Projectionist

In all likelihood, the principal projectionist at the Joyland was A. Whinton Martin. There are nine entries for "Martin" in the Joyland ledger from October 22 to December 24, all but two of them for $15. The 1910 U.S. census lists A. Whinton Martin boarding at 523 1/2 N. Fourth St. in Wilmington, his occupation noted as "laborer at theatre." He was eighteen years old in 1910. At this time, the projectionist was more commonly called "electrician" or "operator." The work performed by this individual was crucial to the operation of every movie theater. This was the one "skilled" position a theater manager had to fill and maintain and for which he had to pay a good wage.

The source of illumination for movie projection was a carbon arc light, produced by passing an electric current between two sticks of carbon placed close enough to each other to produce a bright arc light between them. The film was mounted onto a 1000-foot reel and fed at a rate of 16-18 frames per second between the arc light and the projector lens, which magnified the image so that it could be projected onto a screen at the rear of the theater. Early projectors simply dumped the projected film into a basket on the floor, but by the time Martin worked at the Joyland-some fourteen years after the first films were projected to a paying audience in the U.S.-a take-up reel had been added to the projector.

Projectors were hand cranked, and the projectionist could speed up or slow down the action on the screen by "over-cranking" or "under-cranking." It is likely that Martin would also have been expected to maintain the projection equipment. The ledger reflects expenditures for new carbons for the arc lamp (October 12: $3.15), oil and an oil can, and a new arc lamp and slide carrier (November 6: $16.25).

The film stock itself was made from nitrocellulose, a chemical cousin to explosives used by the military in World War I. The proximity of highly flammable material to an extremely hot light source meant that fire was never more than a projectionist's misstep away and that the danger to the projectionist and the audience was very real. In fact, the incidence of projector-related fires over the first ten years of movie exhibition prompted many cities to institute special regulations governing film exhibitions and the places in which they regularly occurred. It is likely that the projector at the Joyland was located in a separate booth constructed from fire-resistant materials, so that if a fire did break out, it would not spread to the theater itself.

The projection booth undoubtedly made early movie theaters safer, but they were what one film historian has called a "sweatshop." Encased in metal boxes barely large enough to accommodate the machinery and its operator, projectionists worked in sometimes stifling heat. The temperature produced by the projector's light source alone could reach over 100 degrees, and in the heat and humidity of a Wilmington summer, the booth would have been even hotter. In addition to enduring high temperatures, the projectionist breathed in the black dust given off by the carbon arc lights. In some cases, the metal booths in which they worked were lined with asbestos, adding yet another air-borne irritant to the difficult conditions. The Joyland, like its competitors, was open from early afternoon until late at night, six days each week. A projectionist, then, endured not only difficult conditions but also very long hours. (Musser 1994, pp. 442-444)

Robert Headley's account of early film exhibition in Washington, D.C., notes that projectionists there stripped down to their underwear in hot weather and were forbidden to leave their posts under any circumstances while they were on duty. (Headley 1999, p. 47)

Newspaper ad for Edison's Projecting Kinetoscope, published ca. 1900-10

The projectionist's work routine involved showing the twelve-minute, one-reel films that made up the Joyland's program on any given day over and over again. When each film was over, it had to be rewound so that it could be shown again. Rewinding was accomplished on a device made by bolting two reels on crank stands to a board approximately two feet apart. On October 31, 1910, the Joyland ledger notes a payment of $3.50 for such a rewind device, manufactured by Nicholas Power, one of the major manufacturers of projection equipment in the U.S. Between showings, Martin would have projected illustrated song slides.

Projectors were the most important piece of technology in film exhibition. When the projector wasn't working properly, the result was a show that disappointed audiences. When the projector didn't work at all, there was no movie show. It is unknown what problems Reilly experienced with the Joyland projector, but the ledger shows an outlay of $42.25 on October 21 for "machine." Notices in the Wilmington Star on October 26 and 27 point out improvement in the quality of projection as a result of the new machine.

October 22 is also the date of the first payment entry for "Martin," ($3) suggesting that his hiring was connected to the purchase of the new machine. Other entries in the Joyland ledger suggest that Martin operated a projector manufactured by the Edison Manufacturing Company (October 19: "express for Ed. machine"). The Edison Projecting Kinetoscope was the leading brand of movie projectors among storefront theaters. The growth of storefront theaters in the period after 1906 resulted in a huge demand for projection equipment, and Edison sold more than 3500 projectors at $135 each in 1907 alone. (Musser 1994, p. 449)

From 1896 to 1906, when film exhibition was largely limited to big-city vaudeville theaters and traveling exhibitors, being a projector "operator" was regarded as a skilled technical occupation, and there were no more than a few hundred professional operators working in the entire country. Finicky and unreliable projectors required as much or more skill than operating the movie camera that shot the films operators showed. With the advent of the storefront movie theater around 1906, however, the number of exhibition venues in the U.S. exploded. By the time Martin was hired in 1910, there were thousands of places in the U.S. showing movies on a daily basis. Standards for projectionists dropped sharply as did wages.

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The wage Martin received, $15 per week, was consistent with what projectionists in other East Coast cities in 1910 earned. The range in Washington, D.C., was $16 to $21 per week at this time. Martin's salary was much higher than that paid to factory and mill workers in North Carolina in 1910. In the state's largest manufacturing industry, textiles, adult male workers frequently made half Martin's $15 wage for a sixty-six hour work week.