“What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
I can’t pay the bills yet, ’cause I have no skills yet.
The world is a big scary place…”
-Princeton, Avenue Q
There was a time, a while before I accidentally became the voice of Canadian letter carriers for a week or so, when I was a useful member of corporate society. With a desk and health benefits and everything. Perhaps I will be again someday. That is certainly the hope–well, it’s amongst the hopes. But before that? I was an English major with his own fledgling theatre company and a passion for storytelling, three things that in no way aided my pressing need to pay the rent and eat. And so came the time when, as one friend said, I began collecting marketable skills as I searched for a job that could pay for my theatre habit. And my comic books. And if there was anything left over, food and shelter.
I got certified as a bartender, and from there got a job bartending at a private club, only to be bait-and-switched into banquet service after three shifts. I speak of that employer with nothing but scorn, over a decade later.
I trained as a blackjack dealer. Didn’t work out. The casino had a new games manager who flunked the entire class, which left our tough-as-nails instructor so upset she was actually crying.
But then, in 2001, I hit what felt like the subsistence-level-employment jackpot… I became a projectionist.
I spent the next five years working in a series of dark bunkers, often 12 hours at a time. I had my first glimpse at a union struggling to stay alive against corporate cuts. I learned the toll running 16 screens at a time can have on a person. I learned how old you can feel when nearly all of your co-workers are teenagers. I saw chunks of every movie released between spring of 2001 and early to mid-summer of 2006. And I learned facts about Bollywood movies I will never un-know.
It wasn’t a bad job. Or it didn’t seem like a bad job while I was working it. Sure, later I would look back and wonder “How did I work back-to-back 12 hour shifts and not go insane? How did I not notice how poor I was? Why did I keep watching chunks of Goldmember?” and so on and so forth, but at the time it seemed okay. I was surrounded by movies, and as you may have gleaned I’m really quite fond of movies. I had plenty of time to write: several scripts were hammered out in projection booths. Once I settled at a regular theatre, I even made friends among the staff. So all in all, not terrible.
Well, it was spending 12 hours in a dimly-lit bunker for way too little money, but not terrible.
A lost art
This was, of course, entirely in the days before digital. In the twilight years of the projectionists’ union, when running movies required threading the film through the projector. Now it’s just downloading the movie from the server and pressing play, or so I’m led to believe. I don’t imagine there’s much left of the old-school projectionists. Even back in my day, big chain theatres were trying to push running the booth away from union technicians and onto their much cheaper floor staff. “Booth ushers” they call them, in order to duck around skilled labour laws. As digital projection spreads, and all you need to run the booth are some simple IT skills, the traditional projectionist is vanishing into history.
And yet I still have dreams of being back in the booth. Specifically, the booth of the Moviedome, the theatre I ran from 2002-2006, about 80% of my projection career. Despite the fact that I’ve been away from there longer than I was there, despite the fact that the Moviedome shut its doors for good earlier this year, I still dream I’m back in that booth, running projectors. And there’s usually something improbable going wrong. It’s never just nostalgic.
So, in this ongoing feature, I’m going to share my old war stories from the projection days. Squabbles with management, film fun facts, and my time among the ushers, box office girls, and concession staff… or as the man who trained me called them, the Corn Monkeys.
So sit back, bookmark this page, and enjoy these tales of my time with the Corn Monkeys in the Mist.