Monday, September 24, 2012

A master moves on

Mike Hurley, the Chief Projectionist at the historic Tampa Theatre passed away the other day after a long illness. I currently work part time at the Tampa as a projectionist, a job I got from knowing Mike and learning from him.
A long time ago, I managed a movie theatre in Sarasota, a job I got because I had concession stand experience from working in sports. The idea was that I would serve as a "front of house" manager, responsible for ticket sales, concessions and housekeeping while someone else would serve as "booth manager", responsible for all the film handling and technical stuff. That didn't really work out and I ended up needing to learn the basics of film handling on a trial-by-fire basis and became a competently functional projectionist.
Years later, seeking some part-time money to deal with financial struggles, I hired on as a part-time projectionist at a drive-in theatre here in Tampa. Working conditions were less than optimal... actually ALL conditions were pretty nasty; when I took my dinner break during my first shift, I asked the young lady working the concession stand what was the best thing to eat. Mindful of the security cameras that fed to monitors in the back office, she shook her head slightly, almost imperceptibly, but enough to let me know that eating there was a bad idea. If you ever go there, I'd advise you to bring your own snacks and refreshments.
Soon, I found out about an opening at an independently-owned multiplex (10 screens) nearby and that's where I met Mike. He taught me a lot in the short time we were there, but we both moved on because the company that operated that theatre kind of lost interest in paying their employees.
Mike caught on at the Tampa and several years later, when they found themselves shorthanded, he remembered me and recommended that they make me an offer. It turns out they were shorthanded because Mike's health problems were becoming pretty serious at that point. In fact, I never even saw him again after the last time we worked together at the multiplex but he thought enough of me to bring me on to fill his spot (which is not the same as replacing him).
Mike was among the last of a rapidly vanishing breed of projectionists who look at the job as a craft and pay as much attention to presenting films to an audience as any director or actor ever did in making them. I say vanishing because the multiplex doesn't allow a projectionist to take the time to clean each tooth on every sprocket with a tiny brush or any of the other painstaking details to which these craftsmen lovingly pay attention. Multiplexes are designed to cram as many people into as many auditoriums as possible, show a movie (and ads), take enough time to clean in between showing so as not to be disgusting and then do it all over again. This isn't intended to be a shot at McDonald's, but there's a reason why chefs don't work there. Multiplexes have been the industry standard for almost 50 years now and most of the craftsmen who operated projection booths before their proliferation are getting older. For another thing, the time is coming when all films will be digital. They'll be downloaded from the internet directly into digital projectors, eliminating the need for the careful maintenance of all the amazing working parts of a 35mm projector, as well as all the other film-handling skills required to put a picture on a screen now. This isn't necessarily a debate over which is better, ala vinyl records vs compact discs or mp3s, but the fact of the matter is that it takes a lot more work to put a picture on the screen with a 35mm print tan it will with a digital file. With film, any number of things can go wrong and you have to have someone up there who can be careful and pay attention to several things at the same time; with digital, all you need is someone who can push a button.
As a craftsman, Mike did his best to impart his wisdom on me. Unfortunately, between not being mechanically inclined and coming from a front-of-house background, I never really turned into one of those guys. I respect the hell out of what they did and do and I make every effort to give a perfect presentation every single time out. I do okay, but I'm not in the same league as guys like Mike. As much as it's possible to truly love what you do for a living (and it is; I've been fortunate enough to be there myself in other jobs), Mike loved showing movies. He saw himself as the final stop in a process that starts when a script is written, through it being acted out in front of cameras, edited, made into prints and shipped to theatres all over the world to be shown to audiences. He took that responsibility very seriously and was as good at his job as Spielberg is at his or Paul Newman was at his. More importantly, he took as much joy from doing it as he took pride.
We're going to be losing something special when guys like Mike are no longer up in the booth, taking great pains to make sure the experience of seeing a movie is as special as it can possibly be. I'm fortunate to have known Mike and will do my best to honor his legacy every time I'm up there from now on.

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