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Being A Projectionist Was High-level, Heady Business, But It Was Not Without It

This article first appeared in issue 18, and was written by Ed Waggener. The full title appeared as: Being a projectionist was high-level, heady business, but it was not without its perils.

Everybody has heroes.

I had a lot of them, growing up in Columbia.

One was Payne Garvin. He lived in the back of the library which was in the big brick house at the corner of Burkesville and Fortune Streets, where the First National Branch Bank is now. I thought that he had the neatest life in the world.

My favorite place was that library, where Mrs. V.P. Henry was the librarian. They kept more books in that building than the New York Public Library does now. Mrs. Henry was the most wonderful librarian. She had actually read all those books, I think.

When you'd asked for A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh or one of Joyce Cary's novels, she'd never say, "We don't have anything by her." She was a great librarian, even though she practiced a rather benign, but effective, censorship. When you'd ask for a Steinbeck novel, she'd give one of those looks, and ask, "Are you sure you want to read that?" The implication was that God was watching or that someone might tell your parents.

Well, Payne Garvin lived there, in the apartment behind the library. If he wanted to, he could just step over there any hour of the day and get just about any book he wanted. He could probably even a Steinbeck without facing a hint of an arched eyebrow.

If he wanted to go to a restaurant, he had three drug store fountains, the G & M Grill, Coomer's Cafe, Lay's, the Hancock Hotel, the Hotel Coffee Shop, or any of four fine poolroom lunch counters to choose from, just steps away.

More than that, he held a most important position in town. He was a projectionist. And he lived just steps from his job. It was no telling what he made at that job. We had conjectured a good deal at the poolroom and at the service station about the upper limits of income he enjoyed, and our conclusion was that it was a lot.

I thought how wonderful it would be to be like Payne Garvin.

Lugging Courier-Journals up Jamestown Hill and down into the Jones-Wright for Elmer Warren on a subcontract for $4.50-the way I had started out, had no great long-range prospect for someone with ambition. I had graduated to throwing the papers from a 1954 Powerglide, sometimes putting Grover Gilpin's paper on his roof, sometimes clipping Myrtle Jessee's geranium, occasionally getting a paper delivered where the customer wanted it. It had gotten slowly better. Still, I wanted more out of life.

I wanted to be in the movies. Not on the screen, but in the business. I wanted something glamorous, like the life of a projectionist.

Then Leo Wheatly's boy, Anthony-some of you remember him as Toot Wheatly-announced one day at Adair County High School that he was making $6 a night as a projectionist at the Adair Drive-In. It had to have been an omen of things to come, because Toot is now a successfully retired railroader, living the life of Riley in Florida.

At that moment, no other student in the whole system was more enviable as far as I was concerned than Anthony Wheatly. After a few weeks of talking with him about the job at the Adair Drive-In, a wonderful opportunity arose.

Toot got on his feet, financially speaking. He didn't need all the money he was making. He was cutting back his work week at the Adair Drive-In Theatre to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He needed an understudy. He needed a substitute. No, he said, he didn't think he could get me on at the rate he was making. After all, he knew the projectionist business inside and out. But he could still get a handsome fee, $4.50 an evening, for me. I jumped at the challenge; $4.50 a night was still a grand sum.

I had seen home movie projectors before. They could be conquered. And I had seen the blinding light the size of antiaircraft search lights coming from the projection rooms at the Rialto and the Columbia Theaters and that didn't look all that awesome. I had seen the tiny projection room, from the outside, which housed the projector at the drive-in.

But I wasn't prepared for what was inside that tiny room. What loomed there was machinery about the size of the KU substation.

I had had hints in my earlier life that I was not mechanically inclined. It first showed up when I couldn't tie my shoes until three years after a fifth cousin one year younger was tying his. And I was not prepared for the ordeal being a projectionist can be, or the perils involved. Buttoning shirts had always been off-putting. The projection room presented enormous mechanical obstacles, and more.

First, there was the dread white screen. You never, ever, "throw a white screen." This disastrophy occurred, I learned, when a slow-witted projectionist missed the cues on the screen to change over the reels. "Throw a white screen in New York," Herb Roden, the Adair Drive-In manager said, "and the union-the projectionist union itself, not the theater owner-will fine you $100. Throw two in a week, and you're out of the union, and buddy, when you're thrown out of the union in New York, you're out." It was even worse with the Communists, I learned. Throw one white screen in Red China, I learned, and they cut off your hands, both of them.

I know people who do quite well without a full set of appendages or digits, but I have always prized all of mine.

Just the likelihood of being drafted, going to Korea, getting lost in the demilitarized zone, ending up getting captured by the North Koreans, who in turn send you to Red China and the Chinese learn you are a projectionist and they make you a projectionist and then you throw a white screen and the Communists cut off your hands, why, that thought alone is cause for concern.

Threading the machine, which Anthony and Herb Roden could do with one hand while lifting a Volkswagen with the other, was an unfathomable mystery to me. It would have been easier to fine the cube root of 19 than to learn that procedure, I thought, and told them so. But they said it took a little while for even them to learn it and now, you could see, they were masters.

Well, if that weren't enough-you know those lights which shine through the film and put the images on the screen? Those were not electric lights that you flip on with a switch They were carbon arc lamps. I had never welded a single piece of metal to another. I knew zip about anything related to carbon arcology. And Herb Roden said that was the most important thing of all, keeping the carbon arc burning at the right intensity.

It was on-the-job-training. As the first film wore on, Anthony had me adjust the carbon arc while he coached.

As luck would have it, I got burned.

I went to the concession stand for Unguentine and sympathy. But I found neither there. I told Mr. Roden, "I burned my fingers." I expected at least popcorn and a Dr. Pepper, on the house, along with appropriate commiseration. But he just laughed. "'Fingers.' That's what we'll call you, 'Fingers,'" and kept laughing.

I had panicked when the I confronted the behemoth of a projector. The panic grew worse with the new knowledge of the White Screen Death. But when he laughed, that was the outrage I needed to Resign with Honor.

I had wanted to quit when I walked into that little room. But no honorable means was at hand. Until he laughed. That was the outrage I needed.

"That's it! I'm out of here," I announced.

"Okay," he called back, "See, ya, Fingers."

Toot Wheatly, the honorable man that he was, had the decency never to address me as "Fingers," anywhere. Not at the service station, not at the poolroom, not at Adair County High School.

But at the drive-in, every time I went, Herb was the ticket seller, and every time he'd ask, "How many tonight," and he'd pause, and then yell, "Fingers?!!!" loud enough to be heard at Meadow Hill Inn.

This story was posted on 1997-12-24 12:01:01
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