Doing my job

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July 18, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Gerald Nelson

Projectionist

Crown Theater Block E 15

600 S. Hennepin Ave. S.

"Reel one will end in minutes," says a calm, automated female voice, reminiscent of a science-fiction film's self-destruct warning. In this case, the ship is the Block E Theaters, and Gerald Nelson is at the helm.

Although the actual countdown number is conspicuously missing, Nelson doesn't hurry or panic. Rather, the 21-year-old seems to know the rhythm like his own pulse. He moves among the 15 German prototype Kinoton machines with a steady confidence and wiry energy, and the audience is blissfully unaware that their entertainment is in his hands.

Nelson and his projectors shatter the old image of the slouching projectionist lazily watching the movie - and the audience - through a lighted, dusty window from a cramped cubby. Nelson's projection room is a long, wide hallway that wraps around at least three sides of the theater complex's interior.

Wall-mounted pulleys allow Crown Theaters to show the same movie simultaneously on multiple screens from the same reel. The film runs through one projector and then, through the pulleys along the wall, straight into the next machine. The latest Star Wars, for instance, ran on as many as four screens from one print.

"We could run the whole back wall if we wanted," Nelson said.

Next to the projectors, huge slabs of film are consolidated into one reel from as many as eight. Nelson also cuts and splices film, building reels of trailers. There are no digital projectors here. Nelson said he doesn't think the quality is as good with them, and besides, it might make his job obsolete. (A digital projector at Eden Prairie AMC, where Nelson once worked, did allow his co-worker to hook his X-box up to the big screen, which Nelson said was cool - until he got caught).

The projectors must be cleaned after each showing. At other theaters, films get scratched, Nelson said, but not at Block E. Nelson has never scratched one; if something goes wrong, it's a machine or scheduling malfunction, he said.

A good projectionist should be able to thread a reel into the projector in five minutes, Nelson said. He can do four reels in 10 minutes.

Even with his experience, Nelson said he was lucky to land the Block E gig. Decades ago, Nelson said union projectionists made $30-$40 an hour. Now he makes $8, but he would like to pursue IMAX projection, which he said can pull in $100,000 a year.

Still, there are perks. He gets paid to prescreen prints before the general public sees them. Any free time allows him to draw for his comic book, "Deadboy."

That's not to say he doesn't see you down there in the dark, however. Nelson said he's seen people drinking, smoking pot and making out, but never having sex (although it's happened at other theaters, he claimed). Sometimes homeless people sneak behind the curtains and sleep. Although discipline is generally left to the ushers, Nelson can call any problems he sees in on the phone. So behave yourself.