Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Tales from the (Movie) Theater: Projecting (Part 3)

HP Warner Theatre

(image c/o Cinema Treasures)

Continuation of the series that began here.

Projecting


nitty-gritty |ˌnitē ˈgritē|
noun
the most important aspects or practical details of a subject or situation

Learning all the duties that came with the job of movie theater projectionist, as administered to me by my younger brother, the senior projectionist for the Huntington Park Warner at the time, was a revelation. It changed my outlook toward the whole experience of watching cinema.

A mere week would be devoted to the entire endeavor. Yeah, a ridiculously short span for such a thing. I’m sure it took longer for those who truly made a career at this profession with the movie theater chains. Here, no.

The primary conduit for delivering the basic skills of projecting a movie onto a screen came under the tutelage of my sibling during his work shifts. Not killing him, me, or anybody else in the building at that time the unspoken demand of all concerned. Though it involved no gases or hydraulics, but plenty of electricity, the job was surprisingly pressure-based.

Especially true for older independent venues like this, with owners highly resistant to modernizing equipment because it was too cost prohibitive.

I knew beforehand that traditional theaters had big projectors high up in a booth somewhere in the dark recesses of a building’s structure. If you look carefully at the above image, between the ‘E’ and ‘R’ on the vertical WARNERS sign was where the booth was situated inside. Those not under the balcony could gander up at the small utilitarian booth windows at the high-end of the back wall.

helios-kedzierzyn-kozle-6

Most of the time, though, one didn’t bother to look or care.

Hey, as long as the movie’s playing, you had your snacks, a good-looking date with you, and the seats weren’t sticky, all was bliss. Right? Of course, till it wasn’t. I quickly learned it was not going to be the concessionista that patrons would be [insert one or all: cursing, yelling, whistling, or throwing popcorn] at when the movie didn’t start or unexpectedly stopped.

R-i-g-h-t. It’s the projectionist’s fault. The same one who’d receive that wonderful call from the concession stand:

“What the hell is going on with the movie?!? What??? Fix it!!!”

My kid brother taught me that just about everything came down to timing. In life and in movie projection. Screwing up either usually resulted in bad outcomes. Who was this guy? As of this writing, things are changing significantly. I’m pretty sure most of the technical aspects of projecting movies I’ll relate are ancient history of the booth. The newer digital movie projection systems, care of studios’ demands to stop providing 35mm prints to movie theaters and the few remaining drive-ins, are forcing the change.

In the mid-70s, movies were still distributed to theaters in two or more movie reel cans. They were gray colored in my day. Each contained two or three reels of 35mm film within a single can. If you saw or lifted one of these, you’d think that was a lot of film. Not really since it ran through the projector at twenty-four frames per second.

Each reel, at its maximum, held almost 20 minutes of the movies (usually running an hour and a half to two hours) we served up.

Nowadays, those left to deal with this fast disappearing media, upon receipt, move them to a workbench to manually splice each reel’s film together so it’s one long collection of cinematic material. It’s then loaded onto a platter of a Single Reel System. I’m sure it made things so much easier. That is, if you had one of those — I wasn’t that lucky.

simplex arc projectorI was taught on what was known as a Two Reel System — the older carbon arc variety. No splicing of film together to make it one large, easy to project unit. Nope…didn’t happen. The Warner’s projection booth had three, count them three, Simplex carbon arc projectors. Museum pieces, really. Only two were used at any time. The third kept as cold backup for when one of others arrested on you, which could happen given the age of these heirlooms.

From the cans you loaded each of the reels into individual reel storage bins situated right below the work bench. A number of slots were under there to stockpile the feature films for our double-bills, or the rare triple, which were our norm. There they sat until it was time to use them. Here’s where that timing my brother spoke of became critical.

If you screwed up the split-second timing of movie projecting, it caused a major hiccup in sound and picture continuity. Merely bad brought your audience the film’s leader running by, or a blank black screen, to stare at. A horrendous one threw a shockingly bright white nothingness reflected onto people’s pupils (causing them to painfully constrict for their viewing pleasure).

And since these projectors had carbon arc light sources, made for a fairly large auditorium, a similar technology used for those old high intensity searchlights that once crisscrossed the night sky of old Hollywood movie premieres, you’re talking about one bright candle when working right.

Performing what was known in the trade as a movie changeover was essentially getting the timing right:

  1. At about the 2 minutes left to go mark on the first machine, an alarm sounded.
  2. On the second projector (one that has been pre-threaded with the next reel) I’d fire up the carbon arc, adjust for brightness, and I stood next to it.
  3. Then, eyes looked toward the screen through the sighting window, my right hand neared two switches.
  4. On the first visible cue (those black or white dot, sometimes X’s, there only for an instant in the top right corner of the movie) the first switch was thrown. This started the motor, which caused the threaded leader to snake its way through the projector.
  5. After throwing that switch, my left hand would open the dowser sending the light through the lamphouse — you didn’t open it before that because the light was strong enough to literally cook/burn through film that was not moving at 24 frames/sec.
  6. By the time the second cue was displayed on the screen, about 8 seconds later, I’d flip the second, ‘changeover’, switch. Simultaneously killing the audio and blocking the light on the first projector while enabling both on the second.
  7. I’d go back to the first, kill its arc, gather the take up reel to the rewind station on the workbench, thread the next one up and check the amount of carbon left on the negative/positive rods (replace if needed).

Simple.

Basically, when you had this routine down, it was 5 minutes of work to prep everything for the next iteration. You were ‘free’ for the next 12-15 minutes till this cycle repeated itself. Every so often you kept a keen eye on the tab attached to the projector’s housing meant to monitor the arc’s brightness, and that its light remained situated between the two lines calibrated there. Other installations had this projected on the ceiling for the technician to regard.

I usually did my homework and reading during this time.

Of course, my brother also taught me about when and how to fade in/out the house lights and footlights (we had a stage), adjust the volume levels in the theater, open and close the curtains, splice film (important later), and adjust the screen masking (for standard or widescreen presentations).

By the time the last two days rolled around in my training week, all my brother was doing was watching the old TV set he had in the booth. I was doing all of the work on his shift (“…comes with the territory, bro”). So, it all came down to these facts about the job:

  • If you did the job well, it would never get noticed by the audience, let alone appreciated.
  • Screw it up and you got all of the attention you never wanted.

This stuff became so ingrained, for years afterward, I couldn’t help but critique light transitions, volume levels, and reel changeovers of other projectionists while going to the movies, far away from the theater, for my own pleasure. I still do, as my TCM Film Festival recap showed. But, I always appreciated a good job when I saw it.

Slate writer Grady Hendrix nailed the end result of this vanishing craft, as quoted by the veteran projectionist he interviewed, on those changeover cues in his article:

“You see those cues all your life.”

Truer words were never spoken. When trained to the extent available back then, I would work a shift all by my lonesome from here on out. And usually that meant, for those with the least seniority, I toiled the night/closing shifts. That, and I worked Amateur Night.

Projection_Booth_01

Not the H.P. Warner, but the closest photo I found that best represented the old gal’s projection booth

To be continued…

Previous: The Owner (Part 2)
Next up: Amateur Night (Part 4)

The entire Warner Theatre Project series can be found here.

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25 Responses to “Tales from the (Movie) Theater: Projecting (Part 3)”

  1. Fogs' Movie Reviews

    Awesome. This series continues to be a fascinating read. This was a really interesting look back at a process that was such a behind the scenes part of the movie going experience for those of us who grew up back in the day. You once again manage to make is personal, informative and an enjoyable read Le0p. I continue to dig on this series. 😉

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you very much, Fogs. I very much appreciate the kind words, my friends. And thanks so much for the retweet on Twitter :-).

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  2. cindybruchman

    OMG. What a great story! I love your history. I’ve always had a secret wish to own a movie house. Remember Jim Carrey in Majestic? How lovely to welcome in people to my theatre. I know there’s a lot of work to it as your series points out. Fascinating! 🙂

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you very much, Cindy. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the series. Interesting you should mention THE MAJESTIC, though. Some years back, looking on the comments for this theater on the Cinema Treasures web site, I spotted this interrelated tidbit with the film :

      “ Two of the mezzanine chandeliers and much of the booth equipment can be seen in the Jim Carrey movie, THE MAJESTIC. Pacific rented that stuff to the studio for that production.”

      Now that makes me want to see Darabont’s movie all over again :-).

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  3. Minako

    Wow, this is really fascinating to me. I currently work at a movie theater but it’s part of a big chain so we have all digital projectors. Years ago we used film and many of my friends who have worked there for a long time were projectionists. I kind of wish we still had film just so I could learn about this awesome craft. Awesome stuff, thanks for the read!
    Ps: As a kid, I always wondered what those white dots in the upper right hand corner were! Nobody I talked to knew what I was talking about. I only found out what they were when I watched Fight Club 🙂

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you very much, Minako! And I wondered, too, about those dots and Xs, while growing up watching movies on TV. I saw them all of the time on the old B&W films especially and wondered why someone put them there. Great story on where you found out about them :-).

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  4. Morgan R. Lewis

    Great read, Leop. And I believe you when you say you see those cues your whole life… once you’re trained to see something, it’s hard to “unsee” it.

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  5. 70srichard

    Great stuff. My Dad’s friend Ed Linde was the protectionist at the Pantages, Cinerama Dome and Vogue all in Hollywood back in the 60s and 70s. He worked hard and I watched a couple of movies from the booth.

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    • le0pard13

      Some pretty prestigious venues your father’s friend worked! I’ve been in all of them and probably sat in one of them when he worked the booth back then. A great legacy, no doubt. Thanks for sharing that, Richard.

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  6. LaurenVMontes

    Hi Im trying to find the exact list information of Huntington Parks Warner Theatre. I want to know what films were actually premiered sneek peek premieres and if the theatre was use for filming projects secret meetings for prouction or anything else. What celebrities attended this Huntington Park Theatre. All from when it was built till current.
    Please help me
    Lauren M
    Levampire117@gmail.com

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    • le0pard13

      Sounds like a wonderful and worthy project, Lauren. Don’t think I’d have much more to add other what’s already published in this series, however. In hindsight, really wish I had documented more details and took photos of my time at this beautiful movie palace as a patron and a projectionist (the latter occurred during the venue’s independent years). Have you tried to contact the Pacific Theaters chain? Perhaps, they have an archive that could help you. I hope so. Wish you well in your endeavor. Best.

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      • LaurenVMontes

        I haven’t contacted the Theatre chain. Id assume in earlier years it would have been Jack Warner and his business affairs staff. However I do have the current owners contact info. It might be out of date. It was difficult to Google! Seems they are very low pro. Before contacting them, Id rather search existing archives from all other sources. Not knowing the current owners and their real intentions for their Theatre property might go unherd. Who knows for all we know people only leak what they want others to know or believe. I don’t see how an already established property company has a hard time finding funds or investors to help restore the landmark of Huntington Parks.
        My road will be long and Im a mother of twins. My time flies quickly and I jump on investigating the issue any spare time I have. Plus I have alot of other minor projects Im involved in. All of them special and important. So its nice to know I can juggle balls like a clown. I suppose people aren’t taken seriously until something great is achieved. Ive told close several people I can at the least try until it becomes too heavy and I could hand it over to someone else. Or I will fail due to demolition date. But thats also tricky because its not stated and Id rather not know of it. That way I try till the last minute instead of becoming overwhelmed and hopeless if the time draws near. I believe its fakey. Only because that statement never has a set date online and time passes and it doesn’t happen.
        Being in denial might just reinforce positive results by not acknowledging the truth lol.
        After so many years of it showing 5$ shows from the 80s-90s its difficult to believe no one took time to photograph further on. Its like one of the Warners dirty secrets, no one talks about it. To my findings Jack Warner intended on using it for red carpets and filming however that never happened. Fact unknown and Im dying to find out why. Apparently the only thing Jack Warner used this theatre for was for PRIVATE FILM SCREENINGS FOR ONLY CAST AND CREW AND PRODUCTION. THIS WAS FOR PURPOSES TO INVITE ONLY PEOPLE THEY KNEW TO GET OPINIONS OF THE FILMS BEFORE EVEN FINISHING THEIR LAST CUT.
        THESE TYPES OF FINAL SCREENINGS NOW HAPPEN MOSTLY WITHIN THE STUDIO LOTS BECAUSE THEIR ROOM AND ENOUGH PRIVACY. LONG AGO THE STUDIOS DIDN’T HAVE THAT AVAILABLE YET. THATS MY ASSUMPTION BECAUSE THEY NEEDED A PLACE WITH PARTICULAR FILM PROJECTORS. HOW MORE PRIVATE THAN HUNTINGTON PARK.
        ALSO YEARS AGO IN A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD TYPE BOOK, I OWNED I READ ABOUT AN ACTUAL RED CARPET HERE IN PACIFIC BLVD. AT THE TIME MY ACTING CAREER HAD DRIVEN ME UP THE WALLS AND I MOMENTARILY WAS SICK OF KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT HOLLYWOOD. I WAS IN MY IM OVER IT MOOD. ONLY TAKING A SLIGHT BREAK FROM THE TIRED EFFORTS OF TRYING TO FIND MY WAY TO THE BIG SCREEN.
        ANYWAY THE RED CARPET MIGHT HAVE BEEN GONE WITH THE WIND. I REMEMBER READING IT CLEARLY AND SEEING A PICTURE TAKEN FROM THE 30s-40s. I was so immensely overtaken that I felt as if cupid threw an arrow. The hugeness and that big of a deal it was to me BLEW ME AWAY. I QUICKLY CLOSED MY BOOK. I COULDN’T GATHER MYSELF. I WAS LEFT NOSTALGIC.
        YOU COULD IMAGINE IM NOT JUST SEARCHING FOR INVESTORS AND HISTORY, IM SEARCHING FOR FILM TITLES. STARS WHO SHOWED UP TO THESE SHOWINGS AND POSSIBLE RED CARPETS, IM DIGGING SO FAR DEEP MY HUGE STACK OF HISTORIC INFORMATION BETTER STRIKE HUNTINGTON PARK CITY COUNCIL AS A HUGE WAKE UP CALL. THE POINTS NEED TO BE MADE AREN’T TO BE OVERLOOKED. IF THEY DON’T PAY ATTENTION AFTER I BRING MY CASE. ILL MAKE AN EVEN BIGGER DEAL THAN I COULD EVEN IMAGINE. HUNTINGTON PARK LACKS AND IM EMBARRASSED OF THE CITY IM FROM BECAUSE… ITS A LONG STORY. PLEASE KEEP IN TOUCH ID LOVE TO SHARE ANYTHING ELSE INTRESTING ON HUNTINGTON PARKS WARNER THEATRE.

        Levampire117@gmail.com

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