It’s Sunday at the Texas Theatre, and more than 150 of people have packed into the seats. Today’s show is something special: a 35mm screening of the cattle-and-oil epic , starring Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, and James Dean.
It’s a complicated challenge to screen Giant. Projectionist Ryan Culbert must run more than 4 miles of film on multiple reels to complete the three-and-a-half-hour runtime of this 1956 epic. As showtimes draws near, theater operator Barak Epstein watches his progress, making sure everything goes as planned before he heads below to introduce the movie. He surveys the splendid Sunday crowd of 150 movie buffs, folks who’ll turn out to see classics in their original format.
“It’s rare for a new movie to come out in film, but it’s not dead,” says Epstein. Modern moviemakers who shoot on film, like Quentin Tarantino, use a 70mm gauge that’s too big for this projection room. But running classic movies in 35mm remains a draw for local film lovers. It suits this theater’s status as both a historic movie house and a curious monument of Americana.
The Texas Theatre has secured its place in history as the location where police took Lee Harvey Oswald into custody following the assassination of president John Kennedy. But there are secrets tucked away here that predate the building’s moment of infamy. The early history of cinema—a mix of dangerous chemicals and early consumerism—can be found encoded in the architecture of the building. The collection of dead-tech movie equipment inside traces the development of the media and decline of the projectionist profession.
On an afternoon in November, a shoe store salesman noticed a man duck into the Texas Theatre without paying. The ticket taker called the police. It was November 22, 1963, and the movie house was about to become part of the nation’s collective conscience.
A little more than an hour before, President John F. Kennedy had been shot dead as his motorcade wound through downtown Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald worked at the book depository where a rifle was found, and he was missing. Bus and taxi drivers later identified him as riding to the neighborhood of Oak Cliff, where he was living. At 1:15 pm Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit pulled alongside Oswald less than a mile from his home, and after exchanging words through the car window, Tippit stepped out of the vehicle. Oswald fired four times, killing Tippit. (Nine witnesses positively identified him, according to the Warren report.)
After the shooting, America’s most wanted man ended up on the Oak Cliff main drag, and then inside the Texas Theatre. Police tracked him to the movie—Cry of Battle was playing—turned the house lights on, and moved in to seize Oswald. Officer Nick McDonald was the first to reach Oswald, who said, “it is all over now” and pulled a pistol. The officer testified that he struck and disarmed Oswald and, with other officers, dragged him from the theater.
Don’t bother trying to find the infamous seat. There is no marker, and Oswald moved seats several times as the movie played. Besides, the theater owner may have removed the seat before the FBI seized it. No one really knows where Oswald sat or what became of the seat.
This grim connection to history has enabled the Theatre to survive the ensuing years while so many others have been demolished or converted to other purposes. And this theater has more secrets than just the location of its most famous seat.
Upstairs, where the current owners hold art shows, are a pair of safes that were used when the theater opened in the 1930s, when Howard Hughes owned the theater chain. “There were two, and we hired a safecracker to open one,” Epstein says. “There was nothing inside, so it was sort of an Al Capone’s vault thing. But maybe we’ll crack the other one to mark another anniversary, and see what’s inside.”
The safe is a reminder of a different age of cinema, when it was a luxury for the masses and a respected, dangerous profession for the projectionist.
The Risky Life of the Projectionist
The ornate floral decorations on the stairwell have worn down. The paint on the railing mottled. When the Texas Theatre opened in 1931, patrons climbed these stairs to the now-defunct balcony as part of an entertainment experience meant to offer cutting-edge technology in an elegant setting. This was the largest suburban movie theater in Dallas and the first in the area with air conditioning. The building has modern chillers on the roof, but still uses the original fan and ventilation system.
On their pilgrimage to their seats, the patrons would pass a thick, locked door that was sealed for their safety. Here was the domain of the projectionist. It was a dangerous job. Early film used photosensitive chemicals placed on a nitrate base, which made the film extremely flammable. Even worse, the combustion process of nitrates produces oxygen, which only feeds a fire once it starts.
“Up until the 1930s it really was the Wild West in theaters,” Epstein says. And so the projectionist room at the Texas Theatre is build with fire suppression in mind. The entire room could be sealed from the rest of the theater in moments. Chains still dangle where metal screens could slam down to seal any openings—trapping the projectionist inside if necessary.
A published in Variety explored the risk associated with various entertainment and media professions, as calculated by insurance companies. In it, film projectionists from 1913 to 1926 had a 135 percent mortality rate compared to the national average. That number dropped to 110 percent as a result of “more stringent laws and safer booth equipment.”
Photography companies developed a much safer alternative, using acetate in beginning 1909, which become the film of choice for home movie recorders and other amateurs. But the movie studios shied away from its use because the stored film became too brittle. Filmmakers also declared an inferior image quality.
The danger associated with movie houses meant projectionists had to be skilled laborers, and a strong unions rose with movies’ popularity. Reading back copies of International Projectionist, which started publishing in 1931, is a glimpse into the guild-mentality of the era. Technical minutia and best practices typically superseded politics. Those industry standards are reflected in the bones of the Texas Theatre today.
“There’s old pipes that indicate that there was a bathroom here,” Epstein says of a current storage closet. “Union projectionists had to stay by the film at all times.”
Giant arrives at the Texas Theatre divvied up inside several canisters. The lenghty movie is divided into 11 small reels that Culbert consolidates into four larger ones, spinning the twin reels like a loom, cutting film and splicing the reels together.
The 35mm projectors stand more than 5 feet tall, with the lenses aimed out small portholes like cannon from a ship. There are two here that handle 35mm film. Giant will go back and forth between machines four times during its nearly four-hour run.
Culbert counts the spaces and strategically edits cues for light-activated devices that will automatically switch the film from one projector to the other. While that one plays, he will load the next reel and start dismantling the first part of the film so it will fit in the 11 reels and without the cues, reverting back to the way he received it. The movie will never be in one whole piece.
There are not many projectionists left. The migration to digital projection swept the world around 2005, and by 2015, most of the world’s theaters had been converted. Today’s theaters have projection rooms too small to even consider adding a 35mm or larger film projector.
With more than 20 years of experience, Culbert has also learned how to use digital movie software common in modern theaters. “Projectionists have been replaced by IT people or managers, who just build a playlist and set a schedule,” he says. “They have it pretty easy nowadays.”
Ryan notes that modern theaters may have more advanced equipment, but it also costs more. “The lifetime of digital equipment is three times as short and three times more expensive,” he says.
Still, even this film buff sees advances coming that will make digital even more powerful, one day to supplant the 70mm as the ideal film gauge for modern movies. “Digital will catch up with film soon,” he says, citing higher resolutions suited for IMAX presentations and the use of new xenon bulbs.
The trailers are done and it’s showtime. A projectionist from the past would be confused by the software and mouseclick that starts the movie, but the rest would be familiar: the large reels start to spin and the ticker-ticker sound of the 35mm film winding through the classic Christie projectors. The machine comes alive with white and golden light, and down below the opening credits appear to applause. The colors are incredibly rich but the film has scuffs, something moviephiles enjoy as authentic.
In the seats, the patrons are transported. They laugh at the comedic lines and suck air as the shrewish sister digs her spurs into Taylor’s horse. The reactions are authentic: whether they are transported to the dusty cattle drives of the movie’s plot, or of the 1950s when people saw this movie this exact way, is not clear.