Movies
5:26 pm
Tue April 30, 2013

Ohio Movie House Screens Its Last Reel-To-Reel

Originally published on Tue April 30, 2013 7:01 pm

It's the end of an era at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs, Ohio. On Tuesday, the theater will run its old, 35 mm film projector for the last time. Then, starting Wednesday, it will close for several months to install an expensive new digital projection system.

The Little Art's conversion comes in response to a sweeping mandate from big Hollywood studios that all of the country's theaters — big and small — convert to digital. The studios say they're going to stop offering their movies on film, so theaters that don't convert — or can't afford to — won't be able to screen new films.

In that sense, the Little Art is lucky. Unlike some small theaters, the nonprofit movie house raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert and will reopen soon enough. But Tuesday's screening is a bittersweet moment for Andy Holyoke, who has worked as the theater's projectionist for 35 years. He talks to NPR's Audie Cornish about his life as a projectionist and how the job will change.


Interview Highlights

On the significance of reel-to-reel film in his family

"I brought my infant sons up and put them in a cardboard box while I was running the projector. They both ended up doing some time as movie projectionists, so it runs in the family. I'm going to miss it."

On the benefits of converting to digital projection

"I'm the guy doing the work here, so I won't have to splice movies together and carry film cans up and down stairs. I see one of the great benefits as being when a movie is made and opens at 1,000 theaters all at once, they won't have to have 1,000 prints printed; they'll only have to make 1,000 discs, or maybe they'll even do it all over the Internet and there will be no discs."

On what he plans to do next

"Well, I'm a jack-of-all-trades, licensed at none. I'll keep doing that; and I build straw-bale houses, so I'll keep doing that."

On what will take his job's place

"Well, I'm not sure what happens next, but my feeling is that the skill set involved in being the projectionist is going to be being able to push a button. Therefore, I've been telling the other projectionists that if they want job security here, they better learn to pop popcorn."

On the challenges of running the projector

"There certainly are things I'm going to miss. It's kind of like what I think of as a police officer's job is: hours of tedium punctuated by moments of sheer terror. And that's pretty much what being a movie projectionist is. Everything's going fine, and then all hell breaks loose. All of a sudden, there's no picture, you know, or all of a sudden there's no sound, or all of a sudden there's film cascading onto the floor and you have to decide: Do I stop it? Do I back it up? Do I start it over? Earlier in my life as a movie projectionist, I used to have dreams about the movie theater. There's always a full house waiting for me, and I'm trying to figure out why the projector is sideways on the floor and the film's running backwards, or something like that."

On how he watches movies and the quirks of watching 35 mm film

"How I watch a movie is I'm up in this little booth at the back of the theater, and every once in a while I have to get up and change a reel or, you know, answer the phone. So I'd say that's not really watching a movie, which brings up a point one of our patrons mentioned the other week. He said, 'It's OK that you're going to this new technology, but I really want that seven seconds of darkness to happen before the movie starts,' because that's one of the unintended consequences of our old system. When you turn on a 35 mm projector, they don't turn on the picture and the sound until 7 1/3 seconds has elapsed since you pushed the button. So that means at the beginning of the movie, you push the button to start the movie — it's totally dark for 7 1/3 seconds. And that's something that digital stuff probably doesn't need."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And we end this hour with the end of an era at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Tonight, the theater will run its old 35-millimeter film projector for the last time. Tomorrow, it will close for several months to install an expensive new digital projection system. The Little Art's conversion comes in response to a sweeping mandate from the big Hollywood studios that all of the country's theaters - big and small - convert to digital. The studios have promised to stop offering their movies on film, and those theaters that don't convert or can't afford to won't be able to screen new movies.

In that sense, the Little Art in Yellow Springs is lucky. Unlike some small theaters, the nonprofit movie house raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert and will reopen soon enough. But tonight is a bittersweet moment for Andy Holyoke. He's been the theater's projectionist for 35 years and joins me now from his booth. Hi there, Andy.

ANDY HOLYOKE: Hi.

CORNISH: And just to prove to folks that you're really up there, you want to crank up that projector for us?

HOLYOKE: Sure. First, I'll turn on the circuit breaker that turns the fans on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANS BLOWING)

HOLYOKE: Then I'll come over, pick up the slack of the film. Oop. I have learned in my 35 years as a projectionist when something goes wrong, don't panic, just swear under your breath and fix it, and nobody will hear you. Now, I'm going to hit the button.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECTOR TURNING ON)

CORNISH: Well, we can turn it off to finish...

HOLYOKE: OK.

CORNISH: ...the rest of the conversation.

HOLYOKE: Good. OK. That will be easier.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECTOR TURNING OFF)

CORNISH: So what are you feeling right now? I mean, you've given so much of your life to being a projectionist.

HOLYOKE: Not only that, I brought my infant sons up and put them in a cardboard box while I was running the projector. They both ended up doing some time as movie projectionists, so it runs in the family. I'm going to miss it, but it's good.

CORNISH: What are the benefits to the digital conversion? I mean, it sounds like you're ready to move on.

HOLYOKE: Well, you know, I won't have to splice movies together and carry film cans up and down stairs. I see one of the great benefits as being when a movie is made and opens at 1,000 theaters all at once, they won't have to have 1,000 prints printed. They'll only have to make 1,000 discs, or maybe they'll even do it all over the Internet, and there will be no discs.

CORNISH: So what happens next for you, Andy?

HOLYOKE: Well, after today, I'm going to be obsolete in some ways. I'm a jack-of-all-trades, licensed at none. I'll keep doing that. And I build straw-bale houses, so I'll keep doing that.

CORNISH: You talked about your job becoming obsolete, but what's going to take its place? I mean, is there - in the world of digital, does it require something akin to a projectionist?

HOLYOKE: Well, I'm not sure what happens next, but my feeling is that the skill set involved in being the projectionist is going to be being able to push a button. Therefore, I've been telling the other projectionists that if they want job security here, they better learn to pop popcorn.

CORNISH: So, Andy, what's it like being a projectionist? Are there moments that stand out from you or memories about the job that you're going to miss?

HOLYOKE: There certainly are things I'm going to miss. It's kind of like what I think of as a police officer's job is, is hours of tedium punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and that's pretty much what being a movie projectionist is. Everything is going fine, and then all hell breaks loose. All of a sudden, there's no picture, you know, or all of a sudden there's no sound, or all of a sudden there's film cascading onto the floor, and you have to decide: Do I stop it? Do I back it up? Do I start it over?

Earlier in my life as a movie projectionist, I used to have dreams about the movie theater. There's always a full house waiting for me, and I'm trying to figure out why the projector is sideways on the floor and the film is running backwards or something like that.

CORNISH: So you spent all of these decades at the movies, but do you actually watch the movies?

HOLYOKE: Yes. I watch the movies, but how I watch a movie is I'm up in this little booth at the back of the theater, and every once in a while, I have to get up and change a reel or, you know, answer the phone. So I'd say that's not really watching a movie, which brings up a point one of our patrons mentioned the other week. He said it's OK that you're going to this new technology, but I really want that seven seconds of darkness to happen before the movie starts, because that's one of the unintended consequences of our old system.

When you turn on a 35-millimeter projector, they don't turn on the picture and the sound until seven and a third seconds has elapsed since you pushed the button. That means at the beginning of the movie, you push the button to start the movie - it's totally dark for seven and a third seconds. And that's something that digital stuff probably doesn't need.

CORNISH: Well, Andy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOLYOKE: It's been my pleasure.

CORNISH: That's Andy Holyoke. He's been projectionist at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for more than three decades. Tonight, he'll project the theater's very last movie on film before it converts to an all-digital system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FOOL SUCH AS I")

JIM REEVES: (Singing) Pardon me if I'm sentimental when we say goodbye. Don't be angry with me should I cry. When you're gone...

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.