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 Texas : Architecture / Images : Theatres -

I was A Teenage Projectionist

Littlefield, Texas to Hollywood, USA

An Interview with Ned Fairbain

Editor's note: Our page on Littlefield, Texas brought us the following letter from former Littlefielder, Ned Fairbairn:

"Dear TE, Your [magazine] is great. Attached is a photo of the Palace Theatre in Littlefield, recently demolished. I am a vintage Projectionist who started in Littlefield when I was in school. I worked at the Palace Theatre as well as the XIT Drive-In. I also worked in theatres in Lubbock."
Littlefield Texas Palace Theatre 1975
Palace Theatre in Littlefield
Photo courtesy Ned Fairbairn
We wrote back and asked if the job of projectionist was as lonely as we've heard decribed by others in the profession. Ned replied:

"I loved presenting movies and appreciated the fact that I worked alone (or with someone I wanted to be with) most of the time. In 1971 I moved to Los Angeles, joined the Projectionist Union there and have been working every since. I have worked in some famous Theatres such as Grauman's Chinese, and Grauman's Egyptian (built in 1922). I now work as a private projectionist for (famous comedic actor) at his private home theatre in Beverly Hills. We play first run 35mm films there in his theatre which is in beautiful Art-Deco, complete with electric curtains on the stage, and state-of-the-art sound & picture. So you might say I have done the whole trip, and I have loved it. I have MANY stories of working Premiers and big shows. I could go on forever."

"I recently had a book of Show Calendars from the Palace, Littlefield bound and I plan to make them available for sale. The calendars are from the mid-1950's to mid 60's. Included are such movies such as Peyton Place, The Ten Commandments and lots of horror films like Creature from the Black Lagoon. I kept these calendars as a sort of diary. Of course, there are a few missing - but I have most of them for the years I worked there."

Recently I was featured in a newspaper article in Littlefield's paper, telling of my days then and now. I have included this article in my Vintage Calendar Book." - Thanks, Ned Fairbairn
We sent a reply and when Ned called exactly when he said (projectionists are nothing if not punctual), we had a very entertaining conversation. It was a little too fast to get everything down - but based on what we can make of our notes, here's a few of Ned's stories in the form of a loose interview:

TE: What was the first movie you remember seeing as a boy?
Ned: "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine."

TE: Since you are a Projectionist, we have to ask if you saw the Italian movie Cinema Paradiso.
Ned: "Yes. A fine movie. I liked it a lot."

TE: How did you become a projectionist? Were you in the high school adio-visual department?
Ned: "No, I was best friends with the theater owner's son. I started out helping out in the concession booth, but when the owner needed someone to show the movies - I was right there."

TE: Were there any memorable incidents involving the audience that you remember?
Ned: (laughing) "Well, I remember when the Alamo with John Wayne was playing back in 1960. The theater was still segregated back then. The white kids sat to one side and the Mexican-American kids sat on the other. The Blacks had the balcony all to themselves. When the fighting (on the screen) broke out - there was cheering from the whites when a Mexican soldier was killed - and cheering from the Mexican-American kids whenever an Anglo was killed. Popcorn and cups were thrown from one side to the other - but that was about it. The Black kids (who didn't take one side or the other) were yelling too - for the other groups to sit down."

TE: What was it like at the Drive-In?
Ned: "The action in the audience there was a little different. There were a lot of cars with steamed up windows - if you know what I mean. I do recall one winter day when we were scheduled to show the Jayne Mansfield film Playgirl After Dark. The weatherman had predicted a Norther and the owner was going to cancel the show for that performance. I wanted to see the movie, too - so I convinced him that the audience would show - despite the weather advisory. And show up they did. Jayne appeared on screen - looking a little under-dressed for the snow and sleet that was coming in. The audience ran their engines to use their heaters - and by the time it was over - no one could leave. They had either run out of gas - or their car was frozen in place by the frozen slush."

"A similar thing happened when we showed the movie Flipper. A less severe snow blew in - and the abundant blues and greens of the ocean were cast out from the projector - reflecting on the driven snow. The audience had a psychedelic experience - even before anyone knew what one was."

TE: What were your first experiences in Hollywood?
Ned: "Well, I have to say that I got over being star-struck pretty quick. As a Projectionist - I was present at many of the gala premieres - and was often in the lobby when many of the stars were arriving."

TE: Who did you see?
Ned: "On one occassion I was sitting in the lobby of Grauman's Chinese. At that time I was working there two or three times a week. Anyway, I was talking with a man who had once managed the Paramount Theater in NYC. His claim to fame was that his theater hosted the Premier for Elvis' first movie Love Me Tender. He was an older fellow - but unmistakably a New Yorker. As we talked, Katheryn Hepburn walked in with Roddy McDowell. The pair walked right in front of us - and Katheryn Hepburn said in her unmistakable dramatic way: "Ah, the smell of popcorn!" Our eyes followed them though the doors to the auditorium and my friend leaned over to me and said: "Yeah, she may like to smell it, but you notice she didn't buy any."

TE: Being a Private Projectionist sounds like it would've gone out of fashion a long time ago.

Ned: "Actually, you would be surprised. A lot of stars have private theaters. People like ----------. -----------, and -------------.. There's no getting around it - film is superior to digital. When there's a road show performance or a priemere of a restored 70 mm movie, and it's shown as it was intended - on a big screen - a lot of industry people might go into the movie singing the praises of digital - but they come out as "believers" of film.

A digital projector might cost as much as $150,000 - much more than a film projector. Theaters find it hard to justify the expense - especially when the picture becomes pixilated. A lot of those that afford it are switching back."

TE: Thanks for taking the time to share your stories and let us know the ordering information for your book of vintage calendars.
Ned: "It was my pleasure and I will do that. Let me know when the interview will appear, I'll look forward to seeing it published in your magazine."

FINIS

Mr. Ned Fairbairn's website
http://home.mindspring.com/~starmale/

Related Stories: Palace Theatre in Littlefield
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