News Column

Last reel: A movie projectionist's view from the booth in the waning days of film

May 4, 2013


May 04--YORK, Pa -- Lance Wolf started working in theaters when he was 9. His paycheck was free movie admission, which, at the time, would have set him back about a dime.

By 16, he was a systems manager at the Dallas Theatre. Charles MacDonald, who ran the theater and a few other York County movie houses, became Wolf's mentor.

Wolf fell in love with the business -- from the equipment to the stars. But the film and projectors he's worked with for decades -- vital for decades of movie screenings -- are disappearing. As the industry switches to digital projectors, Wolf, now in his 70s, remembered the days of 35-millimeter film.

Back then, projectionists had to be licensed. To earn a certificate, hopefuls had to serve an apprenticeship of 450 hours and take a test through the State Dept. of Labor and Industry. Once in the union, Wolf worked at many area movie houses, including York's Capitol Theatre.

"I love the old theater," Wolf said. "My dad took me there. It's just in my blood."

His first date with his wife, whom he's been married to for 50 years, was to a movie at the neighboring Strand. There was a line up the street, which was a common occurrence in cinema's heyday.

By then, Wolf knew the ins and outs of the metal projector, which stood 7 feet tall and weighed hundreds of pounds.

"They were built almost to run forever," he said. The machines, which spun 10 to 12 hours a day, were self-lubricating.

Film was counted in feet. Studios shipped out film -- separated into six to eight sections -- in large metal cans. Each reel lasted 20 minutes.

Since most movie houses had two projectors, Wolf said he loaded the first reel on one machine and the second reel on the other. As the first reel ran out, he would switch the machines and continue to alternate until the movie ended. If a theater had one projector, the projectionist taped or glued the reels together.

Wolf was taught

to treat his craft like an art. Mentors told him to leave a pause after previews and before movies -- to build suspense.

"Let them wait in the dark for 15 seconds," they advised.

But it was also a dangerous business. Until the 1950s, film was made highly flammable nitrocellulose. That, combined with carbon arc lighting systems, made fire a constant threat.

Wolf's chief worry used to be that the film would jam. The concentrated beam from the projector's aperture generated so much heat that film could easily combust. Like a grease fire, water would make the situation worse.

Projection booths were outfitted with steel doors that automatically locked. The safety mechanism, meant to contain fires and toxic fumes of the

burning film, could be a death sentence for a projectionist who didn't escape in time.

During the '40s and '50s, film companies sent inspectors to theaters to assess equipment and film. But with the advent of safer film -- made of acetate, and later Mylar -- licensing and inspections slowly stopped.

Around the same time, audiences gravitated to the suburbs. Area theaters and the craft Wolf learned began to fade.

The Dallas Theatre turned into a bowling alley at one point. The Capitol Theatre and a few other local movie houses showed X-rated movies in the '70s. In the 1990s, the Hanover Theatre became a storeroom for an antiques business.

Now that Wolf is retired from his day job as a technician for a telephone company, his focus is back on movies.

He still works the projector at the Capitol Theatre, which has the capability to run 35-millimeter film and DVDs. Most films that comes in these days -- in cardboard containers -- are in bad shape, and Wolf has to spend hours getting it ready for screenings.

Having seen the Capitol through several equipment upgrades, he's confident that he'll be able to convert to digital if the Capitol does. The technology eliminates shipping, printing and hauling along with jobs that were once the industry's driving force.

"I emotionally prepared myself for the end," he said. "If they will let me, I will push that button for as long as I can."

A look back at movies in York County

Celluloid film was introduced during the late 1800s. According to York County Heritage Trust archives, the first moving picture shown in York was on Jan. 25, 1897 at the York Opera House.

Soon, movies -- powered by film projectors -- became a phenomenon in America and the world over. Theaters were built as palaces. Before sound, orchestras played scores live. Patrons wore their Sunday best.

But as time progressed, audiences shifted and technology advanced. Now, there are only a few former movie palaces still operating in the area. And, in the near future, the 35-millimeter film that once ran Hollywood will also become a relic of the past. York movie houses, past and present, include:

--- The Capitol, also The Jackson and Theatorium -- 50 N. George St.*

--- The Strand -- 50 N. George St.

--- Hiway -- 730 W. Market St.

--- The Rialto, also The Hippodrome -- 121 W. Market St.

--- The Ritz, also The Scenic -- 28 S. George St.

--- Southern -- 30 E. Jackson St.

--- The York Theatre, also The Holiday -- 525 E. Market St.

--- York Opera House -- South Beaver Street

--- The Orpheum -- 33-35 S. Beaver St.

--- The Wizard -- 48 E. Market St.

--- The Coliseum -- 144 N. George St.

--- The Alhambra -- 10 W. Philadelphia St.

--- The Lyric -- 723 E. Market St.

--- The Mystic Star -- 101 N. George St.

York County's small movie houses, past and present, include:

--- The Elmwood, now York Little Theatre, in Springettsbury Township

--- Park theater in Hanover

--- Strand theater in Hanover

--- State Theatre, also The Hanover Theater, in Hanover

--- Lion theater in Red Lion

--- Opera House in Red Lion

--- Dallas Theatre in Dallastown

--- Glen Theatre in Glen Rock*

--- Mount Wolf Theatre in Mount Wolf

--- Ramsay Theatre in Stewartstown

--- New Freedom theater

*denotes theater still showing movies

Sources: York County Heritage Trust and York Daily Record archives

More on this story:

--- Get a behind-the-scenes look at the final days of 35-millimeter film.

--- Check in with other small theaters in the region.

--- Check in with drive-ins in the region.

--- Share your memories of movies, theaters and drive-ins. Email


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