Essays of a Camden native

Learning the motion picture operator ropes

By Paul Putnam | Mar 30, 2013

In December of 1946 I was a sophomore at Camden High School and it seemed that most everything that was important to me revolved around downtown Camden. My Dad had worked in the Camden shipyard during the war, and had prospered enough to build a new home on Megunticook Street, so it was only a five-minute walk to town, or the library, Poland’s Pool Parlor by the bridge on Main Street, or to Libby’s Drug Store for a cherry coke. A couple more minutes got me to the Camden Theater on Mechanic Street or the “Y” on Chestnut Street.

That was also the year I got a job at Camden Theater, taking tickets and changing the marquee. That job had its good points and its bad points. Taking tickets was good inside work for winter weather, and I liked that. Besides, I got to see all the movies free, sometimes more times than I wanted, but changing the marquee on a cold winter night was no fun.

Often my friend Bill Stone was up in the projection booth, learning how to run the 35mm carbon arc projectors. I was always impressed with Bill for having the interest and ability to learn such a trade, but I didn’t realize how tricky that was until some years later in the Navy, when I went to motion picture operator’s school, a two-week course

Striking the arc between two carbon rods and maintaining it is a bit tricky, but changing projectors on cue without interruption of the movie is even more of a challenge. The operator sets up the second projector while the first reel is running, and then watches for the cue marks on the movie screen. Most people never see the little blips that show in the corner of the screen when the reel is near the end, first as a ten-second warning, and then as a final blip to push the button. The two machines are so connected that one push of the button closes one and opens the other. When done properly the viewer is none the wiser that there was a reel change. Occasionally, the operator would mess up, and you would hear the hoots and catcalls from the audience.

I never did work with the 35mm projectors after I left school but for three years in the Navy I was duty motion picture operator aboard the USS Amphion (AR 13), a repair ship. We used 16mm projectors aboard ship. In good weather there were two projectors set up for movies on the after deck, and the cue marks business was the same as for the larger film. I would certainly hear about it if I messed up changing reels there. Those sailors had no mercy, but it was always good-natured fun.

Usually we showed the movie below decks in the crew’s mess hall. We had 3-section duty aboard ship, which means that when we were tied up at dock, which a repair ship usually is, I would be duty projectionist every third night.

That was one of the few extra duty jobs in the Navy that paid extra for doing it. I got $1 added to my paycheck for each time I showed a movie to the crew, and if I did an extra show for chief’s quarters or officer’s quarters, they passed the hat, which usually collected more than $1. That was a welcome addition to an enlisted man’s pay, when he had a family to support.

That skill continued to pay when I went to the University of Maine on the GI Bill and worked showing movies on campus, both in classrooms, and in the movie theater. I especially remember one weekend when the movie was the original version of Titanic. Watching that movie five times in one weekend was almost too much.

Well, back to 1947-48. After putting up the marquee, which changed four or five times a week, I would usually give Dwight French a hand cleaning up the theater. We would clean out the rest rooms, vacuum and dump the trash, and then tackle the main auditorium. The Camden Theater in those days was designed to be a movie theater and had a sloping floor. I still find it hard to believe all the litter that would be there under the seats. Of course it certainly wasn’t convenient to find a trash can whenever one had a popcorn box or candy wrapper to dispose of, so all of that stuff went on the floor, along with copious quantities of popcorn. The worst was when someone actually spilled or discarded soda pop or other liquid, but with cement floors Dwight was quick with a bucket and mop, and clean-up usually went quite quickly.

Dwight used a powerful blower to blow all the loose debris to the front where we scooped it all up into trash boxes and set it out in the alley for early morning trash pickup, possibly by Alice Yates and her helper. Alice was way out front on the women’s liberation thing, and had her own business of trash removal as well as other light trucking work.

When the cleanup was finished Dwight and I would often head off in Dwight’s trusty old 1932 Plymouth to some local all-night diner for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. By the way, Dwight’s mother made the greatest doughnuts and sold them in stores and restaurants all around town, French’s Home Made Doughnuts.

Well, I started to tell more about downtown in 1947-48, but perhaps I will get into that another time. Spring has sprung and I’ll wish everyone much prosperity and good health.

Paul Putnam lives in Rockport. His four volumes of essays, "Thoughts and Reminiscences of a Camden Native," are available at the Reading Corner in Rockland and the Owl and Turtle Bookshop in Camden. He can be reached at pputnam@midcoast.com.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: DA Taylor | Apr 05, 2013 08:57

Always enjoy your stories Paul!  I remember you from working at the Camden Post Office, retired 9 yrs ago.

Dennis Taylor



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