BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — About three minutes before the end of a film reel on Jason Sheckley’s vintage movie theater equipment, a bell rings three times and he begins a rushed process that most other projectionists haven’t done in decades.
In the dim projection loft of The Harbor Theatre in Boothbay Harbor, Sheckley darts through a fluid routine of firing up the motor on his second 1930s-era projector, lighting an antiquated and endangered carbon-arc rod system that throws light from a sort of open flame, and training his eye through a small portal to the upper right corner of the movie screen. He waits for the appearance of a fleeting circle on the screen that’s so quick most moviegoers don’t notice it.
“I learned this from people who learned in the golden age in 1930s theaters,” said Sheckley. “It’s kind of a passed-down tradition that’s about to end.”
He places one hand on a red lever atop one projector and the other on a wire that leads to the second. At the right moment he gives both a hearty tug, producing a mechanical squeak and clang as one 80-year-old lens goes dark and the other comes to life. Though the audience below him usually doesn’t notice anything, the movie they’re watching is suddenly being projected from a different source. Since most reels hold around 20 or 30 minutes worth of film and Sheckley doesn’t employ a platter system where he can splice the reels together ahead of time, it’s a process he repeats several times in the course of a typical feature film.
With the switch-over complete, he loads the next reel into the other projector, all the while making minute adjustments to a series of burnished knobs and levers that control the quality of the light source and the speed of the film flicking through gears and pulleys that conservatively have handled some tens of thousands of hours of film.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s what keeps this projectionist perfectionist coming back almost every day. And despite his use of the old ways, the picture on the screen is as bright and crisp as it is anywhere.
“I do it this way to keep it interesting,” said Sheckley, who bought Harbor Theatre in 2002 and since then has maintained a near-constant seven-day-a-week screening schedule. “I didn’t want to just be sitting up here reading a book or something.”
But due to major technological changes in the industry, Sheckley and countless other theater owners are facing the fact that soon, motion-picture studios will stop distributing movies on film, opting instead for digital equipment that basically involves attaching a digital hard drive and pushing play. Until the movie is over, there’s little for them to do, except maybe for reading a book.
The studios haven’t set a specific date for completing their conversion to digital — which for Sheckley will require a more than $60,000 investment and the loss of his beloved old-time methods — but he knows it’s inevitable. That means he has some decisions to make in the short-term, such as where that money will come from and whether he should strive to renew theater memberships in September that support his business and give customers discounts on tickets. For the past few months, he’s been soliciting donations that have neared the $20,000 level, which is about one-third of what he needs. He’s optimistic.
“I don’t believe we’re going to close; I believe we’re going to succeed,” said Sheckley, a retired news photographer. “It’s sort of a calling if you’re running a small-town theater. The most important thing to me is making sure the Boothbay region continues to have its own theater. People have told me I can’t do it, so that makes me want to even more.”
There are other challenges. The carbon-arc rod system he uses in his lamps — a system that slowly feeds two welding rod-like devices toward each other and produces light with an electrical arc between them — is so rare that three suppliers have told him recently to stop calling for more rods. Sheckley could switch to more widely used xenon bulbs, but he likes the quality of light thrown by the carbon rods.
Jim Beckerley, owner of Hub Theater Service in Kennebunk, works on more than 100 theaters in northern New England — though he’s lost about 30 accounts in the past couple of years due to digital conversions and service contracts that come with the new equipment. He’s maintained theater equipment since the 1960s and said Sheckley is the last projectionist in Maine who is using a carbon arc system. Rare, too, are theaters who don’t have a platter system to splice movie reels together before a showing.
“Everyone’s gone to the bulb,” he said. “You can still get the carbon rods in India and China, but they’re pricey.”
Beckerley said he’s training himself to work on the digital equipment because he knows there will be problems.
“You’re never going to see a 70-year-old digital projector,” he said. “They have transistors and chips in them and those things don’t last like the old stuff does.”
For Sheckley, the new equipment will ruin the suspense of keeping the movies rolling night after night.
“When you turn your back on this old stuff, it does what it wants,” he said. “But when things go wrong, that’s when it gets interesting. I want it to be right and I have every night to get it right.”
To make a donation in support of The Harbor Theatre’s digital conversion, visit the theater in The Meadow Mall on Route 27 in Boothbay Harbor or visit the website www.harbortheatre.net.