Our private tours of New York City will take us past some of my old haunts: Theaters where I toiled as a movie projectionist, long before I found my calling as a guide.
Unlike leading New York tours, projecting was a solitary job. I was alone 99% of the time, any mistakes I made in the booth resulted in public errors. Depending on the venue, this could lead to a riot. I have misstated facts on some New York tours, but to my knowledge these errors have never lead to a melee.
I had my routines, in the morning, I’d have a cup of joe and a roll; I loved the way the caffeine would kick in and give me a tremendous feeling of peace, calm, and a loving affinity for humanity. I’d ride that wave as long as I could then grab my New York Daily News. If I could mainline news, I would. I’m a newspaper junky, so the job did have some perks. I could read my beloved np’s endlessly without disturbance. I became a storehouse of useless facts, how many people in NYC were aware that wolves were descending in record numbers out of the hills of Dubrovnik into the city. As a guide conducting New York Tours I would share this with my groups, as a solitary projectionist I would wonder why this was even news – who cared?
After my morning read I’d putter around the booth, I like things nice, and neat (you should see my apartment) so there was a fair amount to do. I’d sweep the floors, tighten a screw here or there, clean film chips out of the projector heads. I particularly enjoyed cleaning the parabolic mirrors inside the projectors; only with Bon-Ami of course, remember “it hasn’t scratched yet” it was a great toy, a huge fun house mirror.
As an unsupervised rookie it was easy to make mistakes. You might, or might not know that before multiplexes most films were packed on twenty-minute reels. The projectionist’s job was to switch smoothly between the two projectors, but on occasion I wouldn’t follow procedure and I’d confuse the reels. Working at the Kent Theater in Brooklyn I once switched reels on a classic movie called Gold Diggers of 1933, in the middle of one of the great Busby Berkley’s dance sequences, Dick Powell leaps and winds up – sitting serenely in a chair. Fortunately for me it was 10 AM on a Monday morning, so it was just me, the candy girl, the manager, and a couple of the house cats in the theater. The Kent was a genteel theater in a nice neighborhood and the audience tended to be more forgiving of my occasional gaffes
However, there were other places where the audiences did not forgive, some were in the more desolate areas of the city, and others in the notorious Times Square, a place where I now happily lead New York tours. In the 70’s it was a no-mans land of porn theaters, grind house, topless bars and a who’s who of unsavory characters. At these venues, I was bound by the first rule of the grind house; under no circumstances let the screen go dark. I relentlessly worked my two projectors in an unforgiving twenty-minute cycle. Back and forth, first one then the other, thread up, rewind changeover, thread up, rewind changeover. One minute of work, nineteen minutes of nothing, the audience had paid two bucks apiece for three movies and trailers. they were tough and demanding and brooked no nonsense, a black screen usually led to a riot and a frantic call to the police by the manager. In the morning, when I’d show up bright and early for my fourteen hour shift I’d notice a look of terror creep over the managers face. It took until noon-time until I was able to demonstrate to the poor soul that I was the consummate pro, and there would be no screw ups.