Liberty Theater part 3
by John Gilbert
On Saturday I returned to work at the Liberty Theater with my hair parted over my hairless pate. I guess it was the first ‘comb over.’ It was nearing 6:00 and James McCarty had opened that day. When I stepped into the booth, there had been a remarkable change. It was clean!. James had straightened up and had found a place for everything and had even put carpet runners on the floor next to each projector. So this is what clean was! The booth was tidy and cozey with the projector clattering away. I had thought that clean was just that the trash can was not running over.
“Wow! This place looks great, ” I said.
Even the rewind table was well organized, film splicer and film cement bottle neatly arranged with pens and pencils in a can. The previews were rolled up and placed in their boxes and stacked on a shelf above the table.
“Yeah, Mr. Brown told me to get the place straightened up. He said to throw out anything we weren’t using,” James answered.
Looking at the booth gave me an idea. I’d have to clean up my basement booth at home. Years earlier I had turned our basement into a theater that I called the “Bijou.” This was 1973 and it had to be the first “home theater.” As if working a six hour shift at the Liberty wasn’t enough, I’d go home and run more film. I was sure that I could do the Bijou what James had done in the Liberty’s booth.
“I heard that you had a little accident,” James continued, giving me a wry smile. “What happened?”
I felt a wave of embarrassment. I was sure that there was no one in the entire theater company who didn’t know about my missing hair.
“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I stammered. “I tried oiling the right machine while it was running. The shutter shaft grabbed my hair and pulled a plug of it out. Bad idea.”
“Good thing you weren’t wearing a tie,” he sneered. “It would have broken your neck! Let me see.”
I pulled my hair back to show him my bald pate. It was still red and sore.
“I think I’d oil the projectors when I first come in, if I were you,” he remarked.
We talked for a few more minutes and then he left. Then, except for the clattering projector, all was quiet. There was always a few moments of loneliness when shift change was over. I loved being a projectionist but it was a lonely job. Sitting at the highest point in the theater and having no one to talk to could be akin to solitary confinement. After a reel change and the spent reel rewound, I had fifteen to eighteen minutes of down time. After I had seen a picture a few times, I needed a change of scenery. I would read a book or magazine. If really bored I’d read the technical manuals for the projection and sound equipment. A visitor was always a welcome relief. Just then I heard footsteps on the stairs.
“Gilbert, turn the sound up!” came Mr. Brown’s voice from the top of the stairs.
I went to the volume control and turned it up a notch.
“Leave it there,” he shouted as he disappeared down the stairs.
In a few minutes I heard a booming passage of sound come from the screen and again footsteps on the stairs.
“Gilbert, tun the sound down!” he again shouted.
I did as asked. Now I knew that explosions were supposed to be loud and quite scenes were supposed to be quiet. Hollywood sound men are careful to make sure that the sound meets certain standards that, once the volume is set, it requires no more adjusting. Yet I was constantly riding the volume control at the Liberty. Was Mr. Brown trying to watch the movie from his office?
I felt sorry that he was constantly running up and down the stairs, so much so that on my next payday, I bought and battery operated intercom system. I had seen wires in the booth that had run to some kind of old telephone system that had once been mounted by the spotlight porthole. I had seen the same wires in Mr. Brown’s office. I searched out a pair of wires in the booth and mounted one of the intercoms. I then found the same pair in his office and wired the intercom to them. I pressed the call button on the booth end and it buzzed in Mr. Brown’s office. The intercom worked and now Mr. Brown would not have to climb the stairs.
Still the constant ordering the sound up and down continued. I got to where I’d just sit in my chair and not budge when I was told to adjust the volume.
“How does that sound?” I’d question, never leaving my chair.
“That’s better. Now leave the sound alone!”
The films were usually delivered to the theaters a couple of times a week and it was the doorman’s job to haul the several cans of film to the booth. On this particular Saturday, our second feature, “Tick, Tick, Tick” starring George Kennedy, had not arrived when the theater opened at 1:00. Freddy Brown informed me that it was coming from another theater. It was coming by bus and scheduled to be at the Trailways Station at 2:30. The hour came and went and the film did not arrive. It had been put on the wrong bus and would be another two hours before it would be there. Finally Sonny, the doorman, huffed his way up the stairs with the two cans of film and not a moment too soon.
“Mr. Brown says to start this movie as soon as you can get it threaded,” Sonny instructed.
I had ran the other feature twice and it was about to get a third run. I opened the cans and to my delight, the 6 reels were heads out. Reels usually came tails out so that one could rewind them off the flimsy shipping reels onto the heavier “house reels” made of cast aluminum. I would simply run the show from the shipping reels, thus saving time. I quickly threaded reel one into the empty projector and finished just as the changeover bell rang. I made the changeover and the new feature hit the screen.
After rewinding the last reel of the old feature and threading reel two, I settled into my chair to watch the screen when suddenly I heard a pop and the screen went white. I heard film tearing as I turned off the projector and closed the lamphouse shutter. As I pulled the tangled film from the machine I instantly saw the problem. There was a break in the film and someone had overlapped the film ends several inches and wrapped it with several layers of masking tape! It was just a big wad of tape and of course this was not going to make it through the projector. I broke the tape wad from the film and quickly re-threaded the projector. In a moment the picture was back on the screen. No sooner than I had settled back into the chair that I heard the same pop!
“What the heck!”
It was the same situation. A big wad of tape wrapped around a film break. Again, I got the show going and pop! It happened again a third time! By now Mr. Brown was in the booth.
“Gilbert! What the #@*^% is going on?”
I stood up holding the three pieces of film wrapped in tape.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” I started. “Look at the way someone “spliced” this film.”
“Didn’t you check the film before you threaded up?”
“There wasn’t time. I’m running off the shipping reels. Sonny brought the film up five minutes ago and told me to start it as soon as possible.”
“This wouldn’t have happened with another operator,” he snorted as he left the booth.
I wondered what another projectionist would have done differently in the same situation. I put the tape-wrapped film into my pocket. I had to show them to the other operators at the next union meeting.
The next day I got a call from Scott Whitley. He wanted me to be half hour early at that next meeting.
The morning was already hot when I arrived at the union hall on 10th Avenue at 9:30. There were only three other cars in the lot which seemed odd to me. There was usually a parking lot full. When I entered the hall there were no other operators there, only Scott and two others at a table in the front of the room. Where was everyone? Maybe they didn’t get word that the meeting had been moved up a half hour.
“Should I go back out? I asked feeling that I had intruded on a private meeting.
“No,” said Scott pointing to a chair in front of the table. “Sit here.”
I looked around the room to see if maybe I had missed someone sitting in a corner. I still couldn’t imagine where everyone else was.
“Freddy Brown has presented us with a list of grievances against you,” Scott started.
Grievances? I guess I was a little slow but it suddenly became clear to me that this was an inquest! I was being called on the carpet!
“We’ve already eliminated most of them because these are the same complaints Freddy has against everybody who operates at the Liberty. There are three that we would like to ask you about. Last Saturday you had three film breaks in one reel. What happened?”
I explained about the film coming in late and that when it came in, I was told to put it on and start the show right away.
“I have the broken pieces wrapped with tape in my car if you’d like to see them,” I offered.
“That’s alright,” said Scott. “You did what you were told to do. Last week you came in late. What about that?”
I told him that my sister Alice had borrowed my car on the condition that she’d have it back so that I could be at work on time. When I saw that she wasn’t back in time, I called Sargent Grizzard and asked him to open for me. After I got off the phone with him, my father came home. I got daddy to take me to the Liberty. On the way to the theater, I saw my sister, flagged her down, and got my car. When I got to the Liberty, Sarge was warming up the projectors. Though I was only 15 minutes late, I paid him the two hours salary that operators are guaranteed if they have to fill in for each other.
“You did the right thing,” Scott observed.
There was one other complaint but I don’t remember what it was. It may have been that I needed a hair cut. Whatever it was, it was so trivial that I can’t remember it. Scott and the other two were satisfied that I hadn’t broken any union rules and thanked me for doing a good job. Just then the door opened and one by one, the other operators started filing in.
“Oiled any running projectors lately?” came one snide remark.
“There’s an easier way to get a haircut,” came another.
It seemed like everyone had a clever comment to make at my expense. I just laughed it off.
The meeting was over in a short while and I made my way back home. While cleaning out the booth I had found an old trailer that was to be thrown out. I decided to take it home. It was an announcement that for six RC Cola bottlecaps, kids would be admitted to the theater. It had been years since that offer was made and I wanted to keep the film for posterity.
Arriving home I parked my car under the tree in the backyard and took the film to my basement theater. I spliced a leader onto the trailer and threaded it into the projector. Onto the screen flashed the announcement and out of the speaker came a peppy little tune. It was over in a few seconds and I turned off the projector, turned off the room lights, and left through the basement door. As I jogged around the house to the back steps, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see Lisa sitting on the trunk of my car. I stopped in my tracks and walked to her.
“Well, hi there,” I said.
“Hey,” she returned.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Oh, I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by. I was here the other day and you just ran in the house and didn’t see me.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I’d know you were here. You should have said something.”
I climbed onto the trunk and we sat and talked for a bit. In a little while she said that she had to go home. I offered to drive her but she said that she wanted to walk. She hopped down from the car and started for the street.
“Hey, I’m going swimming at Lake Juniper on Thursday. I’d sure like for you to go with me.”
“Sure,” she said as she turned to look at me, brushing her hair from her face. “Call me!