(I told this story at a local storytelling event a few years ago. This comes from my Booby Naked collection of personal stories).
In sophomore year I was fired from my first work study job. My boss called me in and said, "Booby, we have to let you go."
What did I do? I had violated the one unspoken rule of library workers. I had been caught READING on the job. So I had to trudge back to the work study office for another assignment. From that point on I went from being Booby Naked (library nerd) to Booby Naked (film projectionist).
I learned a lot on my first day. I learned how to use the 16 mm Bell & Howell film projectors. I learned about the white dots – do you know about those? That was a signal to film projectionists. Eight seconds before the end of the reel, the white dot would appear at the top right corner; seven seconds later, the second white dot would appear, and you had exactly one second to push the button to turn one projector on and the other off. If you missed it – if you didn’t push the button on that exact second – the screen would go completely blank.
I didn’t have time before my first film to practice; I had to show the films later that evening. Roel said to me, “Don’t worry – it’s very simple. Just look for the white dot, count to seven and press the button.”
My first film was “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure.” I was watching the film, but I couldn’t enjoy it; I was too nervous. My eyes stayed on the screen, afraid to miss the dots. Near the end of Reel One, Peewee Herman hitched a ride with a somber-looking truck driver named Large Marge. She was speaking slowly, "I saw the worst accident. There was this sound, like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building… And when they pulled the driver’s body from the twisted, burning wreck. It looked like this…
When the woman was beginning her speech, I saw the white dot — and started counting to 7. But at the end of her speech, the woman’s eyeballs exploded — literally, her face became monstrously elongated and gave a wild howl. Everyone in the audience screamed. And yes, maybe you know about this scene from the DVD, but let me tell you, when you’re on the lookout for a little white dot and instead a scary 25 feet tall face comes onscreen with eyes popping out of their eye sockets, you panic. I panicked. I lunged to push the changeover button. But Roel grabbed my hand and held me back while we waited for three — more — seconds.
Months later, I was a pro. I had even learned about the Code, an unwritten set of rules for film projectionists, which I am about to share.
Rule Number One. Always arrive 15 minutes early to prepare for problems. The lamp might need replacing, the reels might be mixed up, or someone may have moved the projectors. If you cause 100 people to wait an extra five minutes, that means you are destroying 500 minutes of human time.
Rule Number Two. Always start two minutes late. On the surface that may appear to contradict Rule Number One, but these two minutes accommodate those with slow watches. Also, it creates anticipation. It reminds people that although they paid for their tickets, their enjoyment is still totally dependent upon me, the film projectionist.
Which brings me to Rule Number Three. Don’t fall asleep during the movie. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to doze off during long movies. Often, I’d read a book or write letters in the booth to stay awake. Sometimes I would rest my eyes for a few moments–yes, I admit it. But as long as you pushed the button at the right moment, everything was fine.
Staying awake for midnight shows was particularly hard. Once we showed The Hustler with Paul Newman as a pool shark. I had no idea whether it was a good film, because every five minutes I would doze off, wake up, suddenly remember where I was and check the reel. Then I’d doze off again. The inevitable happened. I awoke to sounds of film slapping against the projector; the front screen was now completely blank. I had no idea whether it had been blank for 5 seconds or 5 hours. Adrenalin pumped into my heart, and I pressed the changeover button.
Which brings me to Rule Number Four. Accidents happen. For another movie–, after I had turned on a projector and sat down — I heard a loud crash. I went into the booth and saw that the movie reel had fallen off the projector altogether and lay unwinding on the floor. I had forgotten to clamp the reel down, so it just fell off. I turned up the house lights and turned off the projector. What do I do?
Just then, I heard a knock on my booth. It was the house manager. He opened the door slightly and found me sprawled on the ground frantically trying to rewrap the tangled film onto the reel. I still remembered what he said to me, "Is everything all right in here?"
"Yes," I shouted, "just leave me alone." Four minutes later–four of the most stressful minutes in my life–I got the reel back on the projector, cued it approximately to the same place, turned off the lights and voila, we had a movie!
That’s when I learned Rule Number Five. Grace Under Pressure. You had to possess it to succeed as a film projectionist. The audience will hate you, but remember: you are always in control.
My first test came when the lamp for Projector 2 burnt out. We had to wait 4 months for the replacement. During those 4 months, I had to switch reels manually with a single projector. Do you remember the movie Apollo 13 where the astronauts had only 39 seconds to make a manual course correction? I feel for them. But I had only ten seconds, not 39.
As long as you change reels in less than 10 seconds, nobody complains. After 10 seconds, people become feisty and furious and ferocious; they yell and scream and curse. And to this day I still have that same 10 second clock internalized in my brain.
So what did I do in those 10 seconds? I will explain.
Unclamp feed reel. Turn projector off. Open film gate. Unthread film through upper and lower sprockets and sound drum. Wind film to takeup reel. Remove, then transfer empty feed reel to takeup position. Grab reel 2, place on feed position, thread through film gate, upper and lower sprockets and sound drum, fasten film to takeup reel, close film gate, check it over, turn on — voila, we have a movie–!
I did this six times a day every weekend for 4 months. I showed Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight. It was an audience participation film; people threw rice, fired water guns and lip-synced to the music.
Things were normal until I switched from Reel 1 to Reel 2. For some reason I couldn’t fasten the film onto the empty takeup reel. It wouldn’t fit! The audience yelled, "We want a movie!" There–I had it, I turned the projector on, but the film came loose again.
I kept trying, but the film wouldn’t go through that slit. The hole was too small. “Booby, where’s the movie?” they called. Quickly I assessed my options. I had already learned that if you wrap the film tightly around the center several times, you don’t actually need to fasten it to the hole. In theory this was true – but I had never actually tried it for real. I wound that film as tightly as possible and turned the projector on. Everything went ok; the audience cheered, and minutes later they were as quiet as babies—transvestite, rice-throwing babies.
Once I showed a film to a group of graduate students. The film: Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the biography of a medieval Russian painter. Ten minutes later, a Hungarian sociology student stuck his head into the booth.
“Booby, this is the wrong film. It’s supposed to be black and white, not color. “
I turn off the film, and two more doctoral students crowded into the booth.
“What happened?” one asked.
“This is the wrong film,” the Hungarian said.
“What basis do you have making this claim?” the philosophy student said.
“Well, first….”the Hungarian said, and they proceeded to analyze the problem.
What do you want me to do?” I asked.
They ignored me and continued arguing. They had arrived at five theories:
- This was a colorized version of the original black and white film.
- We did in fact have the wrong film.
- Reel 2 was really reel 1, and Reel 3 was really Reel 2.
- Somehow we had received reels from two different films.
- The Hungarian man had a bad memory.
“So what do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I propose,” said one of the graduate students, “that we show reel 2 and see how that looks.” So I did that.
“There — that’s the Tarkovsky film,” the Hungarian said. “You see, it’s clearly black and white.”
That posed a problem. If reel 2 starts in the middle of the scene, where was the beginning of the film?
So I turn off the projector and show Reel 3. It’s also black and white — but still not the beginning.
“That means,” said the Hungarian, “that Reel 1 doesn’t belong with the other two reels.”
“Not necessarily,” the philosophy student said. “We have not demonstrated this. We would need to confirm that the beginning is nowhere in Reel 1. And we have not done this.”
“So what do you want me to do?” I said.
“I propose,” the philosophy student said. “that Booby start midway in Reel 1, and preview the film at 5 minute intervals. If we reach the end of Reel 1 without finding anything, we would know for sure that reel 1 comes from a different film.”
The Hungarian man pondered that for a moment and said, “That seems reasonable.”
So I start Reel 1 midway through, and guess what -— it’s right in the middle of the opening credits –which are black and white. It was just a colorized introduction to the film – kind of like a trailer. To summarize: four graduate students spent 30 minutes arguing, deliberating, hypothesizing on a problem which really didn’t exist in the first place. By the time the mystery was solved, most of the audience had gone home. That’s when I remembered Rule #6 Don’t Stop the Film.
One time we were showing On Golden Pond, an Oscar-winning film with Henry Fonda. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, so attendance was light.
Now I never watched On Golden Pond; I had no idea what it was about; I just read a book the whole time. During the first show, things went fine until Reel 2. I was looking for the white dots to make the transition to Reel 3, and then the craziest thing– The movie ends! The credits start rolling, and the audience stood up to leave. But I still had another 30 minute reel to go! Later, I figured it out. Reel 2 and Reel 3 were mislabeled and I showed them out of order. But nobody complained or even noticed.
The next day, I ran into someone who had been in the audience. I asked him what he thought.
“On Gold Pond is my favorite film,” he said. “I’ve seen it 5 times.”
I told him about the mishap and asked, “Did you notice anything was wrong?”
He thought for a moment and said, “No, not really… They didn’t argue as much this time though.”
People don’t complain. They assume technical mistakes are just part of the show. I once went with friends to see a Martin Scorcese movie – this time I was in the audience, not the projectionist’s booth. The film was Last Temptation of Christ. I was totally engrossed in the cinematic experience, but my friends were growing bored. Then, at the climactic crucifixion scene, the film became darker and darker. And I thought, wow, what a poetic way to depict this man’s existential crisis. My friend elbowed me and said, “Hey, is the film supposed to be this dark? I can’t see anything!"
"Of course," I said. But by that time, the screen was completely dark. We could hear the voices, but we just couldn’t see anything; 100 of us were in this room staring at a blank screen. Finally, the projectionist stopped the film and announced that the projector lamp had burned out. Everyone would receive refunds. I was irritated, but I knew one thing the projectionist did not. If he had just left the film running, there would be no refunds, and 100 audience members would leave the theatre, confused but convinced of Scorcese’s indisputable genius.