Boston, Massachusetts, USA
It was the perfect job for me: I loved movies and hated dealing with the public. Most projectionists are romantics; it’s our love of movies that draws us to the light. But there were practical reasons to want a booth of one’s own: no boss or co-workers in sight, no customers to please. The only voices I heard all day were those of the actors—their drawls, laughter, monologues, tearful pleas, histrionic confessions, all emanating softly from the booth monitor. If I got bored or restless over the 12-hour shift, I needed only to gaze out the porthole at favourite scenes. Watched again and again, those moments became the most reliable and comforting of friends.
When I arrived in Boston in 1975, I worked as a cashier at the Pi Alley, a single screen (later twinned) in the Sack chain nestled in Pi Alley off Washington Street next to a Steaming Kettle restaurant. A year later, I’d moved to the more opulent Charles Cinema. The sole Walter Reade theatre (a New York chain) in Boston, the three-screen cinema was tucked in a shopping complex between Government Center and Mass General Hospital. There was an 800-seat auditorium with a towering screen upstairs and two second-run/art house screens downstairs. The cadre of projectionists who traipsed through the sprawling upper lobby on their way to the booth, newspaper folded under one arm, bag of food in the other, were older men in suits and dress shoes. Solly Max, who’d stop in front of the ticket counter to tell me a corny joke; Eddie Whalen, who played the daily lottery number off the shipping slips packed inside new prints; Walter Parker, with neatly Brylcreemed hair as white as snow. ‘Hi, Walter’, I greeted him as I loaded reams of tickets into the puncher one morning. A new cashier, glancing at Walter’s dapper suit and authoritative demeanour, whispered with a touch of awe, ‘Is that Walter Reade?’
Theatre employees could see movies for free; no small thing for cashiers and ‘candy girls’ making minimum wage. And there was a movie theatre on every block of the city, each one defined by a genre, each with its own personality. Some, like the Charles, Nickelodeon and Exeter Street theatres, were still plush and magical, offering first run, foreign and art films. Others, like the Saxon, the Savoy and the Gary in the heart of downtown, were shells of their former glory but still standing, reduced to showing horror and exploitation movies. You could hit three or four movies in a day just by hopping on the T or striding down Boylston Street—Breaker Morant at the Exeter, Stardust Memories at the Paris, Private Benjamin at the Cheri, The Last Metro at the Nick.
The projectionist was literally and figuratively at the pinnacle in the movie theatre hierarchy, and the booth—no longer a booth like it had been in the old days but still what everyone called it—was the inner sanctum where the mysterious and magical happened. So it wasn’t long before curiosity sent me peering past the door held open by a battered shipping can. The rotating reel in the dim light, the ribbon of film clattering through the projector, transfixed me. Everyone knew the projectionist made more money than even the theatre managers but that wasn’t the only reason that I envied Walter and Eddie and Solly Max. They worked in solitude, with film posters and stills tacked to the walls, strips of celluloid dangling over the rewind table and a sign that warned, ‘If it works, don’t fix it!’ They were alone with the film and the light, high above and apart from the crowd. The projectionist had prestige.
It was Joe White, the projectionist at the Beacon Hill theatre, a nondescript single screen theatre just up Cambridge Street from the Charles, who offered to train me. Hunger for a regular visitor bearing coffee and donuts may have been his motive; mine was a future that guaranteed I’d never have to wait tables.
I was going to college then, but I was a half-hearted student without direction. How could Journalism 101 or Introduction to Poetry compete with a city bursting with movies and now, late afternoons or evenings in the Beacon Hill booth learning how to thread a Century, wrapping celluloid around sprockets, adjusting focus, splicing a damaged frame, changing a Xenon bulb, then watching from the porthole as Godlight parted the dark and spilled onto the screen?
I got my motion picture projectionist’s license from the department of public safety in 1977. Most theatres were unionised, so I made the trip one afternoon to the business office of Boston’s Local 182 (part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Operators), on Winchester Street. It was a small, wood-panelled room one flight up from the street in Bay Village, which was still known as the ‘film district,’ although by then it had dwindled to just two distribution centres, with signs proclaiming ‘Columbia Studios’ and ‘Paramount’, from where prints were shipped to and from the airport.
The business agent swivelled in his office chair and held my operator’s license between his sausage fingers. A stroke had left side one sagging like melting flesh. On the wall behind his desk was a large, framed sepia-toned photograph. Rows of white men dressed in suits and ties. On the bottom of the photo, in meticulous longhand, someone had written, ‘International Convention, 1935’. There was not a woman among them, not then, not now. I would be the first, here in Boston.
There was an opening at the Pilgrim theatre in the notorious Combat Zone; it was where all new projectionists ‘learned the ropes’, the business agent said. I worked three night shifts, from 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., so I could attend classes during the day and use the time in the booth to read and study. I had no objection whatsoever to showing porn in a once-grand theatre that now reeked of mildew and urine. I was making $5 an hour when the minimum wage was $2.30. Most important, I finally had a booth of my own.
The Pilgrim’s swirling pink neon sign dominated nearly the entire block of lower Washington Street, where the Archstone luxury apartment building is now. The marquee heralded ‘3 First Run Adult Films open all night. Giant Screen. New Show every Monday. Rated X’. Posters encased in glass frames lined the ornate tiled entrance that stretched from the street to the lobby: A Pornus Line, The Story of Joanna, The Adventures of Angelique.
A wooden escalator, broken and roped off, stood frozen in the middle of the Pilgrim’s vast lobby. The projectionist had to trudge up four flights, some 110 marble steps, worn so smooth they sloped in the middle, to reach the booth at the rear of the second balcony. The top balcony, the size of some auditoriums in modern multiplexes, had been closed to patrons ever since a monsignor had been discovered dead from a heart attack up there years before, so legend had it. I’d heard that backstage there was a decaying, mice-infested pipe organ from the days of vaudeville, but I wasn’t adventurous or bored enough to go into the pitch-dark auditorium, past the demimonde, and investigate.
The Combat Zone’s ‘adult’ theatres also included the State I and II (a CVS drugstore now) and the Pussycat at the corner of Washington and Stuart Street. There was a second Pussycat in North Station, with a large, shuttered window in the projection booth that opened out onto Causeway Street and the fans streaming into Boston Garden. These cinemas may have been the bottom rung on the ladder that stretched up to the Charles, which showed 70mm premiere engagements and all the Star Wars films, but they were part of the sprawling landscape of cinemas in Boston that connected all of us projectionists, or ‘showmen’, as some of the old-timers referred to themselves.
After stints at the Allston and Orson Welles cinemas, I finally returned to my beloved Charles cinema, this time as a projectionist. Ensconced in my booth during the noon to midnight shifts, I read newspapers and books. Once I’d graduated, I wrote articles and movie reviews for a few low-paying newspapers. I heated canned soup on a hotplate, inspected prints, cleaned the projectors and broke down reels for shipping (at time-and-a-half, thanks to a good contract). Sometimes my sister Audrey would drop by with steak subs and she’d hang out, keeping me company, watching my portable black-and-white TV or slipping into the back of the house to take in the film. By then I’d been elected to the Local 182 executive board, and was girding for battle with the Sack, General Cinema and Redstone chains, who wanted one projectionist to run more and more houses—up to 14 in some multiplexes. Or they threatened to install the dreaded ‘manager operator’ who would always be more manager (theirs) than operator (ours). Despite each hold-your-breath contract negotiation between the union and management, I was certain we would continue to weather the changes.
By the time I was out of my 20s, I was pursuing other jobs, working first in radio news, then at the Provincetown Advocate newspaper where, in addition to reporting, I started reviewing movies, which I continued to do for the next decade. A friend recently produced for me a handwritten letter I’d sent her, penned in the Charles booth. In it, I recounted: The Charles went up ‘on bid’ at the union which means anyone can bid and the one with the most seniority gets it. I was nervous it wouldn’t be me but it WAS!!! So now I have my job FOREVER until I decide I want to quit or if I DIE.
Forever—a word used with all the foolishness of youth. Now, flipping through channels on my TV, when Maureen Stapleton enters that room in her red dress from Interiors, or Jack Gilford walks across the yard at night holding his dead wife in his arms in Cocoon or ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ swells over the home movies sequence from Raging Bull, I’m suddenly back in my booth at the Charles. I’m staring out the porthole glass, the projector clattering next to me, and I’m no longer alone, no longer adrift. Those memories remain as intimate and vivid as any spent with family or friends; they shaped my relationship to movies and guided me home. Those moments saved me then. They still do now.
© copyright caboose 2013
Loren King writes features and film reviews for the Boston Globe and is a contributing arts editor for Boston Spirit Magazine. A member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, she served as president from 2004–10. She worked as a projectionist in Boston from 1977–87 and served on the executive board and as recording secretary for Local 182.