LETTER: Letter sparks theater memoriesThe letter by Helen Menk in the June 21 edition of the News got me to reminisce. In 1951, after operating 16mm projectors in Billings Senior High School (Mont.), I approached the manager of the five theaters in town and asked for a job operating projectors in one of them. He said no to the projectionist’s union.
To the Editor:
The letter by Helen Menk in the June 21 edition of the News got me to reminisce. In 1951, after operating 16mm projectors in Billings Senior High School (Mont.), I approached the manager of the five theaters in town and asked for a job operating projectors in one of them. He said no to the projectionist’s union. After making friends with many projectionists in town, I finally got a job as a relief operator and joined the union.
I got interested in unions and sent away from the constitution of the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), the local union representing the projectionists. The first sentence in the book read, “This alliance is open to all Caucasian and gentile persons.”
Well what do you know? I’m a member of a racist organization that discriminated against blacks and Jews. The irony is that many of the production companies in Hollywood were owned by Jews in the 50s. I’m sure things have changed and today that sentence is no longer in the union’s constitution.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the use of nitro cellulose 35mm film, which is highly flammable and when confined is explosive. It is called gun powder and was used by the Navy to propel large projectiles from battleship guns. That’s the reason for two men in the projection room. A fire could be disastrous. I might add that burning nitro cellulose film gives off poisonous nitrous oxide.
Now all film is made from cellulose-acetate, which is not dangerous. It passes in front of the aperture at 24 frames per second. If for any reason the film stops, it will burn in a fraction of the second from the high temperatures of the light source, but will not sustain combustion nor give off toxic gases.
But the IATSE fought hard to maintain two men in a booth in the big cities. It still holds for two men in the larger theaters. In the 60s the union struck to maintain two men in the projection rooms in, of all places, the Twin Cities drive-in theaters. It failed.
By the way, I worked my way through college as a projectionist.
How times have changed. Now the multi-plex theaters such as in New Richmond have eight or more projection rooms with one projectionist who starts all the projectors and then goes down to the concession stand to sell popcorn. There is no union representation.
Unions will always be with us, but most high-paying jobs are non-union.