Derrick L. Todd
An Optical Illusion
In my teens when visiting the ‘flicks’ with my pals, I would look back at the projected beam of light as it sliced through the smoke-laden air, sometimes seeing it change from one porthole to the other, and wondered what it would be like to be ‘in charge’ up there. On a visit to the Opera House a slide was screened stating there was a vacancy for a trainee projectionist. I applied, along with a number of other youths, and got the position. The working week was six days, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Over a period of a few weeks I was taught the rudiments of projection: threading up the machines, carboning up and looking after the arc lamps, rewinding and checking the films and eventually spooling off the film after the last show of a programme and packing it into wood-lined metal transit cases.
Although I was based at the Opera House, I worked at the same time at the town’s other cinema, the Palladium, which gave me not only the opportunity to gain experience on two different projection set-ups but also to assist two completely different Chief Operators. One would impart knowledge willingly, but the other used to say to me: ‘you’re always asking questions’. With a little flattery, though, I usually got an answer.
The degree of responsibility a projectionist has is often overlooked, being the last link in a very long chain from author, script-writers, producer, director, set designers, carpenters, painters, electricians, actors and actresses, camera operators, sound recorders, orchestras, etc. It now became fully apparent to me that one mistake and the optical illusion would be broken. Motion-picture entertainment is fundamentally an optical illusion: break the spell and you lose the effect. Bad presentation draws the customer’s attention to the illusion and thereby spoils it. The projectionist must try to create the right atmosphere with the use of ‘light and sound’. It is futile if the audience are in pleasant, warm and comfortable surroundings, only to have inflicted on their senses poor presentation. The patron sits for hours looking at the screen, and the screen should be ‘inconspicuous by its presence’. To these ends the projectionist’s work must go unnoticed. The audience should not be aware of the subtle use of lighting and music to create an atmosphere appropriate to the film being screened. With the correct use of various coloured foot-lights, top battens, house lights and music before the film commences, the audience can be manipulated into the mood of the show.
A projectionist of any competence would hone his presentation skills trying to get it down to a fine art. This may seem a pretentious statement, but a projectionist should be as much a showman as the cinema Manager. It must be remembered that in the days I am writing about, there was little or no automation in cinemas and the job was very much ‘hands on’. The final results of the brains and expertise of a host of technical and artistic experts, in every phase of film production, rests in the hands of a Projectionist.
Sunday shows were inevitably old films in very poor condition. The copies would be full of joints, heavily scratched on picture and sound track, buckled, with strained perforations and full of ‘V’ cuts. These copies could take hours to make-up. Occasionally we would receive a copy on ‘nitrate’ film stock. The first commercially reliable 35mm film stock was produced on a base of cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable so there was the ever present risk of a film fire. No smoking had to be strictly observed in both projection and rewind rooms. The projectors were fitted with a Pyrene film fire extinguisher system, which, in the event of a film fire in the projector, would extinguish the fire, stop the projector, drop the fire shutters over the portholes and switch off the arc-lamp.
Nitrate was the first commercially reliable 35mm film stock used in cinemas, but it was volatile and highly flammable so there was the ever-present risk of a film fire. It was on one of the Sunday shows that I witnessed my one and only film fire. I was on duty with an ‘old timer’ who had started in the silent days. We had just changed over to his machine when the film broke in the projector film gate exposing it to the intense heat from the arc- lamp. There was a bright flash as the film ignited then a loud bang as the Pyrene fire extinguisher went off. The smell of burnt nitrate film is never forgotten. It had a strong acrid smell that lingered for days.
In 1956 the circuit engineer, Jack Whincup, asked me if I would be interested in moving to Leeds as there was little chance of promotion in Ripon, at least in the near future. After thinking it over I realised that the chance of progressing in my chosen career was almost nil. To put it bluntly, one would have to wait for a Chief Projectionist to leave, or die!
Associated Tower Cinemas owned five cinemas and two ballrooms in Leeds. As a second projectionist I worked relief duties at each of these cinemas on a weekly rota travelling from one end of Leeds to the other. The Chief at the Tower had one vice: he liked a ‘pint’ in the evening. When the feature started on the last show he would nip across the road to ‘The Wrens’ pub for a quick one, and often wouldn’t return until the show had ended.
One morning in 1963, after the circuit engineer and I had serviced one of the projectors, he asked if he could have a cup of tea. Now this was very unusual, as he had never asked to have tea with the projectionists before; with managers yes, with projectionists no. There was still that divide between ‘them and us’ in those days. In my office after some general conversation, which in itself was unusual as normally we only discussed work related matters, he said he would like to see me at the Capitol, where he had his office. The following morning I called at his office and he informed me that his Assistant was leaving and offered me the position. This was promotion, so I accepted.
One Christmas Eve, I received a phone call from the engineer saying there had been an explosion in the Capitol boiler house and could I meet him there early Christmas day. On arriving I immediately made my way to the boiler house, which was situated in a cellar under the Ballroom foyer. An apparition was just emerging at the top of the boiler house steps as I arrived. It was the engineer covered in soot. He had tried to operate the boiler again and been caught in another ‘blow-back’. The explosion had blown out the bottom of the chimney stack and we had to make a temporary repair out of sheet metal.
As the cinema industry declined A.T.C. had been diversifying their business interests by purchasing property and other forms of entertainment, but in December 1970 they purchased the Lounge cinema. The Lounge was my first experience of Xenon lamps. These Xenons were the old three-electrode type but I must say I didn’t like the colour temperature they produced. The light was toward the blue end of the spectrum, which in my opinion gave a rather dull, lifeless picture. We replaced these lamps with the ‘Autoarc’ carbon arc lamps, a step backwards in technology but a 100% increase in picture quality.
I mentioned my boyhood memory of the smoke-laden air’. Smoking in the auditorium had always been a ‘bone of contention’ with me for it ruined the projected picture quality, not to mention the décor. With a full house it could prove difficult to focus the picture, especially in an auditorium with a long throw (the distance from projector to screen). The metallic surface of the screen would become stained ‘nicotine yellow’, resulting in the necessity to have the screen re-sprayed. This was not only expensive but would eventually, after a few sprayings, clogged the holes in the perforated screen, which were there to allow sound from the speakers into the auditorium, resulting in loss of the high frequencies and volume. In the late 1970s when I managed Cottage Road cinema I proposed to the managing director that we have a non-smoking area in the auditorium. He was vehemently against it. I suggested we gave it a month’s trial, to which he reluctantly agreed. The non-smoking area was well received by our patrons and the comments were nothing but positive.
© copyright caboose 2013