Monday, December 3, 2007

The Ozark Theatre

My first “regular” job was as the projectionist the Ozark Theatre in my hometown of Noel, Missouri. The job consisted of five shows each weekend (Friday night, Saturday afternoon and night, and Sunday afternoon and night), and if I remember correctly I made two dollars and fifty cents for each showing. I started doing that about the time I began high school and managed to hang onto that job until I left town to attend college.

The Ozark Theatre was a great place to work. I helped out at the concession stand before the show started and got to see who all of the couples were for that week. There was an outside balcony on the projection booth that allowed for monitoring everyone who was cruising Main Street. One of my predecessors had been thrown off of that balcony by an irate customer, but the reason for that ejection now escapes me.

One plus to working at the theatre was that I got to see all of the movies. A negative was that I got to see them all five times, whether I really wanted to or not! One time that the multiple showings had a serious impact on me was when we ran a movie on the life of Hank Williams, Sr, called Your Cheating Heart. When the movie started, I had no love at all for country music, but by the end of the fifth showing I had developed a real appreciation for Hank Williams unique songs and style. (Years later when I was introduced to Sheldon Williams – Hank III – at a political picnic in which his maternal grandfather was running for county office and working the crowd, I told the 11-year-old how much I liked his paternal grandfather’s music. That picnic was was on the banks of the Elk River in Noel.)

The projection booth was always too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The summer heat could be alleviated somewhat by keeping the door to the balcony open, and even stepping out onto the balcony from time to time. My boss, Mildred “Ma” Cash always made sure that I had a soda and a box of popcorn at the ready during every show.

Friday evening I would haul the film cases upstairs to the projection booth. Each case contained three or four reels of 35 mm film. A normal movie would run around six reels, but some weeks we might be running a double feature which could mean lugging four heavy cases upstairs. Most weekends the presentation would also include a one-reel cartoon – a good one like those made by Walt Disney and Walter Lantz. If previews were included, I would have to splice them onto the cartoon or first reel of the film, and then remove them after the last showing on Sunday night. I would drag the film cases back downstairs after the Sunday night show, and sometime during the week a freight company would pick up the old movie and replace it with the new one.

The two projectors were World War II vintage. They got their light from a carbon arc reflecting off of a concave mirror. A full reel would last about eighteen minutes and it was necessary to constantly monitor the long carbon rods and the light on the screen, making adjustments as necessary. At the end of each reel cue marks would appear in the upper left corner of the film, alerting me to start the other projector and be ready to make a smooth transition. As soon as the next projector took over, I would have to rush around and drop the shutter on the machine that had just run out of film. The next step was to thread the upcoming reel in the projector that had just been turned off, and to replace its carbon rods if they had burned too low. One machine was always running and the other was always being prepared to run. It was a fairly complicated process that became second nature as the months and years rolled by.

My friend, Tom Anderson, and I acquired a recipe for homemade beer when I was a junior or senior in high school. The recipe called for the concoction to be placed under a heat lamp for several days. The main problem that we had to deal with was where to make this brew. Being bright lads, we hatched a plan to mix it in the projection booth one Sunday night after the show closed, and leave it there underneath a jerry-rigged heat lamp. We would then come in the following Friday before the show and bottle our beverage. What could be simpler than that? When we got there on Friday the boss’s daughter and her best friend were already there, and they were madder than the proverbial wet hens. The entire theatre smelled of our brew, and, although it proved to be essentially undrinkable, we had the smell right! We hauled the beer out, and opened every door trying desperately to air the building out before show time!

In the fall of 1966 I moved to Springfield, Missouri, to go to college, and I left the Ozark projectors in the capable hands of my best friend, James Carroll. Needing a part-time job to support myself in college, the first place that I looked for work was at the local theatres. There were four theatres in Springfield at that time. The Fox, Gillioz, and Landers theatres were downtown close to the square and were all owned by Fox. The Tower Theatre, closer to the edge of the city, was owned by Dickinson Company out of Kansas. Dickinson also owned the Ozark Theatre in Noel, so it wasn’t hard for me to get a job in their concession stand earning sixty-five cents an hour. Later I was promoted to the projection booth and a much healthier salary of ninety cents an hour.

James Carroll joined me as a projectionist at the Tower when he came to Springfield for college a couple of years later. The most significant difference between running projectors in Noel versus running them in Springfield, was the number of showings to which a projectionist might be subjected. In Springfield a movie could be held over indefinitely if it was drawing good crowds. James and I saw some movies way too many times!

James eventually went back to Noel and bought the Ozark Theatre. He and his wife, Patti, ran it for several years until it tragically burned to the ground one afternoon. My son, Nick, had the privilege of working the concession stand at that old theatre on its last night of operation.

There wasn’t much money in the theatre business, but to this day those job memories are some of my best and most satisfying.

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