Once I Was a Projectionist
by Rebecca Lyon / Photograph Courtesy Rebecca Lyon
Rebecca Lyon at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Illinois
I’ve had a recurring nightmare since I started working as a projectionist. The dreams are not identical, but they all have one of the following plots:
1. The booth is in some sort of mazelike building filled with tuxedoed employees, who refuse to help me find it.
2. There are multiple booths and I have to run back and forth between them, but they are in that same mazelike building, and this is impossible.
3. None of the machines work; I press buttons, pull levers, stomp on pedals and nothing happens. Also the reels are so enormous that I can’t lift them.
4. The worst of all: The booth has no walls, and the audience is in there with me. I can see them still, all these dream booths, Frankensteins built from all the places I’ve worked combined with the worst most nightmarish theatre design you could imagine.
If you mention these dreams to other projectionists they nod sympathetically. “Oh, the nightmare booth.” They all know what I mean, because they all have their own.
Back when people actually still went to the movies, and before 80 percent of theatres in Chicago closed, union projectionists were trained to go all over town, and were readily equipped to tackle any booth with a toolkit and flashlight in hand. Now the work is sparse, and most of them are working PowerPoint lectures in hotels or running platters at the multiplex a couple days a week. Younger people like me who started a few years ago without union cards work fulltime in one or two theaters, with a few other jobs on the side when someone calls you up for help.
Spending hours upon late night hours in one particular booth, you develop a pretty serious and sometimes inappropriate relationship with both the space and the machines. People do strange things in there. I myself began the habit of pressing myself against the body sized lamp houses in the winter; their warm metal is a temporary cure for February blues. Sometimes I stand directly behind the projector, where the light from the xenon bulb spills out the back of the lamp house and shines its rays on my face. The light flickers over your eyelids and if you open them you are blinded momentarily by a warm glow akin only to the sun. It’s a cheap replacement for lying on a beach in Mexico. Like most enjoyable activities involving high wattage bulbs this is pretty bad for your eyes.
I work with a guy who calls our Simplex X-L projectors “the girls,” which leads to sentences such as: “The girls could use a deep clean today.”
“Don’t laugh,” I think, “just go clean the girls.”
We all develop illogical territorial issues: a flashlight is automatically grasped like a weapon at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. Customers who accidentally walk into the booth are forced backwards out the door by the glare of the hostile animal whose den has been invaded.
Small reminders of the booth—film frames, broken projector parts—are littered throughout our apartments to avoid feeling too far from it while at home. Everyone knows a projectionist who regularly sleeps in the booth on its oil-streaked floor between the humming and whirring of working hours and the warm emptiness after close. It’s safe in there.
One of my favorite films is Night of the Comet, if only for one reason. In this ‘80s sci-fi teen romp, a comet hits earth, obliterating everyone. Among the only people to survive are a couple that have spent the night having sex in a projection booth. It’s made of steel, the ultimate protection against comets, pandemics, and other humans. Projection and protection are only one letter apart.
Spending hours upon late night hours in one particular booth, you develop a pretty serious and sometimes inappropriate relationship with both the space and the machines. People do strange things in there.
I’ve worked in four booths regularly in Chicago, filling in at a couple others once in awhile. All of them are 35mm changeover booths with 70mm in one and 16mm and video in all of them. The one closest to my heart is the oldest, nestled high up inside a theatre built over 80 years ago. That booth would be the projection booth of my dreams if my dreams weren’t so horrible. My experience there only goes back about four years, but we’ve had a clingy and emotionally rocky relationship. Most of the people I’ve known who have worked in it have a strange obsessive attachment, whether it led them to spend ten-plus years of their lives there, slaving away for $10 an hour, or to hate the place so much they fled screaming to other cities never to return. It’s filled with remnants of past care takers: 20-year-old passive-aggressive notes written by overworked guys (all guys prior to my start; that place has a bathroom that makes the hair on my neck stand up); light bulb boxes covered in black soot; cigarette butts that have been there so long the floor has risen up and taken hold of them. The metal surfaces of tables are worn down with the soft edges of overuse, every corner is stuffed with any projection goodies that haven’t been pilfered over the years; loot from old premieres, strange tools that are remnants from the nitrate age, warped and crispy trailers. Meet any projectionist who’s worked in an older theatre and they’ll say, “Most of the good stuff has been stolen” as one hand reaches for the maglite for which to brain you with. During down time I always clean, and always there are hairs. There are 80 years worth of beard hairs on that floor, an amount that will never be reduced by my halfhearted sweeps. I could knit my own projectionist out of them if we were ever shorthanded.
I love this place, and the feeling of protection I get from being there extends both ways. The booth protects me; from Chicago winters, from having to wear colors other than black and gray, from suffocating boyfriends (cell service tends to be bad in theatres), from fluorescent-lit offices, computer screens, and patronizing customers. I sit on the balcony or perch awkwardly up near the port glass, my muscles cramping, and watch half or three quarters of every film we’ve shown in the past five years. I read Raymond Chandler and Jim Harrison, I eat popcorn with fingers covered in black oily god-knows-what, and I am safe. In turn, I protect the booth. I sweep away the beard hairs, I deep clean “the girls” with rubbing alcohol, poking their little ears with q-tips. I oil squeaky rollers and tighten screws. I climb miles above the earth to replace the star lights in the ceiling, sudden death and serious embarrassment only half an inch of plaster away. I protect the prints, watching them wind their way through smoothly, listening for the wrong noises in a way only someone who knows the right noises can. I protect the audience from being ripped from a good film because it’s out of focus, or out of frame, too loud, or because there’s a stray beard hair tickling the face of the actress. The presentation is not always perfect, but I do my best, and if I see your iPhone on during the movie I’m coming down there to throw it into the heating vent. Knowing how many minutes have passed since I last looked at the clock has becomes an obsession, and I know exactly how many seconds it takes me to get up and down the stairs so I can catch changeovers on both screens.
Lately, I also protect the booth from knowing what is happening to its peers. I protect it from the stories of multiplexes being told to tear out their film projectors and throw them into dumpsters before they can receive their new digital bounty. I protect it from the knowledge that the familiar humming and whirring will soon be turned into the white noise of the digital projector; the sound of hard drives being inserted, and nothing. I will protect it from knowing that it will soon be very alone, because no one will be in the booth anymore.
I once went to a theatre in Anaconda, Montana, almost 1,500 miles from my home in Chicago. Their booth was similar to ours: old, well taken care of, lived in. And there on the wall was the Gary Larson cartoon of a projectionist sticking his head out the port to an audience screaming “Focus!” Far below him on the floor are his broken glasses. A real laugh riot for anyone in the theatre business. We have the same exact cartoon hanging in our booth at home; someone probably clipped it out of the newspaper back when The Far Side was still being printed.
When the booths are empty, I will think of the people that used to fill them: my friend in Montana with the name of his theatre on his belt buckle and our matching cartoons. I’ll think of Scott, who at ten in the morning chain smoked and drank coffee that resembled the leftovers of an oil change while showing me how to the move the projector base using a 2 x 4. (I have yet to ever need this skill). I’ll think of Sasha, who at age 16 ran prints of Swimming Pool and Pump Up the Volume for our friends after hours at the local art house where she worked, while we drank bad whiskey and stared in awe at Ludivine Sagnier’s tits. And Emily, who taught me how to project in college, the very first place I ever entered a booth. I spent a whole year unlearning what I was taught in that place, except for the all-important “do not eat a hash brownie before projecting Dead Alive lesson. I’ll think of Justin who was the first to show me the strange glowing orb of plasma that exists inside the projector bulbs, it’s pulsating 2,000 watt glory being the source of my fake Mexican vacations. I’ll think of Brandon who could stop an irate director in his tracks purely by the number of acronyms that could spew out of his mouth in 60 seconds. I’ll think of B who taught me how to gently clean the projector’s teeth with a toothbrush and whose job I slowly took over after he broke a collarbone falling off a bike while waving at someone and couldn’t lift the reels anymore. High on painkillers and lack of sleep, he came straight from the hospital to work, since he, like any one of us, knew the movies can’t run without the projectionist.
The world of projection that I entered several years ago was already a remnant of the past. Working in small art house cinemas with one or two screens, where they still do changeovers with no platter system or automation is a far different world than those of smaller multiplexes with seven or eight screens, or the bigger beasts with 18. The world I have come to know has been fading away for many years now, existing only in a few theatres per city. Yet in spite of the changes that have already happened in booths everywhere, I think this fact is a hopeful one. Maybe these places that have held on for so long to a way of showing movies that require a highly skilled presence in the booth, will secure reputations as such and will continue doing what they do best, as the multiplexes continue to do what they do best. Maybe those of us that continue to work will become respected as workers with a rare skill and will be paid accordingly (ha!). Or maybe we’ll just work until there is no more work, until no one sends us film anymore, just tapes and hard drives stickered with the numbers of tech-support guys thousands of miles away. I think at this point, it could tip either way. I hope for the former but am not putting too much faith in it. If it’s the latter at least I can look back when I’m an old woman and say, “Once I was a projectionist.”
It’s strange work to have fallen into, and I used to think it just sort of happened—that it fell into my lap and I just went with it. Though the seeds of my love for it, for film, for the machines themselves, seem to have been planted long before I set my eyes on a projector. At 16, my dad plopped me down in front of a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine to help him do some film work, and before that, my mom led my hands to the sewing machine. Only recently did I learn that one of the designers of the Simplex projector (everyone’s favorite) was poached from the Singer sewing machine company. I also learned another slightly spookier and more personal fact: my estranged grandfather (who no one in my family ever met or knew anything about until recently) worked as a projectionist in the theatre his family owned. Rumor is, he spent most of his time at the bar in between changeovers and I imagine wasn’t a very good one. I suppose the booth was luring me in all along. It’s in the blood.
I was always told that to be a good projectionist, no one is supposed to know you’re there, and if they do, you’re not doing your job right. So maybe when we’re all gone no one will notice our absence. But when the comet comes, we’re all going to be fucked.
Rebecca Lyon lives in Chicago, Illinois and currently works at three cinemas in the city. She started working as a projectionist at Doc Films in 2002 while in college and took a break for a year to shovel popcorn at a couple of local theatres before moving back up into the booth. She has remained there for the past five years, working with 35mm changeover, 16mm and video formats past and present. She is currently at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Music Box Theatre, and Block Cinema, and works occasionally at other midwestern theatres when called upon.
Featured homepage movie theatre photograph courtesy of Hiroshi Sugimoto.