Roger Barker

Taylorsville, Utah, USA

Roll ’em, Smokey!

I started on the road to becoming a projectionist at the ripe age of 4. In order to keep me entertained, my mother would buy a set of 78 rpm records such as ‘Little Toot’, ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Bozo the Clown’, and I would listen to these many times, driving my parents and two older sisters crazy. This was the way I was introduced to the world of sound.

One fateful day in 1946 my father (who was a farmer raising chickens and growing crops) could not work out in the field because of a bad snow storm. So as not to drive my mom and sisters crazy running the records he bundled me up and took me to a children’s show at the Utah Theatre called the Mickey Mouse Club. It featured 10 cartoons, a serial and a feature. It seemed like there were thousands of kids there. Sitting in that theatre waiting for the show to start was a thrill in itself, the lights went down and the face of Mickey Mouse flashed on the curtain, then the curtains opened and Mickey, Bugs, Tom and Jerry and friends played. I was hooked. The funny thing about it is I was curious to see where the picture and sound were coming from and, as we walked by the projection booth, I asked my dad about it (we were in the balcony because we came late). My dad asked the man in the booth if his son could see the projectors. I remember how big the two black things were. I not only got to see the booth but the man took time to explain what was going on which went way over my head because I was only six. But I never forgot that experience and I would ask my dad to take me to see Mickey and his friends, we did go several more times.

We always stopped by the booth and dad and the man got to be good friends. Once he even let me stay in the booth while the cartoons were going on. My dad, seeing I was interested in how movies worked, talked to Santa and on Christmas Day I received a Keystone 16mm silent projector, a 16mm short of Hopalong Cassidy and a color short called Simple Simon. I showed these movies to my friends and family over and over again also driving them crazy and this started my film collection, which included the 1933 film King Kong with the missing four minutes cut out by the censors.

I projected my favorite 16mm film all through elementary, junior high and high school but it all started back in the 1950s for me at my church. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the only entertainment for our Ward in the 1940s and 50s was to show movies in our cultural hall attached to the main church where we held our Sunday meetings. All our shows were run at night with one Bell and Howell projector and a Cinemascope lens. The Cinemascope screen was on a large roll that could be taken up for stage shows or dropped down for Cinemascope features. Our first Cinemascope feature was Knights of the Round Table with Robert Taylor. When I started going to the Ward shows, I remember Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. We even screened the Academy Award winner The Greatest Show on Earth in living color and great sound. Later on we advanced to Don’t Go Near the Water with Glenn Ford and it caused quite a stir because at the end of the movie it showed a woman’s panties (we're in a church, remember).

I stayed close to the projection booth by becoming an usher for the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City for the great sum of 65 cents an hour. This was in 1957. I got a chance to work the Villa Theatre opening in 1962 of This is Cinerama and I have several items from the Cinerama days, such as programs. I was happy to help install the system in the Villa Theatre and have a strip of the screen. The screen was 75 feet wide and 26 feet high. The early Cinerama screens were strips of screen but later they went to full-size screens without the strips.

I entered the military in 1964 and drove a truck during my stint in the Army. After getting out I needed a job and was driving home after a fruitless job search. When I went past the Avalon Theatre, I turned around and went back. I was desperate and I was going to ask for any type of job that would put me back in the theatre business. I asked to see the manager and the owner came out (yep, this was a mom and pop theatre). I asked him if he had any opening and was told NO. I gave him my name and phone number and left. When I got home, my mother said there was a message for me to call a number and ask for Art Proctor. I called and Mr. Proctor came on the line and said could I come over right away, they had changed their mind and they had an opening for me. I wondered what it could be: janitor, usher? When I got there Mr. Proctor introduced me to his son Jeff and I was told I was going to learn how to run the projectors in the booth. I was stunned but began training in the booth. I learned what the two dots on the right side of the screen were for – first dot, you started the projector and second dot you opened the dowser that changed the light from one projector to the other. Of course you had to strike the arcs which were two welding rods struck together and then pulled apart to produce the bright light which reflected of a mirror at the back of the arc. Some projectionists would put a third dot on the last reel of film which could be for when to start the curtain to close or hit the dimmer that would bring up the house lights.

I worked many of the booths in Salt Lake City but at this time the unions had most of the larger chain booths so I just worked the mom and pop theatres and the Redwood Drive In. The Redwood Drive in arcs were so large they had to be water cooled. Most of the time the equipment was Strong arcs, Strong or Century projection heads and Strong sound heads. In the Vista Theatre, I also ran a MotioGraph early projector which was unusual to say the least. The projector head was the normal kind but it was the sound head that was different!

With the most common projectors, the Strong and Century models, the film came off the back side of the feed reel and down through a slot in the case to the first sprocket. A loop would then be made and the film would travel through the picture frame aperture and then down where another loop would be made and fed to the next sprocket. The film would then go down to the sound head which would be below the projector head. The film would travel clockwise around the first sprocket through the sound gate. Another loop would be made and the film would travel over another sprocket and down to the take up reel.

The MotioGraph used the same type of threading in the projector head but the sprocket in the sound head was very large because there was only ONE and the film would be guided to it through a series of rollers. First, it went to the sound head then counter-clockwise around this large sprocket. A loop would be made then through the sound gate and then another loop would be made and then around this single sprocket again on to the take-up reel. There were groves on the sound head wall to indicate how big the loops should be made. If there was any error in the threading of the film, the sprocket would shred the film to pieces and the sound could be out of time with the picture. Great care had to be taken in threading this type of sound head although I could manually turn the projector to check threading before turning the power on.

I am now retired and a crossing guard for a school district but I still enjoy going to movies and waiting for the show to start. There was a phrase that was used back then which came from Bugs Bunny in What’s Cookin’ Doc? – ‘Roll ’em, Smokey’! I have always wanted to shout it out before the show started but never have.

August 2013
© copyright caboose 2013

Roger Barker was born seven years after the opening of King Kong and one year after the opening of Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, in December 1940. He was raised in the small town of Taylorsville, Utah, eight miles from Salt Lake City, Utah. As he was growing up, there were only five major motion picture theatres in Salt Lake City although because of progress with the valley that has changed now. He studied theatre drama and performed in plays throughout the valley. During high school in 1957, he started working in the theatre business as an usher at the Capitol Theatre. He worked on the stage crew at school and graduated in 1959. He received his first 16mm projector at the age of nine and has since gone through Super 8 sound to 16mm sound to 35mm projection. Now retired, he is a crossing guard for the Salt Lake City School District, enjoying his home theatre system with surround sound and an HD video projector. He may go into 3D in the near future.

The author in his home where many of his collections are displayed, 2013.

'The projector on the right is the 16mm Keystone projector that Santa brought me for Christmas when I was nine. The projector on the left is a Bell and Howell model 189 – my first sound projector. This was the first projector to have its own speaker on the back side; the speaker could also be taken off and brought to the front. Both projectors are working models and I use them in talking to groups about movies and projection. The Cinerama program is from the Villa Theatre back in 1962 when Cinerama was introduced to the Salt Lake City area’.
The author’s Granite High-school projection booth, 1958, Salt Lake City, Utah. The projector being used is a carbon arc 16mm instead of a 35mm projector.
The author by the Strong projector at the Avalon Theatre where he learned the trade and had his first taste of projection, 1967.

This is the original 16mm Bell and Howell projector with the Cinemascope lens which I operated at my church and later donated to our local museum. This projector had all the bells and whistles at that time – silent/sound mode, freeze frame (they call it pause now), framing knob. It also had a threading light that lit the interior of the projector so you could thread the film without turning the house lights on but that was a mistake because the patrons would start throwing candies such as Dots and Crows or popcorn and other things at each other.

It had a self-contained amplifier with tone control but no speaker which would lead you to ask: How did you get the sound to the front of the room? What we had were two large speaker cabinets to the right and left of the stage each holding a 12 inch speaker with a crossover to drive a high tweeter, so we had high fidelity sound even back in the 1940s. The man who trained me on this machine was also the man who completely wired the cultural hall so we had a complete sound system with a two way switch labeled Projector/Amp for playing records at dances or running the projector using the same speakers.

From left to right, from past to present: regular 8mm film, Super 8mm sound, 16mm silent film, 16mm sound film, 35mm sound film and 70mm sound film.

Santa brought the 16mm projector so I just collected 16mm film for my projector. I also had a super 8 sound camera that I would take on trips to record family outings and show them on a super 8 sound projector that I could dub music on the sound track. 16mm sound films were my favorite because I worked at the Deseret Book Company that rented feature films on 16mm and I could take these films home to show family and friends. Back then film companies would put out feature films on 16mm for schools and churches to use, even in Cinemascope. I used 35mm mostly when I worked the mom and pop theatres, until I retired.