In my late twenties, I started working as the projectionist in the Pillsbury Auditorium at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. On most days I provided technical support for lectures, operating slide projectors, lights and sound. Occasionally I oversaw unusual performances such as a floral designer in 18th century costume manipulating tulips on a rotating pedestal.
The events I enjoyed the most, of course, were the movies; once or twice a week the museum screened films. On Thursday afternoons, a busload of elderly people arrived to watch Hollywood classics, routinely organized in a series featuring a famous actor. A representative month of Cary Grant, for instance, might include “His Girl Friday,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Holiday” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” I viewed these programs as a time machine which transported the audience back to the zeitgeist of their youth and I chose the preshow music carefully from my jazz collection to heighten this nostalgia.
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, starting the projector and making sure that the print was feeding properly through the gears and then later monitoring the end of the film when the tension was greatest on the strip of celluloid. The Art Institute screened movies primarily on 16mm film, but once every few months a print was only available on 35mm. Take-off was particularly 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 prints arrived in dented metal shipping cases as individual twenty-minute reels that I spliced together before the screening and mounted on one platter, which was a large flat metal disc parallel to the ground. I strung the film 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 watch the movie too. The main goal was to make sure that the audience never even considered my existence in the cockpit above them.
When there were problems, my presence was immediately and jarringly apparent. My first disaster with a show occurred at the end of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” projected on 16mm. This particular print had been damaged and pieced together 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, the skip is the result of a previous break in the physical print. In repairing the print, the projectionist had necessarily abandoned a few frames to make a clean cut. During the last twenty minutes of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” when Cary Grant’s Mortimer races about in a slapstick frenzy trying to manage the situation created by his aunts, his movements began to stutter and strobe even more manically as multiple splices in the film passed through the gears. The damaged print broke and the screen flashed dazzlingly white. Eighty-seven gray heads simultaneously spun back to look at me through the glass of the projection booth as I jumped out of my chair. The process of splicing celluloid isn’t really difficult or time-consuming under relaxed circumstances. But when the continuity of the audience’s experience has been disrupted, you feel the weight of every fleeting second, the power of the communal dream draining away, and your fingers grow thick and clumsy. I remembered the poor projectionist at the Hilltop Drive-In during the screening of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and calmly returned the film to the screen within a minute. Moments later it broke again. I had to patch it four 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.
In the early 1990’s the museum programmed a screening of 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, bowed to the audience, seated himself at the piano and nodded to me as if to say, “Let’s go!” I turned to the projector with greater trepidation than usual, because there was more at stake during take-off that night than with a typical screening. I flipped the toggle switch for the motor to on. The gears began to grind, the print clacking frantically 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 assembling quotations from the recognizable classical repertoire that an audience would associate with silent film music: Beethoven, Grieg and Schubert. Drew then segued into ragtime and stride piano, moving chronologically through a quick history of jazz mannerisms. He had arrived at a dissonant Cecil Taylor attitude before he reminded himself that he was at the somewhat conservative Minneapolis Institute of Arts and should probably restrain himself. It was at this point, about half way through the ninety minutes of “The Black Pirate,” that the print broke. I heard the crack and clatter of the film snapping in the gears and my heart leapt. I immediately saw that the celluloid strip had broken beneath the gate where light passes through it and was continuing through the projector and accumulating on the floor. I realized that I could potentially grab the broken end, run it to the take-up platter, splice it there, wind up the loose film manually 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 experience, splice the film together and take off again. The second option would normally have been more sensible, but with Drew’s momentum in mind, I chose the first.
After five minutes of profanity-laced struggle to reconnect all of the moving parts in action, I conceded that it was impossible. I thought, “Well, the film is still running through the projector and nobody knows that there is a problem, so 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 take up?” 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, precipitating a complete and catastrophic 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 print from spilling out and down the stairs to the auditorium’s entrance. Though I was suffering a lot of anxiety, I was able to step outside of myself and observe the comedy of the dilemma 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 I had packed into the back two thirds of the projection booth. Most importantly, I had crash-landed the plane successfully and averted disaster. ‘The End’ appeared on the screen. Drew trailed his improvisation lyrically out for a moment into the space of darkness left by the film’s conclusion. I performed the ‘lights up’ slowly on the decay of his last note and the audience cheered loudly and applauded. 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 and applauded me as well. I waved and smiled, thinking, “They’ll never know how thoroughly I’ve earned it.”