Alan Winn, Film Projectionist
Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of busy Collins Street one afternoon in the mid-fifties my friend and I entered the crowded foyer of the Athenaeum Theatre, our intention being to see the Laurence Olivier production of Richard III.
Being busy teenage schoolboys at the time we had rarely had the opportunity of visiting a city theatre and were a little awed by the experience. As we were directed to our seats I became aware of the ornate plasterwork which surrounded us, lit by crystal chandeliers, creating a feeling of antiquity which was for me quite humbling.
Future circumstances were to afford me the opportunity to once again experience that feeling.
Having in the meantime developed a passion for the cinema and wishing to be employed in the industry I had applied to Hoyts theatres and been successful in obtaining employment as an assistant projectionist in 1957. After some time at Hoyts suburban cinemas I was transferred to the Plaza and Regent theatres in Collins Street.
The Athenaeum building in 1957
Photograph held in the archives
I first went to the Athenaeum in 1957 to take across a Movietone newsreel from the Regent for screening at the Athenaeum. Switching of newsreels was common practice during those times as the lack of sufficient copies meant that they had to be moved between theatres. A newsreel would be screened at the Regent, then taken across to the Athenaeum, then be returned to the Regent for the next session.
Before the days of television, the newsreels brought people into the theatres. Newsreels of events like the Melbourne and Davis Cup were produced within twenty-four hours of the event and for most people going to the cinema was the only way they would see them.
I began as an assistant projectionist at the Athenaeum late in 1958. The entrance to the projection room was via the stairs next to the library entrance which led to the upper circle, then up the circle steps to the 'Bio Box'. I remember that journey being long and then being dark inside the theatre. It had a certain feel, particularly when it was empty, and its own distinct but not unpleasant smell.
The Athenaeum had a pair of Centrex projectors and was equipped for four-track stereophonic magnetic sound as well as optical sound. Widescreen and Cinemascope had been introduced to compete with television which at that time was causing the closure of many cinemas.
The cinema was also equipped to screen films in what is called 'standard ratio' (films made prior to the introduction of Widescreen systems). The Athenaeum had its own electronic generator in case of power failures or electricity strikes.
The lighting was controlled from backstage – unusual for a cinema. In most cinemas the lighting is controlled from the projection room. The Athenaeum was built for live theatre so the electronic switchboards were backstage. An electrician was on duty when films were shown, he would dim the houselights when the film was about to start. There were two sets of curtains – an act drop that rose vertically, and French action curtains that parted in the middle. When the newsreel image hit the first curtain, it would go up. Then the second curtain would open. It was part of the presentation. At the end of the evening, after the audience had left, the fire curtain was lowered for the night.
Projectionists had to be licensed because nitrate film was flammable. Nitrate based film was used until the late 1950s when a slow burning safety film was introduced. In the 1970s it was decided that projectionists did not have to be licensed. I did my course by correspondence from RMIT along with coaching from other operators. There was a four hour exam and a practical test. The electrical part of the course was roughly equivalent to a C-grade electrician qualification at that time. We had to fully understand the operation of switchboards, the principles of amplification, optics (lenses), mechanics, and arc lamps. The Athenaeum used arc lamps, like most other theatres during that period. High-amperage electricity passed across the gap between two sticks of carbon, creating a bright white light to illuminate the film. These were used until the 1970s when zenon lamps were introduced, using gas inside a bulb.
Prior to the commencement of the program and during the interval, recorded incidental music was played – non-vocal music only. We were not allowed to play anything with vocals, except promotional tracks such as 'Goodness Gracious Me' which was used to promote the early sixties Athenaeum season of the Peter Sellers/Sophia Loren film The Millionairess.
As the projection room at the Athenaeum was at the back of the upper circle, there was a very high projection rake, that is, the angle between the projector and the screen; the theatre was short but high. Although the introduction of Widescreen and Cinemascope required provision for a very large screen, the Athenaeum screen was fitted inside the proscenium.
There was a projectionist and an assistant projectionist rostered for each shift. We showed four sessions daily, usually at 10am, 2pm, 4pm, and 8pm. Each operator did two sessions each day. The two projectionists at the Athenaeum were Mr Bert Emerson and Mr Ted Schary. Mr Emerson the Chief Projectionist, had been there since the silent days.
The projection room at the Athenaeum was approximately 12 feet by 8 feet. It was very stuffy. The two arc lamps produced fumes. They had flues coming up from them but a small amount of odour escaped. There were fans to bring in fresh air, but no windows. It always smelt musty.
Entry to the projection room was via the upper circle which was entered from the Athenaeum Library passageway, then up numerous flights of stairs to the entrance to the seating area. The steps to the projection room were very steep as was the seating on this level. I remember feeling uneasy walking down those steps due to the sloping of the floor.
We walked up and down the steps carrying film trunks (5 reels of film in a metal trunk) from the film exchange. The film exchanges were in various locations near the Spencer Street end of town. Warner Brothers, Metro, Paramount, Fox, each had their own vaults there to store films. We would take a taxi to the film exchange, pick up the films in two metal cases (most films had about 8 spools), put the film trunks into the boot of the taxi, go back to the theatre and take the film trunks upstairs to the projection room. We'd check each reel before running them, even though they'd been checked at the exchange. Each spool ran for about twenty minutes. When you got to the end of a spool a small circle would flash in the top right corner of the screen and that was our signal to start the other projector. When the circle flashed again we pressed the changeover switch to start the other projector. There was a lot of skill and expertise involved and that is where the fascination was for us.
Seating at the Athenaeum was standard theatre type seating, not plush. The seats had cast iron sides and wooden arms. The seat cushion was square with padded leatherette covering. The back was scooped out wooden frame with upholstery studs along the top and side edges. The seats would swing back when you stood up. Seats in the lounge were more comfortable, possibly red velvet. Those were the higher priced seats.
Films which were screened at the Athenaeum included Peter Sellers in The Millionairess, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun's Story, The Longest Day, The Sundowners, Richard III with Laurence Olivier, D-Day The Sixth of June, The Great Escape, Judgement at Nuremberg, A Hard Day's Night, Tunes of Glory, Zorba the Greek, Never on Sunday, and a return season of An Affair to Remember.
The Days of Thrills and Laughter was shown at the Athenaeum. It was a compilation of old silent films. I was told to screen it in widescreen format by the Athenaeum chief projectionist, but that cropped the top and bottom of the film. I had a call from the Chief Engineer on the opening day saying there had been complaints (in many scenes heads and feet could not be seen). I said I'd been told to show it in widescreen, but after that we ran it in standard format.
My wife recalls that she and a friend went to a film at the Athenaeum in 1972, before we were married. It was Victoria the Great (1937) starring Anna Neagle and Anton Walbrook, made in 1938 but revived in the 1970s. She didn't realise it was such an old film when they went to see it, but it was a good film and they enjoyed it anyway. In those days everybody dressed up to go to the pictures.
The Athenaeum veranda was used for gala openings at the Regent and the Plaza, which was in the basement below the Regent. We would either use small spot lamps to highlight vehicles and celebrities as they arrived, or searchlights to play across the front of the theatre. It had to be done from a vantage point across the road.
I left the cinema industry in 1965 when the impact of television forced Hoyts to close many of its theatres. I began working in a photographic laboratory where I stayed for more than twenty years. I returned to projection work for Palace Cinemas during the nineties. By that time the Athenaeum had returned to live theatre.
I recently had the privilege of attending the 170th Birthday of the Melbourne Athenaeum and as I entered the auditorium I began to experience something of the awe and the feeling of antiquity of this place, just as I had done... so long ago.
Relieving projectionist for Hoyts Athenaeum
from 1957 to 1961.