault at the Hall complete with two sets of doors. My boss discovered that it wasn’t cooled in the summer and had some of the film brought down to my office in the booth. Since you’re not supposed to have more than a few thousand feet of film outside of a fireproof container at one time, this startled the city inspectors when they came to check the booth, particularly since one of the cans on top had a big red label saying “Nitrate” on it. There was quite a bit of nitrate footage stored in the nitrate vault still, when I started there. Our Head of House Operations knew about it and when he saw Towering Inferno he said we should get it out of the building.
2. I...didn’t want to destroy the documentary footage that we had on the history of the Hall. Since it was operated by RKO, there were a lot of RKO newsreels that contained Radio City stories. We also had a “March of Time” episode that featured the Hall. I made a deal with MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] that they could have the footage if they would pull acetate prints for me, thus enabling me to show footage that I didn’t want to take a chance with when it was on nitrate. A stagehand and I filled a shopping cart with reels of nitrate film and wheeled it up 6th Avenue to MOMA.
3. We did a tribute to Myrna Loy at Carnegie Hall with a film retrospective. I got a call from an editor wanting to know if we would run a clip on nitrate film. When the editor said she would take the clip out of the 2000’ reel in was contained in, I said O.K. She brought the three-minute roll to New York in her purse on a plane.
1. Acetate (“Safety Film”) is no optimal medium either, not volatile like nitrate, but imminently perishable. Check out “vinegar syndrome.”
2. This blog post, which necessitated a deal of research, of which I’m quite proud, first ran in its intirety on 1/30/19.