November 11th, 2019 by Andrew Poole
Many thanks to everyone who’s been keeping up with my blog. I say it’s “my” blog but it’s becoming clear that a lot of what I’ll be talking about over the coming months will be about my Dad’s experiences with cinema.
What’s becoming clear as I speak with my dad is that he has a lot to tell. He remembers everything.
As an octogenarian, he struggles to remember exactly what he had for breakfast, but he can recall in minute detail everything that went on in the projection room in his first job in 1948.
Despite all the times he’s sat me down and talked about the “olden days” in cinema, I’m still learning new things from him. And I’m finding it utterly fascinating. I hope you do too.
I’ve already covered his early days setting up a home cinema in his living room in the early 1940’s. And in this blog I’m going to cover his first trip to a proper cinema projection room.
Please can we visit a cinema, Sir?
Dad was 14 and as explained in a previous blog If You Built It, They Will Come he had already developed a love for cinema. Already a regular customer visiting all the various cinemas in his home town of Preston in Lancashire.
As part of a science project, Dad’s secondary school science teacher arranged a visit to Dad’s favourite cinema, The Ritz, to see the projection room. It will come as no surprise that it was Dad who suggested the location!
At that time, despite setting up his own “cinema” in his living room, Dad had actually never set foot inside a proper cinema projection room.
He’d seen photographs of a projection room in Kinematograph Weekly, a magazine he subscribed to but that still wasn’t as good as seeing the real thing.
When Dad visited the Empress cinema he noticed that the projection room door was just off the foyer, so if he stood around waiting for the film to start and someone opened the door at the right time, he could just get a glimpse of all the equipment and he got a short whiff of the unique smell you used to get from a traditional projection room.
In exploring these memories with my Dad I also remember the smell from previous cinema’s we have operated back in the 1980’s. It’s a mixture of electrical burning, grease and hot oil. I asked Dad to describe, for the benefit of those who have never seen inside a projection room, just exactly what it smelled like. “Heaven” was his answer. Not very helpful.
He recalls wishing he’d plucked up the courage to ask the projectionist at the Empress if he could have a look inside the projection room, and he’d have likely been more than happy to, but Dad was too quiet and unassuming to risk being told off.
So, his class trip came around and off they went to the Ritz. There were only 3 or 4 of them as most of the class weren’t interested! Can you imagine!? These people are now Netflix subscribers. Just sayin’
The Ritz in Preston (circa 1937) – Image courtesy of Preston Digital Archive
When Dad walked into his first proper projection room he was amazed. Gobsmacked. In awe of the enormity of the projectors. Remember, until now he’d only ever worked with little portable 9.5mm and 16mm projectors in his living room. But this was on another scale entirely. To a 14 year old boy, the 35mm projectors were monsters, looming in the semi darkness.
Although Dad knew what most of this equipment was, he knew his school friends didn’t so he stood back and enjoyed listening to the projectionist explaining what all the equipment was.
For the old-timers out there who want to know about the equipment, here comes the techy bits..
The projectors were Super Simplex Double Shutter. The Lamphouses were Peerless Magnarc carbon arc.
Image: Peerless Magnarc Lamphouse projectors similar to the ones used in the Ritz in Preston.
Out of interest, the Pavilion’s Screen 2 was a Peerless Magnarc converted to Xenon bulb and ran from 1993 until we converted to digital in 2011.
The Sound Head was a Western Electric Mirrorphonic which used a projected track system to read the soundtrack from the film.
Next to the two looming projectors was another smaller piece of equipment called a “follow spot”. This worked in a similar way to a projector, except there’s no film running through it.
Instead this was used during the intermissions, to throw a spotlight onto the Ice Cream Girl as she made her way down the aisle with her ice cream tray.
And on the other side of the projectors was a slide lantern, a similar design to the follow spot but this was trained on the screen and was used to run slides in the short time between performances.
But it was also used as a public address system. They had black slides they would scratch messages onto to show onto the screen, such as “is there a doctor in the house?” These messages were rare though as they usually appeared during a film performance, overlaid on top of the film. We can’t even do that now!
Providing power to the carbon arc lamphouses were two mercury arc rectifiers. Due to the immense noise from these they were held in a separate room away from the rest of the equipment.
Two mercury arc rectifiers similar to what was in use in the Ritz in Preston – widely used in cinema’s around the world at the time.
The Western Electric amplifier equipment was the size of a large living room unit with the valves in the lower section and all the control gear above.
On the wall next to the follow spot was the “dimmer bank”. This was an array of levers and switches which controlled the lighting in the auditorium.
The “house” lighting had four separate levers, one for the chandeliers in the middle of the ceiling, one for the ceiling inner ring, one for the outer ring and one for the ceiling edge.
And the proscenium lighting had controls for foot lights, one for head lights and proscenium arch lights. But, each one had three colours!
So you now have a dimmer bank with 13 levers controlling the lights. All these had to be controlled manually in order to give the best presentation.
Luckily, there was a system which allowed you to link some of these levers together so that you could dim or raise multiple levers at the same time.
In the opposite corner, there was a double turntable playing 78rpm shellac records (vinyl didn’t make an appearance for another 10 years) for the “non-sync” – a description every cinema operator in the world uses for the music played while customers are entering the cinema hall.
Would you like a job?
Dad must have shown enough interest during the trip for the projectionist to know that he wasn’t just a nosy teenager wanting to see how it “all worked”, he had a genuine passion for cinemas and projection.
The projectionist said they were looking for a rewind boy and would he like a job? “When do I start” was dad’s reply.
But there was a technical problem. Dad was only 14. You had to be 15 to work in a projection room. Dad knew this so when he was asked how old he was, he lied his ass off. Shocking! It was only a few months until he turned 15 and if he hadn’t told his wee white lie, would the family’s journey have been completely different? Who’s to know.
I’ll be taking a break from family history again next month, as I’ll be talking about Christmas films. But I’ll be continuing the family story in January’s blog.
For your viewing pleasure
In my first blog (Blog To The Future. Part 1) I listed my top 5 favourite films, but there are so many great films out there that I thought each month I’d say a little bit about a film which almost made the list. There are a lot of them!
What will become clear is that I have a slightly warped idea of what makes a “great film”. But that’s what makes films great!
We all see a different film, and we all see films differently. What I like may not appeal to you, but if you find yourself bored one day, and you don’t fancy anything we’re running at the Pavilion – Shock! Horror! – see if you can find one of my suggestions on a streaming service.
There’s really not much to say. I’m sure everyone knows the story of the illegal alien who comes down to Earth, refuses to leave, infiltrates a young family and abuses their trust in order to call in reinforcements for a mass invasion, shattering the dreams of an innocent young boy.
I cried in 1982. And I cry every time I see the film.
Thanks for reading.