Master of a Dying Art
Back in the days when most films were beamed onto screens from rolling projection reels, Richard Aidala absolutely hated going to the movies. After the lights went down, he found himself unable to pay attention to the plot, and could barely stand to look at the images in front of him. All he saw were mistakes. What was that reflection on the screen? Wasn’t the focus off? And what was going on with those lamps? The lamps needed to be realigned!
“I complained so much that nobody in my family would go to the cinema with me,” he says now, exploding into a characteristic burst of rowdy laughter.
But Aidala, a graying 62-year-old with bushy eyebrows, a sharp nose, and a perpetual grin, is no cinema buff. In fact, he has absolutely no interest in the craft of filmmaking. All he cares about is how films are shown.
Professionally, Aidala has done one thing for forty years: show moving images in theaters. Before cinemas switched to digital projectors, before films could fit on a hard drive, before most of his peers lost their jobs, he worked the reels in dark rooms, perched high above New York City’s movie-going public.
Aidala, who first started working in theaters at the age of twenty, is now the chief projectionist at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where he gratifies a never-ending stream of cinephiles, or “Cinemaniacs,” as a 2003 documentary about film buffs christened them.
In the world of film, where writers, directors, cinematographers, and, of course, actors, are placed on a pedestal, the public has long overlooked the importance of the projectionist—the single person who, at least at one time, had absolute control over your viewing experience. But the lack of recognition—the anonymity offered by this post—is just fine with Aidala, who, despite an imposing physical presence, is most comfortable slipping into the background.
“A good projectionist should be invisible,” he says, his small rectangular glasses steadied on his forehead. “No one should be able to tell you’re in the booth changing the reels.”
Today, no one does. The reels have become obsolete, and, increasingly, so has the projectionist. Aidala still has a job because he’s lucky enough to work at a museum of cinema, one of the few places in the country where his knowledge remains relevant.
He’s the master of a dying art, a curator of nostalgia.
* * *
In the 1940s and ’50s, the heyday of reel-to-reel cinema, Local 306, New York City’s projectionist union, was 3,500-people strong. Now one of the last single-trade unions in the country, it barely registers a hundred members.
“We’re dinosaurs,” Aidala says, looking over his shoulder at one of his colleagues, Hunter Webb, on a recent Saturday afternoon at the museum.
The dimly lit projection room where the two men work contrasts with the immaculate lobby of the Museum of the Moving Image, a hall surrounded by large windowpanes and bathed in daylight. Instead of posters, images from on-site exhibitions are projected onto the white walls of the museum, whose futuristic design makes clear that it celebrates both old movies and film innovation. As such, it is one of the only places where digital and reel-to-reel projectors still cohabitate.
On weekends, the museum has multiple screenings simultaneously and needs four projectionists on hand. But on weekdays, there’s only enough work for one of them.
Aidala has manned the museum’s projection booth since it opened 24 years ago. As the longest-serving projectionist at one of the country’s most venerable film-preservation institutions, he is widely regarded as among the most knowledgeable in his field.
On this day, though, he isn’t running the show. Webb, standing nearby, is operating the projector for today’s retrospective. The 42-year-old gets busy behind the reels, his long, dark hair gathered in a messy ponytail so it doesn’t get in the way. As Webb runs a print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s short film “L’Amorosa Menzogna,” Aidala eats a lunch of fries and a hamburger, seated among dozens of film prints stacked in metal cases. The heavy canisters are meant to protect celluloid film and keep it away from too much light, though prints occasionally arrive at the museum damaged or even shredded.
Today’s screening is a complicated one, Aidala explains, as it includes a dozen Antonioni shorts spanning the prolific Italian filmmaker’s half-century career. Each is in a different format, reflecting the evolution of the industry and its standards since Antonioni began his eclectic career in 1942. Some of his shorts are on VHS tape, others on DVD, and others, still, on 35-millimeter prints.
After running the print of “L’Amorosa,” Webb abandons the projector to operate a VCR, then starts spooling film on a reel, preparing for the next showing.
Since about 1895, movies were printed on five-foot-wide reels of 35-millimetre film, then laced onto the rolling spools of a projector. Now, they’re computer files that don’t need rolling to be beamed onto a screen.
When Aidala’s at the movies himself—which happens only rarely, since he, ironically enough, prefers TV—he can relax and get immersed in the clean, digital experience; his impulse to watch out for defects lies dormant.
Professionally, however, the transition from film has left many projectionists like Aidala out of work. Increasingly, the job requires nothing more than plugging in a hard drive. Though he regrets that many of his former colleagues have been rendered obsolete, Aidala surprisingly does not lament the old days; he unabashedly dismisses those who say vintage reels are better than flawless digital copies.
“I prefer digital, definitely,” Aidala admits, sitting at his desk overlooking the museum’s 250-seat theater on a recent weekday afternoon. “Digital is 99.9 percent as good as pristine 35-millimeter print.” The intimate experience of screening a crisp print is undeniable, he says, but digital screenings are so hands-off that there’s less margin for error.
One early spring weekend, the museum screens a 24-hour static shot of the Wilshire Federal Building in Los Angeles, a piece by conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll—“a crazy woman,” Aidala says, rolling his eyes. The film, unlike many others that Aidala shows at the museum, is digital. He chooses the lighting, makes sure the shot isn’t out of frame, and then waits. And waits. He’s there only to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s a long, empty, workday.
* * *
“It used to be such a labor-intensive job,” recalls Joseph Rivierzo, an executive board member of Local 306, the projectionists union, whose father and grandfather preceded him in the craft.
Rivierzo, a skinny but strong Italian-American, started helping his father behind the reels in 1970, when he was just twelve years old. In those days, “moving picture machine operators,” as they were officially known, would crank a huge bobbin of silent film while a pianist accompanied the images.
When the reels became automated, in the late ’60s, projectionists no longer manually rolled them, but still changed from one 35-millimeter reel to the next every twenty minutes. The screens were lit by carbon-arc lights that were consumed after one screening. As the technology developed, spinning platters, which automatically operated the change from one reel of film to another, and longer-lasting Xenon bulbs eliminated the need for changeovers. Theaters opened several screening rooms because one projectionist was suddenly able to handle ten different screens. Salaries rose, but for Rivierzo the switch marked the beginning of the end. “It was a controlled retreat,” he says.
The digital revolution, however, was slow to take hold of the cinema industry. While dematerialized music appeared in the late ’90s, digital film took longer, partly because the logistics of the technology were harder to navigate. Just one frame of film takes up more digital space on a computer than an MP3 sound file, for example.
Still, the time finally came. The first major change occurred a little over a decade ago when film manufacturers and producers began subsidizing the purchase of digital projectors. They were eager to cut their costs by shipping digital copies instead of 35-milimeter reels encased in heavy canisters. Then came the so-called “Avatar” effect; the rush to produce 3-D movies, which demand costly digital gear, tipped the scales for good once James Cameron’s sci-fi epic became the highest-grossing movie of all-time, in 2009.
In the past three years, almost all of New York’s cinemas that hadn’t already gone digital have since made the transition. Even the iconic 1,169-seat Ziegfield Theatre, the largest single-screen venue in Manhattan—and one of the few that has bucked the trend of breaking down into smaller theaters in order to show more films—has made the switch. It is now owned by Clearview Cinemas.
“When I was in my twenties, screens were the size of a football pitch,” Aidala recalls with delight. “Now, they’re so much smaller—a multiplex has up to fifteen screens.” The only theaters that still need fully qualified projectionists are a few dingy ones that can’t afford to buy new projectors, and museums and niche locations like the Film Society of Lincoln Center or the Museum of the Moving Image, which archive and show older movies in the format in which they were originally produced.
Skilled projectionists are still in high demand at film festivals, where using a professional craftsman means improving the quality of the show. A career projectionist, after all, knows the amount of lighting a movie screen needs and always makes sure the image fits the frame. While commercial venues may be inclined to cut costs and get managers to oversee their screenings, movie professionals still insist on getting a perfect image.
“I can ruin the most talented director’s work with a poor showing,” Aidala says.
Sadly, a few film festival premieres are not enough to support an industry that is taking its last breaths. In recent years, Local 306 has struggled to provide the Tribeca Film Festival with projectionists because there are so few left working. Sometimes, Rivierzo says, the union even has to ask retirees to fill in because there’s no one else who knows how to man the reels. But Richard Aidala’s generation won’t live forever.
* * *
The Museum of the Moving Image’s main projection booth is, like most, stripped of unnecessary comforts. The dark, wide room is merely equipped with a bathroom and a black microwave atop a fridge. Six cans of Coke line a glass window overlooking the auditorium. Other personal details are scarce, aside from Aidala’s desktop screensaver, a photograph of himself and Caroline Funk, a younger colleague. The booth is filled with dozens of 2,000-foot reels of film. Two projectors—one reel-to-reel, the other digital—sit in the middle of the white room where eight small windows overlook the main theater. Here, Aidala has shown the same print of Charlie Chaplin’s “Immigrant” several times a week for the last fifteen years. A Museum pianist always plays as the silent film rolls, just as in earlier times when there was no soundtrack. “Silent movies were never silent,” Aidala says in his thick New York accent.
A Brooklyn native, he started working in the industry long after sound had entered the picture (which, by the way, destroyed the experience, according to some purists). Unlike many projectionists who followed their fathers into the profession, Aidala fell into it while working for the military. The Navy used to lease the rights to a movie for four years and send the prints to deployed Sailors. At eighteen, after graduating from the New York Institute of Technology, Aidala got a civilian job with the Army unloading the prints from trucks. Back then, a Navy captain, whose name now escapes Aidala, would watch private screenings of Hollywood movies at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and select the best ones to send to the troops. When the official projectionist took a leave of absence, Aidala filled in for him. And when that same projectionist retired, in 1970, the then-twenty-year-old Aidala got his own show.
When he joined the projectionists’ union, at 21, Aidala had to take an exam to earn his New York City projectionists’ license. Candidates were required to answer one hundred questions and pass a practical test to demonstrate that they were able to work the reels of a theater. As a matter of safety, movie operators also needed to prove they could deal with floods and fires, considering that they worked with highly inflammable nitrate film.
Aidala started working at various cinemas around New York, and then became a regular projectionist at what was then the Saint Mark’s Theatre, in the East Village. One fateful afternoon in 1977, he arrived at the theater, on Second Avenue and Saint Mark’s Place, to find a padlock on the door; the owner had gone bankrupt. That same day, Aidala struck a deal with the landlord and began running the cinema himself.
The newly-minted theater owner, along with two partners, made the four-hundred-seat single-screen cinema a success.
“We were sold out every single night,” Aidala remembers. Two years later, they opened another location in Park Slope, this time with two screens. Film students from New York University worked for them as ushers to get deals on screenings; one, Jim Jarmusch, would go on to become a celebrated independent-film director.
Through the ’80s, theater owners made decent money, though Aidala describes the business back then as a “glorified candy store,” because most earnings came from refreshments. That shouldn’t have bothered him, however: his long-time dream had been to open a restaurant, which is why he abandoned movies in 1982. But less than four years, his restaurant went bust and he was back behind the projector.
Then 36, Aidala found a job at the Columbia Pictures screening room in Astoria, Queens, near where the Museum of the Moving Image was being built. Every lunch break, Aidala took his sandwich to the construction site. “I wanted to work here so bad,” he says.
Working at a production company, Aidala only showed movies on demand to small groups invited to the screening room. He craved interaction with larger crowds and the challenge of showing older movies. The museum hired him as one of its first projectionists, even before opening to the public in 1988. Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, it was the best career move Aidala could have made.
In 1990, he married and moved to Matamoras, a small Pennsylvania town, where he raised three daughters. Ever since, he’s been waking up at 4.30 a.m. four times a week for the two-hour drive to Queens. “It’s insane, I know,” he says. “With the gasoline prices, I may even be losing money coming to work.” Still, Aidala’s never questioned whether he should find a job closer to home. The museum suits him, he says.
Over the years, even as Aidala continued to learn new projection techniques, his knowledge lost market value, and relevancy. “It’s basically a useless art,” he admits today. Getting a projection license has become so simple that what used to be a complicated practical test—for a technologically-demanding job—has become a formality, Rivierzo says. Theater managers have replaced his peers in most projection booths across New York and beyond.
* * *
Aidala’s day-to-day routine at the museum varies. A hands-on celluloid film screening may be followed by the projection of a simple DVD. In the first case, Aidala maneuvers prints and operates reels just like in the old days; the second situation, though, requires only that he ensure proper focus and lighting. Then, his main job is to stay put until the film finishes. To kill time, he leafs through the New York Post, or surfs the Internet on the main booth’s computer, patiently waiting for the end credits to roll.
There was a time when Aidala used to have to watch closely for changeover cues imbedded in the film. The famous image of a countdown on the screen (“10… 9… 8…7…”), for instance, was originally intended for projectionists. The last eleven feet of a film print were marked with two dots on the upper right-hand-corner of the screen so projectionists knew when to change reels. The first dot was a signal to turn on the next reel; the second was a warning that only one foot of film remained. In a matter of minutes, the projectionist was supposed to operate the switch. If he performed well, no one noticed the change. If a white screen interrupted the movie, the audience suddenly remembered there was a man behind the glass in the back of theater.
These days, Aidala would find it difficult, likely impossible, to repeat the same gaffe; his booth doesn’t let him see or hear any of what he shows, so there’s no chance to get lost in a movie. Once he turns on the projector, a loud Hoover-like noise takes over the small space. It gets so loud you can’t hold a conversation with someone standing right next to you. So, most of the time no one talks.
Aidala remembers the first time he screwed up. It was 1971, back when he was working for the Army and screening films for the Navy captain. The movie was “Dirty Harry,” starring Clint Eastwood. “I got so engrossed in the plot I forgot I was running the film,” he recalls. After the first twenty minutes, the detective story suddenly stopped. Aidala, irritated, turned around, looking for the projectionist who’d messed up. He then realized, with horror, that there was no one behind him. The screen went white. “That kind of mistake only happens once,” he roars, filling the room with his explosive laughter. Nevertheless, Aidala was able to switch prints almost seamlessly. The show went on.
Movie projection is indeed a lonely existence. Once you start, you get “booth disease,” Aidala says: solitude becomes comfort becomes life. In the old days, many projectionists rolled reels until they were ninety. There are even stories of elderly projectionists dying in their booths, annoying audiences with their final white screen—forever.
Others in the industry still appreciate Aidala’s know-how. “Richie knows more about 35-millimeter projection than anyone I know,” says Aidala’s colleague Funk, a petite 31-year-old and one of the only women in the New York projectionists union. “He can identify and fix any problem.”
But Aidala doesn’t think much of his own skills, pointing out that his knowledge is irrelevant outside a museum. “You can teach anyone how to use a computer,” he says with a shrug.
Aidala’s favorite screening room in the Museum of the Moving Image is the Egyptian movie palace, a small cardboard room decorated in hieroglyphics where he works on weekends. The projection booth is so tiny that “you can hit your head on beams and risk your life going up the stairs,” he jokes. Still, Aidala loves the kitsch feel of the room, which he can see through a tiny window.
The cubicle-like space in which he operates houses only a DVD projector—no old-time reels required. On this day, Aidala is showing the last episode of a “Dick Tracy” detective series.
After inserting the small disc in the player, he settles back in his chair, ignoring the ten 70-millimeter reels stored behind him.
He smiles, a little embarrassed. “My work here is done.”
* * *
Daphnée Denis is a French journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers American politics for Slate France and is currently finishing “Shot in the Dark,” a documentary about the blind sport of goalball.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.