Monday, April 19, 1999
Bay Area projectionist puts his work in the spotlight
By Liz Garone
For 35 years, Donald Johanson has been taking people to the movies as a Bay Area projectionist for theaters like the Park and the Guild in Menlo Park. He recently talked with Staff Writer Liz Garone about the changing art of his business.
Q: Do all movies deserve equal treatment?
A: Every movie, to me, whether it's porno or anything else, deserves the best you can give it. So you can show it, present it, like the people who made it meant it to be shown. If you don't do that, you're not doing your job.
Q: Does anyone in movies today have the staying power of, say, a Clark Gable or a Bette Davis?
A: I think that whole system of people being known for over a period of years is really not there anymore.
The celebrities seem to come and go. They don't seem to have the lasting quality anymore. Maybe people's attention span isn't that long anymore. Everyone wants something new.
Harrison Ford (has the staying power). I met him when they did the first "Raiders." He was just a nice guy. He sat up in the booth with us, talked the whole time. He gave everything he had for those films. Almost all the actors that I've met are that way. They just love what they do, and they work hard at it.
Q: Are you a film purist, only going to see movies on the big screen? Do you ever watch them on a VCR or a DVD player?
A: I'm a purist in the sense that there are very few theaters I will go to. I pick and choose. For example, I enjoy going to the Palo Alto Square or the Shattuck in Berkeley.
I do watch movies at home. I've got a big TV. I've got an excellent sound system. I know what's out there, I know what I can get. But there are films I won't watch at home. We went to see "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love" in the theater.
Q: Project 10 years into the future. What will it mean when we say "we're going to the movies"?
A: By then, it may be digital video. When I think of movies I think of film. When the film generation goes away, the people who have seen a lot of film and are used to the feel they get from film, video probably will be much more successful.
Our children are raised on video this, video that, video TV, video here, video games. They're not going to see any difference from what they're used to when they go to the movies.
Q: How old were you when you became a projectionist?
A: I was 22.
Q: Did you always want to be one?
A: From about the time I was 10.
Q: What in particular influenced that decision?
A: I remember going to a school auditorium with my parents. They had the projector up in back of the auditorium. A man was talking about the Rockies, and he had an eagle on his arm.
His big thing was to let the eagle go to a friend of his who was sitting two seats down from us so we could watch the eagle fly.
Then he put on the movie. Watching the eagle fly in the film seemed much more dramatic to me than watching it fly in life. The film was slow motion. When the eagle spread its wings the detail was fantastic.
I got hooked on movies and on flying. Now I do both.
Q: What did your job entail when you first started?
A: Bringing the film in, then what we used to call making the film up, inspecting each reel as we went. We had two complete projectors in each booth and light systems. They were 20-minute reels. You ran 20 minutes, you did a changeover to the other film. Adjusting the sound, adjusting the lights.
The guy who taught me basically said, "The people come in, they pay the money, their money belongs to the theater, but the audience is mine."
If we did the work right, nobody knew we were there. There was a lot of show in the show business in those days. We were the end product. If we didn't do our job right, all the money they spent making the movie was for nothing.
Q: How does your job differ today?
A: There's no time to sit on a stool anymore. You're taking care of five to eight screens.
You put the film together on a big platter, like a big pizza. You put that together. When you show it, you thread it up. You push the button. You go away.
Everything's automated today. And the audience doesn't seem to care what they put up with. Stuff happens, but there's no one really there to take care of it anymore.
Q: What is the best place to see movies these days?
A: At a film festival. If you run a film out of focus, you have the producers on your neck. And everybody strives to do their best there.
Q: What is your favorite film?
A: I don't have just one. "Lawrence of Arabia" is one of my favorites. I like historical movies. But then I also love "Men in Black." I thought "Citizen Kane" was a boring film, but I like the cinematography in it. I can watch scenes from it for hours where they do the montages and the fades.
There's not a lot I don't like except for some of the real violent stuff. If that's some people's taste, that's fine. It's not mine.
You can consider me a movie nut. I like movies. It's not my life, but I enjoy them a great deal. I love what I do.
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