Derrick L. Todd

Ripon, England

An Optical Illusion

In my teens when visiting the ‘flicks’ with my pals, I would look back at the projected beam of light as it sliced through the smoke-laden air, sometimes seeing it change from one porthole to the other, and wondered what it would be like to be ‘in charge’ up there. On a visit to the Opera House a slide was screened stating there was a vacancy for a trainee projectionist. I applied, along with a number of other youths, and got the position. The working week was six days, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Over a period of a few weeks I was taught the rudiments of projection: threading up the machines, carboning up and looking after the arc lamps, rewinding and checking the films and eventually spooling off the film after the last show of a programme and packing it into wood-lined metal transit cases.

Although I was based at the Opera House, I worked at the same time at the town’s other cinema, the Palladium, which gave me not only the opportunity to gain experience on two different projection set-ups but also to assist two completely different Chief Operators. One would impart knowledge willingly, but the other used to say to me: ‘you’re always asking questions’. With a little flattery, though, I usually got an answer.

The degree of responsibility a projectionist has is often overlooked, being the last link in a very long chain from author, script-writers, producer, director, set designers, carpenters, painters, electricians, actors and actresses, camera operators, sound recorders, orchestras, etc. It now became fully apparent to me that one mistake and the optical illusion would be broken. Motion-picture entertainment is fundamentally an optical illusion: break the spell and you lose the effect. Bad presentation draws the customer’s attention to the illusion and thereby spoils it. The projectionist must try to create the right atmosphere with the use of ‘light and sound’. It is futile if the audience are in pleasant, warm and comfortable surroundings, only to have inflicted on their senses poor presentation. The patron sits for hours looking at the screen, and the screen should be ‘inconspicuous by its presence’. To these ends the projectionist’s work must go unnoticed. The audience should not be aware of the subtle use of lighting and music to create an atmosphere appropriate to the film being screened. With the correct use of various coloured foot-lights, top battens, house lights and music before the film commences, the audience can be manipulated into the mood of the show.

A projectionist of any competence would hone his presentation skills trying to get it down to a fine art. This may seem a pretentious statement, but a projectionist should be as much a showman as the cinema Manager. It must be remembered that in the days I am writing about, there was little or no automation in cinemas and the job was very much ‘hands on’. The final results of the brains and expertise of a host of technical and artistic experts, in every phase of film production, rests in the hands of a Projectionist.

Sunday shows were inevitably old films in very poor condition. The copies would be full of joints, heavily scratched on picture and sound track, buckled, with strained perforations and full of ‘V’ cuts. These copies could take hours to make-up. Occasionally we would receive a copy on ‘nitrate’ film stock. The first commercially reliable 35mm film stock was produced on a base of cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable so there was the ever present risk of a film fire. No smoking had to be strictly observed in both projection and rewind rooms. The projectors were fitted with a Pyrene film fire extinguisher system, which, in the event of a film fire in the projector, would extinguish the fire, stop the projector, drop the fire shutters over the portholes and switch off the arc-lamp.

Nitrate was the first commercially reliable 35mm film stock used in cinemas, but it was volatile and highly flammable so there was the ever-present risk of a film fire. It was on one of the Sunday shows that I witnessed my one and only film fire. I was on duty with an ‘old timer’ who had started in the silent days. We had just changed over to his machine when the film broke in the projector film gate exposing it to the intense heat from the arc- lamp. There was a bright flash as the film ignited then a loud bang as the Pyrene fire extinguisher went off. The smell of burnt nitrate film is never forgotten. It had a strong acrid smell that lingered for days.

In 1956 the circuit engineer, Jack Whincup, asked me if I would be interested in moving to Leeds as there was little chance of promotion in Ripon, at least in the near future. After thinking it over I realised that the chance of progressing in my chosen career was almost nil. To put it bluntly, one would have to wait for a Chief Projectionist to leave, or die!

Associated Tower Cinemas owned five cinemas and two ballrooms in Leeds. As a second projectionist I worked relief duties at each of these cinemas on a weekly rota travelling from one end of Leeds to the other. The Chief at the Tower had one vice: he liked a ‘pint’ in the evening. When the feature started on the last show he would nip across the road to ‘The Wrens’ pub for a quick one, and often wouldn’t return until the show had ended.

One morning in 1963, after the circuit engineer and I had serviced one of the projectors, he asked if he could have a cup of tea. Now this was very unusual, as he had never asked to have tea with the projectionists before; with managers yes, with projectionists no. There was still that divide between ‘them and us’ in those days. In my office after some general conversation, which in itself was unusual as normally we only discussed work related matters, he said he would like to see me at the Capitol, where he had his office. The following morning I called at his office and he informed me that his Assistant was leaving and offered me the position. This was promotion, so I accepted.

One Christmas Eve, I received a phone call from the engineer saying there had been an explosion in the Capitol boiler house and could I meet him there early Christmas day. On arriving I immediately made my way to the boiler house, which was situated in a cellar under the Ballroom foyer. An apparition was just emerging at the top of the boiler house steps as I arrived. It was the engineer covered in soot. He had tried to operate the boiler again and been caught in another ‘blow-back’. The explosion had blown out the bottom of the chimney stack and we had to make a temporary repair out of sheet metal.

As the cinema industry declined A.T.C. had been diversifying their business interests by purchasing property and other forms of entertainment, but in December 1970 they purchased the Lounge cinema. The Lounge was my first experience of Xenon lamps. These Xenons were the old three-electrode type but I must say I didn’t like the colour temperature they produced. The light was toward the blue end of the spectrum, which in my opinion gave a rather dull, lifeless picture. We replaced these lamps with the ‘Autoarc’ carbon arc lamps, a step backwards in technology but a 100% increase in picture quality.

I mentioned my boyhood memory of the smoke-laden air’. Smoking in the auditorium had always been a ‘bone of contention’ with me for it ruined the projected picture quality, not to mention the décor. With a full house it could prove difficult to focus the picture, especially in an auditorium with a long throw (the distance from projector to screen). The metallic surface of the screen would become stained ‘nicotine yellow’, resulting in the necessity to have the screen re-sprayed. This was not only expensive but would eventually, after a few sprayings, clogged the holes in the perforated screen, which were there to allow sound from the speakers into the auditorium, resulting in loss of the high frequencies and volume. In the late 1970s when I managed Cottage Road cinema I proposed to the managing director that we have a non-smoking area in the auditorium. He was vehemently against it. I suggested we gave it a month’s trial, to which he reluctantly agreed. The non-smoking area was well received by our patrons and the comments were nothing but positive.

May 2013
© copyright caboose 2013

Derrick L. Todd was born in the small city of Ripon in Yorkshire which had two cinemas, the Palladium (front projection) and the Opera House (rear projection). His career in the cinema industry started as a trainee projectionist at 16 years of age in 1952, and he eventually completed 35 years, as both projectionist and manager, with the same company, Associated Tower Cinemas based in Leeds. He is a member of the British Cinema and Television Veterans and the Cinema Theatre Association.
At the Tower cinema (on the left) with the cinema’s co-Chief Projectionist in 1962. In 1957 I was promoted to Relief Chief for the circuit. One morning in 1960 I was summoned to the engineer’s office. He said he would like to discuss my future with the company then offered me the position of Chief Projectionist at the Tower, their flagship show in the centre of Leeds. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I was 24 years of age and all the other Chiefs on the circuit were far more experienced than me. The Tower shows ran continuously from 1:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and adopted a split shift policy which meant operators worked morning and afternoon, or morning and evening. I had a ‘co-chief’ and a number of second operators. It was not unusual in those days to have three projectionists on duty per shift. The projection room was equipped with Ross projectors; Easifit changeovers; R.C.A. optical and three-track magnetic sound (left, centre and right speakers, but no surround/effects); Peerless Magna-arcs, which were later replaced with Autoarcs; and three Hewittic mercury-bulb rectifiers, the third being used as a stand-by and for the Stelmar Spot and Slide Lantern. There was also top and side movable masking for the three screen ratios, (2.55 to 1, and 2 to 1 for Scope and 1.75 to 1 for wide screen).
The Opera House was a rear projection cinema, meaning the film was projected onto the rear of a translucent screen. Objects viewed from the projection room appear on the left hand side of the screen but are on the right hand side of the screen when viewed from the auditorium. The film had to be threaded up with the base toward the arc lamp, instead of the emulsion as in front projection. This brought the sound track to the opposite side of the sound head, therefore the sound head had to be modified to take this into account. Rear projection screens lose some of their translucent quality over a period of time. About once a year we would call in a company to ‘dope’ the screen, leaving a strong smell of pear drops in the auditorium for about a week. The projection equipment at the Opera House was modified Kalee 8s on Western Electric Universal Bases, Western Electric Mirophonic Sound with the exciter lamps supplied by Tunger valves and Monarc arc lamps supplied by motor-generators. The Palladium had Ross G.C. projectors, R.C.A. sound and Monarc arc lamps supplied by Mercury Arc Rectifiers.
The Cottage Road cinema Leeds. The decline and fall of the urban and suburban cinemas has been one of the sadder aspects of our social lives. Indeed, Leeds was for a number of years the film distribution centre for the whole of the north of England. In the 1920s Leeds had close to 60 suburban cinemas. By 1946 it had 41 picture houses in its suburbs. In 1956 it still had 38, but the popularity of television and other forms of recreation meant that by 1966 there were only 19. Today there are only two, the Hyde Park and Cottage Road. Later I was offered the job of managing the Cottage Road. I jumped at the opportunity. My first contact with this cinema had been in 1956 as a projectionist and this left me with a great affinity for the building, something that rationally I couldn’t explain. The cinema was opened in July 1912 by Owen Brooks (an early cinema pioneer) and George Reginald Smith. It is still open today, in 2013, and must be one of the oldest continuously running cinemas in the country, if not the oldest. I took over the cinema in April 1971 and over the next 17 years I experienced some of the happiest and most rewarding and frustrating times in the industry. I left the Cottage Road cinema in 1988 but was able to attend its 100th anniversary on 29 July 2012.
The author, now a cinema manager, in his office at the Cottage Road cinema in 1982.