In the silent days before 1910 the projectionist was in the auditorium with the patrons. The projector would be in the aisle and the operator would operate the projector by turning an handle. The film would usually fall into a basket. The film was nitrate base so could easily go up in flames. This happened on numerous occasions. In 1910 it became law that projection equipment had to be housed in a separate area from the audience. So, cinemas had to construct projection rooms containing fire proof shutters. Also there had to be a bucket of water, a bucket of sand and an asbestos blanket, as fire precautions. The projection room had to be separate from the rewind area. Only film on the projectors was allowed in the projection box. This practice was kept until the introduction of safety base in the fifties. Then it was allowed to rewind film in the projection box.
Another strict rule was no smoking, and signs would be placed in the projection and rewind rooms. Staff in a projection room in the early days would be three or four people a shift. There would be one man turning the handle between sixteen and eighteen frames per second, another would be attending to the carbons, having to constantly feed them, as there was no automatic feed at that time. Another would be taking care of rewinding.
Projection work could be a little on the unhealthy side due to carbon dust being inhaled when cleaning arcs, carbon fumes being breathed in before extraction was fitted, possible exposure to asbestos, which was used on cables connected to the equipment, and the dangers of some early machinery with a front flicker shutter that wasn’t encased, and could do damage if contact was made. There were also cleaning fluids that were suspect where health was concerned and the dangers of rewinding poor prints that could make a nasty cut to your fingers.
In the nitrate days films were shipped in 1000ft foot rolls giving eleven minutes running time. These would often be joined together into 2000ft rolls by the projectionist, using film cement. Tape joiners were a long time into the future. Projection rooms varied in size, some having limited movement. In 1932 The Bioscope magazine reported on the opening of the Dominion Hounslow, stating that it has one of the largest projection rooms in London. It was equipped with Walturdaw and Western Electric sound.
There were several makes of projector including Kalee, Simplex, Kamm, Empire and BTH, made in Rugby. Kalee machines were made in Leeds by Kershaws, and Simplex was made in New York by the International Projector Corporation. Exhibitors found themselves paying out huge sums to install sound. You could buy the disc and optical system or just the optical system. In 1929 a Cinephone disc and optical system cost between £1500 to £1950. Easy terms were usually on offer.
The cinema has come a long way from those early days. We have seen wide screens, 70mm, safety base film, polyester film stock, non rewind systems (cake stand) and towers, eliminating changeovers, magnetic sound tracks, Dolby Stereo, Dolby Digital and now digital projection. Most cinemas have removed their 35mm equipment and most has been skipped. Fortunately there is the Projected Picture Trust (PPT) who have saved equipment and have examples of all machines at their headquarters in Halifax.
David A Ellis©chestercinemas.co.uk