Small town movie theater tech

I was reading Roger Ebert’s lament over the disgraceful decline of quality in theater projection (a function of theater owners who just don’t care anymore and the corrupting influence of bad 3D), and then I remembered that last year I took some pictures of the funky old technology in our local movie house, the Morris Theatre.


This is a classy old place, a bit run down now, but once it was the entertainment center for the whole community. It was built in the 1940s, and it’s very old school: a single screen, so you don’t get many choices here. What’s playing this week is what’s playing this week. That’s fine, though, since you don’t go just for the movie, but for the atmosphere and to sample the different audiences that show up for different movies.

Anyway, my daughter, Skatje worked there until she graduated from college and abandoned us to move hundreds of miles away and leave us desolated and lonely, and so one evening when I was the only customer in the theater (that sometimes happens, and then I get the whole big screen to myself, which is not economically viable, but that’s a whole different matter), I puttered about getting in the way and seeing what was involved. I took a few pictures. I don’t know if they’ll make sense — the room was awesomely cluttered and complicated.

This is a peak into the projector room. The three big circular tables in the center of the picture are where the film is stored; each week, when the new movie comes to town as a collection of reels, each reel is loaded on here and spliced together to make one giant continuous tape.

The blue object on the left is the projector itself. I’ll turn a little to the left in the next picture.


That’s the back of the projector, where the lamp is located. The big black tube coming off the top is the cooling duct…held on with duct tape, of course.


This is the snout of the projector, aimed out the little window at the screen.


Back to the film table. Fuses! Buttons! Handwritten warnings about the correct order to run everything on!


Here’s the projectionist preparing to show this week’s movie (in this case, it was District 9). First she gets the starting frames of the film and loads it up through some apparatus in the center.


Then it has to be threaded up over some bobbins on top of that red post…


…and then down through more bobbins.


Then it goes across the room to the projector, where it is threaded and looped through the machine.


Voila! Projector is ready to go.


After the film leaves the projector, it’s drawn back across the room to another spool on the big table. One thing that surprised me is that there is film everywhere — it’s not compact and tidy at all, but the film is just dangling there in a four or five foot swing across the room. There are great opportunities for a klutz to trip and create a tangled mess in here.


Just in case you get lost, there are diagrammatic instructions on the wall.


It’s amazing and a bit sad that all of this elaborate mechanical chaos can be replaced by a box with some fancy electronics in it, and that all that film is going to be replaced by a stream of digital data, but that’s the future for you.

There are plans afoot to thoroughly renovate the Morris Theatre. The lovely old facade would be kept, and the style of the ticketing/refreshment area would be preserved, but there’d be a radical reorganization of the theater itself to create one big screen room and two smaller screens, so they can bring in a greater variety of movies. Due to the peculiar nature of distribution and contracts, distributors can lock us in for specific, sometimes lengthy dates — so we’ll get the hot new Hollywood movie, but at the cost of having to run it for two weeks or more. And since we’re a small town, you get into these situations where everyone in town sees it on the opening weekend, and then it sits there pre-empting the whole theater, even though noone is going to see it again.

I’m a little afraid, though, that if and when the theater is remodeled, the clumsy antiques of the projection room will go away and be replaced by shiny metal boxes with blinking lights and one little cable to a big digital storage gadget, which will have no place for duct tape.