John Stewart

Austin, Texas, USA

Union Man

I can't remember when exactly I got interested in projection. Toy projectors were given to me when I was quite small, starting with a hand cranked 16mm machine that held only 100 feet of film. My mom liked films so she took me on occasion to an indoor theatre or sometimes I went with my mom and dad to a drive-in. I don’t remember when I got more interested in what was coming out of those little windows than the movie itself. My older brother had a friend who worked at a theatre part time and that’s the first exposure I had to the centre of the universe.

Soon I was introduced to another operator in the neighbourhood theatre and began ‘visiting’ him almost every weekend. I must have been 12 or so at the time. Oh how I wanted to learn how to run those things. But it was a union booth, and I was way too young to even think about touching them. How fortunate I was even to be allowed into the booth.

Eventually, after graduating from high school, the U.S. Air Force was my next life. There I wiggled my way into the base theatre near me at Lowry AFB in Denver. Since I was in a training squadron, part-time jobs were forbidden. But my operator’s license showed that I was in a different squadron, so I was allowed to work occasionally. Moving on to another base, again part-time jobs were forbidden. But once again, I managed to work doing what I liked best: showing movies. I found a like-new off-base theatre and managed to do some swing shifts there. What a treat for me. One weekend we showed a magnetic stereo print of Woodstock. Heaven.

Soon I left for Thailand: no booth for a year. I visited the local Thai theatres but never saw inside a booth there. Or the booth of either of the base theatres. That didn't stop me from looking back at the port holes trying to see inside. In December 1971 I headed for home in Austin, Texas. Now I was old enough to join the union and my friend at the theatre introduced me to the local and soon I was training to join. In the early years I covered almost every theatre in town for people needing time off or for vacations. I eventually found a permanent booth and stayed until a better one opened up. I ended up working at one of the best theatres in town, the Mann’s Fox theatre. It was a twin when I started there, but was built as a single screen with a large screen and 1000 seats. The booth had Norelco 35/70mm machines reel to reel. A second theatre was built on the other side of the lobby.

The union I joined is part of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). MPMO (Motion Picture Machine Operators) used to be a part of its name. Local 205 here in Austin was chartered in 1911. When I started, the majority of the theatres in town had contracts with the local so only members could work in those booths. The number of jobs was very limited and guys held on to them until they retired. They would work there for many years in the same hot little room.

In the 1970s, when newer theatres opened and the older guys were retiring, jobs became a little more plentiful. Younger men and women were sworn into the local to fill those spots and to cover the increasing demand for local live stage shows. Then in the 1980s, the number of theatres having contracts with the local began to drop. The end of the 1990s was the end of theatres with union operators here and in most of the rest of the U.S. In 1989 the local was short of projectionists and I was out of work, so I was back in the booth at the Great Hills Cinema, an eight-plex with a couple of THX screens. Then I was fortunate to be hired at the Paramount theatre in downtown Austin, where I basically became the last union projectionist in town working regularly. The operator at the Paramount had passed away, and other theatres were using mostly management to operate the booth with a few tech personnel to build prints for platters. Now with the digital age upon us, there is even less need for people in the booth.

The Paramount is a live venue built as a vaudeville theatre in 1915. Eventually the theatre evolved into showing movies and moved away from live programming. It came close to closing down in the 1970s when more modern theatres were popping up in the suburbs. The theatre was saved from destruction and it became a live venue again with movies as well. Popular movies from the past were shown during the summer months. This started in about 1980 and has been very popular ever since. World and regional premieres in addition to two popular film festivals are held yearly. 35/70 machines were installed in the late 1990s so that 70mm pints could also be shown. They are a regular part of the summer series.

The festivals do bring in digital cinema projectors but we are still showing film until we can’t get prints anymore. We have a sister theatre next door that had been remodeled for live shows only. But recently we installed digital cinema equipment there so that we will be able to show ‘films’ in that theatre again. I can’t believe the good luck I had landing this job. I also can’t believe that film is almost a thing of the past. This theatre will keep film alive as long as it can. We’ve had some premieres where the people from the studio saw their own movie on film in our place for the first time. Up until then, they had only seen it digitally. How sad.

May 2012
© copyright caboose 2012

John Stewart is native to Austin, Texas. His first (part time) booth job was in 1968 in an Air Force base theatre in Denver, Colorado. After the military, he returned to Austin where he worked on stage and in the booth until 1977. At that time he began work in the telephone construction industry as a field engineer. Early in 1989 he returned to Austin to work in the theatre again and has been there ever since. In 2000, he joined the Paramount theatre organization as head projectionist and stagehand.

On the left: in the booth of the base theatre at Seymore Johnson AFB, North Carolina, circa 1970. On the right: the author’s projectors set up for 70mm film at the Paramount theatre. Photos by John Stewart.
The Paramount theatre as seen from the back of the stage on 7 May 2012. The chandeliers seen in the ceiling were lowered to replace the lamps in preparation for the annual Gala. Photo by John Stewart.
The House Left Box at the Paramount theatre lit with a tiger stripe effect for a show. The Paramount theatre was designed by John Eberson of Chicago, the architect of about 1,200 theatres around the United States. The building is now just one of the 25 of his palaces which remain. Photo by John Stewart. Special lighting by Ethan Balmer.
The arch of the ceiling at the Paramount theatre with the painting of Saint Cecilia as seen from the House Left Box. Photo by John Stewart.