In my late twenties I worked as the Pillsbury Auditorium projectionist at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Most days I supervised slide projectors, lights and sound for art history lectures. Occasionally I worked special exhibits like Art in Bloom, for which a floral designer in 18th century costume arranged flowers on a rotating pedestal. My favorite regular events were the movies, usually scheduled two days a week. Every Thursday afternoon a busload of elderly people arrived to watch Hollywood classics, organized in a series featuring a famous actor. A representative month of Cary Grant would include His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday and Arsenic and Old Lace. I treated these programs as a time machine, transporting the audience back to the zeitgeist, of their youth and I chose the pre-show music carefully from my jazz collection.
My metaphor for the mechanical process of projecting movies was ‘flying a plane.’ The points at which problems would most likely occur were at take-off and landing. At take-off I started the projector, making sure that the print was feeding properly through the gears, was framed properly and in focus. Landing, the tension was greatest on the strip of film, so I watched the gears and take up reel closely. The Art Institute screened movies primarily on 16mm, but once every few months a print was only available on 35mm. Take-off was especially demanding on the 35mm projector. The museum owned one 1959 Cinemeccanica Victoria 9 projector and a platter system that a drive-in movie theater had donated when it went out of business. The movies arrived in dented metal shipping cases as individual twenty-minute reels that I spliced together before the screening on one platter, which was a large flat metal disc mounted parallel to the ground. I strung the celluloid from the platter to the projector, threaded it through the gears and then attached it to an identical take-up platter. The motor for the platter system ran in conjunction with the projector to collect the film at the same speed that it passed through the gears. On take-off, however, I had to start the projector, turn two steps back to the take-up platter and manually spin it to achieve the proper synch. I then turned back to the projector, opened the metal douser to pass light through the print onto the screen, double checked the focus and . . . the plane was in flight. The passengers in the auditorium were on their journey, experiencing the moving imagery through the window of the screen. Once in flight, problems rarely occurred and I could settle into my seat and enjoy the movie too. The main goal was to make sure the audience never thought of my existence in the cockpit above them.
When there were problems, my presence was immediately apparent. My first really turbulent flight occurred during the end of Arsenic and Old Lace, projected on 16mm. This print had been damaged and reassembled with many splices during the last quarter of the story. If you have ever experienced a split-second jump forward in time while watching a movie, this is the result of a previous break in the physical print. In repairing the film, the projectionist had necessarily abandoned a few frames to make a clean cut. During the last twenty minutes of Arsenic and Old Lace, while Cary Grant’s Mortimer races about in a slapstick frenzy, his movements began to stutter and strobe even more frantically. The damaged print broke and the screen flashed white. Eighty-seven gray heads simultaneously turned back to look at me through the projection booth glass as I jumped into action. The process of splicing celluloid isn’t really time-consuming in relaxed circumstances. But when the continuity of the audience’s journey has been disrupted, you feel the weight of every fleeting second, the spell of the communal dream draining away and your fingers become clumsy. I remembered the poor projectionist at the Hilltop Drive-In in 1980 during a showing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and returned the film to the screen within a minute. Moments later it broke again. And then again, every few minutes. I had to patch it five times to get the audience through the end of their flight. When I brought the auditorium lights up a few people waved to me and gave me approving thumbs up signs, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d let them down.
My most memorable near-disaster was Douglas Fairbanks’ silent era action spectacular The Black Pirate with live piano accompaniment. The pianist, Drew Gordon, was a friend and also one of my favorite improvisers in Minneapolis. The film arrived on 35mm and I assembled it on the platter during the afternoon while the rented grand piano was delivered and positioned on stage. Drew arrived and warmed up. The sold-out auditorium filled for the show. Drew was introduced, seated himself at the piano and nodded to me as if to say, “Let’s go!” I approached the projector with greater anxiety than usual, because there was more at stake during take-off that night than with a typical screening. I flipped the motor's toggle switch to on. The gears began to grind, the print clacking through the mechanical path. I stepped backwards and gave the take-up reel a measured spin. The rhythms of all the separate machinery fell into harmony and we were in the air. I opened the douser and focused the image as the audience applauded the burst of light on the screen. I exhaled with relief and settled into my seat to enjoy Drew’s response to the movie.
He started quoting from the recognizable repertoire associated with silent film music: Beethoven, Grieg and Schubert. Drew then segued into ragtime and stride piano, moving chronologically through a quick history of jazz styles. He had arrived at a dissonant Cecil Taylor sound before reminding himself that he was at the conservative Minneapolis Institute of Arts and should probably restrain himself. At this point, about half way through the ninety minutes of The Black Pirate, the print broke. I heard the sudden clatter of the film snapping in the gears and my heart leapt. When I saw that the celluloid strip had broken beneath the gate where light passes through it and was continuing through the projector, I realized that I could potentially grab the broken end, run it to the take-up platter, splice it there and the show could continue without interruption. The alternative was to stop the projector, disrupt the flow of Drew’s performance and the audience’s attention, splice the film together and take off again. The second option would normally have been more sensible, but with the live piano performance in mind, I chose the former.
After five minutes of profanity-laced struggle to reconnect all of the moving parts in action, I gave up. I thought, “Well, the film is still running through the projector and nobody knows there is a problem. I’ll just let the film collect on the floor and reel it back up after the show is done. How much space can it possibly fill?” Quite a lot it turns out . . . most of the volume of the projection booth. As the pile of film underneath the projector writhed and twisted itself into knots, I recognized the danger that it might get caught by the projector gears and feed backwards through the machine, creating a complete meltdown. I began to rake handfuls of 35mm film toward the back wall of the booth, careful to keep it as far away as possible from both the projector and the platter system. I also closed the door to the booth to prevent the loose film from spilling out and down the stairs to the auditorium’s entrance. Although I was suffering a lot of stress, I was able to step outside of myself and observe the comedy of the situation at the same time; I pictured myself as a character in a Dr. Suess book, fighting with some nonsensical, never-ending task. And it was absurd, by the movie’s end, what an enormous, tangled mountain of film had accumulated in the back two thirds of the projection booth. Most importantly, I crash-landed the plane successfully. ‘The End’ appeared onscreen. Drew trailed his improvisation lyrically out for a moment into the space of darkness left by the film’s conclusion. I brought the lights up slowly on the decay of his last note and the audience exploded into a standing ovation. Drew stood, smiling widely, bowed left and right and then looked up to me in the booth, raising a hand in acknowledgement of my contribution. The audience turned, applauding me as well. I waved and laughed, thinking, “They’ll never know how much I’ve earned it.”