New York, USA
25 Years at Radio City
I was around nine years old when I first entered a projection booth. I had been given a 16mm hand-cranked projector by my uncle and, already a movie fan, I was fascinated by it. I attended a Saturday matinee at the Majestic Theatre in my home town of Streator, Illinois. I was seated in the balcony right in front of the projection booth, and stood on the arm rests of two of the theatre seats to peer through the projection port. Not seeing as much as I’d like, I went around to the booth door and was peeking through the keyhole when a manager caught me and ushered me into the booth. I was scared at being caught, but fascinated by the equipment. By the time I was twelve, I was being taught how to thread one of those machines by one of the projectionists. (I was able to re-enact the experience a couple of years ago and was surprised to see how much lower the keyhole seemed than when I was nine).
When I was seventeen I was in Radio City Music Hall for the first time. I had read about it and had always wanted to see it. My parents and I were visiting relatives in New Jersey when we took a side trip to New York City and I was able to see the film High Society and the stage show which included Undersea Ballet (with both front and rear projection effects). I was blown away. I went up to the third Mezzanine and stood in the aisle looking up at the projection ports wishing I could see the inside that booth. (A vice-president later said to me, ‘Well—that ought to teach you to be careful what you wish for!’)
Seventeen years later, when I was 34, I walked into that booth as the Head Projectionist. I had left an 800-seat theatre in Illinois with one and a half projectionists and entered an almost 6,000-seat theatre with eight and a half projectionists and thirty-six Rockettes. It was a job that was to last for a quarter of a century (I received my 25-year ring and pin in 2000). Since it was about 1951 when I started to learn how to thread a machine I tell people I’ve been hanging around projection booths from ‘B.C. to A.D.’: Before CinemaScope to After Digital.
While I had worked in what I considered the ‘Radio City’ of drive-ins in Illinois, a 1,200-car venue with a 60 x 125 foot screen and 600 in-car heaters, as a ‘hardtop’ Radio City is unique. The throw from booth to screen is about 185 feet, a distance so great that if the sound is in sync at the screen, it is four frames out of sync in the back row of the third Mezzanine. Fortunately, since it was the Hall I was in many cases able to get special prints pulled for us with the sound track advanced two frames to compensate for the physical size.
Among the multiple projector jobs I had were running the screenings of Abel Gance’s Napoleon with its three-screen triptych at Radio City, being a relief projectionist at ‘The New York Experience’, a multimedia presentation that included interlocked 16mm projectors, multiple slide projectors, fog machines and effects (Nathan Hale hanging from a rope descended over the audience—and on one occasion into the audience every show). I also worked a couple of nights at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Metropolitan Opera, which featured three interlocked 35mm machines in a booth mounted on a scissor lift which rose over the heads of the audience standing in the Lincoln Center Plaza in front of the Met, projecting onto five screens that rolled down from the top of the Met Opera House.
As a union projectionist I was called to work on the side in advertising agencies, film laboratories and movie studios. I was a background projectionist for CBS on the television shows Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns and Captain Kangaroo. I also ran ‘dailies’ for Sydney Lumet on seven of his pictures, including his last, and worked for director Otto Preminger in his home screening room. Preminger was the first big director I worked for when I came to New York. I had grown up in Illinois watching his movies from The Moon Is Blue through Carmen Jones to River of No Return, Anatomy of a Murder and Exodus. I also saw him portray the ultimate Nazi in Stalag 17 (which was ironic since his family was driven out of Europe by the Nazis).
A number of technicians I worked with when I came to New York had worked on various Preminger premieres and told me how difficult and abusive he was. Thus, I was a bit unnerved when the union called me at the Hall and told me they wanted me to do a screening for him in his home screening room. I finally said I would do it if I could break in on the equipment ahead of time. The union gave me a number to call, and when I did, a woman answered the phone. I explained what I wanted and she said, ‘Just a moment’. The next voice I heard was unmistakably Preminger’s. ‘Und vhat can I do for you?’ he asked. I explained that I would be the projectionist the next night and wanted to familiarise myself with the booth, and he said, ‘Of course, come over any time’.
The next day I arrived at his house early wearing a turtleneck sweater and sport jacket. The butler who answered the door thought I was one of the guests until I explained why I was there. We rode a small elevator up to a level below the screening room. Otto lived in a townhouse on the East Side and had to get permission from the city to add two floors on top of the original structure for his office, gym and screening room. We had to walk up one flight. The screening room was two stories high. The booth at the back was one story high, and on the next half floor was the gym and atop the booth seats for the Preminger children so they could watch a movie without being with the guests downstairs. It was the only private screening room I’ve worked in that could be said to have a ‘balcony’ and was truly one of those rooms you see in Hollywood movies about people who have screening rooms. The booth wall on the audience side was covered by a large painting. In front of the wall was a sofa, and in front of that a marble-topped coffee table. When you rolled the top of the table back, screening room controls were available. At a push of a button the vertical blinds over the windows closed, and the screen lowered. Another button controlled the masking which was adjustable from ‘flat’ to ‘Scope’. Another button raised the painting on the booth wall to reveal the projection ports. There were two 35mm projectors complete with four track magnetic penthouses and a 16mm projector that would take reels large enough to hold a complete feature.
I was busy checking in the print for the evening’s screening when I heard, ‘und how is it going?’ behind me. I turned and there was Otto in a jumpsuit. I explained that I could build the print, which came from China as unmounted rolls of film without cores, up on house reels, but didn’t have enough cores to unmount it at the end of the screening. He told me not to worry; he’d have his assistant do it and left. I had just finished checking the print in when I heard, ‘Excuse me’; it was the butler carrying a tray with the same food the guests were to have for dinner. After I finished eating and was watching guests file in, Mrs. Preminger walked in with a tray containing a coffee pot and cup and saucer and asked me if I would like coffee. Hope Preminger had been a costume designer on Exodus and that influence showed in the sheath dress topped with a jewelled choker she was wearing. The guests filed in for the screening. At the end I was running the credits and trying to bring the room lights up slowly when the painting on the other side of the wall descended cutting off the projected image. I assumed that was the end of the screening and finished shutting down the booth and let myself out.
The Preminger home was like a mini-Museum of Modern Art. They had great taste. A Picasso was mounted on the wall outside the booth, and a small Dubuffet sculpture stood outside the powder room. While they did have the elevator for the lower floors, there was an enclosed spiral staircase leading upstairs next to it. At one point I snuck a peek (there I go—peeking again) and on one side of the staircase was a niche with a Brancusi sculpture in it, lit by light coming through a slot in the wall directly opposite. The last time I worked there Preminger had had to hock his Picasso to fund his last film, but he had replaced it with a large montage done by Saul Bass of all of the titles Bass had done for Preminger films.
Looking back at a diary I have of one of those years, I see that I worked at the Preminger home quite a bit. They were always charming with Mrs Preminger coming into the booth one evening to tell me that she was glad to see me again.
One of the last screenings I did there was to run two features (one of them The Man Who Would Be King) so Otto could cast actors for his last film. One of the actresses he was looking at was from the Caribbean and had a distinct accent. At the end of the screening Otto came into the booth and asked, ‘Und vhat did you think of her?’ The question was a little disconcerting since I was running the movie, not watching it and had difficulty hearing some of the dialogue over the machine noise. I replied, ‘Well, the patois was a little thick’. Otto laughed and said, ‘I couldn’t understand a vord she said!’
I didn’t realize that first evening that I would be coming back as frequently as I did. I was so impressed at screening for a man whose movies I had grown up watching in Illinois that I never cashed the cheque I received; it was made out to ‘Robert Endres, projectionist’ and signed ‘Otto Preminger’. My reference book on projection was Richardson’s Bluebook of Projection which I asked for and received as a birthday gift when I was a freshman in high school. In a sense it was my Bible, and to this day the bookmark in that book is the Preminger cheque.
© copyright caboose 2013
Gallery photo by Vicki Trimble.
Planetary Projection is thankful to June Reich for her kind assistance.
Robert Endres was born in 1939 and raised in Streator, Illinois. He attended high school in Streator where he became interested in broadcasting as well as motion-picture projection. His first paying job was as a janitor/disc jockey at the local radio station while a junior in high school. He attended the University of Illinois where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism in 1962 and a Master’s in Radio and Television in 1963 and had been admitted to the University’s doctoral program before leaving to go back to work in his local radio station from 1963 to 1967. While there he started working as a relief projectionist and was admitted to the operators’/stagehands’ union in 1966.
When the shopping centre theatre boom started in the 1960s Endres was asked if he would be interested in working in a theatre in Champaign, Illinois where the university is located. He thought it would be a good job to hold while working on his doctorate but the booth only had a 6’ ceiling and since Endres is 6’4” he thought it might be hard on his posture. Within the month the union local in Kankakee, Illinois said they had a new theatre opening and offered him a job. He decided to try it full-time just to get the projection bug out of his system. He was to remain there from 1967 until 1974, when he was offered the job of Head Projectionist at Radio City Music Hall in New York (every projectionist’s dream job).
He was to remain there for twenty-five years, and is probably the last projectionist in the United States to work a ‘movie/stage show’ policy in two theatres on the same day, which involved operating both a projector and running a spotlight—the show at Radio City in the morning/afternoon and one at the St. George Theatre on Staten Island that night.
Radio City was one of the first theatres to be used as an experimental site for Dolby Laboratories’ entrance into motion-picture sound, and in 1999 he left Radio City to become a Projection Technician in Dolby’s reference screening room in New York, a position he holds today.
The booth at Radio City Music Hall, taken in 1951 when the Simplex X-L projector heads were installed.
The Christmas Show feature the first year I was Head Projectionist at Radio City Music Hall was Stanley Donen’s The Little Prince. Paramount provided us with 35mm prints with three-channel stereophonic sound recorded on magnetic tracks on the film. Unlike European 35/70mm projectors (including Thomas Hauerslev’s beloved Norelco DP70 machines) which were built as a complete unit, the magnetic sound reproducers for American projectors tended to be attachments that could be placed on top of the projector just under the upper film magazine. This eliminated the need to buy a whole new projector, but could cause some problems as they weren’t actually driven by the projector. The film coming from the upper reel was just pulled through them by the upper projector sprocket through a set of springs and fly wheels used to stabilize wow and flutter and keep the track against the reproduce head. They were referred to as penthouse reproducers (no connection to the magazine) because they sat on top of the projector head.
The Music Hall was still using carbon arc lamps in those days, and the carbons were supplied by a French company. The negative carbon was copper coated, while the positive was just a carbon rod. A problem arose because in shipment from France, if the carbons were dropped, they could crack, and in the case of the negative the crack would go unnoticed under the copper coating. Then as the carbon burned down, when the copper around the crack melted the end of the carbon would fall off resulting in losing the arc.
I was working with my co-projectionist one Saturday morning, playing to a packed Christmas show house, when we lost the end of the negative carbon and the light. We frantically tried to restrike the carbons to no avail, and then decided to just replace the negative. I had a new carbon ready when my partner opened the lamp house door and pulled the damaged carbon out. We put the new one in in a matter of seconds and relit the arc.
I reached over and restarted the projector motor and put the picture on the screen for an audience that up until that time had been relatively patient. I forgot about the fact that the magnetic penthouse reproducer was undriven. When we stopped the projector to change the carbon, the fly wheels in the penthouse continued to pull film from the upper reel into the unit as they slowed down. Thus when I started the projector and the slack was taken up when the film started pulling from the upper reel again the sudden tension broke it. The screen went white (I did too), and the audience let out a roar of disapproval. Several nights later, I awoke at about three in the morning in a cold sweat hearing that sound.
That experience became a mantra of mine that is still remembered in some quarters today: ‘You ain’t been booed ‘til you’ve been booed by 6,000 people!
Because of the downward projection angle, and the fact that the auditorium is a block wide, a ‘gain’ screen is impractical at Radio City Music Hall (a fact which killed the screening of Kiss Me Kate in 3-D. They found they would lose over 1,000 seats because of the hot spot). Thus light on the 70’ x 35’ screen (maskable to any format) was always a problem. Screens are said to have ‘gain’ in reference to their reflectivity. Think of it this way: if you shine a flashlight on a piece of white paper, it is reflected equally in all directions. The paper appears equally bright whether you look at it directly or from an angle at the side. Thus it is said to have unity or no ‘gain’. Now, shine that same light into a mirror. You won’t see the light looking at the mirror until you reflect it directly into your eyes. If a sheet of white paper can be said to have unity gain, then a mirror might be said to have 100% gain on axis with the light source. If you move to either side there’s no reflection of the light to your eyes, but on axis, the light is about as bright as it is if you look at the flashlight directly—a ‘hot spot’.
No screen has a gain of 100% since it would be useless, but they do have gain of 1.4 to 2.2 depending on the amount of reflective material in the surface. If you use a highly reflective material for the surface, the light coming back at you in a narrow path would look brighter than it would if you were showing the picture on a white bed sheet. This phenomenon helped the image look bright in Nickelodeons even if the arc lamps at the time weren’t very bright themselves. Hence the ‘Silver Screen’. The more reflectivity the screen surface has the higher the ‘gain’. That worked fine for Nickelodeons—they tended to be converted from stores and were long and narrow, thus the light came directly back to the audience’s eyes. The problem arises with wider screens: as you move off axis, a bright ‘hot spot’ appears from the projector, as the light isn’t being evenly reflected from the surface but is undergoing a mirror effect. The Polarized 3-D projection of the 1950s (and even today, with Dolby 3-D being the exception) requires a high-gain screen so that the light from the left eye filter on the projector comes directly back to you and the same with the right eye filter. A screen with no gain lowers the ability to separate the two images. That’s not a problem with ‘anaglyph’ 3-D, using red and blue filters to separate the images, but it is a problem with Polarization. With the original Polarized glasses and filters of the 1950s, even tilting your head would cause you to see two overlapping images. Currently, theatres that use disposable 3-D glasses use a form of Polarization and tend to have high gain screens. Some even change the screen when they go from ‘flat’ to 3-D projection. It is still a problem because after the 3-D screening is over, using the high gain screen can cause the ‘hot spot’ effect to become apparent.
In the case of the Music Hall the spot changes position as you cross the auditorium since it is a block wide. The light is also reflected at a 19-degree downward angle into the audience, so those sitting in the orchestra at that angle tend to have a brighter looking picture, much as with the flashlight/mirror example.
The Hall used a special screen material for CinemaScope. Fox referred to their CinemaScope screens as being made with ‘Miracle Mirror’ surfaces. In the first place the screen was curved horizontally which distributes the light more evenly, and then there were tiny cup-like dents in the surface which distributed the light more evenly vertically. In the case of the Hall and other theatres with extreme downward projection angles, the cups or ‘lenticulations’ were stamped into the surface with a 5 degree tilt, which brought the reflected light up 5 degrees higher to cover a bigger portion of the auditorium. In addition, a house where I worked in Illinois with a 23-degree downward angle had the whole curved CinemaScope screen tilted back at a five-degree angle. Combined with the screen surface, the light was thus covering a portion of the auditorium ten degrees higher than it would normally have, meaning the central part of the orchestra and the front of the balcony. The Music Hall, by the way, doesn’t have a curved screen. It would take up too many line sets needed for scenery in the stage show. Since Fox required a curved screen, it meant that the Hall didn’t run a CinemaScope feature until MGM gave them Knights of the Roundtable and said they didn’t care whether a curved screen was used.
Photo above from the 'National Projector Carbon Bulletin #1 – The Carbon Arc', Union Carbide Corporation, 1957.
Photo below by Henry Rapisarda, for Cosmo-Sileo, 1954.
In 1981, the first year we did Napoleon, no one thought it would be as big as it turned out, so there was no photo documentation. After the first year it was decided to bring in screens so we could have a larger image for not only the triptych, but the bulk of the feature as well.
On our 70’ screen the images for the triptych would be about 17’ x 23’ which is small for the Hall. The first year we ran the first half with different lenses to give a slightly bigger image, but the centre panel image in the second half was run at the same size as each panel in the triptych. To give us a bigger image, Boston Light & Sound brought in three 30’ wide fast-fold screens and butted them together with white screen material laid over the places where the frames met. The screens were hung on a pipe just upstage of the first blacks, so that they could be used to mask the side screens until the triptych came up. Thus, the image in the photo above is basically a 90’ wide image as the triptych is being shown. It’s a screen shot, but not of the normal Music Hall picture sheet.
In some places a 70mm print was used for the triptych, but the triptych at the Hall was always run on projectors 1-3-5 (see the light from the three projectors in the second photo above), and the bulk of the feature on projectors 2-4. It took a fair amount of work to set up the five projectors to do Napoleon. It would have been much easier to do the triptych from one 70mm reel and 70mm was used in some venues, but we did it the right way every time it was shown.
Photos by Deborah Cutler.
Screening Napoleon at the control position at the third machine where I could start all three projectors and do the changeover to the triptych from the second reel of the second half of the feature. The projector with the big reel behind me is the second machine which ran the first half of both parts of the feature.
Photo by Deborah Cutler.
The auditorium at the Radio City Music Hall when I was still Head Projectionist there. Taken for a 1997 article for Home Theatre Magazine written by Steve Guttenberg. This photo bookends the first photo above, covering 57 years between them and my life from ‘B.C. to A.D.’
Photo by David King.