Recollections of a Cinema Projectionist

posted by WLHume on December 23, 2003 at 5:25 am

In the dim and distant past before the 1939 war, I was introduced to the rites and mystique of showing cine films for the benefit and enjoyment of others, apart from the occasional Saturday morning visit to a local cinema with most of the other noisy youngsters in our neighbourhood.

The knowledge of how these images were inexplicably thrown on to the screen did not mean anything until a very ancient hand-cranked 35mm Pathe ‘home-movie’ projector came our way together with a large box of film stock which consisted of four-inch spools of old black and white silent films, although some were tinted with blue or sepia-toned effects; not quite colour, but the idea was there.

The metal-clad projector was fairly simple, with a top roller and feed sprocket with a shutter behind the snap open/shut gate, and a take-up sprocket with bottom roller. Feed and take-up spools were approximately 100-foot capacity, ably assisted by a stout piece of twine for the take-up belt (any piece of string was pressed into service in the event of a break). Lens focus being a simple manual in-out action with a small tightening lock-screw, invariably cleaned with a handy rag and a ‘huh’; not particularly ‘high tech’ but it always worked.

The small condenser lens which was immediately in front of the battery-run lamp equally became the recipient of a ‘huh’ and polish. Illumination was provided by an Ever Ready flat battery, or cycle lamp battery as we used to call them, and a 3.5 volt bulb, the on/off aspect being attained by the simple action of pulling the battery wire terminal clear of the bulb contact. The screen took the shape of a toy theatre stage with decorated proscenium, rather like an oblong orange box with no front. The actual screen was a silvered piece of cloth that did not reflect a very bright or clear picture.

We soon learned to improve that by borrowing a white pillowcase (“Now don’t you dare get that dirty!”) which was about the approximate size of the picture and with good definition. It was easily put up with drawing pins, the throw being about eight to ten feet, with the projector placed on a tall plant stand. Bearing in mind that the audience were all under twelve years of age, this was an ideal layout in a darkened lobby where they were all seated on the floor. Only the noise of the ‘tickety-tickety’ hand cranking to mar the otherwise silent show, apart from the cheers and boos, oohs and aahs.

To create a few laughs, it was only required to reverse the direction of the handle. We charged each of our audience (up to fifteen or so) one penny in old steam money to help defray the cost of battery and bulb (and a fish supper for the management). The films acquired with the machine were bits of old silent films (in today’s terms these would have been real museum pieces but, alas, met an unknown end upon being left at a future cinema venue). Sprocket holes on either edge; unbeknown to us at that time they were in fact a potential ‘bomb’, being nitrate based. It did not take us long to learn that a little broken piece thrown upon the open coal fire gave an impressive ‘whoosh’. There was an ironmonger’s shop locally, Spensers', where these off-cuts could be bought, usually sixpence (2.5 p.) each; no doubt originating from some of the many local cinemas. Subject matter ranged from Charlie Chaplin to Valentino, heavy drama (nice to boo at), westerns and newsreels (1914-18 battle scenes) and, best of all, the Keystone Kops.

Breakdowns were frequent, not having at that stage acquired the skill of cut and splice, but all part of the fun. Ah, those happy pre-television days! Such beginnings ensured that I was ‘hooked’ on the pictures. Came the war and this aspect of theatres and cinemas was suddenly brought up with a round turn. In common with other buildings, all exterior lighting was banned, a strict black-out enforced; everyone encouraged to save electricity . Around that time I had set my sights, with immature misguided patriotism, on joining the Merchant Navy, but (fortunately and happily) was turned away as being too young: “Come back in a couple of years and we shall find you a ship” (phew!). Eventually got offered and accepted a job as junior projectionist (tea-boy come rewind/splicer) at the MONSIGNOR NEWS THEATRE situated at the west end of Princess Street, Edinburgh. This venue originated from the early days of silent films with the equipment being updated upon the advent of sound.

Completely unknown to me at that time, I entered a living time capsule in cinematic terms. In common with all news theatres, it was a relatively small, tall narrow building, not more than 300 seats (quite a lot by some of today’s standards) divided between the stalls and small balcony, with a restaurant which served only wartime fare: Welsh rarebit, Bangers(sausages) or Spam and chips or beans on toast, and a tiny foyer with even smaller ticket desk- office.

The projection booth (‘Box’) being perched up on the roof but sunken to interior ceiling level, was accessed down a narrow staircase (a fire hazard), the stairs on the opposite side used as a general storage space (Fire regulations at the time were almost impossible to enforce due to the pressure put upon the city fire brigade). The projectors had front open shutters (which were quite lethal, and probably illegal), Ross carbon lamp houses (a perpetual cause of poor pictures unless constantly adjusted), the acrid fumes being vented to the atmosphere through flexible steel chimneys which leaked enough to ensure the box door had to be kept open irrespective of the weather, and RCA sound heads which seemed to work well.

The spool/rewind room was a tiny shed on the roof, just large enough for one person and the film cabinet. During my time at the ‘Monny’ there was a stand-by film which must have been retained for many years as there were eight very large (fifteen-inch) Bakelite records to provide the sound, enough room to accommodate the two very old Ross projectors and a non-sync unit (record player) with a huge notice stuck to the underside of the lid: ‘Operator Beware: it is imperative 'pick-up’ arm needle is changed after each disc has been played once' (for whose benefit, or profit, one wonders), ridiculously heavy and one-sided. I witnessed a showing on one occasion. It was quite a technical work of art to get the sound to synchronise with the picture and, with a bit of juggling, the Chief got it (nearly) right.

Again, I did not realise that I had been privy to the passing of a technical phase in the field of cinema film sound. The continuous shows started at 1pm Monday to Saturday, each complete show of newsreels, cartoons and shorts (Fitzpatrick Travelogues: “As the sun leaves the shore and our boat sinks slowly in the west, we say farewell to this beautiful garden isle”!) ran for about an hour, non-stop until lO.3Opm. Although never classed as a luxury cinema, it was very popular, especially for the travelling public with an hour to spare whilst waiting for a train at the now defunct LMS (ex-Caledonian) Prince’s Street main line station opposite.

Eventually the basic principles of projection and film work were soon grasped, but the idea of spending forever in such surroundings did not appeal to this keen young learner as being the prospect for progress. Luck played a significant part in my being able to move on to more interesting things in the cinematic world. Being in the right place at the right time, and due to the war, which created an acute shortage of people able to take up employment such as ‘working in a cinema’, before long cinema owners were more than pleased that so many women were recruited as projectionists, who in turn proved to be just as efficient as their male counterparts

I was more than delighted to be offered a position of assistant (dogs-body, yet again tea-maker) to the Chief Engineer (BSc and all that!) of a cinema/theatre group: A somewhat overworked and harassed man because nearly all of his technical staff had been called-up for war service. It must be remembered that around that time most young men were in the forces or directed to essential war work, hence my landing lucky (right place, right time!). This turned out to be a fascinating and interesting job, eventually attending each and every cinema and theatre in and around Edinburgh, either on projection repair missions with my ‘Chief, or acting as stand-in relief projectionist. Very long hours, although during the war everyone else did the same. In addition, we were required to attend regular all-night fire-watching duties, but as a payment of 2/6 (12.5p) could be claimed, I was not slow in opting for extra turns.
Due to the travel restrictions, I was based at the cinema nearest my home, which had been opened just prior to the outbreak of war, circa 1938, and therefore just run-in. This was the STATE Cinema in Leith, built on the site of the defunct Hawthorns shipyard alongside the Water of Leith, located at the upper reaches of Leith Docks, and although there were five other cinemas within a short distance of each other, none could be termed modern. The ALHAMBRA (Alibam) started out as a theatre, with a very large deep stage. Another theatre conversion, the GAIETY in the Kirkgate, boasted the only licensed bar in any of the city of Edinburgh cinemas.

The CAPITOL in Manderson Street, being on the Gaumont circuit, was probably the best, with the PALACE at the Foot-of-the-Walk, being typical run-of-the-mill. Last, but not least, the ‘LAURIE STREET’ cinema, somewhat unkindly referred to as the ‘flea-pit’, but which nevertheless served its purpose. The STATE enjoyed an excellent de luxe status and was very popular with the local patrons; the auditorium arranged with stalls for two-thirds of the seating capacity of about 1400 with the remaining third in a gently-sloped low-slung stepped balcony. The stalls had a centre aisle with two side aisles for the side stalls, the balcony being of a similar layout. The screen could be easily seen from every seat with no distortion, except for the front row where everything was magnified (very popular with youngsters on Saturdays).

Bearing in mind there were always queues at that time, both the stalls and balcony had excellent waiting lounges, it being the practise to allow so many in shortly before the end of the previous programme, no doubt to ease the pressure of getting in before the next house commenced and a blessing to those waiting outside, especially during inclement weather. This cinema had an excellent theatrical stage with ultra-modern dressing rooms. The nearest I encountered to presenting a stage show was early in the war when, for obvious propaganda purposes, BBC personalities were sent round the country to stir up enthusiasm for the war effort. Just prior to showing a newsreel we had to flash-up a spotlight to the prompt corner and heard a voice saying: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is Bruce Belfridge speaking”. He, of course, was a well-known BBC radio newsreader. Apparently they were encouraged to announce themselves by name in order that the listening public got to know the sound of their voices, the British public must have been rather gullible in those days.

After spending quite a lot of time in this cinema, in addition to chasing after my Chief around the circuit, I got to know every nook and cranny, the bits the public never knew about, never mind saw. To give some indication of the general arrangement of the building, we start externally. Contained within the building there was a two-storied billiard and snooker saloon run totally as a separate business. Access to the projection room for this cinema was from an external door dictated by the fire prevention and safety regulations in force at the time of construction. Entering through an unassuming door half hidden from view in a small alcove on street level we ascend a stone staircase.

The first landing gives entry to the electrical switch and control room complete with neat rows of fuse boxes individually detailed for every sub-circuit throughout the whole building and a large two-tiered bank of lead acid batteries for the secondary and emergency lighting, which were kept hilly charged with a constant floating charge. The Westinghouse mercury rectifier, giving off an eerie ultra-violet glow, was contained within a heavy metal cage-like cabinet. From this room a door led into the roof space which had a central catwalk to the far end where a massive extractor fan was situated. In spite of the size of this huge motor, it ran almost silently and very efficiently. Out and up another short flight of stone stairs from the switch room to the entrance of the projection room or, as commonly known to everybody, the ‘box’, through a self closing fireproof metal-clad door (all doors in this area had to be fire-proof).

In contrast to many earlier cinemas, the STATE projection room was quite spacious with a high ceiling and ample windows situated near ceiling level. Regrettably these were blacked-out to comply with wartime regulations. The whole interior was brightly illuminated with central heating and technically well laid out. It created a pleasant working atmosphere. All electrical machinery and projection equipment were then very modern and a pleasure to work with. Projection equipment consisted of two Ross projectors with RCA sound heads, utterly reliable and trouble-free, Bowden cable snap shut instant change-over shutters and Strong carbon arc lamps, a Ross Stellar combined spotlight for stage shows and slide projector with the usual coloured shades, lateral scissor and iris fade-out shutters.

An excellent twin turntable non-sync unit placed alongside a Holophane stage and auditorium lighting system which (when allowed by the wartime regulations to use same) created spectacular results. On the far side of the second requisite fire door, an isolated room containing the Holophane stage lighting switch room (an excellent piece of electrical engineering) which gave no cause for concern. The spool/rewind room with film storage was, by contrast, sparse, and in the winter a cold place to work in, a fire proof film storage cabinet, which had brass tally tags on each individual pull-out sleeve, this was a simple but very effective system to prevent the wrong reel being shown. Next door came the staff room and toilet, a relative luxury at that time. Of course, some of the projectionists were required to be away from home from just after breakfast until after 10 o'clock at night and therefore needed a couple of breaks during the show. One further emergency exit door gave access to an enclosed cast iron spiral staircase to street level via a narrow towpath alongside the Water of Leith (see later anecdote).

With the projection room area being tiled and painted in pastel colours, it had a positive feeling of cleanliness, the pervading distinctive aroma of film and the hot smell from the carbon lamps made it a very pleasant working area, particularly when I was able to compare it alongside many other cinemas during the course of my duties.

Even the mighty luxurious 3053 seat PLAYHOUSE, with a vast projection room and three projectors (which provided for continuity in the event of a breakdown), did not have any form of daylight or direct access to the open air, even allowing for this cinema having been built in 1927, formal opening was 12th August 1929,.

But I digress. All projection and observation ports had, of course, the regulation steel fireproof shutters. An internal telephone system allowed instant communication to all parts of the building.

The full-time front of house staff were paraded in smart blue and silver uniforms: ten usherettes (not all on duty at the same time), a foreman and assistant to keep everything non-technical running smoothly, a doorman (evenings only), two ticket office cashiers, one refreshment kiosk attendant (the kiosk did not last very long due to sweets and confectionery being so strictly rationed) and, mostly unseen by the public, Seven cleaners. These ladies started work at 7am until 11am, quite a task after three full houses the day before.

The manager dressed in a lounge suit during the day and always wore evening dress at night. Also, unseen by the audience were the technical staff, chief operator, second, third and fourth assistants who worked in that mysterious area at the back of beyond where the bright beam of the projection lamp flashed on to the screen. Without them there would have been no end result, every programme had to be made up on a Monday morning.

The main feature, with anything up to twelve reels of film, had to be carefully spliced and glued together with film cement, plus a second feature or several shorts, cartoon, newsreel and trailers, not forgetting the adverts; a task that sometimes took right up until lunchtime, especially if the film was in need of repair. Some of the little incidents recalled from the earlier days of wartime conditions will seem somewhat difficult for present-day cinema-goers to imagine. Late into the evening showing of the big picture, the air raid sirens start warning people to take cover. Within a short while, the manager is contacted by the police and told to evacuate the building as soon as possible. A quick call to the duty projectionist to shut down and put the house lights on, by which time the manager would have reached the stage to request everybody to leave as quickly as possible, and for their safety to go to an air raid shelter.

When the audience got outside the place would be in total darkness. Tramcars remained where they had stopped when all electricity was shut off, and so it remained until the ‘all clear’ was sounded, sometimes hours later. Often during a performance a policeman, complete with steel helmet and gas mask, would hand an official note to the manager to make an announcement to the effect that all members of the crew of HMS Nonsuch, or the equivalent description for units of other branches of the armed forces, were to report back immediately to their ship or depot.

In the projection room there were always glass slides ready-coated on one side with lamp black paint. After writing the prescribed message on the slide (they were only about 3.5 inches square, which meant keeping the message brief), it was flashed up on to the screen with the slide projector; with the film still running but the sound turned down and arc lamp power slightly reduced. It was all accepted as part of the day’s work. On several occasions we were commandeered by various units of the services, usually for training films.

One amusing incident is recalled when a lot of high-ranking officers turned up almost too early one morning and told the manager he would be required to show a film to a group of servicemen as soon as possible. The army and naval personnel were on their way and were required to be suitably accommodated, officers in the balcony, senior non-commissioned officers in the back stalls, other ranks down front. The manager asked for the films which were to be shown and how long they would run for, and, as a matter of interest, who was going to pay for the use of our facilities (“Oh, just send the bill to the War Office, old boy!”). The film, he was informed, is top secret and would only be handed to the projectionist in charge in a sealed container, after all the personnel were seated, all doors secured with military police in attendance. Nobody would be permitted in or out during the entire performance. Well, when the film arrived and was handed over to the Chief (there were only two of us on duty), he had to sign for it, plus another paper to say that he would not disclose the contents to anyone, I being totally ignored during the discussion. Then into the spool room, open up the box to find two normal-sized tins with a prominent label: ‘Crown Film Unit, War Office. TOP SECRET’ (in red), one reel in each. Inside, the films had another label attached: ‘Mr Operator, this film bas come directly from the processing laboratories and will require to be waxed before projection.’ The Chief nonchalantly said “Ah, let’s just run it first and see what happens.” It was the first time I had come across a ‘green’ print and saw very few thereafter.

Lo and behold, we duly announced all ready to run. Permission granted from a scrambled egg (gold braided rear-admiral and a red-tabbed brigadier, we commenced to run the show. A mediocre film about the correct method of boarding and disembarking from funny-looking square boats (later learned to be landing craft) running up beaches at Aberledy and North Berwick, which we as individuals easily recognised as local holiday resorts.

The commentator urged participants that all rifles must be kept pointing skywards to prevent injury to the man in front and many other mind-boggling do’s and don’t’s, i.e., if any man is prone to sea-sickness, avoid any disgorging of stomach contents until reaching the shore! Comes the end of film (thank goodness!) and a buzz on the phone from the manager: the ‘brass’ would like another run-through as soon as possible. So with the usual rewind and lace-up, away it went again. Chief says “Let’s have a cuppa.” “Can’t,” says I, “forgot to get the milk.” “Ok,” he says, “just nip down and get it from the corner shop.” down I goes, only to be confronted by a gynormous, 6-ft 4-in redcap, a corporal military policeman: “Now then, laddie, where d'yoo fink yoo are off to?” “Just to get the milk.” says I. “No, my sunshine,” says redcap, “no one in, no one out, them’s my orders.” Blow that, methinks, and tootle back up to the box. “Won’t let me out that way,” I tells the Chief So I nip down the emergency spiral stairs, which was accomplished without further ado. The MPs had not found this one and were therefore not in attendance. Showing duly completed, and cinema emptied, with an adjutant type busy thanking the manager for his co-operation, and was so pleased that the security arrangements had been totally successful. We thought afterwards: what was the big deal? Top secret, and about eight hundred of the recent audience and milk lad knew all about it.

Several other training films were shown without the high drama of our top secret adventure, although one morning the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) and Civil Defence were being shown a somewhat dreary training film. A hurried call to the manager was taken to get the firemen to report back to their respective stations immediately. The entire audience cleared the building, most of them saying they couldn’t get out of there quick enough. Even the Ministry of Food Flashes (‘How to Make Banana Jam from a Marrow’– yuck!) were more entertaining than some training films. During the many visits to Edinburgh cinemas I came across some odd items, such as the BLUE HALLS, which had the screen placed diagonally within a near square-shaped building with the seating taking a diamond pattern, seemingly to pack a few more in. Towards the bottom end of the market they had to make every inch pay. The POOLES SYNOD HALL had a balcony on three full sides which meant those sitting in the side balconies faced the opposite people and were at right angles to the screen, although it never stopped the plentiful audiences from regular attendance.

The PALACE in Princess Street, long since gone and replaced by an extension of Woolworth’s store, had a projection room below the level of the bottom of the screen, the projectors being set to point upward. Quite unusual, but efficiently functional. By contrast, some projectors were at a very steep angle. The old ALHAMBRA in Leith Walk was originally a theatre with a very large deep stage, stalls, circle and gallery (the ‘gods’) which meant the box was very high. The gallery was closed for safety reasons. With only wooden bench seats and very steep steps it seemed logical. At this time there were no cinemas allowed to be open Sundays (also no pubs, cafes, or other places of interest) and with the black-out, life was not over-exciting in the capital city. There were many thousands of army, navy and RAF men and women with very little to do on a Sunday, causing problems in other directions.

The powers-that-be decided to relax the strict non-opening rule and thereafter six or eight of the thirty-five cinemas then licensed in Edinburgh were given permission to open on a Sunday evening for one show, with everything finished and closed down not later than 10pm. My employer had been delegated to select the chosen houses, based upon location and seating capacity (if it had been left to the individual cinema managers they would have opened every Sunday, all day). Organising a programme for each of these venues created quite a lot of problems, as all prints were distributed from the Film Transport Services depot at Broxburn, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. I was given the task of co-ordinating this lot as an extra item to all my other duties, apart from attending each cinema in turn. All travel around the city was by tramcar, except where it was not too far; then I would walk and pocket the few coppers saved. Apart from shorts, cartoons and the like, a lot of effort was given to run features more than twice. The queues formed at each cinema due to be opened long before the staff arrived, which must have pleased the owners.

There are many other snippets that come to mind, such as having an annual visit from the sound engineer with his box of tricks. He took a whole morning to check through the entire system using a continuous loop of special sound film, and, whilst very friendly, he had an air of mystery. Finally checking the large stock of spare valves (I never experienced seeing one of these replaced through a fault), he got a signature for service requested and carried out, then disappeared for another year. Another task undertaken during the night was re-spraying the screen. All the tabs had to opened and covered with dust sheets, no small task considering there were only two men involved. The only things the management had to provide were the very long stage ladder, lots of wandering lead lights, water to mix up the paint and a kettle to make the tea. They used a portable spray compressor and from about midnight till morning applied three coats. Give them their due, no mess was made. Another example of the unsung people who helped to provide entertainment.

Perhaps I have said enough concerning events that happened with hands-on experience a long while ago. I moved on to other things in time but that is another story. Good cinema presentation was (and still is) quite an art and, when carried out in an efficient manner, creates a great deal of satisfaction to the projectionist and enjoyment to the audience.

Comments (4)

andygarner on December 29, 2003 at 12:40 pm

Great to hear about how cinemas were run in the “good old days” when a great deal of skill was needed to keep the projectors rolling, no tape splicers,platters, or automation here.
please continue with your reccolections, all the very best for 2004, regards Andy Garner

markp on January 23, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Sounds like the stories my dad would tell me. Great stuff.

danpetitpas on August 31, 2008 at 6:12 pm

Great story. Hope to hear more like this.

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