I got my writing hustle started in a movie theater projection booth.

I was about 20 when I began writing about music for local zines and the alt-weekly The Spectator, the INDY’s vanquished competitor. At the time, circa 2000, I was a projectionist at The Movies at Timberlyne, the little six-screener that bravely soldiers on in Chapel Hill, perched above The Chelsea.  

Though I didn’t know it then, these were the last days of 35mm film, before you could simply push a button on a digital projector, and there was just enough art to it to make it a job. In a 12-hour double shift, once every couple of hours, I would circle the “booth”—which was really the whole second floor of the theater—and start the movies. 

Eventually, I could thread a projector in one minute and 18 seconds. The rest of my time was spent reading and writing in the halo of a desk lamp as the dim world beyond it softly whirred, beaming six dreams down into the dark. 

The exception was Thursday, when all the new movies arrived by truck and there was much to do. They came on six to ten reels in two orange hexagonal cans. On a table with motorized reels, I spliced them end to end, using a little hand press that cut with a satisfying thunk. I put shiny silver tape near the sprocket holes here and there, to cue the lights or change the lens’s aspect ratio. 

The monstrous wheel of film that wound up tightly coiled around a metal ring was fraught with danger because dropping it spelled long hours of untangling it on the floor. I affixed clamps to it and got help carrying it to one of the three horizontal platters growing like a strange tree next to each projector.

Mistakes could be made, from missing cue tape to backward reels, so the movies had to be screened before they could open the next day. Sometime during the nine o’clock shows, while I was teetering on a 20-foot ladder to change the marquee, my friends would start showing up, by the carload or the dozen. 

It’s amazing how many friends you have when you can let people into the movies for free and after hours. The projection booth had a hatch to the party-ready roof, where you could peer down over the shopping center, feeling regal or existential as the moment demanded. After my meteoric ascent to assistant manager, I presided at the door like a baronet and had a book of passes I spent like money all over town. 

It really was the best early-20s job.

Somehow, the time would come to actually watch the movie, whether it was American Pie or The Sixth Sense or Belly, and I would return to the booth as everyone gathered in the theater with trash bags full of leftover popcorn. 

I’d pry the metal ring from the film and start threading it through a floating arm that led to a cluster of rollers in the middle of the platter, which I think was called “the brain.” The arm always had to have three Q-Tips taped to it to work right, for reasons none of the theater chain’s engineers could ever satisfactorily explain to me.

From the brain, I stretched the film to a high roller before pulling it down into the projector, looping and clamping it into the critical path through the jumbled profusion of rollers and sprockets that would safely collect it on the next platter. I remember the purple emulsion sifting down in the white light of a xenon bulb that would burn the film if you left it idle and explode from the oils on your skin if you touched it. 

I thought of all this recently when local theaters like The Carolina and The Rialto started offering takeout concessions, which gave me an intense feeling of lost-world nostalgia that I didn’t immediately understand. After all, movie theaters look likely to reopen by June, albeit with patrons sitting at safe distances in reduced-capacity houses. 

But they’ll still face the existential threat from an atomized viewership that they did before their main asset—public gathering—became a liability. They’re fragile, like all technologically obsolete institutions that persist on cultural tradition alone, and as we mourn how things are not the same, there’s melancholy comfort in realizing they never were. 

After I became assistant manager, I still worked projection sometimes, but I also scooped popcorn and tore tickets and swept floors and counted money in the office. Instead of anticipating Thursdays, I dreaded Sundays, when we had to inventory ever kernel and lid in the stockroom. I had to wear a tie. 

Eventually, I transferred to the Plaza, which used to be by the Whole Foods in Chapel Hill, and when it shut down, I helped take it apart. I remember sliding down a ladder while cutting out a screen with a knife and lifting incredibly heavy bronze-bottomed soda fountains from the counters. 

By my mid-20s, I was out of the movie business, working part-time as a barista and embarrassing myself nationally as a young Pitchfork writer. The Timberlyne projection booth was no longer my domain. The Plaza was gone, and the film I threaded was soon to follow it into oblivion.

It just was another art, like pulling espresso, that I might never use again—just a few stray frames from a reel that has to keep moving or be consumed, a few dreams in the dark that leave behind only the faintest smear of purple dust. 

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com.

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