NY Projectionists: Licensed by fire departments?

posted by ArchStanton007 on May 18, 2007 at 4:25 am

Is it still required that a fire department license must be obtained for all new theater projectionists? Wondering how so many non union teens are running ( and sometimes ruining) projection booths throughout NY State. One NYC union projectionist union rep told me the test was dumbed down.

And how did the once strong projectionist’s unions lost their footing? The local based in Mount Vernon, NY years back was very, very strong throughout Westchester County, NY.


Comments (44)

JoelWeide on May 18, 2007 at 5:10 am

You pose an interesting question. I am out here in Kansas, and I can tell you this much, that the fire threat in the projection booth diminished with the advent of xenon bulbs and fire retardant film, which melts instead of burns, ( I dont know the technical name for it.) The great theatre fires were started from the curtains, seats and generally in the projection booths when film caught on fire and set everything else off. I used to have a projectionist who could tell the story about just getting out of a booth before the fire doors locked on him. However, you do also make a good point, that the art of projecting a motion picture is, and has become a lost art. There are fewer and fewer ‘moving picture machine operators’ left in this world. The concept of pride in ones craft and the motovating influence to instill that pride is becoming fewer and fewer, but if you can find a theatre where that pride is exemplified, by all means patronize the place, and frequently, and let the management know you appreciate their efforts, sometimes they need to know.

popcornn on May 18, 2007 at 5:46 am

I believe you’re thinking about Cellulose nitrate film and no, since it is no longer in production, you are no longer required to be a trained firefighter or Navy Seal to work with it. If you look at old projection rooms, you will notice the steel doors, concrete walls and fire shutters…that’s because of the fire hazard due to the film. Same with the old film reels….they are solid cases to prevent them from catching fire if the film starts to burn.

William on May 18, 2007 at 6:05 am

The regular projectionists licenses are handled by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.

floridachalet on May 18, 2007 at 9:08 am

Hmmmm most states dont require that license and they still get good money

William on May 18, 2007 at 12:37 pm

It is an old law for the city of New York. Just like you have to have a license to operate a news stand, sell cigarettes and you even have to have a permit to go out of business.
This is not a union thing. Most of the operators are having their hours cut.

Welcome to the Big Apple.

floridachalet on May 18, 2007 at 12:49 pm

lol good one who applied for the out of business permit today,,,

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 19, 2007 at 2:19 am

The test was never really very difficult, just badly outdated, badly written and controlled by the union. It DID have questions about nitrate film well into the eighties and some of the questions didn’t even make sense.

In my opinion, the union lost it’s footing by backing the continued employment of incompetent projectionists with a history of poor performance and at premium rates. The cinema chains in financial trouble had nothing to lose by playing hardball because the professionals were so few. The notoriously lazy cinema operators would have kept the status quo if more of the projectionists did their jobs, or at least showed up on time, and the union had helped replace the bad ones instead of insisting they kept their jobs in spite of gross negligence.

Vito on May 19, 2007 at 3:15 am

William is quite correct, a licence is required to operate a motion picture projector in NYC, and is given at the offices of Consumer Affairs, There is a fee to take the exam and once you optain a licence you can renew it by mail for $60 every two years.
Although there are some fire related questions, it is not a fire department test. The test consists of about 25 multible choice questions, and I have been told it would be difficult for the average front-of-the-house employee to pass.
Back in the 50s, when I took my test, the test was much more difficult, and in addition to the written test you were required to take a practical exam as well.
The City of New York is the only area in the state of New York
that requires a licence. Other areas such as Westchester and Long Island do not require a licence.
AlAlvarez made some interesting points about the state of projectionist working in thr industry today. All too sad.

William on May 19, 2007 at 3:25 am

Today the test costs around $200 dollars to take and $75.00 to renew every two years for the city of New York.

William on May 19, 2007 at 3:32 am

When there was alot of those older single screen theatres around the business agent for the local no problem with hiding poorer operators with jobs around the city. As those older screens closed it was harder to hide them and the chains could see the problems.
The renewal could be only $60, but it could $75. I just make out the check every two years and get a new picture taken.

floridachalet on May 19, 2007 at 3:52 am

Pretty good i guess, owning 9 theaters in the south i never even knew,,,and we hire projectionist at good rates but not union i would think

Vito on May 19, 2007 at 5:44 am

William, I don’t remeber how much I paid to take the test but the renewal for me is $60 every two years.

Jim Miller
Jim Miller on May 20, 2007 at 5:56 pm

I was a union projectionist for 12 years. I put on the finest show possible. Showmanship showed in everything I did, from the cleanliness of the projection room, and equipment to the opening of the curtain, the changeovers were flawlessly made, and the equipment was maintained to the letter. Unfortunately we went by the “seniority system”, and a lot of slackers that had been around for a long time got the better theatres. As automation set in, many could not “get it”, and many shows were lost due to incompetence. There were also MANY archaic items in the union contracts that definitely did not coincide with the times. Attitudes were poor, tension between management was high, dirty tricks abounded at contract time. We were seen more as a liability than an asset. Our local disbanded in the late 80s. What was once an honorable trade has has become a job for the high school kid. Newer automation has made the job easy, and kids that are the age of ushers often run megaplex projection rooms now. I see parllels in the aut industry too. They are running themselves out of their jobs too, just as the projectionist locals did.

William on May 21, 2007 at 1:38 am

What outafocus just pointed out was a problem with many locals in this business did. As the jobs started to drying up the some of the better operators still had to pay for their families and went on to other fields of work. Some locals did away with the seniority system, which helped. But it still did not stop the lesser operators from be removed for the most part.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 21, 2007 at 4:21 am

I remember in South Florida when the Union demanded such high hourly rates that many theatres shut down matinees. This caused the elimination of many full time jobs and, of course, the professional projectionists who did them, who instead moved into other professions. A very stupid negotiation that ended up hurting everyone.

William on May 21, 2007 at 4:35 am

During the 90’s the Los Angeles local negotiations started to cut hours but gave the operator afew dollars per screen locations. But by the next contract the chains started what was called limited service for some locations. So from full time operators in the booths, the hours were cut from 40 to 25 hours a weeks. The rest of the time management operated the booth. Which later turned into usher type operators in the booths. As more time went by the union operators were cut more, so they had to go get new jobs to live. And the state of performances went down. Yes, there are a few theatres that the non-union operators have done good work. But for the most parts there are a lot of theatres that do VERY poor jobs on all counts of presentations and film handling. They bang up the prints at their theatres and then when it’s time to send it out they don’t a crap about how it’s packaged for the next theatre. A True professional projectionist will send that print out almost as good as when they got it on the first day of release.

William on May 21, 2007 at 4:36 am

The first sentence I forgot to add “afew dollars more per screen locations.”

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 21, 2007 at 10:23 am

Let’s not forget that print stock today is also of poorer quality than it used to be. Prints break easier(even on platters)and start scratching within days. Luckily most films don’t run very long so the industry can get away with it most of the time.

It is easy to blame the projectionist but prints are worse quality and much cheaper to make than they used to be.

Vito on May 22, 2007 at 1:56 am

Alavarez, I wonder if you are a bit confused, the prints we use today, and have for a while now, are made up on mylar stock which is very durable.
Prints are hard to break (tear)and do not scratch as easily as they did in the past when safety film stock was in use.
In the old days we had a lot of problems with broken (stripped)or torn sprocket holes but since mylar was introduced the print damage has decreased considerably. The one down side of mylar is that it may be too tough, now if a print jams it does not break and can cause damage to gears and other parts of a projector.
Try it for yourself, take a strip of mylar and try and tear it with your bare hands, you will not be able to do it. Then if you can find a piece of safety stock you will find you will be able to tear it easily.

dennis906 on May 22, 2007 at 10:18 am

After I was trained to be a union projectionist in late 1973 I was required to take a written and practical test for a city license if I wanted to work in a booth in the city of Los Angeles. The county of Los Angeles also had a license requirement. The written part of the test had to do with rectifiers, carbon lamphouses, xenon bulbs, fuses, film composition, fire doors and a few other things I don’t remember at the moment. In the practical I had to thread up two projectors, trim the carbon, make a changeover and shut down the booth. For a time the license requirement was helping the union stay somewhat strong since one of the two examiners was a union board member who helped pass those who were getting into the union. In later years the city and county license requirement ended.

dennis906 on May 22, 2007 at 10:25 am

The one down side of mylar is that it may be too tough, now if a print jams it does not break and can cause damage to gears and other parts of a projector

True and as I remember it prints made of mylar was also made thinner than regular cellulose-acetate prints. I often had to adjust the gate pressure when I went to mylar to help keep the clattering noise down and the picture steady. Also you cannot use a cement (wet) splicer on mylar prints.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 23, 2007 at 2:20 am

The mylar prints are more durable from breaks but are also easy to scratch and the soundtrack start cracking after a week. I have never personally experienced anything other than mylar. The current mylar prints are sub-quality.

Here in Europe we often get poor quality Italian made prints that are unplayable after a few weeks. When we do get refurbushed US prints, they are in such terrible shape that we often lose the first shows on a Friday.

I am not talking about hand-me-down sloppy work as we used to see caused by subrun drive-ins, these print look ten years old and they have run in the states for about three weeks.

We ran TOP GUN for six months without a problem. We were replacing TITANIC after three weeks. Recent prints of HARRY POTTER after two.

Vito on May 23, 2007 at 3:29 am

Al, I am shocked to read about the problems you are encountering.
In all the years I spent in the booth (post mylar) I never heard of the problems you write about. Soundtracks cracking after a week?
I have run many prints on a platter for up to 8 weeks without a problem. I wonder if any one else can explain what the heck is going on with our prints in Europe.
Denny, true about the wet splicing, fortunatly however, I don’t think to many folks are still splicing that way. One fact remains, mylar is tough on projection equipment.
Also the testing both written and practical you described is very much the way it was in NY back in the day.
On Long Island, where a licence is not needed, practical tests used to given by the union before one can start work there. I am not sure if that is still required, one would imagine so.

William on May 23, 2007 at 5:43 am

I get alot of prints from Europe and have no problems with them, only some labs no longer print cues.

Vito on May 23, 2007 at 6:37 am

William, I wondered how long it would be before they stopped putting our beloved cue marks on prints. I shall miss em.I wonder if
reel-to-reel houses (the few left)can still buy cue scribers.

Note to TommyR, I hope you will forgive us for some of the off topic discussions contained in your thread.

William on May 23, 2007 at 7:16 am

Vito, yes they can still buy cue scribers. But they are not cheap from editorial supply companies. Part of the off topic discussions are of what has happened to the locals after the licensing stopped.
The only license still on the books in Los Angeles for projectionist is if your are to run nitrate film. That is only a very few locations.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 23, 2007 at 1:01 pm

It seems the last minute rush jobs on blockbusters are the worse, with wet prints, sloppy lab splices and flaking from day one. These labs are digital’s best friend.

Vito on May 24, 2007 at 1:32 am

Al, that’s true, and how about those prints that arrive direct from the lab still on cores. Lab splices have always been a thorn in my butt, however the cost is of a print wihout lab splices is higher, It is refered to as no-splice-stock and while a studio can demand certain prints be struck that way it does increase the cost per print.
For those of you not familiar with lab spices, they are the result of one or more rolls of left over stock spliced together to make up one 2000' roll. For example, since a roll of raw stock is 2000' in length, when a reel of a movie runs 1700', the remaining 300' is then joined together with another roll of left over stock to make up a full roll of 2000'. The end result is a 2000'roll of spliced raw stock. Unfortunatly the splices are cement splices and are very narrow, causing them to be fragile, and can break or open up very easily during a prints run. In addition, if when the splice is made, any light that should strike the roll of stock causes an ugly blotch of even as much as two frames which is very noticablle in the struck print. I would always cut those lab splices out and resplice the print properly.
That flaking you refered to, or what I called the evil white powder, never stops coming off the print no matter how long you run it and gets everywhere in the projector.

James Fisher
James Fisher on June 2, 2007 at 9:37 pm

i own a q marker and splicer Aw single reels i remember spending Min’s before a show start in the booth putting the first reel on then i converted to full reels holding 3 single and then i moved to platters wow! no more need for projectionist so i became theatre manager operator

James Fisher
James Fisher on June 2, 2007 at 9:52 pm

I have my Original test from when i got my licence in Mass it costed me 40.00 and renewal was 50.00 it was a long card with a thumb print and SS# Mike Dukakis was Gov then he came to my opening night show in Norwood Mass late 80’s Three men and a baby and Good Morning Vietnam i had repainted the Theatre Red and Blue and by surprise he presented me with a flag that flew over the capitol in Boston

talkinpix on June 20, 2007 at 7:28 pm

After learning the projection craft with my cousin, and passing the City of New York exam, I opted to work closer to home (Yonkers, NY).

In 1982, the NYC Moving Picture Operator’s License exam was given by the Department of Water Supply, Gas & Electricity. The written exam was 100 multiple choice questions. The practical exam was given in the basement of one of the municipal buildings in lower Manhattan. As I recall, the inspectors tested us quite thoroughly with regard to installation, troubleshooting and proper projection practices with regard to handling nitrate film.

I had a Moving Picture Operator’s licenses in New Rochelle, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Greenburgh, Port Chester, and White Plains. All were issued by the Fire Department.

When I worked at the Parkway Theater in Mount Vernon, the Fire Inspector would pay a visit every evening. Typically they would take my name, license number, and film footage. New Rochelle would inspect every Friday night, and Saturday afternoon. Yonkers was every Saturday afternoon. The rest were random.

Indeed, Local 650 MPMO (IATSE) located in the Bar Building in Mount Vernon, was quite a strong local until the 1990’s. By then, most of the operators had 2nd jobs and didn’t treat the craft as the profession it once was. Those that did, remained working in the industry either in Local 306 (NYC) or post production.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on June 20, 2007 at 8:11 pm


Sounds like you may have been showing some dangerous pornographic films such as THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, THE BOYS IN THE BAND or FRITZ THE CAT.

itswagon on June 26, 2007 at 4:05 am

I “Broomed” (apprenticed) under a union projectionist who paid his dues for fifty-five years in 1970. He died in 1972 or so and the Union did not even send him a flower or a card. Is there any wonder why they lost their significance or influence. Of course as a result of the failure to maintain any standards for projectionists, booths are dirty, film trains are dirty and causing “rain” streaks on film, absolutely bad splices are made, Xenon lamphouses and lamps are handled very carelessly and dangerously and dozens of other faults that cause the deteriorization of the customers motion picture experience continue — and box office profits are reduced. I’ve handled carbon arc and xenon lamps in my time and I can guarantee that the hot xenon bulb is extremely dangerous yet you go into booths that don’t even provide face masks or instruction on the removal and replacement of the bulb to the new projectionist.

In any case the competency of the projectionist is important but ignored in a suffering and often suicidal industry.

RJT70mm on August 2, 2007 at 7:57 am

New York state until a few years ago had a law requiring licensing of projectionists in “first class” cities. This was based on population and Buffalo and Rochester were the only ones in addition to NYC . The license was administered by the city involved.

paulie52 on August 3, 2007 at 9:43 am

I was a Local 306 member in NYC back in the 1970’s. I, as all of the other projectionists I knew and associated with, took great pride in my work. The license requirement in NYC ensured that all operators had at least a basic understanding of the mechanical and electrical functions of the equipment. All of the theaters I worked in the city had service contracts, and the theater owners were adamant about daily maintenance of the booths and projection equipment. As a result, the quality of projection was very high, and allowed for ever higher contracted wages for the projectionists. A few years back I found myself between jobs and took a position as a manager at the Carmel Movieplex 8 in Carmel, NY. My projection background was key to landing this job, and my number 1 challenge was projection. The staff were mostly minimally trained high school students. They were taught how to thread-up a projector, and push the show-start button. They were paid not much more than the concession stand workers and could not even put a show together. There was no service contract. The company that owned the theater owned 12 other theaters spread out across New York State, Connecticut, Mass,and Vermont, with 1 service person headquartered in Vermont. The “philosophy” of this company and most modern multiplexes is to have the management staff cover projection duties as much as possible. Why not? They’re salaried employees. Anyone who has ever managed a theater knows the impracticality of this, as the manager is required to deal with public relations, facility maintenance, housekeeping, staffing, payroll, purchasing, inventory, and various other responsibilities too nemerous to mention. While my experience enabled me to train and assist the projection staff, it was not logistically possible to cover projection shifts on any but the quietest of midweek shifts when less than 8 theaters had shows running. Without a service contract, and with infrequent overhauling of the projection equipment, there were numerous breakdowns, and shows often had to be cancelled. The big chains train their managers to be projectionists to get around the unions, but they know where their bread is buttered and keep the projection equipment in tip-top shape. Routine maintenance is key, but projectionists need training and should be paid a salary comensurate with the responsibilities of the position. A state license requirement might help, but the theater owners would fight it tooth and nail. If a concession stand worker doesn’t show up for work, the line at the concession stand may be a little longer. If the projectionist doesn’t show up, there’s no show.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 3, 2007 at 12:04 pm

My experience with 306 in New York starting in 1985 has no resemblance to anything you mention above. Unprofessional, inexperienced, unreliable and premadonna are words that would best fit most of the projectionists I dealt with.

A handful were among the best projectionists I have ever known and 306 would punish them if they stood up against their incompetent lazy brothers who passed the workload along and so often ruined the show.

They were also hourly paid and made more money than any manager possibly could for working less hours.

paulie52 on September 7, 2007 at 6:52 am

Yes, there were many slackers in 306 taking advantage of their fellow workers, as there are in every union. It is an inherent problem with unions; whether you work hard and try to excel, or you do the minimum and ride on the backs of others, everyone gets equalized. It is not really compatible with our free market economy; work hard and succeed; slack off and fall behind. My point, and I know I’m guilty of straying from it at times, is that some sort of regulation or liscensing for projectionists is a good thing. Another point I failed to address in my previous posting is with regard to licensing by fire departments. In NYC back in the 1970’s, many, if not most theaters were still using fuses in their main electrical panels. Many of them actually had nails bridging those fuses in clear violation of all city fire codes, electrical codes, and just plain common sense. Yet every theater had it’s duly signed and posted fire safety inspection certificate right there in the booth for all to see. There was obviously corruption going on at the expense of public safety. Bringing these types of issues up for discussion at union meetings was not in one’s best interest.

bigred on September 14, 2007 at 12:06 am

I have worked mostly with union projections and have never had problems with them. There were a couple times with lost shows beyond the projectionists control such as a gas leak in the building next door and having to shut down until taken care of.

We also had a couple very poor prints such as a syrup or something sticky all over the film and you have to try to get through the shows until a replacement print get there but you can’t blame the projectionist when it came it that way. The only time I ever had a projectionist late you can’t hold it against him because he had a heart attack. I did work a couple theatres that the contract said they didn’t come in until 15 min. before first show so they might be later than you want but it’s what the contract says.

The biggest problem the unions face is big companies like Kerasotes and AMC are out to crush the union. I worked for Kerasotes after they bought the theatre I worked at from General Cinema and when the union got the news they contacted Kerasotes about staying in the booth and were told to go to hell. The union didn’t take that very well and started protesting. When the union left that last night under GC they tore all film down and disconnected everything. The next day Kerasotes spent most of the day trying to figure it out. The Kerasotes DM had told us we would never have projection problems there because the manager was the best in the company. They had one of the movies upside down and there was only one new show that week and every showing was broke on the opening weekend.

I know that AMC is not for union projectionists. General Cinema only used union projectioist until they brought in a couple AMC exc and started changing the way things were done to the way AMC does it. Ther bigger companies just want to cut cost and not worry about the give up in down so and the smaller companies many of them can’t afford to use the union.

markp on January 20, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Although I am only 49 years old, I have been a UNION projectionist for almost 33 years. (3 appentice, stated out doing summer matinees in 1975,and 30 as a full member.) I have worked in many theatres over the tears, from 1 to 18 screens. My father was a UNION projectionist for 55 years, before passing on to that big movie palace in the heavens. I remember when he needed a license to project in Perth Amboy N.J. Everyone above makes points that are all true. We had losers in our old local 379, but more so we had many, many good people who really cared, including myself. I really miss the old days of carbon arc and 20 minute reels. (Thankfully for me, they may actually return, as I am involved with restoring the projection room at the Ritz Theatre in Elizabeth, N.J.) It is not surprising however to see what has happened over the years. In the old days, (pre 1970) a lot of theatres were private owners with one screen. You needed a trained professional to run the equipment, especially with nitrate film (the burnable film). As safety film (the stuff used today) came in being, along with the now dreaded multiplex, a trained professional became expendable. The attitude of most of the big chains was, “well if we lose one screen, we have others.” Why do you think even today, look at the big theatres, they always have 1 or 2 older movies playing. All of the above, along with the huge influx of 3 month DVD releasing makes quality projection less and less important. As I posted elsewhere here on Cinema Treasures, just wait until digital cinema comes along, some of these manager-operators are going to find out what us hard working union guys have been going thru these past 25 years.

janderson956 on February 11, 2008 at 7:47 am

Hello projectionists. I am researching my family tree and I know my grandfather and uncle were projectionists during the 30’s 40’s 50’s and beyond in New York City and then moved to Florida (St Petersburg I think). Do you know if the union kept records of its members and how I might go about finding out information about him? His name was John Anderson and his son’s name was John G. Anderson. He also had a son named Charles G. and a daughter named Joan M. Anything you could tell me would be appreciated. Thanks JGA

carolgrau on June 27, 2009 at 1:14 am

Don’t forget your very own so called Union Brothers, I worked allot of union jobs and many times had to go in extra early and really go over the booth with a fine tooth comb.. The older ones would take out a fuse and put a piece of cardboard behind it so you would have no power and they would come in and save the day.This tactic never worked with me, I was always taught by my Uncle to check everything. He was a retired union man.. The joy of calling them at home to tell them not to come in because you found the carboard was great, the thud of the phone hanging up. So it was not just theatre owners it was everyone even our own.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on November 2, 2009 at 5:07 pm

LOOK it is so simple when the carbon arcs were replaced with light bulbs the world changed in the booth. Same way for spotlights. Got rid of the carbon arcs now everyone in my local wants to run a show. Mike Rogers Local 629

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 18, 2009 at 6:52 pm

JGA, you might want to go to N.Dimaggio’s site he is from That area and knows one living projectionist still in the Tampa area,He might be able to help.

Dramatrauma on May 5, 2010 at 3:16 pm

This is a fascinating discussion. Any locals in Northern California that one can apprentice for? In California what City department gave the tests?

And I gotta say I was at my local indie 6 plex last nite to see
The Red Baron and the poorly written badly edited movie was made wors by weirdness with the (I presume) digital projection. Pixelation, weird sound levels. Nitrate,mylar or sattelite signals the people in the booth need training and a regard for the quality of the show.

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment