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'I’m always looking to learn something new': Projectionist Bill Shearer looks back on his career
Some time ago, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Bill Shearer. Bill is a man who has worked in the projection side of cinema from a relative industrial peak in the fifties all the way to the present day. He’s been there, done that and has so many stories that I was exhausted just hearing them. His is an impressive history and one that carries on with ever more projects in the pipeline.
I met up with him again last week to be further amazed at his busy work schedule and hilarious reminiscences. Unfortunately, space prevents me from including his anecdotes on dance halls, hypnotists, a blind projectionist, giving Billy Connolly a career boost in West Calder, his many recollections of Cameo founder Jim Poole and the night Bill physically ejected a drunken movie star from the Cameo. What’s left is still a fascinating tale.
Ian Hoey: So Bill, the opening question is, how did you get into projection, what drew you to the profession?
Bill Shearer: Pretty reluctantly actually. I was working when I was eighteen, driving, and my father was a Commissionaire in the local cinema, which was The Park Cinema in Belfast. He decided there was a job going vacant for a spool boy that I should do.
Do you mind me asking what sort of year this was?
I think it was ’55, ’56.
Quite a classic time for cinema.
Yes, for a job, you could pack one in and walk into another cinema no problems. So I took the job, reluctantly, because it meant working at nights. From the projection area there was a wide expanse outdoors where I could look over the fields and see my colleagues playing football while I was stuck in there working.
Though after a few weeks, when I got to know what was going on, I started to enjoy it. I think after about two years of doing that sort of stuff it started getting into my blood.
As a spool boy you were mainly winding films and putting them together?
Totally, because the film was unsafe in those days you were required to have the winding room in a separate part of the building from the projection. Then when they started putting out the safety film you could have a bench to wind from in the projection area, which was handy to keep an eye on the projector.
Did you move from The Park?
Well I think I worked in most of the decent cinemas in Belfast after that. And I was actually involved with the first Cinerama that was shown in The Ritz Cinema. I didn’t work there, I think I was in The Astoria at that time, but they seconded a few guys from other cinemas to be in the booth because they had three projectors running with one man on each projector.
And they had a sound desk running because there wasn’t enough room on the film to put a soundtrack, the sound was on a separate piece of film.
Fascinating. The polar opposite of the way projection is run these days, incredible to think of that number of people involved in running one film.
The main job of the guys operating the machines was to keep the horizons correct because, although the machines at that time were pretty precise, you’d get the horizon creeping up slightly and you had to frame it down to keep it correct. The centre projector went to centre screen, the right-hand one went to left-hand side and the other went to the opposite side. It was quite something to do.
Certainly. How many films were operated in that way?
It didn’t last too long, and the only one I was involved in was How The West Was Won but quite a few came after that. Because of the enormous financial costs, most guys kicked it out and some of the smaller cinemas hadn’t the projection room to accommodate it. In the case of The Ritz, if I remember right, the projection space went right through the building at the back.
When did you leave Belfast?
I first went to England and got a job with Star Cinemas, it would maybe be the late sixties. The cinema I went to was called The Tolmer Cinema, which was in Tolmers Square. On my latest venture to London I went looking for this place, knowing it would be closed of course.
Not only was it closed but it was raised to the ground and there’s a block of flats there now.
That’s a shame. Was it a classy old cinema?
Yes it was. Originally a theatre or something like an old time music hall. It was an old building but they had decent equipment. That was the first place I saw a Xenon bulb exploding, nearly blowing the door off the projector.
That’s something I’ve never seen thankfully.
It took quite a carry-on getting the glass swept up and being able to get back on screen. It was a dual changeover system where you needed two machines, so while one was running we had about 18 or 20 minutes to sort the other, but we didn’t manage it.
I’m not surprised!
I think through the next three double reels we had to stop the projector and re-lace it.
I’m well aware of the heavy safety equipment that must be worn when changing a Xenon bulb, so that must have been fairly dangerous.
We didn’t have anything like that in those days, we used to just hope for the best, we weren’t too Health & Safety.
Did you settle in London?
I had to move from there because the wages I was getting were quite low and half of my wages was going on my digs, which was like a mouse hole in the middle of London. The rest was buying food and sometimes I could manage to squeeze a pint out of it.
Were you a Chief Projectionist by this point?
No, I was second in command there. My fist Chief job was at The Essoldo in Northampton, I went there from London. It was an advertised job so I got it and went up there. I was there for probably around four or five years and was shifted when they sold the building to Plaza Bingo.
They offered me a job at Cannock in the Midlands at the Damilo Luxury Theatre, and it was beautiful. They had about five curtains on the stage. But I packed that job in because I had difficulty getting accommodation, it was only a small place. But I’m glad I did because when the cinema closed there was nothing else there and I would have had to travel to Birmingham or Wolverhampton or somewhere similar to get a job. I had stayed in Northampton around nine-and-a-half years.
So that takes us up to near the late seventies then?
It was early seventies actually and I had a chance of getting a house up in Scotland. I got involved with a chap who was opening a cinema in Bathgate that was closed for four-and-a-half years. I think it was Mecca that bought the hall, they already had a Bingo Hall in the town and bought the cinema with the proviso that nobody opened it again to play Bingo in it.
But there were no restrictions on cinema so this friend of mine leased it, I think, initially and then he got the money together and bought the premises. I got involved with that heavily, went and restored all the projection gear. It was just the one-screener when we took over, twelve hundred seats.
Twelve hundred seats!
It was a big, big cinema. But we closed the balcony and just used the downstairs with the big screen.
Yes, I remember the balconies used to go first.
So we had a chat about it because there was an awful lot of product coming out that we were missing out on. We blocked the balcony off, changed the rake of the floor, put a projection room in and we had another screen. Then, the guy was doing other stuff and wanted out so he sold it to the local council and they asked me to lease it, which I did. I did pretty well, making a buck or two, nothing spectacular.
When I came out of there my next job was in the Cameo in Edinburgh.
Ian Rankin and Bill Shearer
How did that come about?
Mr Poole was advertising for a manager, this would be the very early eighties, so I went there for two to three years. I never saw the man, except when I went up to his flat, which used to be above the cinema. I used to go up there and have a blether with him about publicity and things like that.
He liked speaking to the old film renters, you don’t have these reps anymore, but in them days the guys came round punting the films to you. I managed right up to the closure, used to have to wear a tuxedo every night after six o’clock. It was a big regret that I didn’t get to carry on running the place, after all the hard work I’d put in.
My ideas were super - I could see where the place could go.
So what did you do then?
I ended up working for myself doing televisions. I’d taken an engineering course and could work from home. And then somebody said to me, “I see the Cameo’s reopening.” I think actually they’d opened and they needed a projectionist.
This will have been when Johnny Barron was there, I was chatting to Eric [Saunders, Cameo projectionist] about him.
He was a great character, still there, doing little bits and pieces. And Eric was there. Eric and I worked together a number of years, can’t remember how many, roughly two or three. And then they opened the UCI, which was the first twelve-screen cinema in Britain, opened in 1990. So I applied for the Chief Projectionist job and got it. That was a big jump, from one screen to twelve.
I’ll bet, back in the days of 35mm.
I had to learn quickly because it was not really automated, more semi-automated. We had clocks fitted on the machines and we could, I think, have set the machines off with clocks. But I didn’t bother with that. I liked the manual start. You watch the trailers, watch the adverts, watch the lens change and the scopes and make sure everything went according to plan.
And how long were you there for?
I was probably there for eight years. I left to join Warner Brothers and I worked with them for about three years. Then, the guy I’m with now, Rob Arthur, he moved from Warners to the cinema in Livingston. So I left Warners and went to there with him. And then we opened one in Aberdeen, and we opened one in Portugal.
We opened in Portugal first and I only had two weeks to work there before coming back to Aberdeen.
Now hold on a minute. How did Portugal come about?
I don’t really remember, somebody maybe approached us. All I remember is that I had to go out and supervise the projection, hire some projectionists out there and make sure everything was right.
I then flew to Aberdeen, which was about a week away from opening, but because somebody hadn’t applied for the licence it was delayed for a further week. I was glad about that because it gave me more time.
Then, about that time, I retired at 65, started doing nothing other than playing keyboards around the pubs and stuff like that. When I got a call to see if I’d like to go out to Romania.
So I went out there and overseen the install of what was going on. It was all digital and I’d never seen a digital projector in my life, except in magazines and books. It was nine screens and they were all digital. I had a horrendous job because nobody could speak full English, only a little bit.
I had to hire the projectionists out there and, not only that, I had to get my head round this digital stuff. I said, “Get me the manuals” and they were all printed in Romanian.
Sounds like a nightmare!
It was a nightmare. The good thing about it was that some of the pages had illustrations and the touch-screen on the back of the projectors was in English so you could work out what you wanted to do. We got everything on screen in time, and the place is still running. I think I was there about three times in total.
Then I got a call out of the blue asking if I would like to join Apollo Cinemas in England, they had about thirteen cinemas at the time. I think they’ve got fifteen now because they reopened a couple of cinemas. I oversaw the digital install in them all. Each one has eight or nine screens, digital in them all. 35mm went out the door. I was still working for them up until last year.
Why did you leave?
The guy that run them sold them all to VUE. As it happens, the guy that was Managing Director, Rob Arthur, he’s a very good friend of mine, stays only six miles from me. I first worked with him at UCI, so we’ve worked together a few years.
We opened the cinema in Thurso. We opened it with 35mm because that’s what was there, get some money in the coffers, and then digitise. [Update: Thurso is now fully Digital with 3D and fitted with 7.1 Dolby Sound System.]
You’re really all go.
There’re another three places we’re looking at, so yes, we’re all go at the moment.
I’m impressed at your workload, and your travelling.
I don’t think I mentioned going out to Japan in 1996.
Yes, one hassle there was the size of the projection booths they’d built. They had sized them around the smaller stature of the locals but the booths weren’t big enough to fit the projectors!
It’s amazing how much common sense goes out the window when people are designing or restructuring cinemas.
Obviously, the hot topic relevant to projection these days concerns the change of technology and it seems that you, more than most, have first hand experience of this due to the number of years you’ve been working with it.
Unfortunately you’re very right. The fun has gone out of projection. There isn’t the same presentation going on as there used to be. Fortunately the digital stuff is doing its job very efficiently, although it takes away the pride of doing your own presentation.
Even with the advancements in technology, I’ve always thought there was an argument for having a person on site that is technically minded.
I had a meeting with one of the union guys in London when the digital stuff was starting. Most of the chains were represented at it. The guy says, “When cinemas go digital they’re going to try sacking a lot of people.” So I told him that at Apollo we’d actually went digital in four cinemas so far and it was ongoing. And when he asked how many people we’d sacked I said none of them.
The whole time we were there, we never sacked one person because we found there was other stuff around the building that still required doing. We kept them on projection and maintenance, checking seats and stuff like that. I knew there would also be a natural progression of people leaving, some of the older guys couldn’t get their heads round it.
It’s always going to be difficult going from being a master of your craft to feeling like an amateur.
Exactly. Then when VUE took over they sacked them all.
Not very impressive. I have to say I like your open-mindedness regarding formats.
To be honest, I’m a 35mm man at heart but we have to move on. And you can only keep 35mm if you have enough screens to do that.
What about the subject of female projectionists, do you regard this as a new thing?
There were female projectionists during the war, they were thrown in at the deep end, but then the guys came back and their jobs kind of dwindled out. I’ve trained a few and three of them turned out to be Chief Projectionists in other parts of the country. One is still a Chief Projectionist down in Ipswich.
I’ve found the women to be more responsive with regards to learning than the guys.
Do you think there’s a certain mentality of someone who becomes a projectionist?
Yeah, they have to have their own way of thinking. The ones that don’t care don’t matter, as they won’t last the course. I wonder what my own idiosyncrasies are as I haven’t really noticed any.
It’s always hard to assess yourself the way you assess other people.
I’ve been asked what my strengths and weaknesses are. Well my weakness is that I’m always on a short fuse. If I ask someone to do something I expect them to do it. My strengths are that I’m always looking for more strengths because I learn every day, I’m always looking to learn something new.
This is no surprise as you’ve been working solidly through a time of tremendous change and the nature of projection now is so vastly different to what it was.
As a last question, fairly standard at that, do you have any favourite films?
Aye, one of my favourites is Venus Peter, I really loved that film.
That’s not a choice you’d hear so often.
Another one I really enjoyed, not immediately, took me about a half hour to get into it, was Christ stopped at Eboli. As for the rest, my favourite comedy is probably Trains, Planes & Automobiles. Going back a bit, Good Sam starring Gregory Peck. You won’t remember it, it’s going back to when I was a kid.
Quite a selection! Any films that hold fond memories due to you projecting them?
One that I enjoyed running back in the Astoria in Belfast, we got the first run of it, was The Ten Commandments, complete with a 17 or 18 minute musical interlude as an intermission. At that time, every cinema had front tabs [curtains] and this cinema had the most beautiful ones billowing away. They passed close by the lighting and when they opened they’d change from blue to green to red.
You may remember that Cecil B. DeMille introduces the film onscreen in front of curtains and when he finishes talking the curtains opened, well I’d have the house curtains open just enough and I’d get them to fully open at the same time as the ones on screen. But there’s no presentation these days, you don’t get the chance.
And at that our conversation finally drew to a close. Bill is a remarkable individual and it was a lot of fun spending time in his company. He and Rob Arthur are never far away from the industry news as they play a key role in the development and revival of cinemas all across the country. It’s good to know that someone with as much passion, history and knowledge of what cinema was, is and can be is at the forefront of providing film entertainment to the eager masses.