The grandparents of Baby Boomers, and in the case of early boomers, possibly their parents, recall a time when the automobile was sharing the road with horses. Dozens of industries supported the care and feeding of horses; there were feed stores and blacksmiths, veterinarians and gear manufacturers. Many old timers may recall having a stable behind their houses, even in urban dwellings.
Somewhere in the 1920s, cars started outnumbering horses, and eventually, replaced them as the main means of transport. What happened to all the businesses associated with horses? Those that could not adapt to the care and feeding of the “horseless carriage” found themselves without customers, and went extinct.
After a recent conversation, Mister Boomer realized that as boomers, we have witnessed the same sort of transformation of industries as the electronics revolution changed everything about how we live our lives. The man with whom Mister B was conversing had been a movie projectionist for 35 years before the system was changed.
In the early days of movie theaters, two projectionists manned every booth for every movie. The projectionists were there to manually change reels when it was the appropriate time. Clues on the top of the film itself told projectionists when to start a second machine and turn off the first. Since most movies had at least four reels, the projectionists would be required to change over from one machine to the next more than once a night. When the humans were in sync with the machine, the audience would not notice the transition. Yet the projectionist had to do more than thread the film into the projector and start and stop them at the appropriate time. He (and they were all men at that time) had to understand currents and electricity, fire suppression (bulbs and film were highly flammable), and, most importantly, had to calibrate the light bulbs to keep them focused properly so the audience would view a bright enough image on the screen.
The boomer years were the heyday of the film projectionist, as more movie theaters opened, and drive-in theaters employed their share of these skilled men. By the 1970s, however, change was in the air.
The advent of multiplex theaters in suburban as well as urban locations, with their multiple screens showing different movies simultaneously, would have meant hiring two projectionists per night for each screening. Technology helped theater owners by changing the way film entered the projector. Rather than needing multiple reels for each movie, the entire length of film was stored on a horizontal platter that fed into the machine and, when set up correctly, rewound onto a second flat platter on the other side of the machine. If all went well, a projectionist could turn on the machine and not attend to it until the movie was over. Projectionists found themselves being required to run from one theater in a multiplex to another, to start and stop several movies during their usual shift. Movie theater owners could hire fewer projectionists, and some say this was the beginning of the end for the profession.
The final straw for these old-school projectionists was the digital player. Today, theater owners need to access and download films from their distributor by way of a special online portal and password. These downloaded digital copies are then projected onto their screens. There is no longer a need for a projectionist to pack up reels to return to a distributor, or a need to thread film into a projector. Digital copies have automatic expiration dates that render them unplayable after the scheduled screening time, as well. In many cases, it is the owner or manager who starts a movie with a flip of a switch. Direct streaming will be the next move for movie showings, already in play in some areas.
The man Mister Boomer spoke with was fortunate enough to have moved on to another profession before he could be forced to retire as a projectionist. He moved into television and electronics repair, which itself was a changing field.
As movie goers, boomers recall sitting in a theater and seeing the film break. Often the edge of the broken film was melting, and the silhouette of the perforated squares that were used to feed the film into the projector were visible until the projectionist flicked off the lamp and turned the house lights up. While the audience groaned, the projectionist had to splice the film back together and get it up and running in as little time as possible. It’s a profession most boomers never gave much thought to, yet its very existence was an important part of our boomer experience.
So much of what we saw as part of our everyday lives has changed, and is changing. Many boomers may have worked in industries that heavily invested into automation or otherwise altered the way things were done, to the point of losing their jobs. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “change is the only constant in life.” It’s safe to say he never saw a movie, but when it comes to the end of the projectionist era, he saw it coming.
How about you, boomers? Did you work a job that is now classified as no longer needed?