Janitor in a Booth

I’m not much of a social butterfly and I have no innate “sense” of how these things work.  I do know one odd thing: if you’re a projectionist, then you’re considered the lowest of low in society.  I’m not sure why this is.  It may be the plethora of underpaid teenagers who were relegated to projection booths, most of whom screwed up prints and caused the presentations to look bad.  I suspect that it’s something deep-seated in the heart of a lot of arts organizations, and I’ll write more about that in a bit.

As most of you know, I make a “living” doing film presentations and preservations, and I prefer the look of projected film.  I’ve worked in scores of venues, from Lincoln Center to a dilapidated opera house in Delphi Indiana that rained plaster from a leaky ceiling.  Some places have their own projectors and a staff projectionist, but often, if I’m going to run film, then I need to bring my own projectors.

In order to make ends meet, I also act as a projectionist-for-hire, which is one of the jobs I hate most.  That’s when I get treated the worst.  I’ve had amateur filmmakers yell at me for running their film with not enough “pink” in it, and I had another guy who had me change the volume on his movie 200 times. (That’s neither a typo nor an exaggeration.)  Sadly, a lot of people shoot things on their phone and then, when it looks different on a 30-foot screen, they panic.

And then the worst one: I was working at a museum once who had Peter Bogdanovich come in to introduce Touch of Evil.  That’s great, because he’s an expert on Orson Welles… in fact Welles lived in his house for a while.  But Bogdanovich is also a director who’s made some cool pictures, and I’m a big fan.  I spliced together a best-of trailer reel of several of my favorites, and I also got the reissue trailer for Touch of Evil touting all the restoration techniques that went into it.  It was all 35mm and all ready to get to the projector.

But they wouldn’t let me run it.  And I was never allowed even to speak with Bogdanovich.  I could look over and see him, and I wanted to ask him about Noises Off and The Cat’s Meow.  He had interviewed heroes of mine like director Allan Dwan.  Couldn’t ask him anything about it.  Whatever for?  Were they afraid I was going to give him projectionist cooties?  Sprocketosis?  What’s the deal?

My guess is that this is something of an arts caste system.  Put simply, I think there’s this idea of there’s them what does the art, and there’s them what supports the artist.  These “non-artists” are somehow less valuable people than the “artists.”  And they shouldn’t mix company.  That would be bad.  Apparently, you don’t want to besmirch yourself with contacting someone who is in the support mode.  That includes the sound guy, the janitor, the security people, and the projectionist.  They’re like the untouchables in the caste system.  Neither to be seen nor heard.

Now, the problem is that I’ve got my feet in both worlds.  I have to.  If I have the only print of a film, then you know who’s going to project it?  I AM.  I’ll insist.  The fact that I’m a historian/collector makes me an artist, but the projectionist is support only, and contaminated.

So the arts communities, particularly my local one, don’t know what to do with me.  I’m not the only one who encounters this.  Just last night, a friend of mine from Boston, who knows more film history than most professors, was told, “You know, most projectionists don’t get to pick films like you do.”

What?  So this guy has been demoted from a valuable commodity to the being the equivalent of a janitor in the projection booth.  (Not that I’m trashing janitors, mind you… they provide a tremendously valuable service.)

Oh, and it’s not isolated.   There’s been a huge stink in LA about underpaid projectionists, which is odd, given that there are fewer and fewer of them anyway. You’d think that the ones left working are the good ones that are really needed.

I seem to get more film historian jobs outside my local area, and I find that I seem to get more respect (and hence pay) the farther I am from home.  This is why I love to hang out at film conventions where they run oddball films (sometimes mine).  It’s great to be around folks who understand film and respect it as an art form, but I still struggle with carrying that idea back to my local area, where I’m apparently contaminated with projectionist ptomaine.

And that’s really sad, because it means that, instead of consulting me, programs are created by “arts people” who are completely and utterly ignorant of film.  And it means that everyone programs the same five films all the time.  I know of three different showings of Wizard of Oz in my area just this year, and it’s only February.  OK, it’s a great film, but haven’t they made anything else?  Oh, yeah, I guess Casablanca.

Again, I don’t quite understand this, but I’ve responded to it.  I have taken to avoiding projection-only jobs.  I don’t ever promote myself as a projectionist.  I promote myself as a film historian/collector/presenter.

This has even affected my choice in vehicles.  A while back, my dad was noticing that I was constantly loading film and equipment in and out of my car.  He said that I should buy a van, so I could leave stuff in there all the time.  I told him that I couldn’t, and I told him why.

“Dad,” I said.  “It’s a perception thing.  The projectionist owns a van.  The film historian has a car.  I have to have a car.”

“Oh,” Dad said, thinking a bit.  “I understand.”

I’m still not sure that I do.

8 thoughts on “Janitor in a Booth”

  1. Interesting topic and a valid rant. You know I went through this myself. That’s partly why I left the theatre I was in. They have a festival each year celebrating the history of the theatre and I was in the booth from about 10am until after midnight with no food, no breaks what so ever, and eventually bared from going back stage to talk to any of the presenters. Not because I was bothering any one, but because they bought expensive Walkie Talkies. I was also doing the sound on stage and stage lighting so running up and down to the third floor and the stage all day long! One day they had a lull and I ran some Public Domain cartoons and the head lady actually said to me, “This is no time for you to be creative!” I resigned shortly after that. Anyway… I bought a used Minivan last year. A Chrysler 2001 Voyager. Of course I play music too, so I have to have the Van, but you should get over the car thing and get a Minivan. You’ll really like it. Oh and more respect the farther you are from home? That works that way with Music too for some reason. I’ve also seriously considered getting a mail box in West Va because a fiddler from Philadelphia just never sounds right.

  2. Was the whole Jerry Lewis Cinemas franchise predicated on the idea that projectionists were NOT needed to run a movie house? LAY-DEEEEE!

  3. THE OPERATOR’S CREED (1935 Projectionist Diary)

    Remember yours is one of the most highly skilled jobs in this modern wonder age and technical developments succeed one another with bewildering rapidity.

    Concentrated within the spool – box is the consummate artistry of playwrights, actors, producers and camera-men. You are the last and the most important link in a great chain.

    According to your diligence and craftsmanship, so has this artistry, this anxious care, this enormous expense, been wasted or justified.

    Yours is the task of taking thousands of your fellow men and women away from the cares of an often drab and colorless existence, transporting them on your magic carpet to a land of make-believe and sending them away refreshed to tackle the world of reality with renewed zest and high courage.

    To achieve this you have to master a formidable list of highly technical subjects, you have to be resourceful in emergency, calm in danger, and unremitting in sacrificing your time and, if need be, your person in the interests of the public you serve.

    A noble and inspiring calling that is surely, if slowly, receiving the recognition it deserves.

  4. PROJECTION (from a 1942 Simplex ad)

    The Motion Picture Projector is no longer a mere mechanical contrivance, cranked by hand, or made to operate by the simple closing of a switch. The Projectionist of Today must have an excellent knowledge of mechanics, electricity and optics and is in charge of a delicate and complicated mechanism made with scientific accuracy to handle a fragile and inflammable material.

    The Projectionist has a great responsibility – for a failure to measure up to the right standards means that all the producer, director, actor and cinematographer have striven for loses much of its artistic an commercial value, – the pleasure of the audience is lessened, – the exhibitor is subject to constant and unnecessary expense, – and lives and property are endangered.

    Better Projection Pays — Screen Presentation is an Important part of Good Showmanship.

  5. I’ve always personally respected projectionists, as performer and archivist. I always make it a point to meet and work with the projectionist at every venue I play. To me, we’re at least equals – we’re both responsible for making the film experience work, and either one of us can screw up a show in our respective ways – but in one way he’s superior: without _him_, there would be no need for _me_. It’s a logic that seems to escape administrators and ballet dancers; you need to have the supposed “underlings” to have justification for your existence.

    However, I think the lack of respect shown by others towards projectionists has led some of the more irritable ones into venting their frustrations on the film itself. When I was film inspector at GEH, I dreaded getting prints back from Germany, because I knew they were all going to be mucked up in some way. The most egregious things were changeover marks; OK, I can clean off greasepaint marks, though sometimes there were more than I could easily rationalize away, but I hated seeing punch-holes (usually square), and the Germans loved putting them in to trip either automatic changeovers or ring alarm bells in the booth. Can’t cut out the frame; have to leave it in, damage and all. New tape splice repairs made in prints returned from American venues varied from watchmaker precision to C-minus elementary-school art class ineptitude. Those I could generally fix, but with a growl in my heart and a bewilderment at the mindset of someone who could be so damn rough. Those were in the minority, I must stress, and I had many useful telephone conversations and email exchanges about our prints with projectionists that were mutually beneficial.

    If you want to see the importance once attached to the profession, look at the “Projection Department” section of any copy of the MOVING PICTURE WORLD. The gentlemen who wrote that, and their audience, had technical skills worthy of a graduate degree.

  6. I do sympathize and understand. My dad was a projectionist for many years, and taught me pretty much all I know about handling film. He genuinely loved movies, handling film, and showing them to appreciative audiences. He was eventually forced out of his job because it was cheaper to have one of the kids manning the concession stand run upstairs and take care of the projector.

    He took great pride in doing what he did very well, and consequently, he wasn’t always the best person to have with you when you went to see a movie. He was very much a perfectionist and couldn’t help but notice and be aggravated by everything the theater he was visiting was doing wrong.

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