Before getting into talking about life changing jobs, there is a little left to recount from my months managing the Drexel in Bexley. Not everything there had been horrible or stressful, if anything, just the opposite. The staff were great kids from the neighborhood, the other projectionist a mainstay of the place intent on running the place for ever should his improve comedy career never take off. As much as he practiced routines in the booth, muffled by the roar of the three projectors and two platter stacks, I hope Mark made it out of that place, his kind of quirky dialed up to slightly madcap needed to appear on stages, not hide behind the projected imaginings of others. Mark had the sort of mane of raven black hair you’d expect to see on someone standing by an interstate driven to tears by the garbage littering the shoulder from passing motorists.
Mark had a great routine he dared share with me once based on the Swiss Alpine Mountaineer game on the Price Is Right, something he’d come up with during an improve session then honed and expanded on his own time while building this print or breaking down that in the cramped little projection booth that butt up against the shared wall to my closet office lit bit it’s single dangling 40 watt bulb. His bit tied the game, particularly the song, to scoring points on a first date, playing off how correct answers were awarded with mountain climber progress and a few jovial bars of yodeled song, while wrong answers threw the mountaineer off the side of the mountain plummeting like the prospective pick up artist’s chances at scoring sloppy soothing. I’m not sure if I didn’t laugh quickly enough, or too quickly, or perhaps tried to append a quip tit for tat; what did shine clear is that I managed to offend him somehow, and he never told me another bit again, leaving me to eavesdrop his solitary rehearsals when I could hear them over the din of the projectors as I counted the box office and concession pulls and filled out the forms for deposit.
Poor Mark had been Jeff’s step and fetch whipping dog. I didn’t have a car or license to drive one, so Mark had to do most of the runs to pick up or drop off the canned films. He received modest reimbursement for gas mileage, and I sent someone else when there was anyone else to send, though I suspect for how much Mark appeared to feel burdened by his additional work responsibilities, behind the put out composure he actually relished the chances to jet around town between shows like a courier on crack getting the prints to where they needed to be in his bucking bronco of a rust bucket on bedsprings.
One of my favorite memories is when Dave Thomas, founder and owner of the Wendy’s empire and Bexley local, stopped in to see The Piano one fine, sunny afternoon and became irate when the barely legal to work counter girl didn’t offer to or find herself willing to comp his ticket or popcorn. He loomed over the counter glaring expectantly at her as if he’d crossed the line into the enemy territory of Burger King because he wanting things his way. Befuddled, she picked up the red phone and buzzed me upstairs. I paused threading a film in the booth upstairs and bounced to answer her call. She said a man is angry in the lobby, could I come down.
Back then Dave appeared in most of the Wendy’s commercials on TV, smiling and friendly, your neighborhood buddy wanting to sell you burgers and fries at a fair price, and with a smile. Somehow, and I have no idea how, the young girl working the matinee counter al by her lonesome that particular midweek afternoon happened to be the one girl in Ohio that didn’t watch TV. Perhaps this is what drew her to working for minimum wage at an art theater. When I walked into the lobby from the stairs I stumbled a bit as saw just who the angry man actually was. “Where’s Jeff.” All he said, lips barely parting, as a statement, not a question.
I’m not sure why I don’t sell used cars, and perhaps this quick thinking is why I did so well in my next career. I didn’t blink, instead I smiled, extend my hand as though greeting an old friend as people would in thirties films, and seemed to completely disarm his ire. “Sir, welcome back! What’s your film pick for today?” And before he could answer, I added, still holding his hand and steering him towards the counter, “Would you like butter on your popcorn, and perhaps something to drink?” He grumbled and nodded, answered butter, cut the girl off as she scrambled to fill a cup, had her add more butter halfway before piling in the rest. Pointed at the glass front of the mini-fridge for an Evian, the girl kept looking to me and I kept beaming and nodding. She gave him a cup of ice and bottle of water, sensibly sensing this fellow I’d finally let go of a person to kowtow too, though no idea why.
After Dave had strolled off to find a seat in the very show I’d been threading, the one not started yet because I’d come downstairs, and thereby fortuitously delayed just for Mr. Thomas that fine afternoon, an auditorium all to himself to crunch butter gilded corn, sip purified water, and watch Holly Hunter take her clothes off.
After I finished threading The Piano and got it rolling, I returned to the lobby and explained who he was to the young counter girl. She appeared boggled that someone as wealthy as Dave Thomas would expect free stuff, I’d shrugged and expressed a belief that the world seemed to work that way, rich folks get free stuff, poor folks have to pay. I’d also guessed from his demeanor he actually had some precedent for his expectations of the Drexel, perhaps a friend of the owners. I later confirmed this with Jeff, who’d heard Dave’d stopped by, nothing else positive or negative.
The Piano drew a lot of celebrity attention, for instance one midweek evening Gladys Knight’s people rent out the entire theater, all three screens, so she could come see a showing without dealing with anyone else, just her, a couple women I believe were family, and her two assistants. Concessions were on the house however she declined anything except water, “Girl has to watch her figure.” She said to me sweetly, and I decided no matter how old she might be in the record books, she’d remain exactly that timeless to me until I kick up daisies.
Another thing I liked about the artsy cinema were the occasional obscure gems we'd have to play for a week to get something better, like that Iranian cowboy road movie we'd had to play to get The Piano, or that chatty lesbian romcom we'd had to play for empty auditoriums to get Short Cuts.
Short Cuts, a print that barely fit on a platter, only a couple millimeters to spare, and rife with so many patched breaks trying to break the print down expediently by traditional means proved impossible. Kudos to Mark, when he'd built the print he'd noticed all the taped up breaks in the reels as they came out of the cans, the print we received had been to a couple houses already and looked as worked over as a Moonie honeymoon. He'd put the reels on the projectionist table, a table with two reels on a motor so that you can easily wind, rewind, and edit reels, add trailers, remove them, etc. A cool trick for changing trailers without having to pull the entire print I'd learned somewhere long the line with Loews involved a mail ordered brass reel with one side that spun off and a collapsible hub, brilliant time saver tool of the trade.
Mark wound through every reel, and for a three and a half hour film with each reel equal to about 20 minutes of showtime, there were a stack of them. He went through each and replaced every splice, made sure the sprocket counts lined up, as early on he found a couple spliced together mid-frame, which would send the film out of alignment for viewers and guarantee complaints. You really don't want complaints from the sorts of people that would pay to see Short Cuts. People like that have opinions, including me. He also fixed several reels that were reversed and had their head s and tails at the wrong ends, and if played that way would have played backwards for audiences, another sure way to solicit complaints.
He replaced every splice, as much to ensure good playback through our machines as to color code the heads and tails of the reels from their bodies. Body splices were all clear, while heads and tails were joined as he built the print with yellow. This mattered because the fast way for a projectionist to break down a print is run the print off reel by reel onto a reel powered by a small motor on a little end table with wheels. As the take off reel pulls the film onto it, the print and platter spin. Placing your finger gently on the print, you feel for the passing bump of the splice. With something as perforated and massive as the Short Cuts print, you had to pull the film off more slowly, because there were tons of splice bumps, leaving that trick useless. So instead I pulled the print off, reel by reel, watching for the yellow taped splices Mark'd put in. Took a while, however thanks to Mark's obsessive diligence, the breakdown that could have been a nightmare of trying to match heads and tails to reel ends went smoothly. Further, I don't recall any issues with the print through its entire run, so his splicing kung-fu was mighty indeed.
Art cinemas attracted an interesting mix of prospective employees. A favorite usher from my time there delivered his CV printed on the back of a page of sketches. He had me at bottle boy. A student at the local expensive art school that churned out wrists for movies and greet card companies, he knew how to paint classic robots, rockabilly cars, Frankenstein, and the alien from This Island Earth caressing Marilyn Monroe better than anyone I'd ever met. Hopefully he's sharing a studio with Coop or something now, sadly we fell out of touch, the problem with the pre-internet networking days.
The real reason I left the cinema business is the sense that no matter how well I might know exotic, cult, or fine cinema, unless I hung up a shingle and owned my own screens, and could wrangle some decent deals with distributors, and find a viable market receptive to what I could offer, I had little hope in hell of making a career out of running a theater.
Make no mistake, I love theaters, particularly big old theaters like the Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky, or the Dunbar and the Rio in Vancouver, BC. I love the huge screens, building and breaking down prints, the brilliance of those crackling projection bulbs, the heave of the platters, the puzzling predicament of a quality brain wrap. I love the smell of the talcum powder on the taped splices to ensure smooth runnings. I love the feel of film, the resolution of 70mm if you’re lucky enough to get a chance to run it and a vintage hand on a machine burly enough to thread those wide flung sprockets holes onto. Like running postcards through the machine, another projectionist told me once, and yessir, say what you will about Far and Away, that film afford me the chance to get to hold and thread some 70mm, and there’s nothing else like it outside of IMAX.
I love the seats, the massive curtains, the screen that actually has tiny holes all along its surface to keep the weight down and help it stay taut versus changes in air pressure. I love how a circus peanut or egg white can leave a lasting streak on the screen like a finger print regardless how many times you slop soapy solutions across the soiled surface. I prefer the old paper and razor blade punch ticket machines over the fax print style ones everywhere now. I miss the uniforms, the presentation, the idea from far before my birth where a night at the cinema involved dressing up, dining out, and enjoying some newsreels and Warner Brothers high society cartoon parody antics before the main feature. I miss drive-ins, paper 3D glasses with red and blue lenses. I dig repertoire theaters with grandfather clause liquor licenses like the one in Portland, Oregon that used to show marathons on weekends featuring characters like Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris.
I don’t like big multiplex theaters that feel like they were built with as much effort and character as a government tract home. For example, I loathe Scotia Bank’s theater downtown Vancouver; give me the Dunbar or Rio any day. Screw eight dollar sacks of popcorn and six dollar buckets of pop. Spare me fast food counters in arena sized lobbies sprouting airport terminal arms bristling with theaters able to accommodate modest audiences before embarrassingly small screens at the edges of city limit strip malls.
Yet no matter how much love I have for classic cinema, I’d seen placed closed and bulldozed, replaced by strip mall cineplexes with about as much character as an IRS audit. Theaters were clearly a dead end for me as a career option, and the time had come to explore new options, something perhaps with benefits, with an above minimum wage salary, and perhaps, just maybe, without polyester uniforms or the smell of grease anywhere to be found.
My last time in the Drexel happened a couple weeks after I'd been "mutually separated'. Another projectionist / usher that worked in the theater, as did his sister, phoned me to see if I'd like to watch the screening for The Crow. I've been to a few monumental screenings, chances to see prints on the big screen with few or any folks in the auditorium, and The Crow counts among them. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the first I ever saw, way back in high school with Reggie. I loved the Turtles; Reggie hid his pain pretty well. Jurassic Park, Die Hard, The Matrix. Amazing films that were even better to see again with a full audience to enjoy the difference a positively reacting crowd can make to the vitality of a cinematic experience.
After the Drexel, and after a short stint unpacking burly poxes of ceramics, arranging bushels of bed linens, exhuming and lining up rows of lamp of every taste and style short of open flame; I donned my sole suit coat and borrowed a tie from Tim for an interview Lisa’d scored for me with the Limited Credit, a credit banking arm of the Les Wexner’s Limited, Inc. corporate empire. The man owns an entire town to house his beard and children, for goodness sakes, why wouldn’t I want to work for him?
Let’s just say I got the gig and a whole lot more besides.
More on that next time.