A Busman’s Holiday
The first time I entered a projection box I was only about six years old. My Dad was the chief projectionist at the Rialto cinema in Coventry Street, just off Leicester Square in London. It was run by 20th Century Fox at that time. My Mum was an usherette at the Regal cinema in Camberwell in 1948 when she met my dad.
I also have two brothers, Peter who was a projectionist and my twin brother Roger, who is in charge of the viewing theatres where I work at the British Film Institute in Stephen Street, London. The cinema has always been part of our family life; we all visited other projection boxes in London’s West End, as my dad knew most of the other projectionists.
I still remember going up to the Rialto projection box with Roger and sitting on the base of the Stellmar spot lantern on a Sunday when we both went to work with dad and saw some great films. Dad also showed us the mercury rectifiers and the projection equipment. We also meet the manager, Mr Woolridge. His office was under the stage.
My first job was at the Columbia Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue working on the great Phillips DP70 with peerless carbon arcs. This cinema is now the Curzon West End. In late 1974 I started work at the British Film Institute preview theatres, where I worked until November 1998. I then went to work in three cinemas on the Isle of Wight. I worked there as a school caretaker, but I was pleased to return to the BFI in July 2006.
The first projectors I worked on at the BFI were old Kalee 18s at the theatre in Great Russell Street, where we also ran nitrate film. These machines are now at the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted. Running nitrate you had to be alert at all times; you could only keep 21,000 feet of nitrate film in the rewind room. The film print was fully checked beforehand. All the prints at that time were in excellent condition. The BFI Southbank ran a nitrate film season a few years ago and most of the prints were still looking really good.
I have worked on many other projectors—8mm, 16mm, 35mm and 70mm—and many different sound formats. I’ve seen some fantastic film presentations, which can never ever be seen in a modern multiplex cinema.
When we moved into Stephen Street basement in 1987, we had Dolby Stereo installed in VT1. We have always kept up with all the current projection and sound technology, and have a Christie 2k digital projector with a Dolby 650 cinema sound processor installed. Also, we are the only preview theatre in London to screen 16mm. But the job of the projectionist I think has gone, digital cinema is taking over. Starting with my dad and brothers we will be on the very end of film.
I have also helped out at the NFT, which I enjoyed very much and still love cinema today. Every year I go to the Bradford Widescreen Festival, where they screen three-strip Cinerama and 70mm films in their original format. It’s one of only three cinemas in the world that can do this today. This year is the 60th anniversary of Cinerama.
What a fantastic busman’s holiday!
© copyright caboose 2012
Derek Young has worked as a projectionist for over 30 years and is currently working at The British Film Institute in London. He first started working at the BFI in 1974, left in 1998 and went to work as projectionist at a three-cinema complex on the Isle of Wight. He returned to work at the BFI screening rooms in July 2006. His late father was also was a projectionist, his mother a cinema usherette. He works alongside his twin brother Roger at the BFI. He has worked on all formats of film, video etc., and still very much enjoys working at the BFI.