Jacob Felz

Dixon, Illinois, USA

As a young film enthusiast, I really hate to see the digital age taking over just about every movie theatre in existence today. Although I’m only 19, I’ve had a great deal of experience in the world of film projection.

When I was a small child my mother used to work for the Midway drive-in in Dixon, Illinois. While most kids at that age maybe went to see a movie once a month or so, my little sister and I got to go to the drive-in practically every night they were open. During the day my family was sometimes responsible for cleaning the grounds. It’s pretty unbelievable to the sorts of things people leave behind at places like this. Most of the time there was pocket change lying around, but some of the more interesting finds were folding chairs, pup-tents and kids’ toys.

As long as I can remember the Midway played first run movies, and for the most part family-oriented films are always big sellers at places like the Midway or the Plaza where my mother later took a job. Even with a big blockbuster movie it can still be a bit of a challenge to fill theatres and drive-ins alike. The Midway can hold around 500 cars, and when I later worked at the Plaza we had two theatres that could hold around 400 people, and two more theatres that could hold around 50-100 people.

Every once in a while small mistakes in the projection booth cause a few problems.
But one of the uncontrollable problems the Plaza faced was the inability to focus the projector to the point that it looked crystal clear. So many people now are used to having HD television and seeing 4k high definition movies in theatres. Film projectors use lenses that have to be manually focused at the start of each show. The only problem is that a single frame is about the size of a thumbnail, and even with a really expensive lens there is no way to get the picture to look perfect like a digital projector.

I think my favourite part of working at the Plaza was prepping the lobby for a midnight showing. Most of the midnight showings we had were for the huge movies like Harry Potter, Twilight and Batman. For a movie like Harry Potter we decorated the cinema with hand-painted crests of the four houses in the movie on the front windows. We shut off the ceiling lights and used fog machines, coloured spotlights and black-lights, pretty much making the lobby look like a scene from the movie.

The last Harry Potter midnight showing was so big we had to play the movie in two of the largest auditoriums. In order to play the movie on two screens we devised a complicated system for threading both projectors. The film had to go from the feed out platter, through the first projector, across the ceiling, into the second projector, and onto the take up platter. It was challenging to perform an act like this, because the two projectors didn’t run at the exact same speed. There had to be someone up there throughout the entire movie monitoring the system.

The worst part of the job was probably changing the marquee. Nobody really liked doing this task because the marquee was about twenty feet off the ground, and the only way to change it was to climb up on a rickety old platform that ran alongside it. It really doesn't look that high up but let me tell you, once you were up there it was like walking on the roof of a skyscraper.

In the summer of 2010 a huge storm hit Dixon, taking one of my most cherished places. The roof of the Plaza wasn’t in perfect condition, and the roof cinema four leaked on rainy days. For this reason my mom decided it would be best to close down theatre four and only run three of the four screens. This was for the best, because the day after that huge storm passed through town cinema four started making creaking and groaning noises like an old ship at sea. Later that afternoon the entire roof over theatre four came crashing down. It caused a huge gust of air to rush through the lobby and the other theatres. An enormous crowd of customers ran out of their movie to the parking lot. Luckily nobody was inside theatre four at the time of the disaster. Of course the theatre was shut down the following day and nobody was allowed to enter the premises except for theatre staff. Along with a few employees and family friends we cleaned up what was left of the theatre the following day. It was a lot of hard work, but we got it all cleared and ready for a future date. Right now the Plaza is still vacant but my family still maintains the property as if it were still open. The owners of the cinema have big plans for remodelling, a grand reopening, and of course digital projection.

When I’m not at work or school I like to collect old 8mm and 16mm films. I believe the oldest one I’ve found is from 1913, meaning that this year that film will be one hundred years old. I’m lucky if I find two or three old films a year, usually at local garage sales, antique malls and flea markets. Right now I have about twenty old films: old cartoons, musical performances and newsreels. Sometimes the films come in a brightly coloured box describing them and other times in circular tins that are usually unlabelled. I find the unlabelled ones to be more amusing, because you never know what you’re going to find. One time I purchased a container of reels from a resale shop, started playing them and found a couple of cartoons, musical performances and a mid-1950s Playboy film.

It really is a fun hobby, because it’s more than just that. It’s more like preserving bits and pieces of history that would have otherwise been passed up or thrown out. Over the summer, while I was working the ticket booth at the Midway, I read an article in a magazine stating that half of the drive-in theatres still in operation today will most likely be closed by the time the digital age rolls around. As I regret seeing this, I still have to acknowledge that movie theatres and drive-ins are a piece of history, and we should strive to preserve them to the best of our abilities. This is the main reason I collect old films and cartoons for my personal projectors. One day society will eventually look back and wonder how on earth people actually used these projectors to play videos, and when that day comes projectionists like myself will be able to pass down the ability to thread and run old fashioned projectors to another generation.

February 2013
© copyright caboose 2013


Jacob Felz is a nineteen-year-old film projectionist from Dixon, Illinois. He is currently employed by the Midway Drive-In and Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers. His previous work experience has been largely dedicated to local movie theatres, including Plaza Cinemas, which recently closed due to extensive storm damage. There he learned the trade of projection, and has been in love with it ever since. His hobbies include collecting old films and cartoons, playing them on 8mm and 16mm projectors purchased at local antique shops, and running a computerised holiday light show on his front yard for Hallowe’en and Christmas. He is currently a student at Sauk Valley Community College, hoping to major in business, architecture or cinematography. He would eventually like to operate his own movie theatre.
Jacob Felz in front of one of the projectors at the Plaza.
The Midway drive-in where I work now and am usually in charge of selling tickets in the ticket booth. Generally ticket booths all have a similar design, but the Midway has a very retro looking ticket booth. Many people say it looks like a spaceship, because of the circular rooftop. My sister and I used to say it looked like a giant teeter-totter due to the angled design of the roof. I really enjoy working at the Midway, because it’s almost like going back in time – it is the oldest standing and operating drive-in in Illinois. It’s like the place that time forgot. The towns around the drive-in are always changing, but the Midway still looks like it did when it first opened.