How my job at a movie theater, 25 years ago, rescued me from the depression of unemployment and refocused my future
pro·jec·tor (prəˈjektər), n. Apparatus or machine with a system of lenses that projects or throws filmed images onto a screen via a beam of focused light.
“What’s been your favorite job?” Sonia asked me in the hotel lobby. And there it was: the question that would undo everything. It was the simple slash — the paper cut so swift, painless and precise that it’d go ignored for another ten years. In fact, up until these past few months where I’ve been alone, unemployed, and crashing through every possible briar- patch bramble of the holidays, I’d never noticed just how much damage this question had done.
I mean, come on. It’s just one sentence. And yet: boom, done, game over.
It would singlehandedly undermine every job application, interview, performance review, KPI metric, professional goal, personal aspiration, volunteer effort, and any forward career momentum I had. You see, against all odds (i.e. “I was a college English major”), I’d worked my way to becoming a vice president at one of the world’s largest companies, managing a team of procedure writers who all somehow seemed to respect me. And like Sonia, I’d been invited to attend a three-day offsite conference by managers who’d invested their trust in me.
“So, like, the best job I’ve ever had?”
I was stalling because I already knew the answer and I didn’t like it.
My favorite job was two decades behind me, paid $4.25 an hour, and encouraged that person to see as little daylight as possible. So, it’s not the kind of gig you excitedly share with your colleagues or the executive leaders of a Fortune 500 company. No matter how much I might have loved it, no matter how much it’s part of my identity, I’d been trained to keep this part of my past to myself. It doesn’t telegraph a ton of ambition. It’d be like sitting at a five-star restaurant and suddenly asking for a kids’ menu that doesn’t exist.
“No,” she shook her head. “Your favorite one.” “Ever?”
“Ever,” Sonia blew the steam off her styrofoam cup of Hotel Lobby Coffee.
I immediately did my best impression of Someone Thinking Hard.
as·pect ra·ti·o (aspekt rāSHēˌō), n. The relationship between an image’s width and its height on a screen. Most films are “flat” (1.85:1) or “widescreen” (2.35:1). Flat films are slightly taller than an image on a TV screen; widescreen images are what they sound like: sprawling, epic visuals. Every time you see a movie on TV with black bars above and below the image? That’s a 2.35:1 aspect ratio — otherwise known as “letterbox,” which preserves the widescreen format.
You won’t find my favorite job listed anywhere on my LinkedIn profile. No, “Movie Theater Projectionist” has never once shown up on a resume — and lately, Currently unemployed, I’m having a hard time understanding why that’s the case, though. “Projectionist” is that fallen tree in the forest when no one was around; it’s written in the invisible ink of being a teenager — an easily forgotten job that exists only in the shadowy, forgiving murk that lies between high school and adulthood, where nothing you do has any real consequence down the line.
In other words: it pretty much never happened.
Still, twenty-five years later, I had no idea the job would become one of my most cherished possessions. As I scour LinkedIn and Indeed (and yes, Craigslist on occcasion) for work, I’ve never reflected back on any of the countless conference rooms, team-building exercises or performance reviews I’d been well-paid for. Instead, I’m pulled back toward the memories of a ramshackle job that continues to age impossibly well like, say, Paul Rudd.
I’m not sure where or when I categorized jobs as “Quit/Doesn’t Matter/Beneath Me” or “Career/Aspirational/Important,” but I did. And something was certainly lost in that transaction because not one job in the last twenty-five years has been as fulfilling as being a projectionist. I loved that job more than I should, which is to say I loved babysitting eight hulking machines that groaned, sighed, whined, clicked, clacked and clattered as they threw narrow kaleidoscopes of color down into the dark.
Out of high school, my life was pockmarked with half-finished jobs, larks, dead ends, too-long temp assignments, insanely short contract gigs, and lapsed responsibilities that were all behind me for one reason or another. And putting a resume together would’ve been a lot like trying to find a constellation in a bug-splattered windshield.
I mean, look at this nonsense:
Paperboy. The rush of getting that first bag of rubber bands? The thrill of the canvas carrier I’d attached to my bike frame? It was the first time I ever felt “official.” I couldn’t wait to deliver 55 newspapers around the neighborhood on my bike. By the end, I couldn’t be bothered to even roll the papers up into tubes and I’d just drop unrolled newspapers wherever I went.
Lawnmower. Our house was surrounded by the homes of three widows. I mowed their lawns for $15 a pop. My dad saw this as a future enterprise that would expand deep into my tiny hometown, bringing in hundreds of dollars. I simply saw it as “Work.” Near the end, one of the widows complained to my mom that I spent more time messing around with my Walkman cassette player than mowing. I also killed two lawnmowers in one year — once because I didn’t know you had to change the oil; the next…well, more on that soon.
Grocery Clerk. For one solid week, I was the best book-section employee Meijer ever had. The problem is that I was supposed to be shelving salsa and sriracha in the grocery section. Still, against all odds, I’d somehow heatseek-missile my way into helping people find books five departments over.
Library Assistant (Children’s Section). Other than charming the hell out of moms trying to find Judy Blume or Encyclopedia Brown books for their kids, my one true job was to put alphabetized index cards in those old wooden shelves. It was as excruciatingly boring as it was challenging for someone who’d rather read the book itself than plant clues on where you might find that book. Then again, there’s nothing sexier than someone who accidentally memorized the Dewey Decimal System. You tell me it’s a book numbered 715-something and I’ll tell you it’s about plants. (I think.)
Honk if you remember these bad boys.
Nothing felt real, though. I could check out at any point. I wasn’t leaving permanent marks anywhere with jobs like these. Not until I graduated college, I figured — and even then, I might still circle low-level jobs that would excuse hangovers or the growing sense that my life wasn’t shaping up to anyone’s expectations, least of all mine.
While I’m at, can I tell you the worst job I’ve ever had? This even counts the sociopath I once worked for — a blustery, wide-eyed woman who spoke about herself in the third person. She said things like: “Time out — Molly doesn’t understand” or “Molly needs some lunch” or “Molly and this team need to be ‘open kimono’ with everyone.”
But that job under Molly still can’t compete with: Calendar Kiosk Torture Victim — or, officially, “Ancillary Products Coordinator.”
Waldenbooks had hired me after the library and, for a real five weeks, I was rocking that job like no other. I shelved books with alarming accuracy; I threw out so many successful book suggestions to pre- vacationing wives that the manager suddenly exiled me to the far side of the Small without warning. I couldn’t believe it. But there I was: T.J. Maxx to my left, Bath and Body Works on the right. My job was not unlike being sent to some remote Siberian weather station but instead of meteorology, I had to watch a square wire-framed rectangle lined with more calendars of dog breeds, crazy cats, and Thomas Kinkade paintings than I thought humanly possible.
The manager said it was a compliment to my personality and energy. I would draw people in, she said.
But it was August and she was full of shit. It was like selling Blade Runner to people in 1982. No one was ready for it. My job was literally ahead of its time. Also, there was nowhere to sit. No stool or chair. My job was to simply straighten the calendars and circle the kiosk. Over and over again. That was it. I wasn’t allowed to read a book; I wasn’t allowed to chit-chat with my new friends at Bed Bath and Beyond or TJ Maxx. Circle and straighten those calendars. And so I circled. And circled. And circled. And circled some more, trapped like satellite debris in a low earth orbit.
Until very recently, I feel like I’ve been circling there ever since, desperately wondering how to achieve escape velocity.
an·a·mor·phic (anəˈˌmôrfik), adj. Style of film that looks distorted until the appropriate lens is applied to make it widescreen.
I’d rather have told Sonia how Hotel Lobby Coffee is a facsimile of the real thing — barely a notch above Auto Repair Shop Lobby Coffee — and still a very bad impression of Actual Coffee at that. But that would mean I’d have to admit that I, too, was a facsimile of the real thing. I was masquerading as someone who was smartly navigating and building a career. Truth be told, I just grabbed whatever opportunity came my way, no questions asked.
Maybe it’s the “Milan, Ohio” in me. Yeah, my postage-stamp of a hometown barely ranks a thousand people (and Thomas Edison’s birthplace), so jobs were few and far between. You learned to strike fast. So, when someone floated my name at the bank for a job I wasn’t necessarily qualified for nor even interested in, I’d just jump and take it with enthusiasm. I’d look at the job description weeks later. This scene from Tron is the best analogy for showing you how I made decisions. Sudden 90-degree angles at breakneck speed, lost in a CGI maze.
(Go ahead and watch the scene, by the way. I’ll wait. I’m unemployed, remember? I’ve got time.)
I guess this is to say that I always made the easy, fast decisions when it came to my career, never bothering to get some higher perspective on the maze.
By 18, I expected great things for myself. I’m not sure where or how or why this was the case, but I was hurtling forward with an unjustified swagger and some pretty poor assumptions about how life worked after high school. My big plan? Sure you want to hear? OK, here it was:
I’d have a novel or a script tumble out of me It would become Very Popular
It would Sell For Lots o’ Money
I’d be set for life.
That’s right. That was the expectation. I kinda-sorta believed it, too. Everything else I did in life was just background noise until that happened. College would be just be some cute, curious experience I could talk about at parties, like someone’s African two-week safari, and my life would just be an endless boulevard of green lights. Pretty soon after I turned 30, I turned to a career of alcoholism once I discovered the universe doesn’t pay you the life you feel you expect or deserve.
lead·er (ˈlēdər), n. Empty length or section of film attached to the head or tail of a film to assist in threading a projector or telecine. Usually full of blank images or a countdown.
Obviously, Sonia hadn’t meant to pull a trigger. And to the best of my knowledge, she doesn’t have “6:54 a.m. Career Crisis Delivery” listed as a skill on her resume. (Let me know if you hear otherwise.) No, my colleague and friend always hit me with trivia questions on business trips. That was just her thing. After all, we were always the first ones down in the lobby of whatever Marriott or Hilton we were staying, waiting for our co-workers to shamble down from their rooms ahead of the fucktillion team-building exercises, icebreakers, breakout groups and Myers-Briggs personality tests that awaited us.
We were in Wilmington, Delaware — a place that I never believed actually existed, let alone have to visit someday for a business trip. Part of me still wonders if that city even truly exists rather than being thrown together, blindsided by my visit, scrambling its signposts, sidewalks and streetlights up and running to keep up an illusion. None of its shops or storefronts ever seemed open or closed, which was something I identified with. I’d made no choices; I’d just arrived. There was no strategy to my career (“English major,” remember?) so, who knows? Maybe all lost souls end up in “Wilmington” eventually. All I know is that I’d been drifting for decades, bobbing around and bumping into chance and happenstance. And yet, on that particular business trip, I’d be handshaked, high-fived and/or hugged by pretty much everyone I saw.
This isn’t bragging. Quite the opposite.
This is me telling you that I was moving ahead way too quickly, gathering strength and acknowledgement — but in all the same ways that an aimless hurricane hellbent for a coastline does.
My career was just blindly steaming toward landfall where I’d come apart.
change·o·ver (CHānjˌōvər), n. Vintage industry term referring to a projectionist’s switch between one projector to another during the course of a single film. Cue marks in the upper right of the screen were crucial (unless the projectionist had somehow memorized the movie) in signaling the moment to change reels. Generally occurred at the end of each fifteen-to-twenty minute reel of film.
That ravioli-sized image on the right? That’s what your movie looks like before it goes gigantic.
The Cinema World Plaza 8 theater was an obese, white cinder-block structure squatting behind the Sandusky, Ohio mall (or, if you’re “Sandusky, Ohio Clever,” you’d knowingly call it “The Sandusky Small”). The theater was as generic and unremarkable as theaters get can get, too. No soaring ceilings, no marbled pillars, no stadium seats. The carpet inside wasn’t so much fabric as it was a smear of reds, yellows and blacks — the latter of which I’m pretty sure wasn’t part of the original pattern.
If a Ford Motor assembly line could be a movie theater, that’s Plaza 8. In fact, that’s being way too kind. I have to imagine my cousin Matt, thirty years deep into his great career at Ford, is surrounded by people who are lively and fun and care. So, let’s try “a sinking ship crewed by drunken, disconnected or depressed teenagers who didn’t care that you were trying to get away from life.” That’s more to the point.
You bought a ticket and then walked fifteen paces to the ticket booth. Then, you had to get past our ticket-stand maniac — a kid named Jay. (More on him in a minute.) Then again, maybe you’d have to grab some tortilla chips with electric-orange nacho cheese sauce first, or an overpriced half-gallon of flat Mountain Dew. Then, you’d sit in a threadbare seat that squeaked with the slightest move, watched a movie on a big white screen in the dark with strangers, and returned to the real world.
I’m making it sound like this was the worst place ever, but it couldn’t be more Hallmark Movie/sepia-toned nostalgia for me. Like I said, it paid precisely $4.25 an hour, with overtime that amounted to something like maybe 20 cents more, but I legitimately loved that job so much that I’d visit the theater when I wasn’t even on shift. Essentially, everything I ever needed to learn about job satisfaction, work-life balance, personal fulfillment. and basic human interaction came twenty-five years ago — all tucked into a job where I threaded celluloid to be split into sight and sound, entertaining many dozens of anonymous people in the dark.
It’s not like I made the things that I threw onto the screen, but I felt like I did. (Not going to lie: there was a poetry to the way I’d weave movie previews together. I could glance that Twister trailer off Stepmom in weirdly beautiful ways.) But I was the person at a very long list of people — from writer to producer to casting to director to editor — entrusted with getting Titanic as well as Bedazzled to the people.
And yet, it was as affirming to me as donating blood or volunteering at a homeless shelter’s kitchen on Christmas Eve.
But it’s also where I realized that I’m my own worst company. Being left alone for hours on end, just me and my thoughts, was the last thing I needed. Only COVID lockdowns, work-from-home mandates and quarantines would further prove that I’m right there. At first, I thought I needed that emptiness and solitude. But being alone has a weight in all the same ways that an “Real Job” can be empty and hollow. Neither makes sense but they’re true, either way.
Lately, job sites and recruiters have asked me lots of questions:
“What’s the best job fit you’ve ever had?”
“What makes you most comfortable?”
“Where were you most confident?”
“Describe a failure and what you learned from it?”
“What doesn’t feel like work?”
That dopamine rush of seeing someone liked your Instagram post? It’s a far distant relative to the thrill of running those eight projectors. There was a process to follow — even if, at the time, it was a hurried and somewhat sloppily executed one. On Thursday nights, new movies would arrive in the middle of the night. Each film came in a handful of huge metal canisters. I’d unlatch one, remove the film reel, untie the paper band, splice the header to the footer of the previous reel. Rinse and repeat until, voila!, you’ve got a fully assembled print of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.
Just one reel of a 35mm movie (roughly 15 minutes) would arrive in a canister like this. (I almost had a hernia hauling eight canisters’ worth of Braveheart up to the booth.)
And while that movie came together, growing larger and larger on the platter, I’d feel a twinge of pride. I was making something. With my hands, no less. It’s not like I was a construction worker admiring some skyscraper where I’d spent a year, midair, drilling rivets into girders. Still, my pride was inescapable. I even bet my 9.3-fingered shop teacher would have given me a “B-”. (He’s up ahead, too.)
I was getting better at it, too. I’d narrowed the process down from seven minutes to just under three minutes. I used to time myself, as if the fate of the world was in my hands if I didn’t thread that projector under 120 seconds. Now that I look back on it, I’m wondering if I wasn’t secretly the time bomb. If I didn’t complete this meaningless job on time, I thought, I had nothing left to live for.
flick·er (ˈflikər), n. Unsteady light or image on the screen. Generally the result of a misaligned shutter or improperly threaded projector.
That summer, a regional manager named Dennis swung through and it was a big deal. You’d have thought the President was coming. Dennis resembled a fire hydrant with furrowed brows, interacting better with clipboards than us human beings. All I know is that we worked especially hard ahead of his visit. We scrubbed eons of popcorn-butter film off the lobby windows so they were actually transparent for once. We released the corn kettle on time, every time, instead of regularly filling the lobby with an invisible, acrid fog of burned corn that we barely noticed anymore. And my co-workers even managed the hardest trick of all: manners (i.e. saying “Sir” without smirking).
Dennis, however, was the human equivalent of the theater itself: generic, anonymous, well-tread, grey, cold, efficient. No personality.
I was hanging out at the box office, listening to Marie’s latest adventure in a drive-thru. (Almost verbatim: “Baby, they tried giving me fries instead of my baked potato. And then, they tried shorting me on my sour cream. People were honking but I wasn’t moving. No sir, no way.”) Dennis had taken so many careful steps in our direction that I hadn’t even noticed him until he was inches to my left.
“I thought Mark was running the booth today.”
“Yeah, he’s up there,” I stiffened, but not in a respectful sort of way.
“Up there. You mean: running the booth?”
This guy couldn’t have more of a dialtone. If Dennis was impressive at anything, it was his talent in speaking toward you while looking around you. It’s like I was a black hole bending light around me. And when he wasn’t making eye contact, he was lost in his clipboard of notes, ticking off boxes or drawing lines.
“So,” Dennis asked, without missing a beat, “why are you here?”
These were questions that computers, algorithms, and Scantron machines posed — not people. But it was simple: I wasn’t on the day’s schedule and yet, there I was. That’s all the math he had to do. He scribbled some notes about the stained drop ceiling tiles, the crinkled Batman Forever poster, and Marie’s forest of soda cups and fast food containers hidden on the box-office floor.
“Because I love being here.” His eyes suddenly met mine.
Now, I’d like to think that this was the moment that shocked The Grinch’s heart into becoming three sizes larger or whatever, but he suddenly regarded me as more than just an unscheduled presence. I was suddenly a UFO on his radar — an uncostumed employee who hung out at work because he enjoyed it.
I watched my answer tumble down like he was a human Plinko. An hour later, right before Marie left me on another cliffhanger (“And then you know what they said when I didn’t have my purse? Let’s just say it wasn’t nice.”), Dennis pulled me aside. Again, looking around me, he asked if I’d ever be interested in management. Turns out, Dennis worked faster than he moved: he asked Charlotte what my story was and I have to imagine it went like this:
“I’m sure he’d be great. But good luck.”
And so, there I was with Dennis outside the men’s restroom facing a future.
“There is a six-week training program…” Dennis started in.
I already felt my train car of attention decouple from the engine. I’m pretty sure I even cut him off.
“Because,” I scoffed, “I’m going to college.”
My words continued to not compute.
“But this is a career program.”
“For this?” I whirled my finger around.
I’d never disregarded something as quickly as I dismissed his question.
Here was a guy offering me an opportunity to someone enthusiastic, fresh, idealistic. And yet, the idea of movie-theater management wasn’t part of the life plan that I didn’t have. I’m not saying it was the right choice for me, but it certainly wasn’t an unacceptable future. No, miles and miles of papers on Pynchon and postmodernist theory awaited me, not to mention poverty and Popov vodka. The movie theater was a backdrop, not a beginning. And I waved it off as if the job was as plot hole-filled as Die Hard With a Vengeance (showing in Theater #5).
To this day, my reaction haunts me. How did unearned expectations and goals come to tangle with reality and opportunity? Why did I devalue a thing that I loved?
A week later, Charlotte announced our report card from Dennis.
Overall, we’d received a B-.
There were lots of minor grades that added up the final: B+ for popcorn-kettle timing; B- for soda pours; C+ for employee attitude.
I’m pretty sure I was to blame for that last one.
splice (splīs), v. To physically join together lengths of photographic film. Completed by stamping transparent tape between two previously disconnected sections of celluloid.
This is a badly spliced story. I apologize. I’m all over the place. I suppose it also drives home the point that I had zero business being a projectionist. None whatsoever. My father was someone who put things together: he built me a pogo stick, a pair of wooden stilts, a rock tumbler and a working PC. That’s just the first four things to come to mind, too. He also tried for years to build me a future — encouraging me to not overlook an opportunity that was probably right in front of me — but I never listened. I always knew better. Spoiler alert: I was as bad at listening to people as I am at following instructions. (My kids recently bought me a LEGO car and it took me three months to assemble it.)
In fact, let’s try something different here. Let’s screenplay this up:
INT. EDISON HIGH SCHOOL — MILAN, OHIO (OVERHEAD ANGLE) FADE IN TITLE: “STUDY HALL — JUNIOR YEAR, 1994”
The camera PANS OVER a high school cafeteria in mid-afternoon, well after all the trays and trash have been cleared from lunch. Some students are SLEEPING while a precious few are actually ACTIVELY READING their textbooks and TAKING NOTES. One or two are just staring into the middle distance, feeling every minute pass. This is a time before mobile devices and texts and TikTok. There are truly prehistoric times. We KEEP PANNING OVER the cafete —
There I am. See me? Right there. I’m the chunky one with the Next Generation paperback.
Back then, my class schedule looked like someone dared me to take seven different jigsaw puzzle pieces and jam them together. Nothing fit.
“French II”: Not only a disappointing and difficult sequel, but yet another weird step with a language that I can read but still, to this day, not speak.
“Intro to Physics”: All I remember is having to get a permission slip signed by the teacher for a choir performance. Mr. Wallrabenstein made a real meal out of showing me my grades from the quarter, saying that I had a “C double-minus.” I stared back, not understanding that he wasn’t joking, and asked if he was going to sign the slip.
“Industrial Arts”: Fucking shop class.
Yes, Industrial Arts. My parents thought it’d be useful for me to learn how to plane boards, sandpaper and sand wood blocks, and screw shit into place with power tools. Little did they know that, gun to head, I couldn’t find 5/8" on a ruler. It may as well have been a haunted house, with its sudden squeals of machinery and the scorched smell of sawdust. I hated that workshop more than anything. Also, my instructor only had half an index finger on his left hand, which didn’t help anything.
So, for someone who was so gung-ho about being a projectionist, you have to understand what that job requires:
Understand that diagram? Good. Explain it to me later, because I still don’t know and I operated eight of those bastards.
Our final project in shop class was to disassemble a lawn mower engine and then put it back together. The minute my dad begrudgingly handed over the family lawnmower, I’m sure he immediately started searching for a new one. We both knew what the outcome was going to be. Parts and more parts.
Give me an engine and I’ll give it back with a few extra pieces left over
I wanted to be a projectionist for reasons I didn’t even yet understand. For one, it sounded cool to say in my small-towned head, not unlike being a sommelier who had nothing to do with the vintage they’re trying to impress you with. For another, it felt like there was a chance to demonstrate a skill beyond recalling Twilight Zone episode titles. I’d always thought that the real reason chefs became chefs, pilots became pilots, and surgeons became surgeons was simple: mastery. Who’s going to argue with them when they have that title?
When you casually drop “I’m a surgeon” in a conversation, you’ve just dropped the mic and walked offstage.You’re always in demand. You’re immediately respected. You’re the expert. I mean, someone’s always going to need to start that 4:10 movie, after all.
I’d learn later that you get exactly as much from a job as you put into it — no matter the profession.
You see, I learned just enough to get by and look the part. For the longest time, I learned nothing outside the basic rules. I could get the projector started, but if and when things went wrong? Forget it. I didn’t know why the film suddenly seized and snapped on your screening of Babe. Worse, I depended on someone else to fix it and never paid attention. (Later, I auditioned for a projectionist job at a real movie theater whose way-too-serious chief projectionist carried around a can of compressed air, some Q-tips, and old-timey phrases like “Now we’re cooking with gas!” before determining that my loops were consistently way too big around the soundhead for his liking.)
Most times, I pretended like I was just an observer to their magic. I didn’t dare touch anything. But the honest reason I never got gear grease on my hands? If I buckled down and actually learned the job, inside and out, or if I took the projector seriously and understood its inner workings — it’d become real. I’d realize that I wasn’t better than the job. It was just as real as any job that lay ahead of me and, in many ways, far more real than my future of endless emails and conference calls.
ap·er·ture (ˈapərˌCHər), n. The rectangular space through which light passes through a projector lens and lands onto the screen
Ding-dong, the movie projectionist was dead. Overnight. Thanks a lot, George Lucas. He knew that the insane idea of film flapping through a machine was three decades past its expiration. That said, it’s hard to believe I had a job that doesn’t exist anymore, as if I was once a milkman or something.
These days, the “projectionist” you might see wandering up in the booth is more of a software engineer or a concert sound technician. They’re just making sure the movie file is loaded and ready. They’re sure as hell not stringing hundreds of feet of film between one machine to another and then back again, praying the whole time that they’ve gotten the balance of tension right so they’re not strangling the celluoid. Even then, I couldn’t tell you by sight but only by sound that I was doing my job correctly. I learned to understand all those clicks and claps and clatters in the dark and what they meant. No matter what, all this means is that I’m nostalgic for something that doesn’t exist anymore.
There’s one strange fact about 35mm projection that still confounds me. though. And I think it speaks to not only my place in the workforce, but anyone’s career. Filmgoing is a shared illusion — an agreed-upon lie between everyone in the audience. Seconds into it, everyone’s bought in. You’re just going with it. So, here’s a little secret you’ve probably never noticed about movies up until the time I left Plaza 8 and George Goddamn Lucas took over…
For about fifty years, every movie came with the soundtrack embedded into the film.
See those two white squiggles between the left sprockets and the frames of Milla Jovovich in a hilariously bad sci-fi movie? Those are your left and right stereo sound channels.
If you ever have the chance to see, say, an old 35mm Hitchcock print in an art house and you don’t really care about having the movie experience ruined,
WATCH EVERYONE’S LIPS VERY CAREFULLY.
It will take you about a minute or two, but soon enough, you’ll discover that the dialogue is jusssssstttttt off by a millisecond. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
There’s a lag — an imperceptible delay, much like the sound of a engine roar following a 747 in the sky. That’s because those squiggles aren’t the exact sounds for the frame to the right. The soundtrack is actually a few seconds behind the frames they’re lined up with. The film has quite a journey to make through the projector: it first hits the aperture, gets thrown onto the screen and only then, three or four seconds later, slides around the soundbar. If you don’t time it exactly right (and most no one can), you’re going to have a slight delay. The thing is that you’ve seen so many movies in so many theaters in your life that your brain has already overcompensated for it. You don’t even notice it. It’s bridged the gap for you.
If I pay real close attention to most every career move I’ve made, there’s a lag there, too. Study me real closely and you’ll see an ellipsis of hesitation or doubt before I say “yes” to the next opportunity. The words are slightly off.
There’s character in the speckled grain and the colored scratches of old, weathered film, sure. There’s a lot to love. But every time you run a film through a projector, it loses a little more of itself. It’s never going to look the same way the next time around. The process guarantees it. Digital projection doesn’t have that problem. So, you can see the history of your 1959 Vertigo print by its nicks and scrapes alone. You can read them like Braille or heiroglyphs. But that’s not something to aspire to in life: being the weathered, broken version of yourself, stripped clear of yet another layer with each passing experience. And no matter how perfect a projectionist you are, you can’t stop time. Film, by nature, will fade and disintegrate. So there’s something to be said about showing up every time for an audience, just as bold and dynamic as the last time. Consistency, integrity, confidence.
We all appreciate vintage things, but only when they’re behind museum glass where they belong.
mar·quee (märˈkē), n. Structure over the entrance to a building, esp. a theater or hotel that features interior attraction.
Let’s go back almost the beginning, just to show you how my favorite job of all time was a long time coming — for better or for worse. If I couldn’t live in Hollywood, I could at least warm my hands on the hobo-barrel fire of the Cinema World marquee sign. My obsession with movies began there, at age six, in the shadow of that thirty-foot tower of movie titles and showtimes. Titles spelled out in 18-inch red characters; showtimes and ratings listed in black ones.
The marquee could have been three hundred feet tall back then, since it loomed as high over the roadside as it did my childhood.
The sign occupied more real estate in my head than anyone would ever find healthy. Before falling asleep, I’d often imagine what titles might be there when we next drove by. In the meantime, I’d make my own marquee using a magnetic white board, spelling out fake movies and random showtimes. No matter what, the marquee was always there, front and center in my thoughts, glowing with titles that sounded equal parts welcoming and dangerous. Even now, if I let my brain drift far enough out to sea, I can see it.
I wish the marquee had simply spelled out what was ahead of me in life, though, instead of Jewel of the Nile under “Coming Soon.” It’d have saved me a lot of agony. You see, up until maybe that last paragraph, I’ve not trusted myself to make the most calculated life decisions. The thing that no one ever tells you is that you generally never doubt the machinery that’s installed in your head — you just trust that your brain never gets caked with dust, have a blown bulb, needs expensive service work, or require the occasional lens replacement. You trust your thoughts because, well, they’re your thoughts.
And that’s how you suddenly become a person who’s unemployed, way far afield from where you started. I’d set as many impossible goals for myself as I had inaccurate rationales. Every time I denied that the theater made me happy, I railroaded myself into another dead end, filled with wide eyes, sad shrugs, and gritted-teeth winces. “How tragic,” these expressions say, as if I’m already dead.
Dog-earned paperback pages. Handprints on walls. Misaligned picture frames. Air bubbles in stickers. The sound of someone biting into an apple or eating tortilla chips.
Those stupid things carry a weight that’s both empty and heavy at the same time. They gnaw at me. It’s a lot like how peeling sunburned skin is both grotesque and weirdly satisfying. So, as a projectionist, I had control. I could focus, frame and filter. The presentation was mine.
So, the marquee is where I first remember the water shifting direction with my brain. Where my aunt and uncle live in Virginia, it’s tidewater country. They have this “brackish” water (salt and fresh for you river noobs out there) that’ll shift direction between high tide and low tide. But there’s a moment where they’re pulling in the same direction at the same exact time and that’s something they call “slack water.” It looks and feels like a television screen full of static: alive and dead all at once — just like my synapses being tugged in different directions at once.
I wasn’t going to make movies; I was going to show them.
I wasn’t going to write films; I was going to accidentally memorize credits by osmosis.
My future anxieties and issues were literally spelled out up there on the marquee tower:
The Secret of My Sucess. The missing “c” in “success” throbbed like a splinter. Fir3walk3r. The two threes in place of the “e” confused and concerned me. “PG13”. A plummeting-elevator fear in not seeing a hyphen.
A missing “or” in the title? Panic.
An “a” instead of “an”? Frayed nerves.
One time in that procedure manager role, I sat in a conference room while people threw movie titles at me and I could tell them the film’s release date within two or three days. Not years. Days. I’m not kidding. Toss me a title and they’d validate it on their phone. Mild laughter, bemusement. And just when I was starting to become impressed with my own party trick, the executive director in the room wasn’t having any of it. He snuffed it out like someone might with a candle and also destroyed the only actual thing I had to offer.
“Are we done here?” he asked the room, then quickly shot me a glance. “I mean, this would be neat if any of it actually mattered.”
That’s exactly what the humorless Harvard-educated bank director said to me before pivoting to a series of spreadsheets full of arrowed trends and colored areas of concern. It stung. It also further drove my movie- theater projectionist past further underground.
It wasn’t worth anything. None of it matters. It’s the sort of pain that stays with you for life, perfectly preserved like the Jurassic Park mosquito in amber. He wasn’t wrong but, in many ways, I felt like I didn’t matter, too. That shame, twenty-five years frozen over, finally melted when I thought of the marquee tower: proud, tall, bright. Its sloppy spelling shortcuts still got the point across. No, it wasn’t perfect but it braved thunderstorms, lake-effect winds and howling blizzards. The letters and numbers didn’t matter. They’d come and go. The marquee simply did the absolute best it could with what it had. And the last time I checked, many decades later, it was still standing.
plat·ter brain (ˈpladər brān), n. Device that regulates the tension between the platter sending celluloid film to the projector via a series of sprockets, gates and rollers. Determines the film’s travel speed and prevents the film from moving too quickly or too slowly.
Theater workers aren’t unlike the cartoonishly creepy murderers in whatever B-movie we were showing that week. Motel manager who spies on his guests? Knife-wielding high school principals? Outcasts with no motive? Violence aside, not far off. We were villains hidden in plain sight. We wore burgundy vests and days-unwashed white shirts that buttoned all the way up, but we couldn’t have been more invisible.
We lived between showtimes, as if we were costumed to dodge raindrops. In fact, we were like “3:39 a.m.” — a time that I’m sure is real, although I’ve very rarely ever seen it in person. (Not unlike Wilmington, Delaware.)
For some reason, I can’t tell you your name if you told it to me fifteen minutes ago but I can remember, with crazy clarity, everyone I worked with at that theater. There was a foreign exchange student from Australia named Hannah who, oddly, never seemed interested in watching any of the movies. There was a dude named Troy who might have been juggling four girlfriend/co-workers at the same time but was too charming to ever get caught. There was a guy named Ken in his early forties who drove to work every day in a Ford Fiesta with a wooden bumper bungee-corded to the grill. Also, a near-albino janitor named Tim who skittered around the place after hours with his bucket and broom.
But to me, the only person who has mattered was this guy named Jay. He could’ve been 18 or 80. It didn’t matter. We all agreed that he was from another planet: a crooked, six-foot-two vanilla bean of a human, hair buzzed to the scalp, and whose job was exactly as follows:
1. Tear the movie ticket in half
2. Direct the customer toward their theater 3. Clean that theater when everyone left
But he was so much more. Jay somehow perfectly embodied all the rough-hewn qualities of the theater itself: a vest with a missing button, an occasionally unzipped fly, a homemade haircut, a yellow-collared white shirt, perpetually crinkled, insomniac eyes. I knew exactly where he was coming from. Nothing was hidden. He gave not one shit about your feelings. In hindsight, I grow fonder of Jay with every passing day.
Nervous, on a first date? Well, Jay would cure that in five seconds.
“The Lost World? For real?” he’d sigh. Maybe if you were lucky, you’d get a deflated dinosaur growl out of him. “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s not a good sequel.”
But here’s the thing: he wouldn’t do it just once. No, he’d do it every time, informing everyone in the general radius what he thought about Jurassic Park 2. He’d repeat it even if he told the people in line just ahead of you. He was the world’s worst gatekeeper. He’s the guy who casually ruined The Sixth Sense, Conspiracy Theory and A Perfect Murder for countless people without thinking twice about it. So, in my mind, he’s a legend.
Think about that for a second. Think about about how many times Jay must have said he was disappointed in your movie choice — to your face — and then repeated it, over and over and over again.
At the theater, you’re aware of many kinds of customers. There were correct ways of dealing with things and there was Jay’s way.
“Crediters.” When you buy a ticket, you entitled to the entirety of the film, uninterrupted. So if you’re the last person in the theater, that means no one can flip the lights on until you leave. Jay’s Response? Crash through the door with his wheeled garbage can, grunting and grabbing trash in the dark.
“Bladders.” These are the people who repeatedly run to the bathroom throughout the movie. Jay’s Response? “Goddamn. How many times you gotta go?” “Jumpers.” Right when Theater 2 lets out, some people will try to “jump” to another movie, unnoticed. Normally, we’d kick them out. Jay’s Response: “Good luck. That movie’s just as bad as your last one.”
We were just as opportunistic and shrewd and impolite. Almost every night, the crew would get together and watch a movie after closing hours. People smoked, movie passes were traded for free pizzas, cases of beer were drunk and employees made out in the dark (i.e. Troy). One of my favorite memories is seeing an enormous co-worker sit with an equally enormous weather-balloon-sized trash bag of popcorn on his lap. I was so happy — I sometimes tilted my head back, gazing up at the ceiling like someone gazing up at the night sky in admiration of constellations or meteor showers. I’d watch the projector’s beam over my head — streams of shifting colors and light, catching all the dust and smoke on kaleidoscopic fire.
brain wrap (brān rap), n. Malfunction where the platter brain fails to regulate tension, allowing the film to wrap around the “brain” instead of the film itself on a lower platter. Results in the tension becoming too difficult for the projector or the brain to manage, causing damage to both.
Our manager Charlotte was running late that morning. It was a Tuesday in late July or early August, just before eleven and our first wave of Pocahontas and Dangerous Minds showings. I thought nothing of volunteering to “manage” until she got there. Easy enough. I threaded up all the projectors early and went downstairs to make sure none of the team had disappeared with fifty boxes of Buncha Crunch or an industrial-sized package of toilet paper.
The dead body on the lobby floor didn’t even register with me.
I could sense that I’d descended into chaos but I didn’t know how. I could feel it like I can feel the plot twist to 99% of every single movie before you do. (That’s not because I’m smarter — I’ve just endured movies than you have.)
You see, nothing ever changed down in the lobby. Ever. And that’s what I counted on. It pretty much ran itself. No matter how many surprises might happen in the booth, the lobby was a known quantity. Before the doors flung open, the crew was always sleepily lining their drawers with ones, fives, tens and the random twenty, quietly inventorying each Junior Mint box and bag of tortilla chips. The sound of morning popcorn in the kettle was gentle and serene. Marie would be singing to herself. Mike, glassy-eyed and high, would be sweeping up popcorn, both imaginary and real. Troy was Troy.
Nothing was in its right place; no one was acting their part. But it was Jay who was the giveaway. I could tell that something was spectacularly wrong when I saw him. Dread flooded my brain. Jay wasn’t slumped over his ticket booth, mocking some poor guy and his mom about the “sad bastard movie” they bought tickets to see. No, instead, he was grabbing hot, heaping handfuls of popcorn straight out of the popper and stuffing them into his pants pockets. He wasn’t pretending to hide; he clearly thought he’d activated his Invisibility Button. Jay was getting after it while the getting was good. He was drizzling each handful of corn with the butter oil before jamming them them into his pants, so his hands, shirt, vest and crotch were an orange, greasy mess that didn’t quite say “Dead woman in the lobby,” but it was pretty close.
“Paul,” Marie mouthed to me from the front counter.
I’m sure she actually voiced my name, but I didn’t hear it. All I saw was a woman’s head on the floor staring upward. There was a sunhat to the side. Someone was crying.
It had just happened.
I processed everything as quickly as I could. Everyone was in shock and moving in slow motion, not sure what to do but moving randomly all the same, as if underwater. It’s like they all just staggered away from some fatal intersection crash. Someone was crying. A FedEx delivery guy was trying to get out of the theater while dozens of people were trying to get in.
“I locked the doors,” I heard Marie say. “Second it happened. I was just calling you upstairs.”
Someone banged on the glass impatiently. I couldn’t tell if they didn’t see the dead woman on the floor or they just really, really wanted to see Congo. I turned and saw Jay munching on a handful of his pocket- pressed corn.
“She was just gone,” Marie said, almost apologetically.
The woman died faster than Marie could print up her ticket for The Bridges of Madison County. She and her daughter bought tickets to see The Bridges of Madison County with Clint Eastwood and, four seconds later, she was dead. Eyes open. Just a Tuesday. Heart attack. Later, we’d wonder if the theater was to blame. Summers on Lake Erie could be brutal, with the heat and humidity weighing down like an anvil. The difference between that and the first, sharp blast of air conditioning wasn’t unlike getting stabbed with ice.
The middle-aged daughter is sobbing, hand over her mouth. “It’s all right, Marie.”
The Choose Your Own Adventure choices popped up quickly:
- Call 911, then hide in a locked office.
- Call 911, then hide upstairs in the projection booth.
- Call 911. Forget everything else. Hug the woman’s sobbing daughter until the ambulance arrived.
The pathological liar in me wants to tell you I did #3, but that’s the tidy and untrue answer. Instead, if I’m being honest, I did an awkward mix of all three. I put an arm around the daughter, turned her away from her mother, ignored the idiots banging on the glass for their 11:15 showing of Who Gives a Shit? and prayed for the sound of sirens. The daughter let a few violent sobs into my shoulder before three girls from the concession stand came out of nowhere. They gently peeled her away from me and brought her to a seat to the side.
I shrunk back, watching the theater crew suddenly lock into place and do the right thing. Marie stepped out of the ticket booth, cracked open a door and explained the situation. Mike and Troy crouched down between the woman and the windows, quietly staring out with expressionless faces, and did their best to block anyone from seeing her. And Jay watched as smoke poured out of the popcorn machine, letting the latest batch burn in a black, oily churn.
I staggered back toward the projection booth, shrinking from everything. I’m not proud of it. I wasn’t prepared for it because nothing at Plaza 8 had been real before. There were never any stakes. So I felt myself tugged toward to my safe place where I’d sit at my desk under a single light bulb and cry for a couple of minutes out of shame, sadness and everything else.
Hours after everything downstairs was settled and I’d finished my shift, I slipped through a lobby that once felt like a playground and now felt like a workplace. I made eye contact with none of team as I headed straight out the doors. My next shift wasn’t for another three days and I wouldn’t be hanging out there until I had to be there. It’s the moment I felt the tide shift — the exact moment I decided to finally follow through on things all the way, to show up and be present, and to thread every projector even if the movie hadn’t sold one single ticket. For the first time ever, I’d be ready.
throw (THrō), n. The distance between the light source (typically, a xenon arc lamp) and the screen upon which it shines.
Threading a projector is no different than keeping your head clear and free of clutter and debris. It’s a prescribed series of steps where if you miss a sprocket, shutter or soundhead, the movie simply doesn’t play. Or even worse: the film tries to run through the projector’s workings and gets all twisted and mangled.
Whenever 35mm film got stuck, you realized just how close to a Rube Goldberg Machine a movie-theater projector was. Everything was mere seconds from the audience suddenly seeing the filmstock burn, blister, bubble before their eyes. The illusion literally melted away. And if you didn’t regularly dust and polish everything, the tiniest piece of dirt could cause the worst damage. The first time the movie runs through, you’d probably never notice it, but the damage was already done.
There’d be a thin vertical line that you could kind of ignore while you watched it. But once the scratch is there, it only gets worse — especially if you were a lazy projectionist like me, sending that movie through dirty sprockets over and over again. If you weren’t careful, those thin black lines grew into fat green ones and, eventually, wide yellow bands. Cyans, magentas, golds. That’s when you knew you’d cut deep into the emulsion. The film couldn’t ever be seen the same way again. That’s exactly how I felt about my life after the theater. The more I insisted that the $4.25 an hour job wasn’t as important as any of the highest-paying corporate jobs I had after, the more obvious the scratches became.
sprock·ets (ˈspräk ·ətz), pl. n. Horizontal perforations stamped into a film that help a projector pull it through the machine via metal teeth.
Here are some quick lessons I gleaned from babysitting those projectors and quasi-managing the theater because, well, you’ve read this far and every movie follows a three-act structure. We’re well into the final reel here.
Pay attention to the details — especially under pressure. Every Wednesday morning over the summer, we’d show discounted kids’ movies for, like, $3 a ticket or something. I’d get these second-run prints, tattered and beat to hell, but I wouldn’t receive them until the morning of. It was an immediate race to put them together before the strollers and screaming kids came in. One morning was Far Home From: The Adventures of Yellow Dog. (Yes, real title.) The plot: Yellow Dog gets separated from his owner, has some adventures while he’s lost, and manages to find his way home. Well, I’ve got maybe forty minutes to throw this Yellow Dog bullshit together and instead of paying attention to some handwritten instructions from the previous projectionist, I assemble it in a blind frenzy. The result? The first reel ended with Yellow Dog becoming lost and the kid sobbing (“Mom, I really miss Yellow Dog…”). The second reel starts up and IMMEDIATELY, there’s good old Yellow Dog racing up a hill, drenched in sunlight, and charging happily toward the kid. Both are thrilled beyond belief. Tears, reunion, end of story. Credits roll. Also: Confused Parents and Horrified Projectionist. If I’d have paid attention to the notes, I’d have noticed Reel 2 and Reel 5 had gotten swapped and the movie was completely out of order.
Don’t assume the other person cares as much as you. In order to move those massive prints from one place to the other, we had to clamp three or four big brackets onto them. I assumed the other person helping me (usually some kid from Concession I pointed a finger at) was going to be as careful or caring as me. The five reels of Sylvester Stallone’s Assassins, for example, paid the ultimate price of this. Long story short: the clamps weren’t tight on his end and Assassins ended up worse than its reviews: spilled all over the floor in a mountain of tight, twisted curls and coils.
Someone is always trying to cheat the system. No matter where you go, someone is looking for the shortcut. I had to fire two kids that summer for working an impressive con game they’d worked out. They figured out if you punched up a refund ticket at the box office and then had someone rip that ticket, you could bring that torn ticket to the box office counter for the cash. (It was Jay who accidentally came up with the con by noticing the loophole and loudly telling the team about the idea, as if no one would ever think to do it.)
Someone always knows more than you think they know. A creepy bearded guy saw Cindy Crawford’s action epic Fair Game three times in a row one day. He asked to speak with a manager to see how he could get a copy of the movie. When Charlotte said he’d have to wait for the DVD, she then jokingly pointed at me and said, “Or ask him — he’s the projectionist.” Without any irony, he walked over and offered me $500 in cash for Crawford’s ten-second nude scene in 35mm. All I had to do was cut the section out and fork it over. Easy cash. While I said no, it was enticing. The dude turned out to be a “plant” sent by good old Dennis, checking to make sure we weren’t fully corrupt yet.
You’re not as important as you think you are. Many years later, I returned to the theater for a few months when I needed a quick job. I became convinced that I caused the 2003 blackout when I pushed “Start” on the 4:10 showing of the Affleck/J-Lo award-winner Gigli. No one had purchased tickets; I was just bored and wanted to have a projector running. Everything suddenly went dark. I hurried downstairs to see the hallways plunged in emergency lighting. I was just about to apologize to everyone until I realized it had absolutely nothing to do with.
Don’t ever (as a prank) suddenly shut the lights off in Theater #4 while Jay is cleaning it alone, throw open the projection window, chuck a bucket of water into the dark, score a direct hit, cause Jay to scream “What the shit?!” and then have him tear into the lobby like a maniac completely drenched in water. I guess you can’t do anything with this advice beyond, well, don’t ever do it should this highly specific opportunity avail itself.
shut·ter (ˈSHədər), n. Rotating device that admits light from the lamphouse to illuminate the film across to a screen. Its speed needs to be perfectly timed to maintain the illusion of “reality.”
“What’s been your favorite job?” Sonia asked me in the hotel lobby. And here we are again: standing in Wilmington, Delaware before 7 a.m., with the world outside bruised with that too-early/too-late blue. But it forced me to realize it was a series of half-lies and non-decisions that brought me here in the first place.
I can tell you the first movie I ever assembled (Friday with Ice Cube) but I can’t tell you the last one I took apart. I can tell you the first time I got the picture and sound perfectly aligned (Clueless with Alicia Silverstone) but I can’t tell you the last time I did. Think about the last time you saw a loved one before they passed away. You probably didn’t know that was going to be your final interaction, right? I mean, it’s just a moment like any other. I recall tossing a casual goodbye to my grandfather as he climbed into his van and drove off. Three weeks later, he was gone. I did the same with my dad before leaving my parents’ house one afternoon, choosing to leave him alone as he stared out the big bay windows and blissfully unaware of his dementia. I just said “Bye.”
No, I’m convinced that the right moments to say goodbye to something — an unappreciated job, an apartment, a parent — are the moments we never notice but almost always miss. We never get them right. They’re anonymous and unimportant and it’s only how we choose to splice these things into something meaningful that matters the most. My career hasn’t been doled out to me in metal canisters and numbered reels. That’s not how it works. No, I simply take what I’m given, drawing the next header to the last footer. I make clean, orderly splices. I take care of the gates and the sprockets and the rollers and the aperture plates and everything in between. I’m mindful of the machinery of it all.
I have no idea what’s coming up next on the screen for me, but I’m more prepared than ever to see it.