by John Gilbert
“forever known as the man who saved the Bradley Theater”
I could hardly wait to get to the Liberty Theater. I was to be the full time projectionist. It would be my first real job with a weekly paycheck. I borrowed my daddy’s car and drove downtown to the theater. As I turned onto 8th Avenue I saw the Liberty in the middle of the block. This was a predominately Black area of town and 8th Avenue was lined with little shops and businesses. I found a parking place on the street and turned off the engine. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper.
“This is to introduce Johnny Gilbert to your theater’s projection booth, ” the note started. It was written by the projectionist union’s business agent, Scott Whitley, to make sure that I was allowed into the booths around town. Since I had grown up around the theaters, everyone knew who I was but I wasn’t sure I knew anyone at the Liberty. I made sure that I had the note in case anyone had questions. The lady in the box office told me to go inside and the doorman pointed up the stairs when I told him I wanted to go to the booth. I was to meet Sargent Grizzard who was going to show me around the booth.
I climbed the stairs to the balcony and then made my way up to the projection booth. Sarge was sitting in a recliner as I entered the booth. He shook my hand.
“So, you’re going to be the new operator,” he said. “Let me show you the switches.”
The Liberty’s projection booth was a very small room. The switch panel was by the door. This was the main reason to visit a booth was to learn the switches. Most booths operated pretty much the same and the only difference was the switch or breaker box. The switches that I would need to be concerned with were painted white. They would be turned on when I got to work every day and turned off when I left at night.
“I oil the projectors every other day and keep an eye on the lamps. Sometimes soot from the carbons builds up in the exhaust stacks and falls back into the lamp and puts out the light,” Sarge instructed. “Also, there is an emergency rectifier in the generator room if anything ever happens to the generator.”
He showed me where the supplies were kept and informed me that the show always started at 5:00 and was over at 11:00.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“Freddy Brown, the manager, will tell you where to start in the movie. We always run two features and he will back time the two features to where you need to start. This means you might have to start 14 minutes into reel five of the second feature to come out at exactly 11:00.”
“That means the show will already be running when the doors open, doesn’t it?” I asked rather puzzled.
“That’s the way they like it,” Sarge answered. “This isn’t the best area of town so the theater operates only 6 hours a day. After you run the first full feature, there’s a 10 minute intermission. Keep an eye on the clock down by the screen and after 10 minutes, start the next show. You’ll need to be here at 4:30 to get things ready and you’ll start tomorrow. Park as close the theater as possible. You’ll want to get out of this part of town as quickly as possible. I’ve never had any problems here at night. Just be careful.”
In a few moments I left and drove to the Edgewood. I wanted to tell my father all about the liberty.
“I operated down there once, ” my daddy told me. “All Freddy Brown did was complain about me. Don’t be surprised if he complains about you.”
It was hot the next day as June days always are in Columbus. School had been out only a week and I already had a job. It was the job I had always wanted; to be a theater projectionist. I piddled around the house all day keeping an eye on the time. At 4:00 daddy suggested that it was time to start for down town. I had no car so he would have to drive me to the theater. Daddy was always one for promptness.
“I’d rather be a half hour early than one minute late,” he always said.
At 4:30 daddy dropped me off at the Liberty with a promise to be back at 11:00 sharp. I found one of the entrance doors unlocked and I went into the lobby. The lobby was small and dark. I was used to the huge concession at the Edgewood but the Liberty’s concession was a small counter with a glass in its center displaying an assortment of candy. On the counter top on either side of the candy display were two Nehi bubbler drink dispensers, one with grape soda and the other with strawberry. On either side of the concession were the doors that lead into the auditorium. To the right of the concession were the stairs that lead to the balcony and at the foot of the stair, the managers office.
Again I made my way up the stairs and up the balcony to the booth. It was dark inside the booth. I could barely make out the switches in the fuse box. I flipped one and the booth lights came on. I flipped another and the threading lamps in the projectors came to light. Next I turned on the amplifier and also the stage lights. I turned on all the switches except the generator. It ran the carbon arc lamps and had a red button that had to be pressed when it was show time. Still standing in the doorway I surveyed the room. To my right was a spotlight porthole that was open and I could see into the balcony. Facing the same wall were the two Super Simplex Projectors aimed at the screen through their individual portholes. Above the projectors and next to the ceiling was a pipe that ran the length of the wall, made a 90º turn, and ran to the door just above my head. From the end of the pipe ran a length of chain to a hook by the door. The pipe also had chains that held shutters open at each porthole. In the early days, film was made of nitrocellulose and was extremely flammable. If the film caught fire, the projectionist would dash out of the door and pull the chain off the hook and shut the metal door. The weight of the steel shutters would rotate the pipe causing the chains to slip off their holders and the shutters would slide down their tracks, closing the portholes. Since the booths were made of concrete, the film would burn itself out and hopefully, not damage the building. Though this was now 1973, safety film was the standard but the old fire shutters were still in place, a reminder of an abandoned technology.
Behind the two projectors, on the left wall, was the rewind bench. It had a light suspended above it so I could see to splice and rewind reels of film. Next to it was a sink with a medicine cabinet and next to it and closest to me was the recliner siting directly in front to the spotlight port. In a little area to my left was the toilet. Projectionist couldn’t leave the booth in those days so each booth had its own toilet.
I couldn’t help wandering around the small room for a minute. This was my booth and I wanted to seize the moment. Presently I turned on the projectors and let them run for a few minutes. This let the oil circulate around the gears. I turned off the projectors and got out the first reel. It was reel three and I had to wind it down 9 minutes. I threaded it up and then threaded up reel 4 in the other projector. I was now ready for my first show at the Liberty. The clock on the wall read 4:45. I had 15 minutes before the doors opened and the show started. I sat in the recliner. Through the spotlight port I could see the screen bathed in pastel colors of pink and yellow mixed with white lights. To the right of the screen was a large clock encircled with blue neon above an exit door. Except for the hum of the air-conditioning units, all was quiet. The air-conditioning didn’t make it into the booth. It was hot where I sat but the darkness of the booth made it seem cooler that it really was. The single bulb over the rewind table was the only light on in the room. I spotted a small box fan next to the toilet. I was sure that when I fired up the arc lamps it would get much warmer. Maybe with the fan I could draw in a little cool air from the balcony. Then I heard footsteps on the stairs and a figure emerged from the darkness of the balcony.
“You must be the new operator,” said the doorman. “I just wanted to let you know that Mr. Brown will be out for a while. His wife is in the hospital having surgery. Can I get you anything from the concession? They have really good hotdogs with chili.”
I thanked him for his kind offer but declined. I was glad when he left. I didn’t want him to know that I didn’t have any money. In fact, I hadn’t had any money for a while. Times had been very tough around my home. Mother and daddy had divorced a year earlier and daddy and I were down to counting pennies. During the last half of the school year I had only two shirts and two pairs of pants. I was embarrassed by my clothing situation so I’d wear one outfit on Monday, the second on Tuesday, skip school on Wednesday, and start over again on Thursday. The clothes I was in were the same ones I wore to school. I was still ashamed that I would be wearing the same two outfits for the next six days but I know what I was going to do with my first paycheck. I would by some new clothes.
I glanced at the clock by the stage, 4:59. I walked to a small switch box on the wall and pressed a red button. Instantly a motor in a small access area beyond the toilet ground to life then smoothed into a steady hum. I stepped to the left projector, grabbed a large knife switch and forced it closed. A tiny feed motor in the lamp house began to hum. I grabbed the yellow feed knob and gave it a turn. An electric spark shot out of the lamp with a hiss as the carbon rods came together, then light irradiated from every seam and chink. I walked to the spotlight port and reached for a dimmer knob mounted above it. I slowly brought the lights down until the screen was dark. I walked back the left projector and turned on the motor switch. The projectors clattering accelerated as the motor came up to speed and I stepped on the changeover peddle as I flipped the sound switch. Instantly the screen was filled with a car chase accompanied with screeching tires and fast paced music. As I settled back into my recliner I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I and I alone was responsible for the picture on that screen. I wasn’t in someone else’s both practicing changeovers. This was the real thing. I was the projectionist and I was doing what I had wanted to do since the 5th grade.
The night ran smoothly. At 11:00 the last reel ended and I turned off the projector’s lamp. I then pressed the generator stop button and the motor whined to a stop. I rewound the last reel and stored it away in the film cabinet. All was quiet as I flipped off the appropriate switches and left the booth as dark as I had found it. The balcony was dark but I found my to the stairs and made my way to the lobby. Daddy was outside waiting on me.
“Well, how did it go?” he asked.
“Not a problem. Everything ran fine,” I answered. I even spliced in a new preview and it ran fine too.”
I loved putting in new previews into the intermission reel. I would splice in the new preview and then put in a “Starts Friday” date strip. When I saw it on the screen the audience was seeing my work and I was proud of that.
My first week went smoothly. When I got to work on my second Friday at the Liberty, the assistant manager called me into the office. He had several small brown envelopes in his hand and he gave me one. I took it to the booth and opened it. I pulled out a stack of bills and counted it. Ninety dollars! I had never made so much money. All that cash made me nervous and I didn’t know what to do with it. I put the money back in the envelope, rolled up my pants leg, and stuffed it into my boot. I figured if someone tried to mug me, they wouldn’t pull my boots off.
The next day I made my way to J. C. Penney and headed straight for the men’s department. Mother had always bought my clothes so I wasn’t sure what size I was. The attendant measured me and I found a rack of shirts my size. I found a blue pasely print shirt and a pair of blue bell bottom pants to match. I paid for my new outfit and headed for home. I now had three changes of clothing.
During my second week I heard footsteps coming up the balcony and a man entered the booth.
“So you’re Herschel Gilbert’s boy,” he said eyeing my over. “I’m Freddy Brown, the manager.”
Freddy Brown was a Black man just over six feet tall. He had once been a policeman and he had the build for that job. His hair was jet black with a spot of white on top. His speech was fast and deliberate.
“I’ve known your daddy for years,” he added. “My wife has been in the hospital and she’s going home tomorrow and I’ll be back next week.”
We chatted for a brief moment and he was gone. I could tell that he didn’t like me but I’d have to make the best of it.
Payday rolled around again and I went back to Penney’s. This time I bought a white and red print shirt and dark red pants. Now I had four outfits. I was quite proud of my growing wardrobe.
When I got home my sister Alice informed me that my cousin, Melvin Gilbert, wanted to sell his car. I was on the phone in an instant.
“I want $150.00 for it,” he told me.
I had the money so I told him that I’d take it. It would wipe me out but I’d have wheels. Daddy was against the idea but I told him that he couldn’t drive me everywhere I needed to go. He was still very much against the idea so I had to find a ride to my cousin’s.
My Uncle Arthur had moved his family to Utah and Melvin was getting ready to make the move himself. Melvin was several years older than me but we had always had fun together. Many times we had spent the afternoon with his plastic army men and would build a fort with wooden blocks and sticks. It would only take us minutes to destroy an hours work with our bombardment of rocks and marbles.
Melvin was cleaning out the car as I arrived. The car was a 1963 Ford Galaxy, champagne in color. Though it was ten years old, it was in almost new condition. It had belonged to my uncle and he’d taken very good care of it. Melvin opened the trunk and it was full of camping equipment.
“I can’t move all of this stuff,” he said. “You can have this too.”
I was ecstatic! I loved camping and here was more camping equipment than I’d ever owned. There was a tent, two lanterns, several coils of rope, and other odds and ends. I paid Melvin the $150.00 and he gave me the key. The gas gauge was nearly on empty and it took almost $4.00 to fill the tank. With gas at 31¢ a gallon, I knew that I’d have to watch my millage. I called my buddy Tom Morris to come and see my new car. Actually, we were both more excited about the camping equipment than we were the car.
That afternoon I drove my new car to the Liberty and parked in the space closest to the box office I wanted everyone to see my new car. I entered the lobby and the employees were busy cleaning without the usual chatter. As I started up the stairs and as I passed the manager’s office I saw the reason why. Freddy Brown was back.