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Bill Perkins

Unless it’s been removed, there is a sign in our office building that forbids microwave popcorn on the premises. Someone had burned a bag — actually combusted it — and the acrid smell lingered for days. So no more popcorn. Even the snack vendors were notified to remove it from the machines. No popcorn, period.

It seemed draconian to me, but it likely has something to do with fire codes or liability or a blanket rule of the then-corporation. A burning bag of Orville Redenbacher's might have burned the place down. I get it.

But I could use a bit of popcorn right now, if for no other reason than my creeping nostalgia for the movie theatre.

The last time we were in a movie theatre was March 8. The film was Emma, based on Jane Austen’s book. Despite a roster of British talent and extravagant set dressing, it was so forgettable that I have only a faint recollection of seeing it. For instance, the lead role was played by an actress who turned up as Beth in The Queen’s Gambit, and I would have sworn I’d never seen her before.

I know this because my movie theatre app remembers what I have seen even when I don’t. The best I could do is recall that early March was the last time we’d been, and we have literally gone to at least one movie every weekend for years. Decades even.

When I was much younger, I worked for a theatre company as a projectionist and assistant manager. The business end didn’t interest me, but I loved the projection booth.

The theatres where I worked had Italian projectors — Cinemeccanica Victoria 8s — which were a marvel of precision. I became obsessed with the history of film projection. We had an apparatus that would allow two projectors to synchronize so that we could run one print of a popular film in two auditoriums at the same time. The film would wind off the feed reel and go through one machine, then run over pulleys along the wall to where it would run through the second machine, which also held the take-up reel. The Victoria projectors would accommodate huge film reels, allowing a movie of two hours or so to show without intermission for reel changes. Ever notice dark circles that appear briefly in the upper right corner of the screen just before the end of a scene? That signifies an imminent reel change. Projectionists would sometimes stick a nickel in the reel near the end so that the sound of the falling coin would alert them if they weren’t paying attention.

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One Thursday night around midnight, I was preparing to put together the new films that would start on Friday. The movies would be delivered on a series of small reels, and projectionists would splice the reels together, and then run the movie to ensure they’d done it right.

That weekend, we were showing a 3-D movie. The film came with a crate that contained a contraption to fit over the lens to split the image, and then refocus it after it passed through polarized plates.

I heard the door to the projection booth close, followed by footfalls on the stairs, and turned around to see an elderly man. I’d never met him, but he was the legendary Ben Holder, who had been a projectionist for many years in theatres downtown.

“I see you have a 3-D tomorrow,” Ben said excitedly. “I was hoping you’d let me watch you set it up.”

In Ben’s day, a 3-D film was a far more complicated undertaking, sometimes involving a second projector and red and green lenses. He seemed intrigued by the contemporary get-up, and perhaps a little disappointed that it wasn’t more involved. However, we spent several hours sitting in the booth, swapping projectionist stories. We remained friends until his death several years later.

I often wonder what Ben would think of the theatre business these days. Technology is such that film reels are largely anachronistic. Movies today are digitized; some are even beamed into theatres, and the projectionist is just someone who stops selling popcorn long enough to press “play.”

I’m glad Ben and his fellow projectionists of yesterday aren’t around to see what could be the end of movie-going as we know it. Theatres closed when coronavirus hit, and while many have re-opened to some degree with limited show times and drastically reduced capacity, movie-makers haven’t been able to put out films, so there are few first-run movies available.

I miss going to the movies. But I really miss the popcorn. Microwaved kernels are a poor substitute, even when they’re not burned.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of The Dothan Eagle. Email: bperkins@dothaneagle.com.

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