Cinema Stories

A projection booth in the multiplex era
A projection booth in the multiplex era

I worked more than ten years in movie theaters around Utica, NY. Great jobs – no matter what you do in a theater, it beats working at McDonald’s (which I’ve also done).

The Romance of Movies

I love movies. When I was in high school, I’d go to the multiplex by myself and wander from one auditorium to another, watching two or three films on one ticket. I’d rent three or four movies on VHS and watch them all in one night. Working in cinemas was even better. As a projectionist, I’d see films dozens of times. I loved standing in the back of an auditorium to hear the reactions of a packed crowd. On my nights off, I was mostly in the audience.

The drive-in was my favorite job. I loved going to work at 8:00 PM and getting out at 2:00. We’d go for coffee at the all-night donut shop, sleep until noon and clean the lot in the early afternoon. While the movies played, I’d walk around outside and look up at the stars, or I’d set up my lawn chair outside the booth and relax. Sure, the toilets backed up and the customers dumped all kinds of trash (more on that later), but on balance those were good times. Some weeks, we’d have a special bill of old horror movies or drive-in classics (my favorite double-feature was American Graffiti and Grease.) Best drive-in movie ever: Patrick Swayze’s Road House. (Something about the atmosphere mitigated against “quality” films, in favor of ones that didn’t require a lot of attention.)

When Things Go Wrong

My time as a projectionist was entirely in the multiplex age: a single projector for each auditorium (once there were two); a platter system to hold the entire movie, spliced together and lying horizontally (20-minute reels used to alternate between projectors using a changeover); and a xenon lamphouse (which replaced carbon arc – carbon rods had to be trimmed and didn’t last more than an hour or so, whereas xenon bulbs lasted 2000 hours on average.) Using such equipment, a single projectionist could run 6, 9, 12, 16 or more screens; in the old days, it was difficult for one person to run even two.

New movies opened on Fridays. They would arrive in steel cans on 20-minute reels, which had to be transferred to the platter and spliced together. It took about an hour to assemble a movie, and one had to pay attention – sometimes reels were sent “Heads,” meaning the beginning was on the outside; sometimes they came “Tails,” with the end of the reel on the outside. Each reel had a leader piece of film that indicated its number in the sequence. So: Start with reel #1, make sure it’s heads-up, transfer to the platter. (If it’s tails-up, you have to rewind it on the bench.) Locate reel #2, repeat. But sometimes the reels weren’t labeled correctly (or maybe you weren’t paying attention.) In an ideal workflow, each movie is watched prior to being shown to the public. When four new movies open on a Friday, it’s impossible for one person to watch all of them, and unlikely that enough volunteers will be found to sit in each theater while they run.

(I gained about 40 pounds working at the movies. When I’d watch new ones on Friday mornings, I’d get fresh sour cream donuts, just out of the frier a few stores down. And double shifts always involved mall food, which we traded for free passes.)

Working Girl opened on Christmas Day. We received it on the 24th, but I hadn’t been able to watch the entire movie. I knew my splices were good because it started and finished in frame, which was good enough most of the time. (A 35mm film has four sprockets per frame. If the film is improperly spliced, the top of the picture appears in the lower part of the screen and the bottom on top.) During the first matinee (on Christmas), people started coming out of the theater. “The movie’s skipping.” I had no idea how a 35mm film could skip, thought maybe it was out of frame, but then somebody said the same scenes were happening over again – the exact same scenes, about 20 minutes apart. I ran up to the booth and checked the leaders – 1,2,3,4,5,6. On further inspection, I noticed the leaders for reel #3 had splices in them, right before the images appeared. It turned out we had two copies of reel #2, but somebody in the lab had re-spliced the leaders for reel #3 onto one of them. Full refund for everyone and cancelled shows for 2 days until a new reel 3 could be shipped.

The Godfather Part III also opened on Christmas Day. I previewed the film with my brother and knew it was correct. However, the movie was scheduled to play in theater #9, down the stairs, across the hall, back up other stairs and down a long hall. This was a 3-hour film, weighing over 100 lbs. A 3-hour movie comes on 9 or 10 reels, consisting of something like 30,000′ of film. The best way to carry a film once it’s been spliced together on a platter is vertically – you grasp the center of the great big circle of film and make sure it remains oriented up and down. If it goes horizontal with nothing to support it, the spiraled film becomes cone shaped, and risks falling apart. So you guessed it. At some point my arm got tired, my brother tried to help, the film tipped and the middle dropped out. There is no fast way to put a film back together once this happens. Although it wasn’t the worst I ever saw, we worked another 6 hours on Christmas Eve to get it back in one piece, and even then I wasn’t sure there wasn’t a bad splice somewhere until it had played in front of an audience.

I once swapped reels #4 and #5 of the movie Rudy – they played out of order for two weeks before somebody noticed and complained. Once a film broke and was fed straight into the lamphouse, where it melted and smoldered (old-time nitrate film was flammable and exploded under such conditions, which is why old projection booths had steel doors that fell in front of the booth windows once the fire alarms tripped. Acetate film just melts, but it smells terrible and smokes up the booth.)

Pulp Fiction was notorious because the story went back and forth in time. I’d seen the movie and knew how it went, and I got a call from another projectionist who’d just finished putting his copy together. He was puzzled. He said it was “obviously out of order,” so he re-ordered the reels and it still didn’t make sense. I ended up spending half a day with him, taking the film down and restoring it to intended order. Over the years I did similar work on Jack Nicholson’s Hoffa (another Christmas Day opening) and Back to the Future Part III.

I was the opening-day projectionist when Hoyts opened their Riverside 8 Cinemas – 9 films to assemble. A few years later, I opened the Carousel Center 12 (now 17). I put together 14 movies in just over ten hours, not close to enough time to be careful. Somebody important (Tom Harrigan – I forget his bigwig title) stood behind me as I started the first matinee for an audience of twenty people, on a projector I’d never used before. “This had better go perfectly,” he said. It was out of frame, right from the dowser opening.

Famous People

There were (and are) few movie theaters in Utica, so eventually we saw almost everybody in town. Congressman Sherwood Boehlert was a regular, always waiting in line for his tickets and paying full price. I offered to let him in once on a slow night and he refused. A pleasant man. On the other end was John Kazanjian, former mayor and town supervisor of New Hartford, NY. Kazanjian wouldn’t wait in line – he’d bypass that and ask to speak to the manager, always expecting free admission for his entire party. Once, during the 1997 re-release of Star Wars, Kazanjian demanded to be allowed in to a sold-out show with 8 guests.

One time I was selling tickets and a large man with two young women requested three tickets. “Nineteen-fifty, please.” He just stared at me. “Nineteen-fifty for three tickets. Please.” He looked stunned. Somebody came and whispered in my ear – don’t you know who that is? I didn’t. That’s Adonal Foyle – he plays basketball for Colgate. We never charge him. “Nineteen-fifty,” I said. My co-worker pushed me aside and escorted Foyle and his companions through, earning a big smile. “What’s with that guy?” Foyle asked.

Richard Marx played a concert in Utica to support his Repeat Offender album. We received a call around 10:00 PM, asking if Marx and his crew could have a private showing of the movie Presumed Innocent. I checked with the district manager, who said to go ahead and also give them all the concessions they wanted at no charge. Marx’s crew finally arrived sometime after midnight. Most of the cinema staff was on hand, not only to see Richard Marx but also to eat free candy (we already got free popcorn, which most quickly tired of.) I was instructed to start the film, and bodyguards made sure our staff sat in the back half of the theater. Just as the coming attractions ended, Marx was escorted down the aisle and sat by himself near the front. The moment the credits rolled, he was hustled out. No hello, no thank you, no handshake, not even a t-shirt. And I’m pretty sure I was off the clock.

Cleaning Up

People leave gross stuff in movie theaters. I’m not just talking about nacho cheese smeared on the seats, or spitballs on the screen (one of my regular tasks was cleaning the screens of spitballs and Coke; soda stains are bad because they shine.) Used condoms were common. Dirty diapers. On the positive side, a sellout crowd was good for at least $20 in dropped coins and bills (finders keepers).

Popcorn gets EVERYWHERE in a movie theater. That wouldn’t be so bad, except when a large soda mixes in. The Uptown Theater was difficult to clean – over 600 seats and every row a step (sloped floors are much easier to clean.)

The Marcy Drive-In was the worst to clean. We wheeled a small dumpster over several acres and collected the usual condoms and diapers but also household garbage (Utica and many surrounding towns charged by the bag for trash pickup – many of our patrons essentially earned free admission by leaving their trash with us.) We’d also scatter the cinders from whatever campfires had been started the night before.

The Marcy Drive-In was also where I became expert at jumping dead car batteries. We broadcast the movie sound via radio frequency. People would listen on their car stereos and run their batteries down. I had two charged battery carts. I’d wheel one out, hook it up and get the cars going again. Although it didn’t strike me at the time, I’m amazed now that I never got a single tip.

Ghost Stories

Most theaters have ghost legends, which serve mainly to frighten the newest hires. We’d prime them with stories about how the bulldozer turned over on a worker when the land was being cleared, and how his ghost returned to the same spot every full moon, EXACTLY WHERE THEATER 9 IS NOW. Then we’d turn out the lights when they were cleaning. Once, a bunch of kids got a Ouija board and used it in the booth after hours. When they spelled out the name “Gabe,” PRECISELY the name we’d given our imaginary ghost, somebody had an asthma attack and his mother called the manager.


It’s easy to steal from a movie theater, and in some ways it’s encouraged. I don’t condone it, but I participated. On slow nights, the ticket seller doubled as the ticket taker. It was easy to sell one half of a ticket to one customer, and the other half to the next customer. (Easier still to say the ticket printer was down, take the money and let the customer in without a ticket. This had the benefit of no audit trail – in the first example, there was a remote chance the missing stubs would be discovered in a random check.)

Most theaters make their money from popcorn and soda sales. Film rentals take up to 85% of the ticket price. There is tremendous pressure to increase the “per capita” figure, which is the amount each customer buys from the concession stand. Managers were fired if their figures weren’t high enough, and my theater had an especially low per cap (often under $2), probably because we were located right next to the food court. Some locations had per cap figures close to $5, which we found extraordinary.

Now, the following was never discussed or even acknowledged. If two people pay for admission but only one is recorded in the ticketing log, the second admission can be applied entirely to concession – simply throw away the medium cup and large bag to make the popcorn figure reconcile. (Good statistical analysis might have uncovered this, but as I said, the practice seemed to be encouraged.)

Of course, we had genuine thieves. I particularly remember a young man, who has long since earned an MBA and risen through the ranks at Intel, coming up to the office on a Saturday night. “Is it bad if somebody resells ticket stubs?” Um, yes. “Is it also bad if somebody gives somebody else $20 to not say anything about it?” Give me the $20 and tell me who it is. “I can’t keep the $20?”

Do you remember the movie Honeymoon in Vegas? The poster had a picture of the Flying Elvises, a skydiving group of Elvis Presley impersonators. Somebody approached me one day and introduced himself as a member of the Mohawk Valley Skydiving Club. He said I could skydive for free if I gave him the poster. I said I’d ask my manager, who basically said, “You idiot. Why didn’t you just give him the poster?” I never saw the guy again. He was probably lying, but I wonder…

The Best

I showed the movie Ghost at Hoyts Cinema 9 for 31 weeks. That is by far the longest we kept any movie during my tenure (the runner-up was Dances With Wolves, 25 weeks.) I know it’s not the same as The Sound of Music, which played in some single-screen theaters for over a year. Still, it’s exceptional when movies are in and out of the multiplex in a few weeks now.

I watched Silence of the Lambs at 2 AM on opening day, after putting it together – I had no idea what to expect. I waited until daylight to go to my car and drive home.

I fell out of my seat laughing at The Naked Gun, on Thanksgiving morning.

A Few Good Men was great for standing in the back of the theater. The audience always went nuts at the final confrontation between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, and many of my co-workers could play the scene by heart.

I watched the movie Field of Dreams three times on opening day, which I think is my record.

My First (Secret) Job as a Critic

Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute showed art films on Wednesdays. I loved those movies but hated working with them – unlike first-run movie theaters, limited-run art films had been shown before, usually many places before we got them. They were scratched, dirty, spliced out of frame, and a general pain.

Before and after the feature, the Institute had a moderator do an introduction and then host a discussion. To supplement, they prepared a handout every week which included a photocopied review, mostly something by Roger Ebert. One week, the person who photocopied the handouts was sick. I wrote the handout myself, including an original, unsigned essay about the film. I prepared the next ten weeks of handouts until I made the error of writing a negative review. I was called into the boss’s office, where he professed astonishment that I’d been writing original reviews to hand out to patrons. “You have no education in film! Why does your opinion matter?” And so I was fired as a critic. (I still worked as a projectionist.) I asked if I could at least be admitted to the film selection committee, and he smirked: “That committee has film professors and other academics on it. You’re a technician. Why not just do the job we pay you for?”

George Trudeau, I hope you find your way to this blog. You were the smallest-minded, least generous boss I’ve ever had. Which is something, considering I worked at McDonald’s.