I started training to be a projectionist in the year 2000. Unofficially, though. I hadn’t applied to the union or anything. That would come later. I just happened to know one of the projectionists at Westhills cinema, conveniently one of my favourite theatres, and he said we were free to come visit him in the booth any time he was working. He’d even get us free movies and drinks when we did.
The first time I entered a booth it was like stepping into Narnia. The projectors hummed all around me, the lamps flickered in the dim light of the booth, vintage movie posters hung everywhere, and for someone who loves movies like I do it was a magical place.
These were the glory days. Free movies, chilling in the booth, or just going from projector to projector and watching trailers through the window. “Trailer hopping,” I called it. I felt I could hang out there forever.
So when my friend offered to train me, I jumped at the chance. Also I hadn’t had a job in like two years, since quitting the Winter Club (hates it, hates it forever) with a vow to never work banquet service again. Seriously, banquet service is awful and I hate it. Just so we’re clear.
After a few months working with him, I applied for a job with the union. Took a little while to get it, but once the person they hired instead of me washed out (I’ve gotten my share of jobs because their first choice was terrible but then I turned out to be awesome… ladies) I started training officially, now with Doug, the union’s business agent. I practiced running the booth at Canyon Meadows, a discount theatre that was once the flagship theatre for Cineplex Odeon in Calgary (how times do change) while learning theory with Doug. And some days I’d still go and do some time at Westhills, learning all I could so that I could start actually getting paid faster.
The Vagabond Permittee
In the spring of 2001, I finally knew enough that Doug was comfortable scheduling me for work. Solo. And hours weren’t hard to come by. As soon as I was an official permittee, that is, not a member of the union but someone the union allows to work, I worked 11 days straight, again bouncing between Canyon Meadows and Westhills. It was during my Canyon Meadows shifts that I learned I truly never get tired of Ocean’s 11: for three days straight I ended my afternoon shift by rewatching it through the window, and cleaning projectors when Julia Roberts showed up.
I do not like Julia Roberts. Not positive why.
Over the months that followed, I’d work nearly everywhere. I spent a month working at what was once called the Colosseum, a theatre so far south I had an anxiety attack the first time I drove there (“There’s still city down here? Who lives this far south? How? And WHY?”), where I learned that customer complaints are not always right.
“AI is out of focus,” the staff would tell me. I’d reply that it was a soft focus scene, and their issue was with Steven Spielberg, not me. “Jurassic Park 3 is dark,” they’d say. I’d reply that it was a night scene. This was great practice for the Moviedome, where I’d learn that 95% of the time, if a customer was complaining that their movie hadn’t started yet, they were in the wrong theatre.
I had the best time of my career working at Westhills that September. In the off season, they didn’t even run movies on Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday afternoons, so working Monday and Wednesday was a pretty easy gig. I’d show up at noon, clean a little, do trailer work if necessary, go to Chapters and read Star Trek novels for two hours, come back and thread all the projectors for the evening, get dinner, and be back in time for everything to start running. The best of times for me, if somewhat proving the corporation’s point about not wanting to pay us for 80 hours a week anymore.
Not every job went so well. One night at Canyon Meadows, I decided to leave before everything was done (having been told that was an option), only to have Count of Monte Cristo grind to a halt due to problems with the platter motors.
The manager had to hand out a lot of refunds. I didn’t work a lot of shifts there after that. On the other hand, the regular guys got more paid hours as a result, so…
Anyway. That year I lived as a vagabond, going from theatre to theatre, wherever someone needed hours covered. I never bothered to get to know the staff anywhere, in case I was whisked away somewhere else. Also because spending the whole shift alone in my booth was A) second nature, being a bit of a shut-in at the best of times, and B) encouraged by management. If something went wrong with a projector, they preferred I be right nearby.
Point is, at the big theatres I never really got to know the various staff. Not even at the Sunridge Spectrum, which in the fall of 2001 became my home for twenty hours a week. A few supervisors, sure, but not the ushers or concession staff. Not the girl with the multi-coloured hair who smiled at me whenever we passed and called me “Vagabond” in a flirtatious tone. And she’d have been my exact jam if I’d been single, younger, and possessed of even the base elements of self-confidence regarding talking to pretty girls. (erm… ladies…)
I was alienated enough from the staff that it was only years later that Ian, of Dan and Ian Wander Europe, realized we’d worked at that theatre at the same time for months, and never crossed paths.
Finding a home
As months passed, I began to settle down. My friend at Westhills eventually left the theatre, and shortly thereafter the union, and the glory days of being able to hang out in the Westhills booth came to an end. I started splitting my time between the Spectrum and the Silver City, one of the city’s two largest theatres. And then my 20-hour per week shift at the Spectrum got jacked by someone with more seniority, and I ended up working full time at the Silver City.
And then the Spiderman incident happened. And it was time to go. And that’s how I ended up in Calgary’s other discount movie theatre, the Moviedome.
But we’ll save that for a future installment.