The desire to fill my life with movies started because of two events. The first was the summer I spent by myself watching The Shawshank Redemption repeatedly after moving to Illinois when I was 14. The other was getting my job at GKC University Cinemas three years later. Cue the flying car!
At the time it was more a birthday present to myself than the start of my lifelong obsession. I had done your standard array of teenage jobs, like babysitting and yard work, before I entered the workforce properly. My interview at University Cinemas was like a birthday present to myself because I had a job at Wendy's I was looking to rid myself of, and my best friend Taunie worked there. The interview process went smoothly because I wasn't involved in the drama department at school, so wouldn't need to request any chunks of time off, and was interested in working myself to death.
So that began my glorious five-year tenure at University Cinemas. Eventually it became a hotbed of employment for all of my friends as they each got jobs at the theater. In fact, each one of the regular contributors to this site had a job at the theater at some point. As much as I love my current employment now, nothing was better than having a busy opening weekend for some hot film, cracking jokes about it with all of my friends to get through the day, then closing up shop so we could go to one of their apartments to drink and play video games before stumbling awake to repeat the process.
If the long hours of work and play started to take their toll on us we had our means of staying awake. There was the safety of The Booth, where we kept the coffee machine and log book for whoever was working projection. But for the most hung-over of days when the play was a bit too rough, we had a giant jar of pickles that required only one good unsealed whiff to bring you back from the most nauseous depths. If none of that worked, we had the gorgeous view from our roof that gave us respite from the crowds, and a safe place to vomit.
The social mingling extended to romantic entanglements as well. In fact it got downright incestuous sometimes. I wasn't immune to it either and dated one girl for about six months before collapsing spectacularly (somewhat related: this is also when I learned not to date someone you work with). But some people were able to make the work romance work out, and I'm happy to report that one of the best people I've ever known, Pete Novotny, met his future wife Mandy through the theater and later got married, had kids, the whole happy-life shebang.
Movie theaters tend to attract a certain kind of person. We all were into art in some way, either as students or casually through film or music, and were huge nerds. Our conversations were never limited to what was playing or what theater needed to be checked, but expanded to whether Einstein was a fraud, the implications of Minority Report's narrative, the wonder of non-Euclidian geometry, and a whole host of other topics. It also made us a little difficult to keep up with and, if you weren't clicking, a bit oppressively strange. One girl didn't show up for work and when our manager called to check on her she said that she was sick, then immediately reversed that and said she wasn't coming back and that we were weird. I couldn't argue with that.
Working at the theater is also where I developed a strong pride for my work ethic. A couple of Star Wars opening weekends would separate the weak folks hiding in the store-room from the people with brush and pail at the ready to get rid of debris. But I was especially happy of the way I kept the movie projectors running long after they should have fallen apart. I owe most of my sill because I was trained by the excellent Mitch Brinker, but also because of the little tricks I picked up along the way. At one point I was holding out projector for theater three together with rubber bands that had to be applied after each screening, a board to keep the platters stable, and a rig of duct tape to make sure the rollers were affixed into position. I learned to think quick because when a disaster happened to a projector you had a theater filled with ticked-off people who wanted their film to start back up immediately.
It's also where I started to get my real love for movies and the effect they can have on people. One of my greatest memories comes from doing a theater check toward the end of Brokeback Mountain, walking to the end of the aisle, turning around, and seeing the nearly packed theater sparkling with the eyes of every single one of them because they were all crying. Another came from Signs when the again packed-house screamed in unison when the alien casually strolled onscreen and one woman yelled, "Goddamn, don't scare me like that!"
I watched everything released for the span of about three years as I was the lead projectionist and responsible for putting together and screening the films every week. Sometimes this was great, like when I screamed in joy at the sight of an improvised fleet in Serenity. Other times it was painful, like turning the house lights on to stay awake during the astonishingly boring Domino. Then there were the sad moments of reflection, like when I watched Lost in Translation and could not stop crying because I realized my relationship was over and the only reason it was going on was because neither one of us had the strength to end it.
It was the perfect job. As grateful as I am for the career that I have now, I've always said that if I could have made a decent living working as a projectionist for the rest of my life I would still be doing that. There was just so much to love; the late-night screenings, sneaking off for a smoke in between sets, having arts and crafts with the ridiculous amount of promotional material we'd receive, trying to figure out how to scare each other, and decorating the booth.
The theater is gone now, turned into yet another apartment complex to try and cram the maximum amount of students into price-gouging leases as possible on Illinois State's campus. But there are so many more memories that I didn't get into here - some because I'd prefer they stay private, and others because they'll come as I'm thinking of different friends and directors. I miss my theater, but I'm grateful for the time we had together.
All of this is dedicated to my good friend, Kevin Scott Smith. He was a prankster, constantly figuring out ways for us to say the stupidest things, and loved Muse and Disturbed. When the power was out one day we had an impromptu wrestling match in theater 8 lit by flashlights, our shadows the show that our tiny audience had that day. He died from a car accident in November of 2005. Kevin was a great guy, and for a few minutes, we found a way to project our lives to the screen that we worked hard for.