George W. Field

Edinburgh, Scotland

Through a Lens Brightly

My life in the ‘box’ began in 1962. My mother was an usherette in a cinema in Edinburgh and I had just left school and was looking for a job. The manager was a little sweet on Mum and when she told him about me, I was employed as the spoolboy. So began a sporadic lifetime in films, culminating a few years ago as a part-time projectionist at a couple of country cinemas near Melbourne, Australia.

Edinburgh’s Monseigneur cinema was the only Scottish site of a small chain of news theatres, all in London and situated in or near railway stations. Starting at twelve noon, we screened a continuous one-hour programme of cartoons, shorts, comedies and a newsreel. My job was pure and simple—wind the film reels and hand the right one to the duty projectionist. And cycle to Waverley Station twice a week to collect the Movietone News, which had been rushed via overnight train from London. Because the film was fresh from the laboratory, it was ‘green’ and had to be waxed for it to run smoothly. We had Ross C3 projectors, Peerless arcs and an RCA sound system. The non-sync was a normal record deck and occasionally we would get a 78rpm record to play with film. This was almost always a Charlie Chaplin comedy. It is true that sound-on-disc was only ‘more or less’ in sync with the picture.

To get to the box took nerves of steel, especially when carrying heavy film cases. After climbing three flights of stairs to the roof, one then had to descend a steep, narrow steel stairway into the box. The rewind room was originally a concrete room on the roof, but by the time I arrived the rewind area was situated at the rear of the machines. Very cosy, but considering that a lot of the film we ran was nitrate, it was a monumental fire risk.

After a short while, it was decided that I should be indentured as an apprentice, do the technical college course and, after three years, gain my Second projectionist’s certificate. So off I went twice weekly to Brunton College, Edinburgh University to study how to be a competent projectionist. One had to learn all sorts of things back then. How to build a valve amplifier, understand the use of ‘push/pull’ tubes and design a cinema from the ground up, with all the relevant regulations of fire exits per capita, screen ratio and size. Can you imagine today’s operators having to do all that just to run a computer-controlled multiplex?

When I got out of college I was transferred to the ABC Lothian Road. This was the big time, as the ABC was the flagship cinema in Scotland for Associated British. They screened road shows for several months, often in 70mm. I remember screening Mutiny on the Bounty with Brando in 70mm there. Being an even 14 reels, one projectionist, David, had always run 1-3-5-7-9-11-13 and the other, Ron, 2-4-6-8-10-12-14. One afternoon we arrived and were told that, due to a minor problem with a machine earlier the reels were on the opposite projectors. No problem, or so we thought. During the evening run, I dutifully brought out reel 10 for Ron. He checked it, threaded it and then changed over on cue. We immediately realised something was wrong, because the scene had gone from Brando and Tarita making love in the bushes to Brando on the stern of his ship waving farewell as he sailed away. I dashed back to get reel 9 and David threaded it and changed over immediately and there was Brando and Tarita still at it back in the bushes. I was so lucky that nobody noticed, because I could have easily been dismissed for that.

On one occasion, some of my co-workers and I were on the roof having a cuppa when the house phone went. It was the irate manager, demanding to know why we had a white sheet. It was a rigid ABC rule that when your projector was ‘on’ you sat beside it and did not move until changeover time, and at the time, we were running only 2000-foot (twenty-minute) reels. We raced in to the box to find David staring at the empty feed spool and the take-up flapping around. Ron started his machine and we discovered that David had been watching his feed spool going round and round and he had actually been hypnotised, so that he was in a trance! Enter one angry manager, as this was a sackable offence at ABC. With a lot of fancy talking, he was persuaded of David’s innocence, but he warned us not to let it happen again.

I had gained my projectionist’s certificate, which in those days was a lot harder to obtain than it is today. My parents decided to move to Kirkcaldy in 1968 and I was fortunate to find that the Odeon required a Second projectionist. Within a few weeks, the Chief announced that he was leaving due to ill-health and I was duly appointed as Chief Projectionist, at 23 the youngest Chief on the Rank circuit! I have wonderful happy memories of the Odeon. We had a large Saturday Morning Minors Club and it was not unusual to have 400–500 kids screaming their lungs out at a Roy Rogers feature. During the final thrilling race sequence in The Iron Maiden, I thought the roof was going to be lifted off by their cheering.

Being a Rank house, the Odeon had the standard Kalee 21, President arc and Westrex sound set-up. It was the first cinema I had worked that had the box on the ground floor, in between the candy bar and the rear stalls. It seated just under 1000. The programme always consisted of support feature, news and Look at Life, then the main feature. Most shows would screen seven days, but a lot of minor films would only be on for three days, with a special art house film occupying the single day left over. We ran a lot of midnight matinees, so there were many occasions where we have up to twenty features piled up.

An amazing technical feature of the Odeon was the house lights dimmer. The footlights were dimmed by a normal rheostat slider, but the house lights relied on a remarkable tall ceramic affair with a conduction rod sliding up and down in water to create the resistance. God knows where it came from. It was about five feet tall, with a thick rod attached to a cable and a counterweight. You raised and lowered this thing into the water via a series of pulleys and it gave the most perfect dimming you have ever seen. You could do it fast or slow, but if you lowered it too fast, the rod had a tendency to jam. By today’s standards it would be the most hazardous device, but I would dearly love to know who came up with it. Sadly we will never know, as the Odeon burnt to the ground in December 1974, three months after I had left for Australia.

Sadly, on arriving in Australia I learned that my projectionist’s licence was not worth the paper it was printed on. I arrived there, however, to a job with Hoyts theatres in the heart of Melbourne—but that’s another story!

May 2012

© copyright caboose 2012

George Field started his career in films in 1962, fresh out of secondary school, as a ‘spoolboy’ in a News theatre in Edinburgh. Gaining an apprenticeship, he attended college twice weekly for three years, emerging a qualified projectionist. From screening in a ‘fleapit’ where the screen was painted on the back wall, to running 70mm and Cinerama, he experienced it all. Moving with his parents to Kirkcaldy in Fife, he was employed as the youngest Chief Projectionist in the Rank Organization, in charge of the local Odeon at only 23 years of age. He emigrated to Australia and found work in Melbourne with Hoyts cinemas. He remained there only a short while prior to taking a position in television as senior telecine operator. In 1990, he moved to a rural town and continued running shows in two country cinemas, experiencing the thrill of a world premiere in one of them, before they both closed for renovations and conversion to digital. He retired from the movies in 2010. He remains a member of the Film Editors Guild of Australia and the Member of the Society of Film Projectionists (M.S.F.P.).

On the left: the author at the Odeon cinema, 1973. It was here that in October 1970 he recorded 23 features in one month, plus four weeks of Minor Matinee films. On the right: the author at Healesville cinema in Victoria, Australia. ‘A few years after starting work at Hoyts, we began to hear rumblings about the introduction of “single-manning”. I had experienced this in Scotland, where all the reels are spliced together and run without any changeovers, requiring only one operator. I was quite safe, when I was the Chief, but here it was to be last in, first out. Me’.

‘The Tudor was the epitome of a “fleapit” and I am reminded of it whenever I watch the film The Smallest Show on Earth. The box was equipped with Simplex 8 projectors with awful front shutters that clattered very noisily. But it was the screen that was the most amazing thing. It was simply the rear wall painted white. No masking, so that Cinemascope and wide screen shared the same size image. Quite a problem if the action was at the extremes of a Cinemascope frame. In Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, for example, there was a long dinner scene wherein they are holding hands and murmuring sweet nothings across a candlelit table. Trouble was that at the Tudor that’s all you got. No faces at all as they were outside the screen size’.
Projection booth two of the ABC Lothian Road cinema, 1992. The crew of the box consisted of a Chief, two Seconds and an apprentice on each shift. The author was in charge of the rewind room.
‘At the time I arrived in Australia, these were the very early days of cinema complexes, three screens being the norm. Hoyts were uniform in the equipment – Cinemeccanica in all their sites. Being experienced in 70mm, I had no trouble when My Fair Lady turned up in the big format. What I did find unusual was when we ran Alvin Purple for a whole year – my previous longest run had been a mere four weeks!’