A YANKEE IN A TEXAS DRIVE-IN
by Frank Angel
It was 1964 and in projection booths there were no xenon lamp houses, no platters. All theatres, hardtops and ozoners, were dual projector change-over* setups with carbon arcs light sources (if you don't know what they are, well, I applaud your youth).
I was wandering around Texas doing odd jobs after a prospect for radio work that I had come out west for fell through. One day I struck up a conversation with a lady driving one of those church vans, who had picked me up while I was hitchhiking. Hitchhiking was quite a reliable form of transportation in those days. She was one of those kind souls who didn't seem to have any fear of strangers; our conversation was at once genial and genuine. I told her I was looking for work; she said she thought they were looking for someone at the Sonnairian Drive-in in Catterell. She turned the van around and drove me there. In those days, all hitchhikers weren't serial killers and people were more trusting (if you can't imagine such a time, again, I applaud your youth).
I lied and told the owner, Mr. Sonner, who was about 110 yrs old that I knew how to run the projectors. He said, "Show me." I just stood there staring at the Century machines and Ashcraft lamphouses which looked impossibly huge to me, and the old guy said, "Boy, I thought you knew how to run 'em?" And I said, "Well, not exactly THESE machines...uh,
ones like them." Then he said, "You're a Yankee, aren't cha?" "Who, me?" I said, trying to disguise my Brooklyn accent. "Frankie the Yankie," he said under his breath, shaking his head. "I never hired a Yankee before." Anyway, much to my surprise, he still gave me the job and I picked up the technical stuff fast enough.
Without being disrespectful, I think I can safely say that old Mr. Sonner was either a little senile or a little crazy. Take your pick. He had cut a hole through the projection booth wall -- one or two cinderblocks removed -- in which he had hung a triangle -- one of those things you see in the western movies that the cook rings for "chow." He would ring it and shout, "Let 'er rip, Yankee-boy." That, I learned, was the signal to start the show. It didn't matter what time it was, or whether or not the sky was dark enough to run, but when the concessions stuff which he took care of was ready, I would have to start the show....letting her "rip," as he put it.
About ten to fifteen minutes in to the first movie, he would come into the booth, take a microphone that was setup on the amp rack and squeeze a bar switch on it. That would SHUT OFF THE FILM SOUND and turn on the microphone. He would then give a spiel about the great concessions at the Sonnairian Drive-In. This would go on for about 3 to 5 minutes, his voice crackin and wheezing as he spoke. Horns would blare, headlights would flash; you could hear the guys doing cat whistles peppered with some pretty colorful language. Outside pandemonium had broken loose, but Mr. Sonner just went on with his speech and was oblivious to anything else. Me, I always broke into a sweat because I hated it whenever that nasty business started in the lot. My insides would go into knots. The old man came into the booth and hawked his concession wares sometimes as often as three or four times during a movie. After the picture played for a few days, I would note where the slow parts were and would go to the hole in the wall and say, Mr. Sonner, I think now would be a good time to tell them about the hot dogs. But he never took me up on my suggestions.
These carryings on might seem a bit eccentric, but when matched up to what happened at the END of the show each night, well, you be the judge. The very first night I was on as the projectionist, it was 12midnight and I heard the triangle. Mr. Sonner was yelling, "That's it Yankee boy....shut 'er down." "What?" says I. "Show's over," yells the old man. "But Mr. Sonner, there is another reel and a half to go." "Nope; shut 'er down." I was sure I wasn't understanding him, what with his
dentures always messing up what he was saying. "Everyone knows that at the Sonnairian Drive-In, the picture show stops at 12 o'clock sharp." He was right, hardly any honking horns or flashing headlights or cursing. Everyone knew the show was over at midnight, no matter where in the film we were. It took weeks for me to get accustomed to this. I kept trying to persuade him to let the film play out to the last real. No such luck. He would just laugh and look at me as if this Yankee-boy was the crazy one and not him.
After a time, my friend Roger, the church lady's son, would hang out with me in the booth; he became fascinated with the projectors, the lamphouses, the whole operation (who wouldn't?). I was working seven nights straight and my social life wasn't what a 19yr old was expecting, now out on his own. I thought it would be great if Roger would learn the machines so that at least one night a week, he could relieve me. Having a relief operator would be a godsend. So after the shows I would teach him how to thread the big 35mm Century projectors. I gave him all the pointers and let him thread-up. I showed him the proper way to trim the arcs. Next I would let him thread one of the projector during a show. I would make the change-overs* but I was getting him ready to do it himself, a little at a time. He was even there a few times when we had a film break or we lost the arc because of a cracked carbon rod. He got really agitated and I noticed he had turned a little pale when the commotion started outside. Me, on the other hand, I had already steeled myself against the racus and told him that he had to "just go with it; you can't let it rattle you or you'll never be able to think straight enough to fix the problem." He didn't seem convinced. Then one night, I decided that he was ready. I had let him make change-overs during the show before, but I was always standing right there behind him in case he messed up. For an operation where every night the movie was interrupted with a concessions talk and was stopped before it was over, my fanaticism about not letting a change-over go bad, in hindsight seems a bit neurotic, I admit. But now was the time for Roger to be thrown into the pool without a life-jacket. I told him that I was going to leave the booth and he had to thread-up and make the next change-over on his own. He his face got all twisted up and he looked truly terrified: "You're kidding, right?" "Nope," I said as I headed for the door." "No, man, you can't dothis to me.... I will ____ it up for sure." "You'll do fine," I told him, and I walked out. He started coming after me, but the change-over warning bell rang and I said, "Oops, only two and a half minutes to your first cue." He ran back to the machines in panic. Now, I really didn't leave....I was right outside the door watching through the crack, just in case. And I was right; he did fine. Threaded up perfectly, watched the cues and made the change-over seamlessly.
This booth had a raised cement platform that the projectors were mounted on, big enough for the operator to walk around all sides. Down off the platform, as is customary in many booths, was a toilet bowl behind a little L-partition. Roger made the change-over, shut off the outgoing machine, checked the arc on the running machine as I taught him to do and then jumped off the cement platform, ran over to the commode and threw up. I raced back in the booth saying, "Are you all right, what happened?" When he had regained his composure, he say, "Man, don't EVER do that to me again....I don't know how you can do that every night....it just makes me puke."
Roger rarely came into the booth after that. He would come to pick me up at the end of the show, but would wait outside and sometimes drove me around the field picking up the speakers that were left hanging off the posts, but he wouldn't come back to the booth. Later, after I had scrounged up enough money to buy a beat-up pickup truck and drive there myself, I only saw him back at the house. He only came to the Sonnairian Drive-In when he was a paying customer, and even then, he never asked me to get him in for free. Once he told me that he now got butterflies in his stomach every time he saw the change-over cue marks, for which I think he secretly held me responsible.
I never did get my relief projectionist.
* Film is shipped on multiple reels, anywhere from 6 to 14, depending on the length of the movie. Before the introduction of xenon light source, the booth housed dual projectors. As each reel was playing, the next reel was threaded up and made ready in the second projector. Continuity between reels is accomplished by switching back and forth between each projector. A system of change-over cues, those small dots in the upper right hand corner of the screen, are used to cue the projectionist to start the second (in-coming) projector and open the light source while shutting down the light on the projector which is ending. He switches the sound at the same time, again, being cued by the change-over cues.
A xenon arc light source technology which could burn indefinitely was introduced in the mid-70s. Prior to this, the older carbon arc light source could only last for 40 - 60 min before the spent carbon rods which produced the arc needed to be replaced. With xenon, a single projector could now run for the entire length of a feature film, no matter what its length, as long as all the reels are spliced together to form one continuous reel. A transport system was devised called a "platter" which could hold the entire feature - all 6 to 14 reels; all that is required, is for the film reels to be spliced together onto it. The platter then feeds the single projector and does not require any change-overs to a second projector. Almost all commercial theatres today use xenon lamphouse and a platter -- it allows one projectionist to run as many are a dozen or more screens, greatly cutting down on labor costs.
We cannot leave this topic without saying that although the xenon light source has a great advantage in that it saves the exhibitor labor costs, every projectionist who has run film with both carbon arc and xenon will tell you that a carbon arc light has a richer quality light on the screen. Its spectrum shows that it has an even waveform unlike xenon which has a number of ugly spikes near the green wave lengths. The carbon arc waveform is smooth with less spiking. To those who work with both, carbon is preferred.
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