University Cinemas

Recollections of working for the university film group

Ah yes, those university years, when oh so many weekend nights were spent next to clattering machines. Not computers, nor even teletypes (which the university still had). No, the racket was made by film projectors. And these are stories from my years with University Cinemas, the film group at university I attended.

The memories come flooding back: the guy vomiting his way up the aisle, the back-stabbing among the crew, the lousy prints the distributor shipped (sometimes late), setting up and breaking down speakers and projectors, people trying to sneak in, the weekend we were shipped two Cinemascope films even though we only had one screen wide enough to show them... yes, it does indeed come back.

Of course, it wasn't all bad. $15 a night was a decent income for me, and I regularly worked two nights a weekend for about two years. It kept me in pocket change, and I think that somehow impressed my father. I also learned about schadenfreude.


The equipment was cranky 16mm projectors and spliced-together systems, and the prints the distributor sent us were often no better. I learned the art of the thirty-second film splice, and how to jigger wires to get them working again. Things had a way of going wrong.

Some of the gaffes were actually amusing. My favorite flub was starting the second reel of a film, then realizing a few minutes later that the take-up reel wasn't turning. The film was churning out of the projector and into a large and rapidly growing tangle on the floor. (Let's see: five minutes of film at 24 frames per second, each frame 16mm... that's what, about 145 yards?) After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I managed to get the take-up reel working and the film restored to it before the next reel change. That still surprises me.

The gaffes weren't all technical. Once, a projectionist showed a movie's three reels out of order, and no one complained. Granted, it was the Ziggy Stardust concert film, so order didn't matter much.


Of course, if you watch a lot of films, something is bound to rub off. In my case, this was a drawback, as the films we showed catered to college students. We did run the occasional artistic film at the request of a professor of cinema -- I fondly remember A Dream of Passion, a contemporary retelling of Medea. Yet after months of movies like Bachelor Party and Empire of the Sun, I was getting burned out on American film-making. Don't get me wrong; many of the films were good. Yet after a while, they were all so similar, so predictable.

Two films saved me: Blue Velvet and Polyester. (Yes, we had the scratch'n'sniff cards.) The perversity of former, from the opening scene on, was enough to make me sit up and take notice of something different. As for the latter, the film's low-budget "let's put on a show" feel engaged me in a way that big-budget, perfectly framed and lit blockbusters no longer could. Or maybe I just have a Pavlovian response to flashing numbers.

(While I'm on the subject of film-making, I'd like to offer this aside to the director of Greystoke. Maybe you thought having the boat appear out of perfectly white mist was a great image, buddy, but as a projectionist I can tell you that it was a really bad idea to put it one third of the way through the film, just a handful of minutes before a reel change. I hadn't seen the film before projecting it, so seeing the screen unexpectedly become a rectangle of pure white tripped every panicked hindbrain reel change now! reflex. Next thing the audience knew, Ian Holm was pulling an arrow out of leg, an arrow that appeared there with no explanation. Oh yeah, that must have happened in those few minutes after the boat appeared through the mist. Brilliant move, Mr. Director.)

Beth would undoubtedly want me to mention that we met at University Cinemas, where a mutual friend introduced us. Among my first words to her was the enthusiastic exclamation "You've gotta see Eraserhead!". She finally did, many years later, but we remain friends anyway.


The most interesting part of the whole thing was the people, of course. There were strongly-opinionated people on the cinema group's board, and they could go at it hammer and tongs. I mostly stayed out of the fray, but did get burned once or twice. On one occasion, one projectionist gave me a perfect excuse to vent my until-then-in-check animosity toward someone else. Later, I learned that the first projectionist had lied by omission, and I'd been played for a fool. That was a painful lesson, but one I took to heart. To this day, though, I'm leery of joining groups; UC gave me my fill of egos on parade.

Finally, I'd like to relate something extraordinary that happened to me at University Cinemas: for a short time, I became an extrovert. This would happen on those nights when I had to rip the tickets of people entering the theater. For the first time in my life, I found it easy to joke and pal around with total strangers. It was a very unusual experience for the reserved person I was, and opened my mind. It was like living another's life for half an hour, and it showed me that behaviors I'd considered innate were in fact plastic. It taught me that fundamental change is possible.

All that and I got paid, too. I'd do it again -- for a better salary, of course.

Last updated 22 August 2003
All contents ©2003 Mark L. Irons