By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I think that I’m a pretty laid-back person. I don’t often fly off the handle. When someone insults me or upsets me in some fashion, I deal with it in a healthy way: by never, ever forgetting the incident and letting it bubble and fester in my subconscious until it becomes an ulcer. It’s a fine system.
However, about once every five years or so, something happens that causes me to explode. Sometimes it’s the culmination of a lot of events. Sometimes it’s just one single event, something so infuriating that my brain trips a breaker and I lose control.
As I was driving past the former site of the Rives Theatre the other day, one such incident came to mind.
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I was the manager of the Rives Theatre from 2007 through 2009 during a brief period when it was a combination second-run movie theater and event venue. We did monthly special events, and sometimes I liked to pair a band with an appropriate movie.
On one occasion, I had booked my friend Landis’ band to play at the theater, and I asked him if there was a movie that would pair well with his musical offerings.
“What about ‘The Shining?’” he said.
Now, I suspected that his main motivation was that he wanted to watch a 35mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic on the big screen. Fortunately, I also wanted to do that, so I thought it was an excellent plan. I called our movie booking agent and requested the print.
A few days before the show, the film cans arrived. I hustled them upstairs to the build table, which is what you use to assemble the multiple reels of a 35mm movie into one continuous reel (or at least that’s how it used to work; I realize that to anyone who has yet to graduate from high school, I might as well be talking about how to re-tassel a buggy whip).
As I removed the first reel from the film can, I was stunned. I had expected to receive a reprint of the movie. Instead, I was holding in my hands an original, mint-condition, 1980 35mm print of The Shining. At the time, it was nearly 30 years old.
While the print looked like it had never passed through a projector before, I had experience with older prints, and I knew it would require a delicate touch. As film ages, it gets old and brittle. I assembled this print of The Shining with tender loving care, then paused to admire it as it lay pristine on the projector’s top platter. It was a thing of beauty.
During my tenure at the Rives Theatre, we had several great employees and a couple of terrible ones. One employee, whom we’ll call Chester, was not the worst; that honor went to a 17-year-old kid who made so many racist comments that I fired him after two days only because it felt wrong to fire him on his first day (Fun side note: After I fired him, his mom called me to chew me out and threatened to sue me, telling me that, and I quote, “I’m more racist than he is!” I told her I did not doubt that.)
Anyway, Chester was a good guy. He was a terrible employee, but he was a good guy. While I had no concrete proof, I sometimes suspected that he was in an altered state when he came to work. Maybe it was the bloodshot eyes, or the fact that he wanted to talk about silver-age Batman comics for three straight hours, but I just got that feeling sometimes. Still, as long as he kept the floors swept and sold some popcorn from time to time, I had no major issues.
However, Chester had a burning desire to learn how to thread a 35mm movie projector.
I tried to show Chester how to thread a projector on a few occasions, but he had a hard time getting the hang of it. No judgment there; it took me a long time to get the hang of it, because it’s a preposterously convoluted procedure.
As the date of our special event drew closer, I told Chester that I would keep teaching him how to thread until he got it right, but I had two rules. Number one, never try to thread a projector when I’m not in the room. Number two, never, ever, under any circumstances, touch this beautiful, pristine print of The Shining.
Perhaps you can see where this story is going.
On the night of the big event, the band was going to play first, and then we were going to screen The Shining. As the band wrapped up, I turned to my buddy Bradley, who was also working at the theater at the time. I asked him where Chester was.
“I saw him heading upstairs about ten minutes ago,” Bradley said.
I felt a slow, dawning horror fall over me, and I sprinted up the stairs to the projection booth, taking them two at a time.
I burst into the booth to find Chester hunched over my beautiful, original print of The Shining. The first 50 feet of film were a tangle of knots from where he had attempted to thread it himself.
Chester’s eyes met mine. Neither of us spoke for a moment. Perhaps he didn’t know what to say; as for my part, I was so angry that it took some time for my brain to put together a coherent thought that didn’t involve pushing him through the window of the projection booth.
And that’s when I began screaming at him.
Friends, I have absolutely no memory of what I screamed at Chester. I know that it was extraordinarily profane. I also know that it was so loud that every single person in the theater heard every word.
The only thing I remember vividly is that at some point, I slumped over on the build table and continued screaming at him, as though I was so filled with rage that I was no longer capable of standing under my own power.
Chester, to his credit, hung around to silently absorb my dressing-down before I told him, in no uncertain terms, to leave the room. I spent the next fifteen minutes untangling the once-beautiful print of The Shining, occasionally having to cut through the worst knots and re-splice the film. Somehow, I managed to get the movie started with only a ten minute delay.
It is only now that I realize the deep irony of this experience revolving around a movie about a man who goes to an old building and gradually becomes murderously insane.