A guest entry by Martin Duffy.
My full-time working life started in 1967 when I was fifteen years old. My perfect job and I found each other by chance and it was movie magic: I was hired as the apprentice projectionist at the Kenilworth Cinema in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. A cinema later renamed The Classic when its partner cinema of that name closed down. I was a shy, withdrawn teenager spending my evenings separate from those seeking escape, and perhaps some sexual escapades, on the other side of the projection room wall.
It has been more than ten years since I stood inside a projection room, and already by then the world I knew was long gone. On that last visit, I saw the projection room of a multiplex. One person was responsible for seven cinema screens, and each projector had full-length film programmes on self-rewinding reels that were projected onto the screen with the light from powerful, maintenance-free, xenon lights. There was a billiard table in the projection room. Basically, all the projectionist needed to do was flick a switch to start the show.
It was so different in my Kenilworth days.
Even in the late 1960s television remained in its infancy in Ireland. People went to their local suburban cinema to see films. It was still the day of the A and B feature. It was still the day when films were not shown in suburban cinemas until after they had run for weeks (maybe months) in the city centre cinemas. And a film lasted no more than a few days in the suburban cinema, many of them years old and being endlessly repeated on the suburban cinema circuit. There was a double features for Monday to Wednesday, then a new double feature for Thursday to Friday, then a matinee show Saturday and Sunday afternoons and different feature for Saturday and Sunday evenings. How many films did I see in my two years working at the Kenilworth? Actually, I saw just bits and pieces of many, many films. Back then, a projection room was a very busy place.
The usual staff on a shift in the projection room was three: chief projectionist, second projectionist and apprentice projectionist. In my day that was Leo, Harry and me. Harry became a friend and mentor for me to a level reminiscent of ‘Cinema Paradiso’ and was a true angel in my life.
The job took up most of the day. There was the morning shift for cleaning up in the projection room and performing tasks such as changing the house-light bulbs in the cinema’s walls and ceiling. The evening, on weekdays, started at 5pm. The show always ended at 11pm and one of Leo’s many skills was that he would estimate the combined length of the features, trailers, adverts etc and know exactly how far in to start running the first feature before people were allowed into the cinema. To be clear: this meant that the main feature (which would be repeated at about 9pm) would start running at maybe half an hour in before people were let into the cinema so that the entire programme would end on schedule. Imagine any cinema trying to do that nowadays. You walked in to a film and had to sit through its last hour and another feature and all the rest before seeing its first half hour.
There were two projectors and a film reel lasted about twenty minutes. The work was constant and I look back on it with a mixture of joy and panic. The interlude of adverts and trailers was a major juggling act of lenses, glass slides (usually made by Harry) and 45rpm discs. The light sending the film to the giant screen was projected by a carbon arc that required constant maintenance: the convex and concave carbon sticks had to be kept at the exact distance from each other to maintain the right light. If too close they would short-circuit, if too far apart the light would dim drastically. When the reel on one projector was coming to an end the ‘cue dots’ on the top right hand corner of the frame would first signal it was time to start up the next projector and then signal it was time to flick from one projector to the other. Film reels were structured – and in turn this was a decision made somewhere along the line by the director – for this change to happen at a time in the film that would not happen in mid scene.
The reel that had ended was then taken by the apprentice, who brought it to the adjoining room with its rewind benches and the metal lockers for each reel. Lacing up the next film reel in the projector was a very specific skill that I eventually learned but this was usually done by the second projectionist. There were three portals from the projection room: one for each projector and one for the slide projector. I was usually only allowed to be at the latter, which was smaller and lower than the projector windows. Most screenings, I managed to see the middle five minutes of each reel.
As the apprentice, I had such other jobs as going to the shops to buy Bovril cubes for Leo and Harry so we could make a wonderful warm beef drink. I still remember so vividly looking out of the blue-tinted projection room window down on people walking by outside at night while I drank my Bovril and the film clattered through the projector for those people on the other side of the cinema wall sitting in the dark enjoying being lost in their film. I loved my little world of darkness and dreams.
Spooling many years forward, my first film ‘The Boy from Mercury’ was screened in the cinema that had been my spiritual home. The Kenilworth gave birth to my love of cinema and that wonderful screen was illuminated by my own first feature-length dream.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending to its own story.
There have been a few times when I have passed the cinema while back in Dublin. During the ugly, senseless days of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ some prick bought the cinema and completely levelled it in order to build a block of apartments. Then ran out of money to build the apartments. So now it is just a fenced-off area of rubble. The cinema remains a precious place in my memory and in the minds of, I am sure, many Dubliners. The digital era has turned the job of a projectionist into little more than the flicking of a switch. Maybe I should write a book about that era before it all becomes as lost a memory as the image of cigarette smoke wafting through the beam of light making its magic way from projector to the screen.
About the author: Martin Duffy is a storyteller; he works as a film director, writer and editor. He also writes songs and has written several novels for young people and some non-fiction books. For more information please check the links below: