A PROJECTIONIST’S MEMOIR
(By Georges Meisner.)
You didn’t need to be of a nervous disposition to think the projection box at the Electric could be a spooky place. Nor did you need to know that a previous incumbent in the job had been a notorious mass murderer, but it couldn’t hurt.
“PROJECTIONIST WANTED” read the notice on the wall as I filed out of a screening and into the foyer at the Electric Cinema sometime around late ’77 or early ’78. That day's Evening Standard horoscope had confirmed that an interesting job opportunity was coming my way, which would have a profound effect on my life. I was fresh out of university and doing odd jobs.
My meagre experience with a home Super-8 seemed suspiciously sufficient to convince owner Peter Howden that I was the man for the job. Maybe there was a shortage of applicants.
I was given a perfunctory lesson by Jean-Paul, the Swiss projectionist and then left to pretty much learn the rest on my own.
The equipment was by no means state of the art. The 35mm projectors, it was said, had once belonged to Winston Churchill.
The projection box during screenings was a confusion of whirring noises and mechanical hiccoughs, every join in the celluloid producing a clacking sound as the film passed through the projector gate.
On every shiny surface distorted images were reflected phantasmagorically back.
In my first week there was a problem with delivery of the scheduled programme resulting in Texas Chainsaw Massacre being held on extended rotation. It seemed everywhere I looked in the booth there was a demented maniac wielding his eponymous weapon and the bodies of young girls hung up on meat hooks.
The Electric was a repertory cinema, a phenomenon now consigned to history. That meant showing films which had premiered at some time in the recent past and then done the rounds of various cinemas. Also the many classics that were shown had been reprinted at various times.
Showing the Technicolor 35mm print of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes was an early treat. I didn’t know until then how beautiful celluloid could be.
It quickly became apparent to me that many of the film prints needed extensive repair work using the projectionist’s trusty tools; the rewind bench and the splicer.
We had a logbook to record all the prints that passed through, making notes on their condition and screen aspect ratio. It seems incredible now that we were able to screen 35mm prints of films as varied as Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory, Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife or DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, to name just three from the alphabetical B section.
The purpose of the log book was apparently to record any imperfections in the different copies of a particular film and guard against using them in the future.
In practice this would never work. Polanski’s Chinatown Copy 4 was deemed “appalling condition”. Sayajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest contained “heavy damage throughout”. Copy 15 of Easy Rider had “more joins than a jigsaw.
Copy 3 of Edouard Molinaro’s comedy, L’Emmerdeur, starring Jacques Brel, had appropriately “lots of sprocket damage”. Copy 2 of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face was noted as being dubbed rather than subtitled. Max Ophuls’ Madame De Copy 1 had “severe perf damage”. And so on and so forth.
Of course, as a projectionist, if you received a poor copy for screening the next day it was too late to return it to the distributor and request a better print. You could spend several hours meticulously rewinding the film, feeling with your fingers for damaged joins and broken perforations and repair them as best you could, knowing that the projector gates were very unforgiving.
Given that, weekdays three different films were shown daily and on Fridays and weekends it would be four, the workload could be heavy.
Another use for the log book was to note the screen aspect ratio of the film. This would be 1.33 pre the 1950’s. After that there was a range of possibilities from Cinemascope, 1.85 or 1.66. There was occasionally debate over whether a widescreen film should be 1.85 or 1.66. Stanley Kubrick used to send one of his people over whenever we showed his films to ensure that the correct aspect ratio of 1.66 was being applied.
Changing the screen masking involved a convoluted mechanism that would have delighted Heath Robinson.
First one went outside and down the fire escape and along the side of the building. At the far end a pair of wire cables protruded from the fire door, which was adjacent to the screen inside, then invisible to the projectionist. These wires ran back through holes in the wooden doorframe and were attached at various points to the black masking.
One cable was for the top masking and the other for the sides. A succession of loops had been tied along their length, which were then attached to a number of nails which had been hammered into the brick wall.
Each particular combination of nail and wire loop had been carefully measured to draw the screen masking inside to one or other of the designated screen ratios.
The top masking, which was only used for CinemaScope never, came down level and only a process of trial and error could produce the desired result. In order to avoid the embarrassment of going through this performance in front of an audience, no double bill could hold a CinemaScope film as the second feature unless the first film was also CinemaScope, a factor which the programming needed to take into account.
For each film a cue sheet was produced on a small piece of paper and stuck up on the wall by the front of the projector. Here went information for the start and end of the film, such as whether there was a sound run in or run out or what the final end title was.
Importantly the cue sheet indicated the cue dots for the reel change. All 35mm films, with a very few exceptions were made up on two six thousand foot reels which held a maximum of an hours running time. That meant changing over between two projectors, theoretically without the audience noticing. At the end of each reel cue dots would appear over four frames and there would be two sets, ten seconds apart, visible in the top right of the screen. The first set indicated the moment to start the second projector thus allowing the film leader to run down to the start of the second reel and the last set of cues was the signal to change over to the new reel.
Although cue dots were meant to be subliminal to the audience, by the time most copies had reach our hands there was often a variety of symbols scratched into the celluloid to replace the original dots. We either added our own in the form of white sticky stationery dots or attempted to identify which were the most appropriate for a clean changeover among the selection that had been left by previous projectionists.
The ultimate bane of the Electric projectionist’s life were the carbon arc lamps. These used a pair of carbon rods horizontally aligned, one positive and one negative, through which a current passed producing a flame in the gap between them. Each rod lasted an hour and as they burnt away, the lamphouse motors inched them forward so that the gap between remained even and correctly positioned. Too far one way and the light went red, too far the other and it went blue. Too far apart and the flame expired.
One of the consequences of the “vintage” nature of the Electric’s projectors was that these motors needed constant monitoring and occasionally failed altogether, so that either the rods weren’t moving at the correct speed or on the worst occasions, failed altogether and had to be manually adjusted for the film’s duration.
Still it was all worth it. It seemed to us that the Electric Cinema represented one of the last guttering flames, like the projector lights on occasions, of the counter culture before it was mercilessly crushed under the boot of the Thatcherite revolution. And, of course ... there was VHS.
In those far off days it was still conceivable that cinema might exert an important cultural force.
Sitting occasionally in the cramped office from where tickets were torn and coffee served, it seemed, in the fevered imagination of my youth, that we were like the sheriff’s office in Rio Bravo, a beacon of light in the dark emptiness of the Portobello night.