In February 2001, I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the three surviving IATSE projectionists who worked the Cooper Cinerama Theater in Denver. The Cooper, which opened in 1961 and was torn down in the middle 80’s to make way for a bookstore, was a premiere showcase for three-strip Cinerama films that included This Is Cinerama , Cinerama Holiday , Seven Wonders Of The World , Search For Paradise , South Sea Adventure , How The West Was Won  and The Brothers Grimm . Certainly, the Cooper’s screening of this visually spectacular process was one of the most successful local theater runs in history as during the period the original process played there, the 814 seat venue was consistently sold out with the showings attracting huge out-of-state promotional audiences.
Three-strip Cinerama utilized a bank of three 35mm projectors and a separate 35mm magnetic 8-channel stereo playback unit, which all had to run in perfect synchronization. The three projection booths, referred to as Able, Baker and Charlie, each projected a third of the entire Cinerama image onto a dramatically curved screen that measured 105 feet in width and 36 feet in height. The specially constructed screen consisted of 2000 vertically mounted celluloid strips that were aligned in such a way as to prevent the adjacent panels from washing out one another with stray reflected light.
And while Baker shot its image directly to the center of the screen, Able and Charlie were widely separated on either side of Baker and projected their images to opposite thirds of the screen. Because of their positions in relation to the curved screen and the shadows cast by the vertical strips, the Able and Charlie projectionists were actually unable to see the entire Cinerama image. The three projectors and the sound playback unit were all controlled from a separate room that adjoined the Baker booth and it was from here the master control operator started the four machines, controlled the sound levels and operated the curtain and theater lighting.
In conventional houses of the era and long before the automated operations of today, uninterrupted movies were made possible through the use of two projectors with each running a reel of film at one time. When the first machine’s film came to an end, a special set of cue marks would appear on the last few feet of the projected image, which would alert the projectionist to start the motor on the second projector. A few seconds later and just at the reel’s end, a second set of marks would appear. This second set was called the "changeover" cue and signaled the operator to switch to the second unit. The changeover was accomplished by activating a switch that instantly switched the sound and picture from the first unit to the second. The process continued back and forth until the completion of the showing. However because the Cinerama process demanded perfect synchronization and due to the four separate units that were used, changeovers were not practical. As a result, most Cinerama features were composed of two separate halves that ran on large heavy reels. An intermission occurred between each half and during this time, the second portion of the showing was readied.
Chuck Weber, now 91, was the master control operator at the Cooper from its opening day in 1961 and continued there well after the three strip process ended with the showing of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World , which though marketed as single strip 70mm Cinerama, never approached the spectacle of its more complicated predecessor. Working the Baker booth next to Chuck was John Rabe (pronounced RAY-BEE), now 87. These long retired moving picture operators represent a level of craftsmanship that, unfortunately, has been largely forgotten and ignored in the non-union shoebox movie houses of today. During the days of Cinerama, Chuck oversaw a contingent of four operators who had to work perfectly as a team. And while the years Chuck and John spent at the Cooper were not without incident (and some were quite humorous), Cinerama’s demand for perfection tended to repel potential operators with short attention spans or those who lacked an interest in detail.
My interview began in Weber’s neatly kept home on Denver’s south side and only a short distance from the Cooper’s former site on Colorado Boulevard and Tennessee Avenue. Chuck, a friendly and articulate man who looks significantly younger than his 91 years, also served many distinguished years as the Business Representative for IATSE Local 230, Denver’s moving picture operator’s local. Later, we drove to Rabe’s home in a light snowfall, where both men recalled their days as projectionists while a grandfather clock softly chimed away the afternoon in 15-minute increments. During this all-to-brief visit, both men shed interesting light on both the history of the IATSE’s early labor movement and their direct participation in motion picture history, which they graciously felt, they were never a part of.
JG: Chuck, tell me how you got started in the business.
CHUCK: I was going to… I think it was in the eighth grade. The Majestic Theater manager’s son was in the eighth grade with me. He couldn’t do math. And math was a breeze for me. So they’d assign us a lesson in math and before I was out, I’d work all the problems and shove the thing in my desk. And he said "Can I use those?" And I said "I don’t care if you sneak them out but be sure you miss at least one! I don’t want you having a perfect grade or they’re going to get suspicious." So anyway, he ended up getting pretty good grades by stealing my math and then he said one day, "Would you like to learn how to run picture machines?"
Well, Holy Mackerel! Tom Mix, Buck Jones, William S. Hart. All my favorite Western stars! I said "Oh boy! I’d love that!" So anyway, I’m in the booth for about two weeks. Got my head glued to the porthole more than I’m paying attention. He said "I’m going to the football game Saturday afternoon. You have to run the show."
Oh-oh [Laughing], my world collapsed. So anyway, I knew enough to thread up. They had a great big generator in the basement that you had to speed up, you know, just a little bit at a time. You could hear it trying to get up to speed. And they had the old hand-fed arcs, with the carbon like this [Motions a vertical arc with his hands and fingers] and, we didn’t have a patching block. We patched film by hand. Anyway, I got through that matinee and I said: "I have got to learn this business! It woke me up. That one matinee woke me up. And then I started trying to learn everything I could from it. And then another theater opened up. This was in Grand Junction, Colorado. And the theater opened up and the guy needed an operator and heck, that’s not like trying to get a carpenter, you know? Ha! So I talked to him and I went to work for him. Talk about a sweat box, I’m telling you. They had no ventilation and the lamphouses exhausted right into the booth.
JG: When did you start at the Cooper?
CHUCK: March of ’61.
JG: How did that job open up? Was it just a situation where you had the seniority or what?
CHUCK: Yeah, you had to have seniority. And that was strange because there was a lot of guys that bid on the job and when they went out there and saw what had to be done, they backed off. I wasn’t on that first list. In fact, this other fellow that we’re going to talk to, he wasn’t on the list either. But these Old-timers, they’d say, "We have to do this. We have to do that. We have to keep it in sync. We have to watch the focus. We have to watch the lines. So, no! I think I’ll stay where I am!" So we wound up with a fairly, well I would say, young crew. I was fifty-one and John was four years younger. And all of us were about the same age that went on there. But anyway, these were guys who were all outbid originally. So that’s how we wound up. And I was Business Agent too. And I had to have, well when I was at the film exchange, I had two phones. One for the company and one for the Business Agent. And I’m telling you! I had a phone on my shoulder all day long! I was either booking my own films or filling jobs. Yeah man! But I was young and it didn’t bother me.
JG: I think you told me you were there [at the Cooper] until it closed?
CHUCK: Well, no. It went off of three-strip. We went into 70mm. Well, let’s see. [Reflecting] I worked, it must have been four or five years on 70 [mm]. I was elected full-time B.A. at full pay. I had to give up the job. The idea was I would be paid the same as B.A. as I would make at the Cooper. But it was 70mm when I finally left the Cooper after three-strip was gone. And I’m trying to think of some of the pictures we ran. I know Ice Station Zebra was one of them. And the reason I remember it so well, it was in perfect focus clear across the screen. I don’t know whether you ever saw that picture?
JG: No. That was single strip, right?
CHUCK: Yeah, 70mm.
JG: Wasn’t How The West Was Won the last three-strip you ran, right?
CHUCK: Yeah, I think it was.
JG: And I think I remember what came in after that. It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
CHUCK: Yeah, we had that. No that was 70 [mm]. Yeah. And we had a real weak Western in there with John Wayne in it. Why they ever put it in, I don’t know. It was a real dog!
JG: Boy that’s hard to believe with John Wayne in it!
CHUCK: Can you imagine that? We hardly did any business with it. But, Ice Station Zebra filled ‘em up. That was a very good picture and like I said to the fellows that I was working with: "If Hollywood can do it once; give us perfect focus, why can’t they do it all the time?" And we were all amazed. You know, our screen? You know how our screen was?
JG: Yeah. It was huge.
CHUCK: And to have that thing in sharp focus clear across. That was terrific.
JG: On the three-strip process: When you got into the Cooper, what was the history. How did you start? Did you have to go through training?
CHUCK: [Laughs] Well, yeah! A lot of training we got! A guy from Cinerama out of New York comes in and he shows us: Here’s where you set this. You thread up on this number here. And you set the sound reel on the same number on all three projectors, you know. Able, Baker, Charlie and the sound. At a starting point to keep it in sync. All the motors were hooked up. What’d they call it? Selsyns? One switch. Were you ever in the Cooper here?
JG: I was in the Baker Booth.
CHUCK: Well then, you knew the Control Room was right next to it? That’s where I was. When I hit the button, all three projectors would start. I mean all four, actually, with the sound unit. And everything would start. So as long as everything was fine, it would stay right in sync. All the pictures would blend in perfect. And we had Gigolo’s [a device within each projector aperture’s light path that caused blurring at the two edges where the images joined] on the projectors [to vignette] where the lines were. Now on How The West Was Won they put these lines on telephone poles, on trees, corners of buildings. You never saw them. Of course on the first pictures you could see them. And the people…the boys had to be…like Able and Charlie…had to be on the framing knob all the time because they would creep out. And we had scenes where the water skiers [Illustrates two horizontal lines with his arms with one of his arms creeping upward from the other] here’s the ropes. They’d be jumping. And they didn’t want those ropes broken. If one got off just a hair, it looked bad. So the boys, they’d be watching it like a hawk to keep those ropes together. And they did a good job. But this was the training you had. You thread up here, you do this, and you do that. And we had two prints in case one went bad. And at first we were running, it seems to me we [that] were running 143 feet per minute at one time. [Per widescreen expert Martin Hart, the initial Cinerama transport speed was 146.25 feet per minute] Then we went to 137 feet per minute. Then we cut that down but on that first, when the big reels would come off, the last half of the film would start sliding and scratching. And then we’d have to repeat. We’d get new film in but a lot of times they just sent us half of the reel and we’d patch it in at a certain number. But, it was going too fast and pulling too hard. Well then as they kept cutting down the speed, things got better. And I’m trying to think what the last speed was? The figure seems to be 124. I might be a little bit wrong. But anyway, it got a lot better. And, I don’t know. It got so that it was just like any other job. You sat back: "Well gee, it’s running good!" you know. But that first night, there was blood sweating off of me! I’ll tell you!
JG: What kind of equipment did you have at the Cooper?
CHUCK: [Reflecting] Century’s and Magnarcs. Wait a minute. Did we have Magnarcs? It seems to me at first, me may have had Hall & Connelly [later in the afternoon, John confirms the lamps to be Ashcraft’s] This is fifty years ago! And the old brain’s not working that well! But anyway, I think we started out with Hall & Connelly. But then they started out to be more economical to go to the Magnarc, which it was. But we didn’t get the quality of light out of the Magnarc that we got out of the Hall & Connelly because they were a condenser light. It’s starting to come back to me a little bit. This fellow we’re going to meet; he’ll remember a lot of the stuff I don’t remember. But anyway, one night we all came to work We all gathered in the Baker Booth and talked about what was going on. And I made the remark, I said "Well, there’s one nice thing about it. We can’t get the wrong reel on." Well that was a remark…
JG: Famous last words, huh?
CHUCK: [Laughing] It wasn’t too long we get started off and everything’s going fine. The intermission comes on. Charlie and Baker put the right reel on. Able picked the first reel of the second print. He’d put it on for the second half.
JG: Oh no!
CHUCK: I’m in the control room and the window’s open. When that hit the screen I said, "Oh no!" Some guy looked up at me and said "Oh yes!" [Laughing] And we had to stop, naturally. Oh boy! And unthread, go back, get back to the start mark. And Able put the right reel on to start over. And the funny part of it was I was hot. I was hot. Too hot to say anything to Cobb in the Able Booth and I walked out and I didn’t say a word to him and I went up to the manager and I said, "I’m sorry this happened. I haven’t said anything to Cobb." He said, "Don’t say anything to Cobb. He feels bad enough. He feels worse than you do. He feels worse than I do." He said "Don’t say anything to him, okay?" So anyway, we go to work the next night. Everybody had gathered and nobody said a word about that happening. This went on for over a week. Nobody said a word. [Laughing] Finally Cobb couldn’t take it. [Laughs again] We’re all through getting ready to go to work. He goes out the door and says, "I’ll have the right reel on tonight!" and slams the door. Poor guy! He was suffering.
JG: Sometimes words are better left unsaid.
CHUCK: Yeah, they sure are. [Laughs] So anyway.
JG: One thing I noticed too, again an impression, was that Cinerama seemed to be very secretive about the whole process.
CHUCK: Oh yeah.
JG: I noticed in all the old IP’s, there was barely a mention of it. There were very few pictures taken inside the booths in New York when it opened. Were they protective of it?
CHUCK: They were quite protective of it, yeah. I don’t why. But they were very protective. And one thing that happened: we kept going out of sync on the sound and had to stop every once in awhile and back up. So we’re trying to figure out what happened and it [the 35mm sound unit] was belt-driven. And we inspected everything and finally we found, on a Gilmer belt, one of the little notches had flattened out. And it would skip a cog. Well at that time we had to take the machine practically apart to put a belt on! But we did have a spare belt. So after we finally found what the trouble was and we put the spare belt on, the next show was no problem. But we were lucky. We didn’t have any dialog on this picture. It was music. So when the music seemed like it was not with the picture, we’d stop and start over but we finally discovered that Gilmer belt flattened out. It would just skip once in awhile. But eventually you’re off quite a bit, you know. So then after that, we always had two belts in there in case one would go out all we had to do was slip the other one on. It taught us quite a lesson on that. In fact, the manager was calling New York: "We’re out of sync. We don’t know why. We can’t figure out what’s going wrong." And they couldn’t tell us. We had to find it ourselves. Yeah, we found it and the answer was to put two belts in and then we never needed them again. But, we were safe, you know. [And] there was something on the projector. The drive gear. This high speed had an effect on the projectors, too. And, we changed, oh what in the heck was it? [Taps on his chair] We changed something on the projector and it caused the film to go out of focus every once in awhile. But we had an awful time trying to find out what the devil it was doing. We had put a new part in there. "Let’s take it out and examine it." We took it out and I was turning it through every groove and in one groove there was a piece of metal embedded in the gear. Every time it hit that metal it would jar it and go a little bit out of focus. So we threw that away and put a new one on and everything was fine. But the things that could happen to you, you know?
JG: But it sounds to me that Cinerama, because of the speed, certainly taxed the equipment much more than a conventional house.
CHUCK: Oh, it taxed the equipment. It sure did. And we had to change intermittents pretty frequently. Because of it, you know, they were taking a pounding.
JG: When you came to work, what was your typical shift? What did your shift consist of?
CHUCK: Well, we usually got there an hour ahead of time. We went through each projector and lamphouse with a fine tooth comb. Everything was perfectly clean. The lamps, when we got the [Ashcraft’s]…you’ve probably worked an [Ashcraft], haven’t you?
CHUCK: Okay. These rods would corrode, you know, that the carriage ran on. So what we finally decided to do, we’d clean them with, if they’d corroded up a little too much, we’d use crocus cloth to clean them all off. Wipe them down good. Then put the slightest bit of oil on a rag and rub them and they they’d work like a charm. And this was one thing we’d have to watch because we wanted that light as perfect as we could get it. We didn’t want this lamp dragging and this one going ahead, you know, which would happen if it got corroded and drag, naturally. So that was one thing. We’d go through the projector and of course with a toothbrush. Cleaned all the sprockets and make sure that nothing was on the sprockets and the gates were clean. And there was nothing in the aperture plate. You know, just good maintenance. And that’s why we were in there an hour ahead of time to make sure that all this stuff was in good shape. And I remember we had an older fellow in Charlie booth. And he was kind of an odd one. He didn’t want to mix too much with the boys. And he kept calling me on the intercom and saying, "My lamp doesn’t work good! My lamp doesn’t work good! There’s something wrong with these carbons. I’m just having an awful time keeping that light." So intermission came. We had to run a matinee and then a night show. And I said to one of the boys, "Stick around a little while with me, will you?" So they all left and he and I went over to see what was the matter with his lamp. The rods were corroded so we got busy. We cleaned and took the crocus cloth. Cleaned and got all the gum off. Had them polished real good. Took a rag with a very little bit of oil on it. Rubbed the rods. Then turned the lamp on and Lord! Phewwwwww! We had to turn the [carbon feed] motor way back. Because, you know, it was trying to keep up with that corrosion. I said "Now I don’t want to say a word about this to anybody." So we set this lamp so that the arc was perfect and we’ll see what happens tonight. So we’re going along and Charlie has a nice light. Finally I called and I said "How’s your lamp working over there?" "Well, I don’t know what happened but it seems to be working pretty good." And I said" "Well that’s great." And that’s all that was ever said. (Laughs) But he hadn’t been cleaning those rods. Yeah, boy, we had some experiences over there.
JG: After you got your pre-show stuff done and did all your preventive maintenance, was it just a matter of threading it up?
CHUCK: [Emphatically] Threading it up.
JG: Waiting to start it, huh?
CHUCK: Yeah, Baker would set the pace, you know. He’d make sure he was in focus and in frame. Then Charlie and Able would frame to him. And they were the ones that had to really watch the framing and focus because if Baker was in good shape, they had to be equal to Baker.
JG: In How The West Was Won, too, you had an overture. When the show started, did you run black leader on the three machines?
CHUCK: Uh, wait a minute now. That was all part of…How The West Was Won, we just started. You’re thinking of about This Is Cinerama. In This Is Cinerama, we had a little reel ahead of the show with a flat picture right in the center. Then when that ended, we hit the button on Cinerama. The thing opened up and the audience sat there with their mouths open.
JG: But with How The West Was Won, though. The music preamble that you had before the show. There was about a 3 or 4 minute prelude to the show and there was the same, also going into the second half. You got the MGM lion on the screen and…?
CHUCK: Well, it was part of it. It was part of the reels. When we started How The West Was Won, it was just set up and go.
JG: All four went?
JG: Well, what about during the show, was it just keep a…?
CHUCK: Just keep everything running. I’d just sit there and watch and if somebody was just a little bit out, I’d [Mimics talking with a cupped hand at a low voice into an intercom above his waist, in a low voice¹] "Charlie. Focus!" You know? As low as I could say it on the mic so it didn’t interfere with the audience. Or "Baker and Charlie, your lines are showing or something." You know? "Watch your frame." And that was my job. And I was supposed to stay awake in there. Which was, I was really...see I was like this [Mimics looking groggily at a screen trying to stay awake]. After so many years, I used to stand up and shake my head. And uh, [Laughs heartily] you know, like any job, after you do it so long!
JG: How about those reels? How much did those reels weigh?
CHUCK: The first thing that comes to my mind was 35. I’m not sure that 35 pounds is right.
JG: Didn’t you have a hoist next to the machines to get them on?
CHUCK: Yeah, at one time we did have a hoist. Yeah, we had a hoist. It took them up and we just slid them on. Yeah. [Reflecting] Gosh, you kind of forget some of these things.
JG: Sure, like you say it’s been fifty years.
CHUCK: Yeah, it’s been a long time.
(PART TWO OF INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AT JOHN RABE’s HOME A SHORT TIME LATER)
JOHN: Well, what we know mostly, is the history of…[John shows me a postcard of the Cooper Denver, which he takes from a pile of Cinerama memorabilia on the table next to his chair.] the Cooper. We put that together and turned it into one of the most successful operations in the country and that came right from the horse’s mouth. [Turning to Chuck] What was that fellow’s name? Chamberlain? Out of MGM?
JOHN: Yeah. He came to Denver. He looked at what we had and he said "It’s unbelievable." He says, "Nobody else in the country is putting out that kind of a picture." Well, we had a good crew. There were six of us. Incidentally, [to Chuck] is Lloyd Farley still around?
CHUCK: Oh, I’m sure he is.
JOHN: Well, there’s just three of us left. And we had an outstanding manager. He was a person that cared about his employees. Very much so. To the point to where, when they opened this thing, they had a publicity deal in five surrounding states and they would bring these people in. Normally it would be on a matinee. I don’t know if they brought them in for the evening. I don’t remember. But we were always sold out. But before the performance started, he would bring these people from out of town in and we’d give them a rundown on what the whole thing was all about. The projection room was right on the ground floor and it was easy access. And we had a flawless performance. We ran the first…I’ve got a lot of information only on the two first Cinerama’s. The first five, we ran the last three or four of them as a second thought after we had gone through the new product and no matter what they brought into us, the people were amazed in what they saw. We had the first Cinerama built after the original five. [John shows me a This Is Cinerama booklet containing the "standard" illustration of the Cinerama process, which depicts three closely spaced projection booths, hardly the size of portable toilets.] As this [implying the setup in the illustration] went down the drain, I was in San Francisco and I got the run of the theater. They had little tiny boxes around with one projector in it. Their sound was way up in the gallery. On my last day there, I saw the picture. [Laughing] I said to the manager, "Hey, you’re pulling my leg!"
JG: Now, this was after you were in the Cooper?
JOHN: I was [already] in the Cooper! I was [in San Francisco] on vacation! Sam Pearlman was his [the theater manager’s] name. I still have a ticket stub with his name. What happened, the reason I went out there was, this crew showed up to make sure that we knew what we were doing [at the Denver Cooper]. This was right early on. We had three projection rooms. We had two of them up on the side so they could cross and then we had the center. And right off to one side, we had a control room and it was open to the auditorium. Chuck was working the control room and everything came from this control room. The synchronization. The whole bit. [John again shuffles through his memorabilia and pulls out a set of old black and white photos of the Cooper’s Baker projection room.]
CHUCK: I told him about the time that Cobb got the wrong reel on.
JOHN: Oh yeah! [John shows me a picture of the Cooper’s immense screen.] This space from here to here was fifty feet. Around is 105 feet. I don’t remember the height [36 feet]. But I can tell you something: One afternoon everything went close to curtain and the goddamned curtain wouldn’t open! Well, I’m in the center booth so I go down there. To start with, they had put all the insulation up the back with nails sticking out [Indicates a tiny amount of clearance with his hands] and I had about this much space to work [with]. I grabbed an usher and between the two of us it took half an hour to move that damn curtain! It must have weighed fifteen tons!
JG: Didn’t that make the news? It seems to me hearing something about this when I was a kid in Colorado Springs?
JOHN: I don’t know but it sure didn’t do anything for my hands!
CHUCK: I wasn’t on that day.
JOHN: Yes you were.
CHUCK: Was I on that day?
JOHN: You were in the control room!
CHUCK: Yeah, I remember now.
JOHN: There was only room for two of us down there. And I think we moved it about this far [gesturing a foot or so] at a time. But we got it open and the performance went on. We had several things that were new to the Cinerama people. They had no idea what was going on because everything was completely new. They had never worked out of a central booth. They had never worked with this equipment. And I don’t think, from the pictures I see here, they had never hit this big a screen. We were using those [pointing at the Century projectors in the photograph]. Cinerama had bought Century projectors.
CHUCK: Century’s, yeah. You asked me about that.
JOHN: And they had changed them because the film we used was four…it was six sprocket holes high and…
CHUCK: John, what was the first speed we had?
JOHN: What was that?
CHUCK: The first speed on the film. Was that 143? And then it went down to 130 and something? Remember, the first speed was terrible.
JOHN: Yeah. I don’t remember. I don’t recall.
JG: What kind of lamphouses were you using?
JOHN: We were using Ashcraft lamps. And we were using…
CHUCK: They were Hall & Connelly lamps, weren’t they?
JOHN: No. They were Ashcraft. They used rotating positives. And they had to be water-cooled. Well, Cinerama furnished us with these little [water recirculator] tanks and they weren’t satisfactory for the amperage we were using and one thing another. So we hook it up to this city water. Well, one thing you’ve got to know. Cinerama wasn’t in Denver. It was in Glendale. And all their stuff was well water. And it was the foulest stuff you’ve ever seen. Matter of fact, we brought water in. Bought it by the tank so…we couldn’t drink it. But, before each performance then [John again goes to his Cooper black and white photos.] Here it is. The water comes down and we were able to adjust the pressure to the [carbon] jaws of the lamp. But about every 6 or 8 months this stuff would build up a white, I guess you would call it, calcium.
CHUCK: Well, it was kind of an alkaline. A lot of alkaline in that water
JOHN: So, I mean we’d come over there and have to take everything apart and clean it out. But that was, uh, entirely different as you can see [again referring to photos], this is the 35mm prologue projector. I don’t know whether you ever saw a performance or not?
JG: No, all I saw was How The West Was Won
JOHN: Here’s how the thing worked. You’ve got this giant screen and giant curtain. So the curtain is set up so that when you start the prologue, it would only open just so far and at the same time, this other curtain behind it would raise and you had this picture. And the original picture that went into that was all the history of…you know Lowell Thomas narrated this? And it was the real old old movies; The Great Train Robbery and one thing or another. Now, here’s your Cinerama and this is why everything had to be synchronized. Here’s this 35 running. The man in the control room calls on the intercom for each person to lock their machine up and strike their arcs. Okay? That’s all their going to do. At a certain point he’ll say "Open your dowsers." And so the light is hitting the projector. At a precise moment, he [implying Lowell Thomas] says: "This is Cinerama" and you hit the screen and this opens up and this goes up. And people just sitting there [stupefied]. [John mimics people shocked in amazement and Chuck laughs.]
JG: You’ve got a postage stamp [I indicate a small picture in the middle of the screen and spreading my arms wide to indicate the image filling the screen].
BOTH: Yeah. Yeah.
CHUCK: All of a sudden you take the whole theater in!
JOHN: And that process was the…uh…you know we had no soundtrack [e.g. meaning no sound-on-film]? We had a 7 or 8 magnetic track and we had one machine that carried that. That was the sound. But, they were all the tracks and they all came back to the control room and Chuck had a cue sheet there and it was important that at a given frame, the sound be brought up to a certain thing. Mr. Neilsen came to Chuck one day and he used to come up and stick his head in the control room. He said, "Chuck, that piano music was coming over there and it usually comes over there." [Both laughing] But, it was those things that you had to use your head on. For instance, one of the early Cinerama’s there was a roller coaster and it was on all three panels. And I don’t know what happened to one panel but one of the…but one of the…either right or left panel...
CHUCK: It was Able.
JOHN: Yeah. Something happened to…he cut it off. But, it went on and finished it out that way and I don’t think the people ever knew.
CHUCK: Remember? That was that toboggan scene.
JOHN: Yeah, that’s right.
CHUCK: And all the action was on Baker. So when he shut Able off, they didn’t even notice it.
JOHN: Yeah that’s right.
CHUCK: What happened…I’ll tell you…Cobb’s reel fell off. His reel fell off of the spindle!
JOHN: We had more goddamned trouble with that guy! [Both laugh]
JOHN: See, here’s the trouble. We’re talking different generations. Chuck and I both, before every performance, would go up and run this standard Cinerama tension on the take-up. Lou [Cobb] would come up and he’d tighten it up. "Too loose." And we had a hell of a time to get him to fall into that pattern to correct that. But we had a couple other temperamental people.
CHUCK: We had one named Bill, didn’t we?
JOHN: Yeah. [Chuck laughs and looks at the photos again.] Look at the size of those reels!
JG: Oh yeah, we were talking about that. Remember how much they weighed?
JOHN: Oh, they weren’t completely full on the original. You know? You had the first half of the show and the second half of the show and an intermission. And eventually we came by a device; an elevator to lift it up. But previous to that time it had to be lifted. Bill comes to me one day and he says, "John I can’t do it. I have to quit. I can’t get that reel up there." So, I went home at lunchtime in between shows and got a piece of wood and sawed it and nailed it together and made him a step. Then all he had to do was lift it up. That’s cooperation.
[Chuck nods his head in agreement]
JOHN: That’s the part that I try to emphasize on this because this was the most cooperative thing.
JG: Oh, it had to be complete teamwork, I agree.
JOHN: When Chuck was off and I had to go in the control room and Bill took over Baker. What’d he do but try to lift one of those reels and threw his back out! So, rather than break some guy in, I lifted his damn reels and ran the control room too. [Laughing] Because he could run and take care of everything else. And big screen projection, we were not compatible to it. We had never run anything like that but since you had three projectors, if each light wasn’t just exactly perfect, you got that line. As you can see, if you study this [John shows me a snapshot he took of the Cinerama screen, onto which a scene from The Brothers Grimm is projected] you can see the line. There’s one there and there’s one there. These are black and white films [in reference to his snapshots]. I had an old roll of…now there was…there for instance there…[John shows me pictures of the Cinerama amplifier racks]…is the complete sound system. The amplifiers. And it only stood about this.
JOHN: It was…it’s nine channel… that might have been eight channel with one spare. After all, I want you to notice something. That is me. [John points to himself in one of the old photos] Now look at me!
JG: Hey. [Chuck and John both laugh] There’s nothing wrong with that!
JOHN: And synchronization! If you had a break and one projector stopped, then you would have to have everybody go out of lock and the one that was broke, you’d have to measure the film right down to the frame and then re-lock. And, another thing happened. We had a great big old fat hillbilly working for us. And you’d look at him and talk to him and you’d think he was as stupid as hell but he wasn’t. Very very shortly after we opened…I think it maybe the second day…we started to run into problems with the sync. We would thread up again and finally at the end of the show, Lloyd got in and we had some belts with teeth on them. Goddamned wrong! And he got one off and counted them all and he found one broken. Well, in the meantime, Chuck had called New York and wanted to know what to do? They didn’t know what the hell to do! So what happened? When we got it back, we called them and they wrote it down in their book and they knew how to run the thing. It was that sort of thing.
JG: Discovery and share the knowledge, so to speak?
JOHN: Well, this is right.
JG: You guys were treading new ground every time, weren’t you?
JOHN: Oh yeah! The shows weren’t long. We were there…we’d come before the show and after the show, the fellows up in the side booths would come down and we’d have a conference and talk about what needed to be done. The…in fact I don’t have all of these pictures anymore. I’d taken a lot of pictures like this. And, at one given time we ran out of three-strip and so they went to 70mm. And then we ran out of 70mm and decided to go back to three-strip. But nobody had any information on it. So we dug up these pictures and some others and the sound engineers we had hooked the damn thing back together. We were back in business. We had a couple of sharp guys working with us. That’s one of the things that I did see here. Where the heck did I see it? It’s important about this thing ‘cause this…it’s the screen.
JG: The louvered screen?
JOHN: Yeah. There’s a picture of it here. And, there it is. Now, you got Able, Baker and Charlie crossover. Bill Thomas was working over in Charlie and he says, "I haven’t got any light on half my screen!" I said: "Your picture’s beautiful." Well, he’s catching the shadows of these things and he couldn’t see it.
CHUCK: Right, right. [John laughing]
JOHN: You know, the most unhappiest man I have ever met in my life…
CHUCK: Oh yeah!
JOHN: Was the architect that built this. He hung decorations down in front of the side projection rooms ² and hell, we’d run a test and, "What the hell is that?" They had to redesign the whole [thing]. [John and Chuck both laugh] But we went through a period of time where the Century projector that we had…they were brand new…they were double shutter…and the gear went out. So we called down to the theater supply that sold us this equipment and he said he’d find some parts. In the meantime, of course, we had put 70mm in and it had a soundhead on top of the Century projector. So we loosened it up and found some stuff and tied it to the ceiling and we took the projector apart and put the new gear in. In the meantime, we ran the show on one machine. And there was very little break in there. And it took one person to trim the lamp and the other to thread. We didn’t have any problem. At night we were back on the screen again at one hundred percent. But the incentive was Mr. Neilsen [the manager of the Cooper]. I’ll respect that man as long as I live.
CHUCK: [Emphatically] Yeah. He’s the one I was telling you about that seated the people in the balcony. [Laughs]
[Editorial Note: Prior to my recording my first conversation with Chuck, he recounted a story involving Mr. Neilsen and the great respect he had for the man as a theater manager. He stated a couple had come into Denver from out-of-state and they had set their hearts on seeing a Cinerama performance but were unable to get seats. The woman was brokenhearted and asked Mr. Neilsen if there was any way they could be seated? While he was unable to find them a "real" seat, he agreed to allow them to sit on the steps in the balcony and while he knew he was ignoring existing fire regulations, he also recognized the importance of the customer. I think this story speaks for itself.]
CHUCK: [Laughing] But Neilsen was a Godsend to you
JOHN: You bet! And I lucked out. I spent ten years up there [Reflecting] and they opened up a quarter-screen theater down the street and I went down there to work. And I worked for the craziest Italian that ever lived. He gave me complete control of everything and this outfit from Kansas City took it over and they put a young fellow in there as manager and he was just great. [Long pause] I think that Cinerama, a repeat of 3-strip isn’t feasible. One thing I recall is we had a worn out print of one of the original Cinerama’s and I don’t remember what it was. But the sprocket holes were shot. We went…we had taped the sprocket holes. We must have put ten miles of tape on those damn things to get through!
JOHN: These are all pictures that we ran at the Cooper. [John looks through a pile of the Cinerama books that were sold with each of the releases screened at the Cooper] It was this one.
JG: Custer of The West
JOHN: Yeah. When they were photographing this picture here, a lot of it was filmed close to Denver and they’d get their rushes and they’d bring them out after the show and we’d run them for them.
CHUCK: Yeah. We had, as John told you, the best Cinerama operation anywhere and Merian C. Cooper, who was the founder of the original Cinerama, whenever he had a screening he’d fly in from Hollywood with his film and we’d run it. Remember?
CHUCK: He wouldn’t screen it anywhere but at the Denver theater.
JOHN: And of course we had the world’s premiere on this. [2001 A Space Odyssey]
JG: I remember that. Of course, I saw that on flat screen.
JOHN: Well, where the hell is that? It’s this one.
JG: Yeah, that’s the only three-strip show I ever saw: How The West Was Won.
JOHN: This was the second one. [I believe he was calling attention to The Brothers Grimm ] Cinerama had gotten financed by some guy in Europe and he came in and saw this and he went out and sold all his stock in Cinerama. He said, "It’s a piece of crap!" And he got out of it.
JG: Did you guys ever think that when you were working, you’d be a part of motion picture history?
CHUCK: [Reflecting] I never gave it thought
JG: Well, when you think about it, what? There was the Cooper Denver, the Cooper at Indian Hills [Omaha] and I think their was a round house in Minneapolis, too, wasn’t there?
JOHN: Now, the one thing that was interesting from the first time we were open until ’82, every time we had a new picture open, we got movie stars. I saw more movie stars in that theater!
JOHN: What I was looking for and didn’t see. You know who George Pal is? George Pal must have had money. He was an old fart. He’d come in for a screening and he would bring a bevy of beauties in with him. [Both laughing heartily] He’d talk and his fellows would always leave us a tip.
JOHN: [He’d tip us] for running the show. And it was an entirely different world that we were in. Neither one of us would have never ever thought we’d be in anything that was as well publicized. Jesus, you mentioned you worked out there and you were practically a hero.
CHUCK: Uh Huh.
JOHN: Everybody knew where that theater was.
CHUCK: Talking about tips, remember Merian Cooper? He gave me twenty bucks and I split it with the crew. And the reason: There was one scene where a locomotive started over here [Chuck gestures to show an object moving across the line of vision] and snuck [sic] in the picture and as it was going across. I kept cranking it up and the sound of that engine going through there. When it passed off, I took the sound off. And there was another scene where an airplane takes off and goes right up over us right out the back. And we had a speaker way back up in the seating. And when that plane started revving, I started bringing that volume up and as it revved and revved and revved, when it ran out you’d have thought the whole roof was coming off. He said he’d never heard it run that way!
JG: What brought the Cooper to an end? Was it attendance?
JOHN: The thing that brought it to an end was somebody wanted that land up there and it’s occupied now by Barnes & Noble and somebody else. I forget what. But the multiple theaters that they got today…we had a few…maybe three little theaters down on Carter Street…that were just storefronts and laughingly, we always called them "shooting galleries." And that’s what all this stuff is now.
CHUCK: One matinee we had just gotten the show started and a young fellow came in the control room and introduced himself. It was Louis B. Mayer’s son and he was on his way to Harvard. He says: "We’ve been watching the reports from this theater at our office and it says that you sell 814 tickets for every show." He says, "That’s almost impossible!" I said, "Well you go down and look and there’s 814 butts sitting in chairs right now!" Remember that?
JOHN: I sure do.
CHUCK: They couldn’t believe it in Hollywood. But it was every report that went in: 814 tickets, 814 tickets….
JG: My memory, from a younger guy’s perspective, I saw How The West Was Won there three times and It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, I think twice. I have never seen anything like it from a motion picture perspective. The three-strip process, the music, the sound, the story. I mean, we were talking about stories in movies. It [How The West Was Won] was a shallow story line but, you know, the train wreck, the river raft, it to me, it was a motion picture spectacular. The sound, to me, was…
CHUCK: You know, the first write up on that wasn’t any good.
JOHN: If I can tell you a story from a projectionist’s viewpoint, you’ll love this, each one of the four men that was working had to watch that screen from the time it was started.
JG: I didn’t realize that. Chuck told me that earlier.
CHUCK: You never took your eyes off of it.
JOHN: On How The West Was Won [It] had a bunch of horses. They had flies on them. [Laughing] It had gotten so that we’d count them! I don’t know how the hell we could see ‘em from back there but we counted those damn flies. And another part, one of the scenes in that earlier one, the second movie…
CHUCK: I told him about the one with the Volkswagens.
JG: The Brothers Grimm?
CHUCK: Yeah, The Brothers Grimm. I told him about that one.
JOHN: You could see them. In the background. But those flies, they were something, again. And, I always had a strong suspicion they must have had a little pad there and they were marking it down as they went around because you’d go awhile and a fellow would say: "Hey! I saw another fly!" Through the intercom!
And all too quickly, the afternoon ended and it was time to catch my flight back home. Chuck and I said our good-byes to John and I took Chuck back to his house, where the day had started. There, I said my good-byes wondering if I will ever see him again. Later as I stewed over a flight that was running six hours late at Denver International, I regretfully realized that I could have extended my session with these two men and I have no doubt they would have woven more tales of the Old Days, which in retrospect, weren’t really that long ago.
Chuck Weber and John Rabe are survivors of a quickly vanishing breed of craftsmen: projectionists who prided themselves in the visual and oral presentation of the motion picture, whether it was the technically demanding spectacle of three-strip Cinerama or an afternoon matinee for kids run in flat 35mm. Today, I rarely go to a theater to watch a movie and instead, await its release on DVD or VHS where I know I can view it in focus and with the sound set at comfortable levels. In fact in the last two years, I have attended two movies in a theater (Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile) and in both, the inattentive and/or uncaring operator had problems with both. Since my attendance was in the space of eighteen months, I can only assume this is more the norm rather than an exception
¹ The control room of the Cooper had no window separating the audience. This was so the master operator could hear the audio in the house. To avoid disturbing the last rows of the audience below, communication to the projection booths had to be done quietly.
² The Cooper Denver theaters had two huge sculpted wood panels that were suspended on either side of the curtain and apparently when the theater opened, the panels were nearly in line with the projection paths of the Able and Charlie booths.
Last year, I began an e-mail exchange with Art Thompson of the Cooper Foundation in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Cooper Foundation grew from the original Cooper Theater chain and Arts father, Art Thompson Sr., was a member of the original theater operation. It was through Art Jr. that I was able to make contact with Chuck and this resulted in my Denver visit. Without Art’s help, this visit would have never taken place and I am indebted to him for his assistance in putting me in touch with Chuck.
Larry Karstens, a Cinerama aficionado who lives in Omaha and edits a Cinerama newsletter, was responsible for rekindling my interest in the process and through him, I was able to make contact with Art Thompson.
Martin Hart, who is the curator of the Internet-based American Widescreen Museum, has provided technical input on Cinerama and his confirmation of the film transport speed helped clear up a lot of confusion. For a plethora of fascinating information on all American widescreen processes including Cinerama, check his web site out at:
And last but certainly not least, Clark "Corky" Coble, a longtime friend and IATSE brother, a former projectionist and projection technology historian, has provided me valuable assistance in confirming several equipment questions and his extensive International Projectionist collection has added fascinating insight into early Cinerama operations. Thanks, Corky, for your generosity and your friendship!
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