(image c/o Cinema Treasures)
Continuation of the series that began here.
Of Musicals, Horror, and What-not
Closing out the movie side of my experience as the most senior in a youngish set of projectionists who worked at the Warner Huntington Park Theater, thereabouts 1976 – 77, will always be bittersweet. The special and the exasperating came hand-in-hand daily. It’s still common all these decades later, when I come upon one in my reading or watching, for a specific older movie to stimulate memory of my brief time with it on the delivery side of cinema.
For many of these films, I can still see the associated cue marks in my head flashing upon the upper right-hand corner of my mind’s eye. They’ve left a dent in this bank of mine. So, before they disappear from my mind and this world, here are some of them.
Song, Scares, Satire
Without too much difficulty, the best musical — and this had to be the category with the fewest in number during my booth stint — was another Brian De Palma film. A few weeks after we screened Obsession, too, the Phantom of the Paradise. Although, Barbra Streisand’s A Star is Born did gather itself well for one Hell of a closing number (which I may have cranked up the house volume a tad for).
Best horror flick, you might ask? Easily, that would be the one covered below. But, in my opinion, the second best was Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings, which contained one of the best and most creepy of endings, ever. However, that didn’t make it the most bizarre of that genre, though. That title went to Michael Weiner’s The Sentinel. See that movie, if you don’t believe me.
Airport 1975 (with the great, late-Karen Black) was rousing, French Connection II a surprisingly gritty fictional sequel, and The Great Waldo Pepper unexpectedly entertaining fare that won over those of us watching from the fourth floor booth. Missed they were when they left. Additionally, The Greatest Story Ever Told was undoubtedly the one feature with a couple of unique attributes:
- The longest movie, in total run-time, with the most film reels to manage and changeovers to execute.
- Also, one of the few movies that required us to mount the two CinemaScope anamorphic wide lenses we kept safely stashed away onto our projectors.
- And as covered earlier, it was the only film that ever ran me out of the building.
Last, but not least…the funniest movie the Warner ever showed during my time there, again with a great ensemble cast that included someone who has recently passed, Eileen Brennan: the Robert Moore-directed, Neil Simon’s Murder by Death. A smidgen to prove my point:
Grizzly being a poor, yet strangely entertaining film for those who knew Spielberg’s blockbuster well. Just swap-out a shark for a bear and the ocean for the woods, and there you had it.
I didn’t think much of Ron Howard’s directorial debut with Grand Theft Auto, and honestly didn’t believe he would make a good director. History proved my first impression was quite wrong. Still, I wasn’t when it came to the great Robert Shaw being totally wasted in the criminally deficient Swashbuckler film. Might as well add Grizzly to the list as it was an almost exact scene-for-scene ripoff of Jaws.
And I’m sure director John Boorman doesn’t mention Exorcist II: The Heretic, at all, in conversation. Well, maybe he does. Not only did I head up to Hollywood Theatre, and paid good money to see it on opening day, but had to project his train-wreck for its downstream run with us (which could have been one of my last straws).
That infamous honor of THE most unpleasant piece of celluloid I ever ran through a projector was the movie Snuff. A foreign exploitation film attempting to literally emulate an actual snuff film. I kid you not. I screened it a number of times during its weeklong stay. Though the theater didn’t experience them, this movie had people protesting it when it was first burst into theaters in 1976.
Near the end of the Bicentennial year, the owner booked the best horror picture we ever showed during my tour of duty in the booth. We ran The Exorcist for four very successful weeks. The second longest run during my term, and only behind Jaws for concession stand profit. And just like that film, the projectionists learned it quite well. In my case, that fact alone saved me and another worker. You see, in its final week with us, there was this accident. No, it didn’t occur on one of my shifts. It happened with the second guy, on an evening shift. Around that time, there were only two of us working the booth (since the third and newest guy had quit the week before). So, both of us were putting in more hours to cover the loss until the owner could hire another slub person that I could train up for the third slot.
As I hinted at many chapters ago, this was why learning to properly splice 35mm film became so very important.
While I was home in the evening, the 2nd guy called me to describe the problem he was having with one of the projectors. It seems that in the lower housing (where the take-up sprocket resides) of that unit, it was collecting the film that should have been going to the lower take-up reel. This was quite bad, in fact, as that housing of the projector is not very large. And it was being filled at a rate of 24 frames a second with 35mm film! I think I blew two street lights getting there… As bad as this was (and it was definitely bad), we had to consider ourselves lucky, too. This was the first reel of The Exorcist, and not the second movie (one I can’t even recall now, and a film we didn’t know nearly as well). Once the call came in, I had him changeover early to the next reel so we could stop that projector and halt the damage that was going on (packed film like that breaks).
But, harm there was. We were left with a whole bunch of separate, broken strips of 35mm film after we unpacked that projector. A lot of them no more than 4 – 6 inches in length, and some so damaged they were useless. This was the kind of wrecked print that the owner would have to pay the distributor for costs in replacement/repair. So even if this was a mechanical failure, it was the kind of accident that would get that second projectionist fired (since he was the last one with the farmer’s daughter, so do speak). Which would leave me to cover all shifts until new people could be found and trained. And I wasn’t about to let that happened. I still cannot forget that section of the film — most of it either ruined or broken up, and out of sequence, in small film strips. And I had to find a way of putting it back together. It started at the seven minute mark of the film, when Father Merrin was at the outdoor Iraqi cafe:
It goes all the way through for over four minutes (where the old priest was almost run over by that speeding horse carriage) on the first reel. And I had to splice those scenes back together with anything salvageable from the print, but only after putting them back into some semblance of order. And it had to look good enough so the distributor (or the theater owners after us) wouldn’t notice when it was returned.
It’s important to note that older prints like this (it debuted in ’73) always have film splices and breaks in them from regular wear and tear use by theaters. This was where knowing that film as well as I did actually helped to save me (and especially the other guy). Two hours later, Humpty Dumpty was put back together again… sort of.
Although, we did lose a good portion of the footage to damage. That 4:14 stretch in The Exorcist ultimately was reduced down (with an unknown number of multiple splices) by almost two minutes! It was the only time in my whole life I ever came close to editing a film! Nobody was more surprised than me when it worked.
Note: more personal asides with regard to this particular film as covered last year in another article found here.
As time is getting short, the best quote I think that best described my brief stint as a non-career projectionist, working in the movie theater of my youth, was uttered many decades ago by, of all people (so says this long-time Dodgers fan), a New York Yankee:
“I’d rather be lucky than good.” ~ Lefty Gomez
To be wrapped up…
The entire Warner Theatre Project series can be found here.