By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I’m writing this column on Sept. 9, 2019, one day after the fire that claimed The Rives Theatre. The Rives holds a special place in my heart and I’d like to share some memories from my time working there.
I graduated from college in 2007, right before The Great Recession hit, during one of the bleaker economic periods in Martinsville and Henry County’s history.
Being a newly-minted college graduate entering the workforce in 2007 was sort of like jumping from a plummeting airplane armed only with an umbrella: You don’t regret bringing the umbrella, but you doubt it will make much difference.
I started out applying for jobs at a number of places I was interested in, and then I applied for jobs at places I wasn’t interested in, and then I applied for the worst jobs I could find. Unfortunately, I soon found that you needed five years of experience and a reference from the Dalai Lama just to get a job scrubbing floors at a slaughter house. Like so many before me, I nearly considered doing the unthinkable: I almost went to graduate school.
Thankfully, fortune smiled upon me in October of 2007. The Rives Theatre, which had been dormant for a bit, was going to re-open with funding from The Harvest Foundation and be operated through the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association. I applied for a job at the Rives and somehow managed to snag it, and by the time 2008 rolled around, I was the manager. I worked there through May 2009.
During this window of time, the Rives was operating as a second-run movie theater. Sometimes this worked out fantastically – for example, I managed to snag “No Country for Old Men” right about the time it got nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four of them. It ended up being our second most successful movie during my tenure (the first was “Twilight,” which I’m still bitter about).
At other times, it was difficult, because a movie that did gangbusters during its first run would sometimes be tanked by bad word-of-mouth by the time I was able to get my hands on it (looking at you, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”).
One of my favorite parts of the job was getting to operate the monolithic 35mm projectors. Today, your local movie theater doesn’t run 35mm anymore. While some movies are still shot on film, that film is converted to a digital file, put on an encrypted hard drive, and then shipped to the movie theater. Do you remember the last time you went to the movies and the picture was out of focus or the movie cut out halfway through? I’m betting it’s been more than five years, because the new digital technology is virtually foolproof.
35mm is not foolproof. It is wildly susceptible to fools.
Our 35mm films would arrive by courier early in the week. The courier would drop off two or three heavy film cans that usually contained between five and seven reels of film, depending on the length of the movie. Using something called a “build table,” which was basically a table with a motorized spindle that would turn the reels, I would feed the reels onto a giant horizontal platter next to the projector, connecting each reel end-to-end with special tape. The completed film was enormous, about as big around as one of those $100 party pizzas with a name like “The Widowmaker.”
Once the movie had been built, it would have to be threaded through the projector. This was easier said than done.
The film would have to run through a series of pulleys on the platter, up another series of pulleys to reach over to the projector, run through an elaborate sequence of gears and gates within the projector, and then down to another series of pulleys that would guide the film back onto a different platter.
If any one of those pulleys or gears or gates didn’t work properly, or if you accidentally put too much tension on the film at one spot or not enough at another spot, it would be an absolute disaster. The film would tie itself into a knot, or it would snap and pool on the floor, or it would get stuck and melt in front of the hot projector bulb. During my first couple of months at the Rives when I was learning how to thread film by trial and error, I sometimes thought I could actually hear my ulcer growing.
Compared to digital, 35mm is a prehistoric format. It’s burdensome to use, it introduces all kinds of pops and scratches into the movie, and it can easily fail.
I miss it tremendously.
Even ten years ago, it was becoming difficult to lay hands on a number of 35mm films, especially weird older titles I wanted to show as midnight movies, so we invested in a digital projector that could display Blu-Ray movies. On one occasion, a guy asked for a refund because he had been expecting a battered old 35mm print, not a crisp, perfect Blu-Ray.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve gained an appreciation for his viewpoint. I enjoy listening to music on vinyl. I work on pinball machines as a hobby. I recently acquired a free 16mm projector that I use to watch old cartoons.
An MP3 will usually sound cleaner than vinyl, a pinball machine can’t hold a candle to a Playstation 4, and a 35mm film will look pretty rough next to a digital movie displayed in 4K HDR.
However, when these older technologies are working the way they’re supposed to, there’s something almost magical about them, something that goes beyond nostalgia, something that functions almost like a time machine.
One of the most surreal experiences I ever had at the Rives occurred in December of 2007. We had gotten an old print of “Home Alone,” and as I screened it in the little theater to make sure I had spliced everything correctly, I felt myself transported back in time to 1990, when six year old me had sat in that very same theater watching that very same movie.
In the wake of the fire at the Rives, I’ve heard so many comments from people about their favorite Rives Theatre memories. People talk about what it was like to see “Batman” there back in ’89 when the line wrapped around the block, or what it was like to catch the midnight showing of “Star Wars: Episode 1” back in ’99. While I was working at the Rives, one older gentlemen even told me he remembered seeing “Gunga Din” there in 1939.
No matter what the future holds for The Rives Theatre, those memories and so many more will remain indelible.