Film Collecting Basics

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In the early 1950s I graduated from Los Angeles High School and entered college. In high school I had been the quintessential "audio-visual nerd" as I volunteered each semester to serve as a projectionist. Those were the days of the brown wooden-cased Bell & Howells, and the silver hammertone finished Victors. Being an avid moviegoer and a member of the school stage crew, I learned to appreciate the importance of showmanship in the screening of films. In my senior year I was able to purchase one of the school’s two original 35mm silent auditorium projectors, a beautiful Powers machine. I cajoled a friendly independent theater equipment dealer in Los Angeles’ long gone "film row" (Vermont Avenue south of Washington Blvd.) into selling me at reasonable prices an old Peerless low intensity arc lamp to replace the old Powers vertical carbon arc lamp, and an elderly Western Electric sound head. Soon I had converted the silent Powers into a respectable sound projector. My bible at the time was a copy of F. H. Richardson’s venerable "Handbook of Projection" that I found in the school library.

By the time I was in college and in need of part-time work, my thoughts turned to my love of the movies and I sought some training as a real projectionist. Thus I made the acquaintance of an elderly gentleman, a Mr. White, who presided over the booth of a third-run downtown Los Angeles theater, and I was introduced to Brenkert projectors and lamphouses. Mr. White agreed to school me in return for my working pro bono several nights a week so that he could concentrate on his part-time real estate business which he ran from a roll-top desk in the booth. (He even had his own telephone!) I was taught the need for cleanliness, how to splice, how to thread, to make good changeovers, and a host of idiosyncratic tricks like keeping a small supply of carbons in each lamphouse to dry them out, like regularly cleaning the lamphouse reflector with a warm moistened cotton towel, like placing a piece of a "sanitary napkin" at the bottom of the projector head to absorb the small amount of oil that leaked past the seals, etc. Mr. White was himself a perfectionist of a projectionist, and, on the several occasions that I failed to live up to his expectations, I was sent home early – a terrible punishment for one thirsting for knowledge.

I learned much during the time I spent with Mr. White, to the end that I was able to pass on my first try the grueling Los Angeles City projectionist exam (two parts, a written test and an inquisition in a tired 35mm booth in City Hall), and was issued a coveted City projectionist’s license. Moreover, Mr. White recommended to the owner of his theater that I be offered a position as relief projectionist at others of the gentleman’s low-end non-union venues.

During the following year I became exposed to a variety of equipment, until I was finally able to obtain, with no small amount of help from a very well-connected friend, a "permit" from IATSE Local 150 that enabled me to "work union" (though not as a full member and without benefits) as a relief projectionist in a better class of house. Thus I spent my college days, my hours in the booth affording time for study as well as unspeakable pleasure.

After graduation in 1956 I left my theater avocation for a real job, and my career propelled me into the 1970s as an electrical engineer.

In 1972 a friend and I decided to lease two long-closed neighborhood theaters and try our hand as independent exhibitors. My friend made this venture his full-time job, while I continued to work as an engineer, so I filled the tech support role, trained his sons as projectionists, and worked several nights in each house as relief projectionist. This venture lasted for two years and ended only because my friend felt a need to feed his family on a regular basis.

One of my long time interests is railroading and I have been involved in railway museums since the 1970s. In 1994 our museum conceived the notion of renting and screening feature films that featured railroad action for the enjoyment of our volunteers. This quickly grew into a yearly series of volunteer appreciation events, and I quickly determined that I could purchase films on the collector’s market for not much more than the going rental cost. Through ads in "Big Reel" I began to collect railroad-themed movies in 16mm, and later in 35mm. I wanted our museum retrospective shows to replicate the neighborhood movie house experience of the 50s, something with which I could happily identify, so I included preview trailers and posters in my collecting goals, along with projection and sound equipment. In the museum’s exhibit hall we erected a 14’ wide "lace and grommet" screen masked to Academy ratio and we secured permission to utilize a part of the transportation collection, a horse-drawn dray, as a seasonal "projection booth." Picture, if you will, a wagon not unlike that used in Laurel & Hardy’s "The Music Box" with 16mm or 35mm projection equipment where the crated player piano was loaded in the back. Curious, corny perhaps, but functional.
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