Having grown up in the movie business, I still find the changes that have occurred since our last theater was sold in 1985 to be of interest. I therefore had to laugh when I found out that movies don’t come to the theaters on reels anymore, but are sent digitally. The job of projectionist, the person who ran the huge projectors in every theater, has disappeared.
It was a hard job. The projectors were huge pieces of machinery that had to be maintained constantly. The bright light to project the film came from live carbon arcs that burned in open flame inside the machine and had to be changed every reel. I still have the scars on my hands from learning how to do it correctly. Even looking at the light with the naked eye could cause blindness!
Every film came on a number of reels, each one lasting about 20 minutes. The average two-hour feature had six reels. That meant that there were five “changeovers” where the projectionist would finish one reel and then by a series of signals, which were called “cue marks” in the upper-right corner of the film, go from one projector to the other in perfect synchronization. If the projectionist did his job correctly, the audience never would notice. Only when something went wrong was there trouble.
It brings to mind a story that happened back in the early 1980s. Each week, I would pick up the film, which came in big metal shipping cans. Back at the theater, I would check that I had all the reels of the movie. One time, I discovered to my horror that there was no reel three and two reel fours. Panic set in. It was already almost evening, and the film exchange was closed.
With no cell phones in those days, I tracked down one of the managers at home, and after some protest, he agreed to meet me back at the film exchange company. I left instructions to start the 7:30 show on time, even if I wasn’t back, hoping that I could win the race against time and make it back with reel three. It was dark by then, and the film exchange was located in a most inhospitable and remote area of Northeast Washington. It was no place to be alone at night, but I was on a mission.
Going as fast as common sense and the law would allow, I made it there and got a whole new print of the film. I threw it in the trunk and headed back to the theater. Seeing that I wouldn’t get back in time, I stopped at a pay phone and called the theater. I had to make a Solomonic decision: There were over 600 people in the theater, and I told the projectionist to go from reel two to reel four and show it twice. By the time I got back, the 7:30 show was almost over and there were another 600 people waiting for the 9:30 show. I waited in the lobby for the inevitable complaints and I had the refund pass book in my hand, ready for what I was sure would be an onslaught of angry customers.
Well, the show let out, and no one complained until one of the last people out of the theater came up to me. “There was something wrong with the movie,” he said. “The story wasn’t right. It didn’t make any sense in the middle.” I was about to say something I thought would be clever and give him a refund when his wife took his hand and said, “The movie was fine dear. That’s why you can’t have more than one drink with dinner.” and they walked out of the theater!
It was one of those crazy stories of the movie business as it existed in what is now a bygone era. It had its share of eccentric personalities and historic theaters, most of which are now long gone. It had its ups and downs, but I’m glad I had a chance to be part of it.
NEXT TIME: To My Father, Nathan Shor, On His Yartzheit
By Larry Shor