New Castle News

July 3, 2013

Movie Memories Part 3: Technology takes movie theater projectionists from distinction to extinction.

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Chances are, Dave Kalata would be retired now anyway.

Kalata, a New Jersey resident and New Castle native, recently bade farewell to a three-decade career with the U.S. Postal Service. It was a path he began in 1984 after 10 years as a full-time movie theater projectionist in the Garden State, which had followed several seasons of honing that craft part time in the New Castle and Youngstown areas.

By the end of 2013, there may be no one to follow in Kalata’s footsteps of projecting 35 mm film onto a movie theater screen. Little by little, film and film projectors have been disappearing, replaced by digital equipment, with the film industry expected to go fully digital as soon as 2014.

Once it does, no more movies will be released on film.

While most megaplexes already have made the transition to digital, many smaller, single-screen movie houses may not survive the change, as digital equipment can run about $70,000 per screen. In 2012, Indiewire, an online resource for independent filmmakers, estimated that the digital conversion could shutter 1,000 smaller theaters across the country.

Already, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, the decline is evident, with a total of 7,151 U.S. movie theaters in 1995 falling to 5,331 by 2011.

Locally, the changeover endangers theaters like the Reynolds Drive-in in Transfer or the Guthrie Theater in Grove City. The former has yet to open this summer because of its in ability “to secure a digital projector at an efficient price,” according to its Facebook page, while the latter may have to close if an ongoing fundraising campaign fails to produce enough money to buy digital equipment.

The single-screen Guthrie, which opened in 1927, is a throwback to the days of New Castle’s now-defunct Penn, Hi-Lander, Cinema and State theaters, where both Dave Kalata and his cousin, Dick, spent time as projectionists.


Both Kalatas had their appetite for their early careers whetted by Dick’s father, George, a projectionist at the Penn for 40 years.

“I was just fascinated by the equipment and what he did to entertain the people who were down in the auditorium,” said Dave. “I told him I would like to learn how to do it, and he told me, ‘wait until you’re older. You have to be at least 16, 17 years old.’

“So when I got older, I spent almost a year going from the Penn, the Hi-Lander, the drive-ins, learning the operations of being a projectionist. It was certainly more involved than it is now.”

Until the early 1970s, Dick Kalata explained, a typical projection booth used film supplied on 20-minute reels with light provided by carbon arc lamps. Reels were spooled up on two projectors, with the second one started – if the projectionist was good – just as the first ended, creating a seamless transition that the audience wouldn’t even notice.

Larger theaters such as the Penn, Dick Kalata said, employed two projectionists per shift until the mid-1950s.

“The projectionist position in the ’40s and ’50s was a highly respected craft,” Dick Kalata said. “Under the guidance of New Castle Theatrical Union Local 451, potential projectionists had to serve 450 hours as an apprentice before taking a state-mandated test, which took about three hours. A state license was granted after passing this test.

“The license was necessary because of the electronic equipment in the projection booth, chances of fire and the safety of the patrons. In the ’60s and ’70s, projection equipment was modernized and automated, limiting the need for the state license and creating the need for a less-skilled projectionist.”

That first step toward automation, Dick Kalata said, replaced the carbon arc lamp with a Xeon bulb, and introduced the “platter,” which eliminated reel changeovers and paved the way for today’s multiplexes.



In today’s digital world, the movie theater projectionist has gone the way of the milkman and the pin boy. Movies are supplied on hard drive, Dick Kalata said, or in some cases, theaters are emailed key codes that a worker will load into a computer to unlock and show a movie.

It’s a change that also endangers many of the nation’s remaining drive-in theaters, an irony since it also would eliminate one challenge Dick Kalata recalled from his projectionist days.

Originally, he explained, drive-ins did not show first-run movies. Eventually, that changed, and when it did, the Penn and the Skyline, as well as the Hi-Lander that the Super Castle, generally ran the same movie on the same day.

“Due to a shortage of movie prints, they had to share the same print,” he recalled. “A driver would deliver the reels back and forth between theaters. This was called ‘bicycling.’

“If an exact schedule wasn’t adhered to, an annoying ‘forced intermission’ would result. I was running ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ at the Hi-Lander and had three forced intermissions during one run. Obviously, the patrons weren’t happy campers.”

The switch to digital isn’t all gloom and doom. While 35 mm film will degrade unless it’s stored in a humidity-free vault, as well as when it’s copied and recopied, digital movies can be preserved, reworked and remastered with ease.

And while the switch may spell doom for some small theaters, it may actually be a boon to those that do survive, since it will enable their audiences to get the same movie quality, and possibly a wider variety of titles, as the larger multiplexes.

Still, it will never replace that challenges that at one time made the movie house projectionist a proud career choice.

“From the ’40s to the ’70s, the projectionist jobs in New Castle were very demanding,” Dick Kalata said. “The projectionist had to maintain the projectors and equipment and run a perfect performance. If everything wasn’t done on cue, you would show numbers on the screen or lose the picture completely.”

Today, though, the real picture that has been lost is the one of the once-proud projectionist toiling at his craft.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)