Tales from the Projection Booth

I program an art-house calendar film series in Boulder. The auditorium we screen films in has 400 seats and our projection booth is outfitted with two Century SA projectors from 1983. Aside for the occasional specialty event that requires digital projection, all our shows are reel-to-reel 35mm gigs operated by a Union Projectionist (John Templeton, the head projectionist, has over 35 years in the business). While we have many success stories, we also have our fair share of experiences that still make me cringe to think about. Here are just a few:

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales (I Racconti di Canterbury, 1972) – screened in September, 1989:

I programmed this as a late show. At that time, late shows were attracting big campus audiences, but admittedly they were of the drunken and rowdy variety. So, really, more mob than crowd. My conundrum was this: I knew an X-rated film would pack the house, but I also knew it might draw the ire of campus feminists. So my solution was to show something with serious art-house credibility; lots of bawdy sex, sure, but – hey! – it’s based on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer! Alas, the people who showed up didn’t know Chaucer from Chaplin. In fact, the closest this besotted crew probably got to the printed page was Playboy, and I can guarantee you they were not reading the articles. And at this particular screening the natives were getting pretty darn restless (and very sexually frustrated) – so much so that by the time the first sex scene hit the screen they let loose with a collective roar of relief, until they found out it was between two guys, at which point homophobia reared its ugly head and a riot almost broke out. By the time the film reached its rather stunning “end” showing (and I doubt this is a spoiler, but..) Satan farting out all kinds of lost souls, there were only six people left in the audience.


Paddy Breathnach’s I Went Down (1997) – screened October 1998.

They say the show must go on, but on Friday, October 16th, 1998, long-time projectionist Harold Conway Curtis (b. 1930) suffered a massive coronary heart-attack while working the projection booth, so the reel came to an end and there was no change-over. I was sitting in the back row of the theater when it happened, and I remember hearing film canisters falling to the ground along with a sickening thud. I rushed into the booth where I saw Harold flat on his back, eyes open, not blinking, his body completely still. I immediately called 911 and was walked through procedures but – it was too late – I heard his death rattle. Ambulance workers arrived and administered the defibrillators to no effect. The title of the film Harold was projecting still gives me chills.

Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone – screened September 1999.

I tried to warn people on this one. I told them that “absolutely no one under 17 would be admitted.” In addition, I added the following disclaimer to all our ads: “Be advised that this film contains scenes of graphic sex and violence – no refunds will be given based on the content of this film.” I think the description of the film that I wrote for my program also provided a fair assessment of what was in store:

“I Stand Alone is the story of a retired horsemeat butcher who hopes to rebuild a new life with his pregnant lover. But when his hopes turn into bitterness violence explodes. While popular tastes have crowned the anti-cinematic juggernaut that is The Blair Witch Project as the most disturbing film of the year, I would disagree and give that honor to Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone. It’s a film that uses an overwhelming interior voice (“like a tornado,” Noe explains, “inside the head of a psychopath”) that is reminiscent of the writings of L.F. Celine – it transports you into somebody else’s horrifying and existential hell. And what, I ask you, could be worse than being stuck inside the head of, among other things, a racist nihilist? Whereas The Blair Witch Project gets its strength from a sense of immediacy, something that television has made popular and accessible, I Stand Alone dares the viewer to turn away by constantly challenging its audience with Godardian bravado at every corner – it is the exact opposite of television. It is also influenced by Pasolini, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Boorman, Tsukamoto, and Argento, and it ambitiously taps into all that is furious, raw, and cinematic. Those who can stand it won’t soon forget it.”

Of course, all the warnings and disclaimers just lured in the kind of huge audience that would make William Castle proud. But about 30 people couldn’t take it and stomped out in complete disgust. (At least they didn’t ask for a refund.)

Marc Singer’s Dark Days (2000) – screened April 2001.

This was the closest I’ve ever come to getting into a knock-down, drag-out fight with a customer. We had a free screening of Marc Singer’s documentary about the homeless who lived in the abandoned tunnels of NYC, and the director was there in-person. The place was packed. Another three-hundred or so people were lined up outside trying to get in. I was at the bottom of the auditorium giving a long-winded introduction to the director but could see that my staff of volunteers were being pushed aside at the entrances by aggressive people who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. People were flooding the aisles, sitting on the stairs, and we were clearly in violation of fire codes. I ran up the stairs to the main entrance and found myself face-to-face with a “gentleman” who was screaming his outrage at being shut out. We were nose-to-nose and he was communicating his disgust with me quite clearly. I responded, in a way that I realize was not very diplomatic, by reminding him that he had shown up late for a free event that was clearly going to be very popular, and who the f— did he think he was to feel entitled to a seat when there where no more seats to give out?

Time froze. We stared each other down. Our pupils dilated. The veins in both of our heads were throbbing in mutual disgust and anger. Fists were clenched and cocked. And for the only time in my life that I can remember, I was ready to clock somebody, and clock them hard. But, in a rare moment of lucidity, I imagined the front-page headlines of the newspaper the next day: FILM ENTHUSIAST PUNCHED-OUT BY FILM SERIES DIRECTOR. That would most certainly not go over well with anyone. So cooler heads prevailed. I guess you could say I blinked. I’m clearly not meant for the fighting ring (or moose-hunting). But at least I’m still programming films, and with all the blinking I’ve done in the last few years I can also boast of having the properly lubricated corneas needeed to watch them.

28 Responses Tales from the Projection Booth
Posted By moirafinnie : September 25, 2008 5:27 pm

This is hilarious, Keelsetter. Thank goodness you lived to tell these tales. The only film I’ve seen of those you’ve mentioned is Dark Days and believe me, if one was not depressed about the human condition beforehand, you certainly were after viewing this touching doc. I’m glad you blinked too.

Posted By moirafinnie : September 25, 2008 5:27 pm

This is hilarious, Keelsetter. Thank goodness you lived to tell these tales. The only film I’ve seen of those you’ve mentioned is Dark Days and believe me, if one was not depressed about the human condition beforehand, you certainly were after viewing this touching doc. I’m glad you blinked too.

Posted By keelsetter : September 25, 2008 5:50 pm

Marc Singer, the director for Dark Days, stayed in my guest room for a while and I remember him being in the curious position of touring with his award-winning documentary while also being on the lam from from all the credit card companies that were actively chasing him down for debts long past due (he used a string of cards to pay for the film). Last I heard he was shooting docs about deep, under-water cave diving – with descents that exceeded 300ft and that sometimes spiraled into wormholes only slightly bigger than a human body. I’m not sure what it is with him and dark tunnels, and hope he’s still alive. (The phone number I have for him has, not surprisingly, long been disconnected.)

Posted By keelsetter : September 25, 2008 5:50 pm

Marc Singer, the director for Dark Days, stayed in my guest room for a while and I remember him being in the curious position of touring with his award-winning documentary while also being on the lam from from all the credit card companies that were actively chasing him down for debts long past due (he used a string of cards to pay for the film). Last I heard he was shooting docs about deep, under-water cave diving – with descents that exceeded 300ft and that sometimes spiraled into wormholes only slightly bigger than a human body. I’m not sure what it is with him and dark tunnels, and hope he’s still alive. (The phone number I have for him has, not surprisingly, long been disconnected.)

Posted By Jeff : September 25, 2008 6:03 pm

I don’t have any projectionist stories to rival yours but I do remember a time when THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (the 1973 version) was being screened at the University of Georgia’s film program and the projectionist took a quick break and accidentally locked himself out of the booth. He hadn’t properly secured the reel he had just started and it came off the projector and the film began spooling all over the floor as people tried to force the door open and stop the projector. We watched helplessly as the unspooled film covered the floor and then the projectionist comes back and wonders what the hell is going on.

Posted By Jeff : September 25, 2008 6:03 pm

I don’t have any projectionist stories to rival yours but I do remember a time when THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (the 1973 version) was being screened at the University of Georgia’s film program and the projectionist took a quick break and accidentally locked himself out of the booth. He hadn’t properly secured the reel he had just started and it came off the projector and the film began spooling all over the floor as people tried to force the door open and stop the projector. We watched helplessly as the unspooled film covered the floor and then the projectionist comes back and wonders what the hell is going on.

Posted By keelsetter : September 25, 2008 6:15 pm

Jeff, your story jogged my memory about something my Union projectionist shared with staffers regarding some shifts he put in at a seedy porno theater in Denver back in the seventies. (Needless to say, what follows is a bit off-color and not meant for family consumption.) Prankster that he is, he’d open the window to the projection booth and squirt out hand-cream lotion that would shoot out onto unsuspecting customers. You could probably do something similar these days at a screening of SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, I suppose.

Posted By keelsetter : September 25, 2008 6:15 pm

Jeff, your story jogged my memory about something my Union projectionist shared with staffers regarding some shifts he put in at a seedy porno theater in Denver back in the seventies. (Needless to say, what follows is a bit off-color and not meant for family consumption.) Prankster that he is, he’d open the window to the projection booth and squirt out hand-cream lotion that would shoot out onto unsuspecting customers. You could probably do something similar these days at a screening of SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, I suppose.

Posted By RHS : September 25, 2008 8:56 pm

That’s a terrible story regarding your friend Harold Conway Curtis. I fear nothing so much as an ironic death.

Posted By RHS : September 25, 2008 8:56 pm

That’s a terrible story regarding your friend Harold Conway Curtis. I fear nothing so much as an ironic death.

Posted By keelsetter : September 26, 2008 10:18 am

Harold’s death had a huge effect on me and staff. Another one of my projectionists refused to set foot in the booth, and stopped working for us altogether, because he insisted the booth was now haunted (or, at least, cursed). I’ve never seen the rest of I WENT DOWN, so I can’t speak to whether it may have had another interpretable meaning beyond the ironic title. What I can say is that Harold had already retired and was filling in shifts with us because he enjoyed working with reel-to-reel machines and genuinely missed them, since most booths are on automated platter systems. In Harold’s honor, he being a consummate card-player, we still have a deck of cards in the booth.

Posted By keelsetter : September 26, 2008 10:18 am

Harold’s death had a huge effect on me and staff. Another one of my projectionists refused to set foot in the booth, and stopped working for us altogether, because he insisted the booth was now haunted (or, at least, cursed). I’ve never seen the rest of I WENT DOWN, so I can’t speak to whether it may have had another interpretable meaning beyond the ironic title. What I can say is that Harold had already retired and was filling in shifts with us because he enjoyed working with reel-to-reel machines and genuinely missed them, since most booths are on automated platter systems. In Harold’s honor, he being a consummate card-player, we still have a deck of cards in the booth.

Posted By brent : September 27, 2008 12:46 am

I attended a screening of Peter Watkins’ THE WAR GAME once. The projector was in the back of the room. During the movie we heard a thump, a cry – and the roll of film went rolling down the aisle between the audience members, pursued by the projectionist. Believe it or not, the film was still running in the gate. It was much more fun watching him chase it than the movie.

Posted By brent : September 27, 2008 12:46 am

I attended a screening of Peter Watkins’ THE WAR GAME once. The projector was in the back of the room. During the movie we heard a thump, a cry – and the roll of film went rolling down the aisle between the audience members, pursued by the projectionist. Believe it or not, the film was still running in the gate. It was much more fun watching him chase it than the movie.

Posted By Dave @FilmBuzz Taylor : September 28, 2008 12:18 am

“I program an art-house calendar film series in Boulder.” Holy cow, I live in Boulder. Are you talking Boulder, Colorado? And if so, are you talking about the auditorium in the main public library? We should talk… :-)

Posted By Dave @FilmBuzz Taylor : September 28, 2008 12:18 am

“I program an art-house calendar film series in Boulder.” Holy cow, I live in Boulder. Are you talking Boulder, Colorado? And if so, are you talking about the auditorium in the main public library? We should talk… :-)

Posted By keelsetter : September 29, 2008 2:07 pm

The Boulder Public Library Film Program (BPLFP) is programmed by Joel Haertling (son of the famous architect, Charles Haertling). He has adventurous and eclectic taste. Their program used to rely solely on 16mm prints, but now most of the stuff they show is via digital projection. Information about my series can be found at internationalfilmseries.com – check it out sometime!

Posted By keelsetter : September 29, 2008 2:07 pm

The Boulder Public Library Film Program (BPLFP) is programmed by Joel Haertling (son of the famous architect, Charles Haertling). He has adventurous and eclectic taste. Their program used to rely solely on 16mm prints, but now most of the stuff they show is via digital projection. Information about my series can be found at internationalfilmseries.com – check it out sometime!

Posted By brent : October 5, 2008 11:21 pm

Digital projection – BAH, HUMBUG! Don’t you realize you’re putting us real projectionists (28 years & counting) out of business?

Posted By brent : October 5, 2008 11:21 pm

Digital projection – BAH, HUMBUG! Don’t you realize you’re putting us real projectionists (28 years & counting) out of business?

Posted By keelsetter : October 6, 2008 1:15 pm

I think you may have misunderstood my reply to Dave, as I still show all 35mm prints and employ union projectionists. As to the BPLFP series that now shows mostly digital stuff, no projectionists were fired in that transition because their program used to be only 16mm prints that were also run by the programmer himself!

Posted By keelsetter : October 6, 2008 1:15 pm

I think you may have misunderstood my reply to Dave, as I still show all 35mm prints and employ union projectionists. As to the BPLFP series that now shows mostly digital stuff, no projectionists were fired in that transition because their program used to be only 16mm prints that were also run by the programmer himself!

Posted By Razor : July 20, 2009 8:41 pm

Did u ever keep any 35mm frames. I did. My posters and stills , hundreds of them , were thrown outside by my mom. Tsk tsk.

Posted By Razor : July 20, 2009 8:41 pm

Did u ever keep any 35mm frames. I did. My posters and stills , hundreds of them , were thrown outside by my mom. Tsk tsk.

Posted By Natalie : May 2, 2013 3:01 pm

Harold was my Grampa – he was absolutley beloved by everyone who knew him. Although the shock of his sudden death devastated us all, we were also grateful that he was dead before he hit the ground, that he didn’t suffer, and that he was active and productive till the end. We still miss him terribly. He was so funny, so smart and such a joy to be around. He was also a royal pain in the ass at times. He would get a giggle at the thought of someone thinking he would haunt a place – he was Catholic and I’m sure the last thing he would want to do is hang around haunting someone when he could be in Heaven. The funny thing is, at his rosary my sister and I happened to look up at just the right moment together and caught the priest scratching his butt while everyone was supposed to be deep in prayer. In the middle of our grief, it was all we could do not to bust out laughing… we still say that Grampa was there and wanted to see us laugh, so he goosed the priest. There was never before and never will be someone like Grampa, and time doesn’t make us miss him any less. Thank you for posting the story about him.

Posted By Natalie : May 2, 2013 3:01 pm

Harold was my Grampa – he was absolutley beloved by everyone who knew him. Although the shock of his sudden death devastated us all, we were also grateful that he was dead before he hit the ground, that he didn’t suffer, and that he was active and productive till the end. We still miss him terribly. He was so funny, so smart and such a joy to be around. He was also a royal pain in the ass at times. He would get a giggle at the thought of someone thinking he would haunt a place – he was Catholic and I’m sure the last thing he would want to do is hang around haunting someone when he could be in Heaven. The funny thing is, at his rosary my sister and I happened to look up at just the right moment together and caught the priest scratching his butt while everyone was supposed to be deep in prayer. In the middle of our grief, it was all we could do not to bust out laughing… we still say that Grampa was there and wanted to see us laugh, so he goosed the priest. There was never before and never will be someone like Grampa, and time doesn’t make us miss him any less. Thank you for posting the story about him.

Posted By keelsetter : May 2, 2013 3:24 pm

Hi, Natalie – I remember your grandfather’s funeral well. Thanks for sharing the story about the priest. Harold was one of the good ones, and we still miss him around here. The post you are responding to may have been written four years ago, but his deck of playing cards are still in the projection booth where they are considered a good luck charm. -pk

Posted By keelsetter : May 2, 2013 3:24 pm

Hi, Natalie – I remember your grandfather’s funeral well. Thanks for sharing the story about the priest. Harold was one of the good ones, and we still miss him around here. The post you are responding to may have been written four years ago, but his deck of playing cards are still in the projection booth where they are considered a good luck charm. -pk

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