Hal Theisen
Hal Theisen, projectionist at Sundance Cinemas, with one of the reel platters. He has seen a lot of technology come and go in almost 40 years of projecting movies. The digital projector at Sundance Cinemas is "an amazingly quiet contraption," he said. Mike DeVries / The Capital Times

Local film projectionists agree that digital projection is the way of the future in movie theaters. But that doesn't stop them from waxing nostalgic over the showmanship and thrills of the good ol' days.

Take Tim Romano. He's been showing movies in Madison since the first "Superman" came out in 1978, and collects and restores millions of feet of film reel, everything from early silent films on extremely flammable nitrite reel to digital video. Over the years, he's donated well over a million feet of film to the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute.

"Digital is probably the best thing that ever happened to film," he said. Digital has made restoring 35mm a snap. When transferring film reel to digital, he can "go through frame by frame and take out every dust speck. Before, you'd be sitting there with a toothpick and a magnifying glass, basically picking dirt out of the cracks." Plus, "35mm distribution is a whole lot more expensive than plunking a couple DVDs into a hard drive."

But Romano, who works at Point Cinema, said he'll miss the showmanship of reel-to-reel projection. "Now, it's pretty much you push a button," he said.

Madison has just two digital projectors, one at Sundance Cinema and another at Point Cinema. A third digital projector will be added when Marcus Theatres replaces Eastgate Cinema with a new theater in the next year or two.

Hal Theisen started projecting movies in 1971 at his high school auditorium in Racine, and remembers the exciting pageantry of the old theaters - "even if the movie was a piece of crap." He would drive down to Chicago to see films on a giant curved screen showing extra-wide 70mm reels. The projectionist orchestrated the lights, music and curtain.

"It was the presentation more than the film itself. You knew that there was some yahoo back there in that projection room who was taking a lot of pride in his work, trying to be like an orchestra conductor," said Theisen.

Theisen works full time at Sundance Cinema, where he oversees six theaters (one theater uses the digital projector and the rest use film projectors). With the advent of more automated technology, the role of the projectionist is to be a watchdog over the technology.

"I'm essentially an insurance policy. But it's those times on a Saturday night when things go horribly wrong, that's when we earn our keep," he said. "In this day and age, if something goes kerflooey, it's usually something to do with the platter. It's Murphy's Law. This kind of stuff never happens on Monday night when there's three people in the theater. It always happens on Saturday night when you got a full house."

One of the worst emergencies is "brain wrap," when the reel gets twisted up and keeps winding around the center mechanism of the film platter. Even outside the projection booth and above the usual racket of a running projector, you can hear that clacking noise of machinery gone wild. It's the sound that nightmares are made of, Theisen said.

With the digital projector, "all you hear is a big whirr. It's very spooky. It's an amazingly quiet contraption."

Theisen guesses it will be about 10 years before theaters go mainly or all digital. "It's one thing for big companies to do it, but the little Ma and Pa operations out there in little towns, they don't have that kind of money available to yank out their film system and put in a digital system. The studios are pushing digital big time because it will save them a pot of money."

Digital technology for movie theaters is not as simple as the DVD player in your house. It runs on six "motherboards" and has its own potential snafus.

"With the digital, there's a few things that we know we can try when something doesn't work right. The problem is, if those couple of little things don't fix the problem, you're pretty much out of luck. It's a learning curve," said Theisen.

Projectionists are getting trained in the new technology and learning new tricks. For younger projectionists, like 27-year-old Tom Marlin at Sundance, "it comes easy." In the next few months, he'll be heading to San Francisco to take classes in digital projection. He's been projecting films since high school and was so eager to work at Sundance that when he heard they were opening, he e-mailed the president of Sundance inquiring about a job before listings were even posted.

Working in movie theaters is something that just "sucks you in," said Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray, general manager at Sundance. "It gets in your blood." She worked for years at the now-razed University Square 4 and remembers "fixing things with rubber bands" at the historic Orpheum Theatre, which she managed for 11 years.

Mike King, 29, the projectionist for the Cinematheque on the UW-Madison campus, said it makes sense to watch newer films in digital since so many have special effects that were never on celluloid to begin with. Some, like "Ratatouille," were created entirely with digital technology.

But he believes older films, especially films created before the 1950s, should be watched in their original format in a theater: "There was no such thing as television. They weren't created with that format in mind, so there are a lot more wide shots. When you're watching it on your iPod or whatever, you know, you're seeing little specks in a landscape. When you're watching it on a giant screen, you can drink it all in."

Formats will always be mutating, as he sees it. "Who knows what kind of crazy, hologram bubble discs things will be shown on in the future," King said.

Digital may be the most revolutionary change in the film industry since its inception, but older projectionists like Theisen and Romano can remember all the short-lived inventions that were meant to revolutionize film technology but quickly faded.

"Sensurround" was a gimmicky sound process that debuted with the 1974 film "Earthquake." It boosted the low-end bass to "astronomical" levels and literally shook the building, said Theisen. The bass vibrated so violently at the Cinema on Atwood Ave. (now the Barrymore Theatre) that a couple of typewriters were knocked to the floor at the typewriter shop next door.

And Smell-O-Vision released odors through the theater's vent system so that the audience could smell the action as well as watch it. The smells lingered for weeks and would resurface at inopportune times.

The goofiest thing Theisen ever saw were the "scratch 'n' sniff cards" handed out at John Waters' 1981 movie "Polyester." Cues directed the audience which place to sniff - and this being John Waters, he added, most had to do with bodily functions.

One of the biggest changes in the past 30 years, at least for projectionists, was the invention of videotapes for home use.

"Thank God for videotape, because videotape essentially put porno houses out of business," said Theisen. The theaters that showed porn were usually poorly run and in rock-bottom condition. "If you were the new projectionist in the good old days, if you were wet behind the ears, you could be guaranteed to be in one of two places: a porno house or a drive-in."

Romano remembers showing films like "Debbie Does Dallas" and "Bodacious Ta-Tas" at the Eastwood (another incarnation of what's now the Barrymore) and at the Orpheum's Stage Door. The only good memory he has of those experiences is the story of "how a porn theater saved our relationship with a neighbor."

He and a bunch of other projectionists lived together and often partied until 5 in the morning. Their sleep-deprived next-door neighbor would come over to yell at them at 7 a.m. in retribution. One day, one of the roommates spotted the same neighbor at a porno house.

"He took one look at Mark, and Mark looked at him, and we never heard a peep out of the guy. We kind of had carte blanche on how much partying we did after that," said Romano.

With or without porn, smells, Sensurround, digital, reel-to-reel and whatever technology comes next, movie theaters are here to stay, said Theisen. He cited a quote from the founder of Marcus Theatres: "Somebody asked him if movie theaters would go the way of the dinosaurs, and he said, 'You know, people have kitchens, but they still go out to eat.'"

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