James Foyt

Elkhorn, Nebraska, USA

The End of an Era

In the mid 1960s, when I was nine or ten, my family and I lived in Highland, California. At the time, we would travel about every four years to a different city, because my father was a Navy man, and we would go wherever Uncle Sam sent us. One of my fondest memories is going to the movies. My parents had three children, with me being the middle child. So the best place to go for entertainment with three brats was the drive-in theatre. It was a private place for lovers and families who didn't want to bother the world with crying babies and arguing kids.

Highland’s drive-in theatre was called the Baseline Drive-in. When I walked to the concession stand, I would always walk by the projection booth attached to the front of the stand. The projectionist was always outside the projection booth door sitting in a lawn chair, because the booth would get so hot from the carbon arc lamp houses and California’s summer heat.

I would have given anything to be able to see inside the projection room. I was always too shy to ask for a tour. And that's the way it always was with me, it didn't matter if it was a drive-in or a walk-in theatre, I wanted to see the booth. I just didn't have the nerve to ask.

Then in the mid-1960s, my father retired from the Navy and our family moved to a small town in Nebraska. The town was so small compared to cities in California. I don't think there were 2,000 people living there. But one great thing about this small town was that it had a small walk-in theatre that ran shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I was in heaven!

When we moved to the small town, ticket prices were 35 cents for a movie, and it was a dime for a bag of popcorn. The theatre was called the Lyric, and this was my first job in life. I sold popcorn and candy for $1.50 a night with a bonus of free movies and popcorn! I didn't sell any soda, because the pop was sold right out of a pop machine. The rule was you couldn't take your bottle of pop into the theatre. You would have to pour it in a cup before being seated. I think I was about eleven years old at the time. The great thing was I finally got to see a projection booth!

Friends of mine, a little older than I was, ran the movies there for $2.50 a night. So, at age twelve, I was taught to be a projectionist so my older friends could go out on dates Friday and Saturday nights. I eventually became the main projectionist. My friends lost interest in projecting and moved on to other things in their life. I kept running film for the next 44 years, and have run film in 50 different theatres from Nebraska to California.

In the 1950s, at the same time cinemascope was introduced, six-track and four-track magnetic sound came along. Most of the cinemascope films had four-track sound, and six-track magnetic sound would run on 70mm film, which is twice the size of 35mm. Today, six-track and four-track magnetic aren't made anymore. But in their day, they had beautiful sound quality. The bad point of magnetic sound was that it was easy to erase the sound track if it was too close to an electrical field from surrounding equipment. Before this, all film had monophonic sound. Mono sound is just what it says, one sound track going out to one speaker in the centre behind a movie screen. Even today, I'll be running an old film made before the 50s and someone in the theatre will come out and complain that there’s no sound coming out of the surround speakers.

Nowadays, technology is changing the movie industry. Digital projection is becoming the way of the world and film is on its way out. Hollywood is killing film because digital is cheaper to make and project. Right now, I'm still working with film in a non-profit theatre that keeps the preservation of film going. Theatres like Film Streams in Omaha, Nebraska are keeping film alive for future generations. Film is an art form all its own and there are many theatres across the country that want to keep the film tradition going in these theatres. I hope to get a few more years out of projecting film, but technology seems to want to kill it off. Projectionists are the future haberdashers of our time – careers that are becoming extinct.

Hollywood doesn't want any part of sharing the limelight. To the studios that make the movies, it’s digital or nothing. For some reason, it can't be both. Almost every theatre across America, and around the world, is switching to digital and eliminating film. I've seen 35mm projectors tossed into dumps, like the B52 bombers put in bone yards and left to rot after WWII.

I was taught a little something from each projectionist who came before me. Some of them were around from the start of the era of silent movies. There aren’t too many of them left. In a way, I'm kind of glad most of the old pros aren't around to see the slow death of film. Every now and then, I still get a child who wants to see the projection booth, and they will ask me if I’ll teach them how to run projectors with the hopes of being a projectionist some day. It breaks my heart to tell him or her that there’s no future in it anymore.

I've seen a lot of changes come and go in the industry. It's been great fun, and one good thing about being a projectionist is you stay young at heart. You’re still that little kid, curious to see what the inside of a projection booth looks like. It’s sad but true, we are today's haberdashers.

February 2012

© copyright caboose 2012

Jim Foyt lives in Elkhorn, Nebraska and works at a theatre in Omaha, Nebraska called Film Streams. He is 56 years of age and has been in the projectionist business for 44 years. During that time he has worked in more than 50 cinemas in Nebraska, Iowa and California, some of which are still in existence, some not. He has also done dailies projection on four film productions: Citizen Ruth, Election, Con Air and About Schmidt.

On the left, Jim Foyt at the Fremont drive-in theatre, Fremont, Nebraska, in 1977. On the right, Jim Foyt at the Film Streams theatre, Omaha, Nebraska, in 2012.