Four Generations of Projectionists

The window from the small dark room into the large dark room had a sill depth of about eight inches, or so I remember it. I would perch on the high metal stoolโ€”but carefully because there was no backโ€”and peer as far into the view port as I could with my knees pressed against the wall. I was six, and I was watching Oliver! from the projection booth at the Mt. Pleasant Theatre in Toronto. I was riveted but terrified of Oliver Reedโ€™s Bill Sikes: it was the first murder I had ever encountered. But I knew I was safe because my dad was the projectionist, and he was beside me.

 

Our family trade was film projection, although Wells Bros. Amusements had started out as a general entertainment venture in 1908, Carol C. Wells (pictured right) and brother Sam I. Wells being about 20 years old. Soon, they had a travelling Wild West Show that went from the CNE on to the fair circuit in southern Ontario. That same year, they had the idea to expand upon the wildly popular motion-picture industry by having a travelling motion-picture show and, with the purchase of a projector and portable booth, the family trade was born. My grandfather was responsible for creating safer booths that became the provincial occupational standard, so that the heat and chemical dangers of projection were lessened. Their letterhead explains the work their partnership undertook. Fortunately, a written account of their business remains.

Later, my dad, his brothers Howard and Gordon, his brother-in-law Richard, my cousin Charles and his son Andrew took up the apprenticeship of movie projection. My cousin and his son, like so many others, lost their work to technological developments, namely the digitization of film projection.

But I spent my childhood in movie theatres: initially in the booths, later working at the candy bars of the Crest and Mt. Pleasant Theatres on Mt. Pleasant Rd. in Toronto. I loved this job because I got to see free movies, and I was welcome to free popcorn and pop: Orange Crush and buttered corn for me, in those days. Sometimes my boss, theatre-owner Peter Sorok, would give me stills or posters once the movie was finished its run: my Chariots of Fire poster was a prized possession for many years. If I haunted the theatres my relatives were working in, Iโ€™d always get a pass for myself and a friend. It was a pretty sweet perk.

I had a polyester smock that zipped up and had pocketsโ€”I think it was red, with white trimโ€”that I wore behind the candy bar. My friend Cameron, an usher, often had to help me out at intermission between double bills: the restrictive area behind the popcorn and pop machines often lent itself to us blushing, trying to jockey around each other and serve dozens (hundreds?) of customers ASAP.

In between candy-bar rushes, we would sweep the carpet or refill supplies or check the neatness of the bathrooms. Usually, if I were working without an usher, I would sit on one of the lobby chairs and do my Latin homework under the cast iron, Italianate wall sconces. The best part about the theatre then, either as a viewer or candy bar girl, was that you could smoke there. The last six rows of the mezzanine and the balcony were smoking areas! Youโ€™d just throw your butt on the floor, and the usher would sweep it up later. Amazing!

I saw iconic movies there: Apocalypse Now; The Rose; Chariots of Fire. I probably saw some flops. But I could watch them over and over, to my heartโ€™s content.

When I got older, I was allowed to start working the box office at the Crest; in 1980, this involved some cash in a drawer and a hand-torn ticket.

I remember some patrons. There was one man who underestimated the arc of the large, glass entrance door and its force when swung open, and he was knocked to the ground by it, his nose broken and bleeding like crazy. He said he had been so excited to get there just on time that he didnโ€™t really watch what he was doing.

There was a lady who would come for weekend double bills and only order a small plain popcorn at intermissionโ€”in those days, probably about a 12 ounce container: she told us she had lost over a hundred pounds, and that was her one cheat that she allowed herself in celebration and as part of her diet maintenance.

It was there that I learned that newspaper and vinegar were excellent materials for cleaning windows without streaks.

And it was to be the last job I had that would not charge me income tax. I think my little brown pay envelope contained earnings at a rate of about $2.35/hr by the time I left. I would walk the mile and a half home in my cool leather clogs and boho clothes, feeling independent and excited by film. If my dad was the projectionist that night, I wouldnโ€™t stay til the end of the movie for a ride home, but I wouldโ€™ve had a lift to the theatre as we started at the same time.

Nowadays, I go to the movies in three different ways. My number one choice is always the local, independent cinema, because they donโ€™t tend to play the kinds of movies that require pre-show games, noise and flashing lights like the big chains offer. Sometimes I fork out for the Varsity VIP: the seats are roomy and the price usually discourages audience types who text or talk through the movie. Finally, I go to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for more "serious" film experiences. Those soundproof auditoriums do wonders. But always, I go at least a half hour early to be the first in to get the end seat of the back row. If I canโ€™t do that, I wonโ€™t go. At home, I don't have TV, but I watch Netflix on my computer.

Recently at TIFF, I looked up into the lit projection booth where there were aluminum ducts and other unfamiliar machinery parts visible. I also spotted a computer screen. If my dad were still alive, he wouldnโ€™t know how to run a movie today.

But sitting in the booth with him was like magic. Heโ€™d spool film onto reels, prepare the jump, fire up the second projector, and start rewinding the played reel for the next show. He taught me how to assess a good jump at the cue dot.

I know most nights he would drink coffee and read novels during down times, but I think he did this second job (on top of telecine at CBC) because he had drunk the movie Kool-Aid, too. Heโ€™d grown up in an era of motion picture madness and in a family that ate, drank and breathed "show business."

I didnโ€™t go into film studies or production or theatre management. I would have made a great continuity girl, Iโ€™ve been told. My mother-in-law has won Geminis for her movie-costume designs. Somehow my connection has remained fairly common: a movie lover who experiences the medium on large screens, on DVD or online. But I do feel an affinity for the whole area of movies and cinemas, both as art and as social gauge.

Mostly, though, I treasure my memories of peering through the view port into the auditorium. It was a sacred space to me, and it planted a seed that grew into my love of the movies.

~ FIN ~

 

Epilogue: For an update on the Mt. Pleasant and Regent (Crest) Theatres, click here to read some good news!

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