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david ellis writes

Projectionists are now a dying breed. Digital cinema is taking over at a very fast rate. This means the projectionist of yesteryear is no longer required. Cinema managers are now trained to operate the equipment. When films were projected in converted halls and fairgrounds in the early part of the 20th century, the projector, projecting inflammable 35mm nitrate film stock was often placed in the aisle. Often there would be no take up spool; the film falling into a basket. In 1909, because of many fires, the cinematograph act was introduced. This came into force on 1st January 1910 and projectors had to be placed in a fireproof projection room with fire shutters over the projection ports. A bucket of sand, a bucket of water and an asbestos blanket also had to be placed in the projection box. If there were a fire, a fire record would be played letting staff know, but not the public, preventing panic. The staff on hearing the tune would then get the public safely out. In many cases the public were totally unaware that there was a fire.


35mm film has four sprocket holes each side to a frame, and there is sixteen frames to a foot. Because there are four sprocket holes, the film must be laced in frame or rack. All machines have a framing or racking handle that moves the intermittent sprocket, allowing framing to be adjusted. Normally the framing handle wouldn’t need to be moved unless the picture was out of frame. Projectionists would have to adjust the framing, if for example a 4×3 ratio picture was shown in wide screen ratio. The framing sometimes had to be adjusted to show heads that were missing due to it being shown in the wrong ratio. Unfortunately many cinemas only had two ratios, scope and wide screen – and then only one wide screen and scope ratio. A few were equipped for several ratios, so avoiding cropping heads and titles. In fact a 4×3 ratio film had more frame area than wide screen ratio film. With a 1.66:1 ratio, often used by Disney there were thick black racking lines, so the picture area was a lot less than 4×3. Because the picture was screened wide screen it gives the impression you are looking at more picture, which you aren’t.

A projectionist, when screening a film had to stand by the projector at all times, holding the handle (dowser), which closed off the light. To screen a feature two projectors were required. Rolls of film on wooden and later plastic bobbins were shipped to the cinema. The projectionist or operator would join two 1000ft rolls together, giving twenty-two minutes running time. Films would be joined using a splicer and film cement. The operator would scrape the emulsion off one piece of film and rub the shiny side, and then put the cement on, which was a strong smelling liquid. The splicer would bring the two pieces of film into contact, hopefully making a strong join. Much later, tape joiners were employed. In the nitrate days a feature lasting around ninety minutes would consist of ten rolls of film.

In the 1950s, safety base film arrived and rolls were sent in 2000ft rolls. The films arrived in a metal transit case, delivered by Film Transport Services (FTS). Films were sometimes shipped by rail. The rolls were housed in tin cans, later changing to plastic containers. The rolls of film were transferred on the rewind bench to spools.


The spools are placed in the top spoolbox of the projector and the film is threaded or laced by the projectionist through the projector and sound head, then placed into the take-up spool. Loops are made to allow for the stop/start motion of the film. If there weren’t any loops the film would just break. The 35mm film runs through intermittently at 24 frames per second (fps), 18 inches per second or 90feet per minute, which gives 22minutes-running time on a 2000ft spool. A flicker shutter was employed to cut light off when the film was in motion. Some projectors had front, some rear. If the shutter went out of sync (out of phase) there would be streaking that was very noticeable on light scenes and titles.

The sound is nineteen and a half frames ahead of the picture. It can’t be printed where the picture is shown due to the intermittent movement. Carbon arcs used to provide the light source. There was a wide choice of lamp houses. These included the Kalee Vulcan, Kalee Regal, Ashcraft, Mole Richardson, Kalee President, Kalee Lightmaster and Peerless Magnarc. The President and Lightmaster would often accompany the Kalee 20/21 machines. The carbon arc consisted of a mirror to reflect the light and a motor to feed the carbons. A card placed on the top of the lamp house allowed the operator to see if his carbons were adjusted correctly. In large halls some projector gates were water cooled because of the high amperage. The Mole Richardson lamp house was water-cooled. Rectifiers were used to convert AC to DC for the carbon arcs. Some were solid rectifiers, placed behind the projector, others were the mercury type.

mercury rectifier

The mercury arc rectifier looked like something from a science fiction film. It was a bulb filled with mercury, which glowed. Some cinemas had one rectifier so a light drop would occur when striking the second arc. Some had two Later, many switched to xenon lamps. Some carbon arcs were converted to xenon, for example the Peerless. A changeover system was employed to change from projector one to projector two, without creating a break. Cue marks covering four consecutive frames were printed on the film, which would appear in the top right hand corner of the screen. These let the projectionist know when to changeover. Some projectionists would add their own cues adding crosses that almost covered the frames. Punching holes in the frames was another practice by bad projectionists. On the first cue the operator would start the motor and open the lamp house douser. Eight seconds later the over cue would appear. The projectionist would then open the shutter and change the sound over. A good changeover would look like a scene change.


Some cinemas fitted automation units, such as Projectomatic, originally Essoldomatic, invented by the Essoldo cinema chain, which controlled changeovers, tabs, house lighting and non-sync. Projectomatic had one drum that had pins in it, which operated switches that did the various operations. To activate the drum, silver tape was attached to the film. Cinemation (pictured above) was a more advanced system, the brain child of Bernard Bentley, and installed in Rank cinemas, using two drums. This could do all that projectomatic could do and more. Cinemas went on to fit long running equipment. This was the end of the changeover for those cinemas. There was the tower system where the film had to be rewound and a non-rewind system known as a cakestand. The projectionist had to be careful with these systems as the film was run through rollers around the projection box before being threaded. There were many makes of projector. Among them was British Thomson Houston (BTH), which all Odeon cinemas installed. Odeons first employed type A projectors with type B arcs. Later, in the 1940s they installed the SUPA, which stood for single unit projection assembly. This machine had everything built in; including amplifier and the take-up spool ran anti clockwise. Later, many Rank cinemas used Kalee 21 machines before using Cinemeccanica in the mid 1960s. Many installed the dual gauge Victoria 8. Associated British Cinemas (ABC), mainly used Ross projectors. Later, they switched to Philips FP20s. Philips also produced two dual gauge 35/70mm machines, the DP 70 and 75. The 70 was the only projector to win an Oscar. Simplex was an American machine and one of the good things was the masking or aperture plate could be changed while the machine was running. Westar and the range of Kalee projectors were also popular. The Rolls Royce of Kalee machines was the Gaumont Kalee 21, arriving in 1947. These would be employed in nearly all Gaumont Theatres. Many of their theatres had previously used the Gaumont Eclipse machine with a sixteen-inch turntable on the back, used for sound on disc. The discs ran at thirty-three and a third RPM but the stylus was placed in the inside, at the end on a conventional disc.

Sound systems included Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Western Electric, British Acoustic and British Talking Picture. Sound was optical, variable area and density being mono only. On an area track you could see the intensity of sound by the lines on the track. To get an optical track in sync the loop below the intermittent sprocket had to be the right size. If it was, a diamond, which is printed on the leader, would be in line with the optical system in the sound head. If the loop was too big, sync would be affected slightly. A lamp called an exciter lamp would be employed to focus on the track. This would shine on the track and would pass through a photoelectric cell, turning the light into electrical current that went to a pre amplifier before being fed to the main amplifier. Sound heads were usually designed to carry two exciter lamps, allowing a quick change if there was failure. When cinemascope arrived in 1953 Fox released films carrying four magnetic sound tracks. The film also carried a half optical track. Theatres not equipped for four track would be sent an optical only print.


The sprocket holes were smaller on these prints and were known as Fox Hole. Strangely enough, films carrying these tracks were advertised as being in stereophonic sound when stereo is only two tracks and four would be quadraphonic. The sound head was above the projector head and with these prints you had to make sure you didn’t erase the track. Also shedding of the oxide could be a problem. Stereo sound wasn’t new in cinemas, back in 1953. In 1940 Disney’s Fantasia was screened using four optical tracks on a separate reel. In the 1980s we had Dolby stereo. This was optical sound that carried four tracks and was split and fed to four amplifiers. The last optical tracks to be used were cyan tracks using what was known as a red reader instead of the original exciter lamp. DTS was used. This is a CD disc that runs in sync with the film, an advanced version of sound on disc. Even if the film were cut, sync would still be kept, because time code is used. There was also Dolby Digital. There was a digital sound head fitted above the projector head. Information was between the sprocket holes on the optical soundtrack side. Theatres that weren’t equipped for Dolby Digital could use the stereo optical tracks.

The projectionist had to put programmes together, keep an eye on the film running through the projector and make sure the light from the arc lamp was ok. Carbons could jam together making the picture fade to nothing. This problem was eliminated with xenon lighting, though some say the light isn’t as good as carbon arc.

In the 1950s projectionists were given several wide screen ratios to work with, including Cinemascope, which used a lens called an anamorphic to stretch a squeezed print to normal on a wide screen. There was a backing lens that was behind the anamorphic.

3d glasses

There was also 3D, where two 35mm machines loaded with 5000ft of film ran together. There was a break in the feature to allow two more 5000ft reels to be loaded. There was Cinerama where three projectors ran together with sound on a separate reel carrying seven magnetic tracks. 70mm was screened with six magnetic tracks printed on the film. 70mm also had five perforations to the frame.

A few years ago film stock changed to polyester, which is unbreakable. No more stamping of feet or ‘put a shilling in the meter’ because of a film break. Polyester is so strong that it could pull a machine over and still not break. In the early days rewind rooms had to be separate from projection rooms. In the nitrate days, and even in the safety base days, firemen would often inspect the projection areas and a strict ‘No Smoking’ rule was in place.

In the past there was the chief, second, third, fourth and trainee projectionist. Sometimes there was a co chief and co second. Because of safety base, towers, non-rewind systems and automation, many cinemas cut their projection staff, often having one man (single manning) running the show. For years they often had three operators on at any one time, even in a single cinema.

Many modern multiplex cinemas ran on single manning, one man/woman running several screens. This was possible because of sophisticated automation equipment using computers. Film stock and film projection equipment improved greatly to be suddenly thrown out in favour of digital.


Now all new cinemas are equipped with digital projection, not a frame of film in sight. The plus side is no dirt, scratching or weave. No matter how many times it is screened the quality remains the same. A film can be screened in several auditoriums at the click of a mouse, no need for several copies. Once the film is in the server it can be moved anywhere.

I myself was a cinema projectionist and it is sad that this trade, like so many others has been confined to the scrap heap. There was something about handling film, and being able to physically see images. Showmanship where a projectionist could provide a fantastic cinematic experience has gone. Curtains (tabs), which hid a blank screen, are no longer used in many cinemas. Curtains hiding the screen added to the cinematic experience. A blank screen doesn’t do anything for showmanship. Also masking, which masked the rough edges that were projected because of the masking (aperture plate) are no longer used in many 35mm halls.

I will miss film but in several years time people will only find it in museums. How sad.

David A Elliscopyright whitechestercinemas.co.uk



David Ellis 5

A few years ago Gladys Barnes from Blacon related to me her fond memories of working at the Gaumont restaurant, which was part of the Gaumont cinema, now bingo in Brook Street. The restaurant was called the ‘Oak’, and was open to everyone.

Gladys started working there in 1941 at the age of seventeen. Her weekly wage came to seventeen shillings and sixpence. (eighty-seven and a half pence). When Gladys first went there, the restaurant was open from 10am – 9pm, later closing at 8pm. A three-course meal could be had for one shilling and sixpence (seven and a half pence). When the price was put up to two shillings, people complained, so a small coffee was added.

On 4 April 1960 there was a charity film performance for the NSPCC, organised by the Duchess of Westminster. The film chosen was ‘Conspiracy of Hearts’. The star Sylvia Syms made a personal stage appearance. Before the film commenced, there was a short stage show. Reginald Dixon, the famous Blackpool Tower organist played to the full house. The Duchess wrote Gladys a thank you note on a card, which she has kept.

Gladys was in the restaurant cash desk for thirteen years, and eventually became assistant manageress.

oak staff

In the kitchen, a Mrs Sumpter and a Mrs Pinchers carried out the cooking. After the war a Mr Cotgreave, known as chef Cotgreave returned to the Gaumont. Unlike today, tea, which was silver service, would be served to the cinema patrons. ‘Sugar was in cubes, not the packet type you get today,’said Gladys.

When Gladys first went to the cinema, the manageress was a Mrs Pointon and her assistant a Mrs Morton. A good word put in by Gladys’s sister Eileen Coventry, got Gladys the job. She says, many people worked there over the years, and remembers a Nancy Lloyd and Betty Malee as waitresses.

As for food, Gladys recalls the delicious cream cakes that were on offer. Gladys tells me that she served tea to several stars that performed at the cinema, including: Adam Faith, Billy Fury and Cliff Richard, who sang to her. ‘I have often thought about writing to him to see if he remembers,’ she said.

The restaurant closed at the time of the cinema’s closure in December 1961, with Bill Clarke as the last chef. Gladys continued until early 1962. She says she loved every minute of it and feels that the restaurant should never have closed.

David A Elliscopyright whitechestercinemas.co.uk