Creative Nonfiction Adventure

I’ve always loved older architecture and I loved going to the movies. Through a friend with connections, I managed to procure a job as an apprentice union movie projectionist. In those big old theatres from a bygone era, I was in my glory.

Some of the theatres in the seaside town were seasonal, only open during the summer months. Others maintained a normal schedule of evening performances with weekend matinees, and still others operated continuous showings, four or five shows from early afternoon on. My theatre was continuous.

It didn’t matter if any patrons were in the house, you ran every show. In the two-hour range, most schedules featured a 2-4-6-8-10 o’clock movie start time, finishing up right around midnight. It made for a long day sometimes, and could be boring. You brought along magazines and the newspaper, along with lunch and supper, and in my case, writing paper, to keep busy. I mean, how many times can you watch a movie?

In those days, film reels lasted around twenty minutes, so you couldn’t stray far from the projection booth. Older equipment was still in use, many from before sound, so you had to keep an eye on things, especially those pesky old carbon arc lamps.

One night it snowed. By the time the show was over, almost a foot had fallen. It was one of those nights you wondered why we were even open, but it was the policy for continuous shows. Very few people came out to see the movie that night.

I wasn’t looking forward to bundling up and walking to my car, parked over a block away. Even in the winter, this was a tourist area and parking could be at a premium, along with residents who could finally park close to their homes.  I didn’t want to have to clean off my car, drive three miles home in a foot of snow, find a place to park at home, then come out tomorrow and have to clean off my car again. I figured to stay the night at work.

There was a comfortable couch in the office downstairs and I told the manager I was staying. No problem. There was a coffee maker and always a supply of popcorn in case I was hungry.

Not being able to leave the booth for any amount of time, I wasn’t able to explore the place. Oldtimers told me of the system of catwalks over the ceiling, utility tunnels under the building, and the massive stage and all that went with it. I wanted to see it all.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t check the place out, it was just that I wasn’t able to while I was working. I would catch hell if the screen went black and I wasn’t close by to fix the problem.

So now with the place to myself, it was time to explore! Armed with half a knowledge of where the light switches were and a trusty flashlight in hand, off I went.

The catwalks over the plaster ceiling were required, as seeing the flimsy structure from above, you could easily fall through. There was a hand-cranked winch, designed to lower the chandelier over the center of the auditorium for maintenance and cleaning. The catwalks zigzagged over the entire ceiling, leading to the fly loft over the stage. Right there was a massive squirrel cage blower, the largest I had ever seen, that was part of the air conditioning system. Although huge, it was curiously quiet in its operation. A little farther along, the walkway led to a hatch over the stage, with a ladder leading below. Easily sixty feet up, it was a long way down to the stage floor.

Massive steel girders and trusses held the building up, along with terra cotta brickwork advertised in the old days as fireproof. So many older cinemas built of wood had burned to the ground and new construction made sure to tout its fire-resistant safety factor.

I braved the air conditioning’s wind whistling through the hatch and climbed down to the stage. The huge wooden floor was once the home of many a stage show, quite a few that played as early runs before going on to Broadway or other venues.

The stage featured sixty rails, the steel rails suspended by ropes from above that could lift any scenery and curtain requirements. Those vertical ropes you see along the backstage wall operated the rails. The movie screen could be flown out of the way for stage shows, and that old asbestos safety curtain was still held aloft, once tested twice a day to make sure it dropped in case of fire.

More snooping found access to the orchestra pit from a room under the stage, where musicians could move in and out without the audience noticing them. The sign shop for the theatre chain was also headquartered beneath the stage. A stairway at the rear of the building led to the stage level, and then up to three levels of dressing rooms. One level down led to the utility tunnels.

The tunnels were the spooky part of the tour. There were crayon marks along the walls showing where the adjacent ocean’s water level once flooded the place during a hurricane. A pair of old generators sat like old rusted dinosaurs, never to run again. A decayed metal ladder at the end of one long tunnel led to somewhere near the box office, probably unused for decades.

Returning through the tunnels, the main route turned a ninety degree corner. Someone had placed a life size cardboard standee of Jack Lemmon from the movie “the Odd Couple”, his face in a wince. It was enough to scare a few meals out of you after you shined your light on him.

After I caught my breath, I decided the joke was a good one and kept the standee right there for the next hapless victim to discover.

Heading upstairs, it was time to look over the dressing rooms. The first one, closest to the stage, featured a star on the door. I wondered what big names occupied that room over the years.

The two stories of dressing rooms were rather drab, four walls with a closet rod and shelf, a sink and a toilet, and not much else. A couple still had a makeup table against one wall. They hadn’t been used in years and the paint was peeling to bare concrete and plaster. Each had a metal grille over a window opening that overlooked the arcade that ran between the theatre and the convention center next door.

At the far end of the upper floor of the dressing rooms, evidence of a fire years ago that claimed a couple of lives remained. No one had ever cleaned the rooms up afterward, happening so long ago that any smell of the fires had long dissipated. It seemed to be a memorial to those who perished, untouched since it happened so many years ago.

Ghost investigators from a TV show visited the dressing rooms a few years ago, and seemed to find questionable evidence of spirits there. I could feel the presence of something and decided to leave whatever, or whoever it was, alone.

All of the old theatres in the area seemed to have some sort of ghostly habitation. Many of the old buildings had succumbed to the wrecking ball for whatever reasons, and the few that remain are now home to those wayward spirits of the theatre who need a place to stay.

That night of staying over due to a snowstorm proved invaluable to my curiosity of this old barn. Opening in 1929 and the first motion picture venue in the area to open with sound films, this showplace of the golden era of the movie palaces has always intrigued me.

With the names of every projectionist and stagehand who worked here scribbled on various heating ducts in the booth and backstage, one can only wonder of the many films and live shows that graced these four walls over so many years.

January 17, 2021 16:56

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