Jim Wagoner

Denver, Colorado, USA

Projecting in Thin Air

Pampa, Texas is the small town where I was born. I actually lived in the country and went to a country school: two rooms, outside toilets, no phone, no electricity.

When the school got electricity they acquired a 16mm projector and I became the school’s student projectionist. The mechanics of projection fascinated me and I wanted to run any and every projector I saw. My parents invested in an 8mm camera and projector for our family which is still in my possession.

Pampa had four theatres: The Pampa and the Top of Texas drive-ins, and the LaVista and LaNora (my favourite) indoor theatres. All theatres were owned by the same circuit. During a couple of summers in my late high school and early college years I was a projectionist at all four theatres, working as assistant manager two nights a week at the drive-ins but spending most of my time at the LaNora, the largest of the four.

The projectionist job gave me 35mm experience including such things as manual changeovers, using one of the original Simplex projectors and, would you believe, 3D films! But the job also included duties such as pulling weeds, picking up trash and repairing speakers at the drive-ins plus janitorial duties at the indoor theatres and posting movie ad sheets all around town.

The University of Denver is my alma mater and the reason that Denver, and its mile-high altitude, became my home. Starting in my freshman year I worked in the DU audio-visual department (for $1 an hour), so I could be around audio and visual equipment. When I was a college sophomore, my father had a heart attack and it looked like I would have to leave college. Projecting films saved the day and my education. A projectionist in Denver needed a licence, had to pass an exam and was required to spend time as an apprentice. In 1960 I became a fully qualified union projectionist, a career that lasted about 35 years!

Often I felt that perhaps I should pursue a job that utilised my college degree in business management, but each time I considered a change, my comfort level and the enjoyment of my projection booth responsibilities (which gave me complete control of the entire film presentation: theatre lights, follow spots, curtains, sound and picture quality) convinced me I should stay in my existing profession.

I worked in a wide variety of venues, giving me the opportunity to work with 16mm, 35mm (all ratios from silent to Cinemascope), 70mm (including Todd-AO, Camera 65, etc.), three-strip Cinerama and in-flight motion pictures for TWA and United Airlines.

Which of these film formats was easiest for me to use and which was my favourite? The usability of all formats is similar provided the proper equipment is available. The majority of films I worked with were 35mm, but the films could be photographed in any of three basic ratios: 1.33:1, 1.85:1 and Cinemascope, which is anamorphic and finally settled at 2.35:1. As every projectionist knows, the best way to show a film is to match the photographed ratio with an aperture plate of the same ratio. There were, however, times in my career when, for various reasons, I was asked to mix ratios which resulted in the audience seeing more or less of the picture than the film maker had planned for them to see.

The most challenging format was Cinerama. Four projectionists were required: one for each of the three picture panel projectors (in their own individual booths) and a fourth for the 35mm seven-track sound reproducer. The job of each panel projectionist was to constantly adjust focus, framing and lamp to provide the best possible widescreen experience.

Widescreen projection evolved into 70mm which was a single lens approach to creating large images on flat or curved screens. The first 70mm system was developed by Mike Todd and American Optical and was marketed as Todd-AO. The Sound of Music in Todd-AO is one of my favourites due to its superior sound and picture quality.

Denver’s diverse population made it a popular location for Hollywood studio sneak previews and pre-release audience testing. As a result I met and became friends with many of Hollywood’s well-known names, such as Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer, Jack Lemon, Robert Wise and others. Being a personal projectionist for Marvin Davis (later owner of Twentieth-Century Fox) at his Denver mansion was an education in itself and the source of wonderful memories. Marvin Davis had a movie theatre in his home and he frequently hosted, for some of his friends, a “night at the movies” usually featuring a pre-release film followed by a prime rib buffet. Belle, Marvin’s house manager, always wanted to know exactly when the film would be finished so the buffet would be hot and immediately available.

On one of these occasions there were five reels of a new film delivered to Marvin’s home from the Denver studio distributor. The film was a whodunit spoof, Murder by Death, starring a large cast of well-known personalities including Elsa Lanchester, Truman Capote, Alec Guiness and many others. The true “murderer” is not revealed until the end of the fifth reel. The film was being run straight out of the can without first being checked. Much to my horror, when threading the fifth reel I discovered that instead of the fifth reel, we had been sent a second copy of reel one! Immediately I called Belle to let her know the film would be over in ten minutes, not the thirty minutes she was expecting.

When the fourth reel ended, I closed the curtain, brought up the lights and announced to the group that the movie was over! Although I feared a violent reaction from the viewers regarding the projectionist’s failure to finish the film, that never materialised. Everyone just laughed and headed for the extra rare prime rib!

The advent of platters and the disappearance of carbon arcs signalled for me, and for many other projectionists, the end of the projection booth job that we knew and loved. Although I did work at a few theatres that used platters, it was not enjoyable and I eased out of my beloved projectionist career.

The Denver Paramount was one of my favourite places to work because it had an excellent projection booth. I worked there, off and on, for about four or five years. The theatre is still in business (although no longer regularly showing films) and still has its original 1930 twin-consoled Mighty Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ, maintained by the local Theatre Organ Society who keep it in perfect operating condition.

In 2009 a friend told me of a theatre organ event at the Denver Paramount and I went, although having some concerns of returning and seeing what had happened to one of my former haunts. The event was wonderful! I had the opportunity to visit the projection booth and it brought back so many exciting memories I was once again proud to be a projectionist.

For the past ten years Denver has celebrated Doors Open Denver: an annual weekend when 60 to 80 buildings in and around the city are open to the public for inspection. When there are no shows booked at the Paramount on Doors Open Denver dates, the Paramount participates and since 2009 I have found myself in the projection booth explaining to visitors the joys and mechanics of carbon arc projection, reel-to-reel film, changeovers and yes, even some reminiscing about operational errors that some former Paramount projectionists might have made.

I now attend all the theatre organ events at the theatre, but always find it more comfortable to watch and listen not from a seat in the theatre but from a stool in the empty projection booth: It feels like home. It’s comfortable. I can absolutely relax without a single responsibility. I’m over a mile high, in thin air, but no longer projecting.

June 2014

© copyright caboose 2014

Jim Wagoner was born on a farm near the small town of Pampa, Texas where he developed his love for film projection. He worked his way through college in Denver, Colorado as a projectionist and never left the profession. In Denver he worked with every type of film projection available, other than Imax. He has renewed his love of the projection booth by annually providing tours of the Denver Paramount’s projection booth and sharing with others his passion for the art.

Marquee of the Denver Paramount.
Denver Paramount stage and orchestra pit in 1952.
Denver Paramount theatre and projection booth as seen from the stage.
Denver Paramount projection booth in 2010. Photo by Forest Jensen.
Jim Wagoner’s favourite Simplex XL projectors at the Denver Paramount. Photo by Forest Jensen.

Jim Wagoner sharing his experiences in the projection booth. Photo by Bill Kwinn.