The last of the real live projectionists


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This is a biweekly series about art and artists in the region. Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts serves the community through arts education, exhibitions and artist resources.

Art Milliren is part of a dying breed. He's an old-fashioned movie projectionist. It's a craft the public is only starting to appreciate, now that they're almost gone.

Traditional film projectionists do a lot more than press PLAY.

When a 35mm film is delivered to a movie theater it comes in several heavy cans, each holding thick reels of film. The projectionist makes sure the reels are in the right order. Mr. Milliren says he occasionally has to rearrange ones that come in with the reels upside-down and backward.

Then the reels are spliced together, sometimes adding trailers. The projectionist carefully threads the film through the projector's narrow, winding channel, trying not to scratch it or tear sprocket holes, because it will be shown over and over. The projector itself needs constant maintenance and cleaning.

The one thing most moviegoers know is that the projectionist is in charge of focusing.

Except lately if you go to a cineplex, there's no longer anyone in the booth -- that little cubby hole where the light streams from. As the conversion to digital projection marches on, fewer and fewer people are being trained to project celluloid.

Back in 1965, after a stint in the Army, Mr. Milliren got a job in a movie theater that led to an apprenticeship. By 1967 he was a full-time projectionist. He recalls the beautiful old theater in McKeesport (which closed in the '70s) with its balcony, hardwood stage, dressing rooms, and red curtain that opened before each screening.

Since 2002 Mr. Milliren has projected at Harris Theater, the only movie theater in Downtown Pittsburgh. Owned by Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Harris is programmed and operated by Pittsburgh Filmmakers. As a union projectionist Mr. Milliren works many Cultural Trust events, including video projecting at the Byham and Benedum theaters.

He says the most exciting job of his career was a recent pre-screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" at the Byham Theater. With Warner Bros. bigwigs in town to get first approval, as well as some celebrities and politicians in attendance, the tension was high. "Bad news travels faster down the road than good news, so you have to double check yourself," cracks Mr. Milliren.

Mr. Milliren is projecting "Neil Young Journeys" at the Harris through Aug. 30. Wave to him up in the booth. For showtimes, visit: http://theaters.pittsburgharts.org.

-- By Jessica Futrell for PF/PCA

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