27 Mar 2011

94-year-old ex-projectionist shares movie memories


The Herald-Mail

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) - George Wagner doesn't see very well anymore, but as he runs his hands over The Maryland Theatre's 1930s-era projection machines, his fingers know every knob and clamp.

He knows that the original screen was 90 feet away, 24 feet long and 18 feet high. He knows that there were about 1,300 seats and, like a dwindling number of local residents, he remembers when they were filled nearly every night with patrons eager to see the news reels and catch the latest feature.

It was in this room that Wagner, 94, eagerly learned the art of movie projection as a boy in the 1920s. He continued to show films there off and on for more than 60 years.

He returned just before Thanksgiving to share his memories on camera for a historical documentary about the theater being produced by After Five Productions.

"I'm 94 and I'm getting older by the minute," he quipped. "You've got any questions, you'd better let me have them now."

Wagner got his first movie projector when he was 8 years old and living in Emmitsburg, Va., as a prize for selling a dozen bottles of salve for 25 cents each.

"I think my mother bought most of them," he said.

Wagner became an amateur projectionist, showing films for the neighborhood children on a screen he built in his yard.

After he moved to the Hagerstown area at the age of 10, he began hanging around The Maryland Theatre, where he would climb up the fire escape and beat on the door of the projection room to watch the projectionists work.

Wagner was not as interested in watching movies as he was in watching the machinery.

"I liked the idea of what they could do with the piece of film," he said.

He also knew projecting was where the money was, because the theater's projectionists drove convertibles.

"It's not what you know, it's who you know, and I made a point to know them pretty well," Wagner said.

Wagner didn't attend high school, and on the last day of eighth grade, his mother warned him not to come home until he had found a job. He got one that very day in a projection booth for $7 a week.

As an apprentice, Wagner gradually was entrusted with the responsibilities of putting film in the machine, trimming the lamp and adjusting the volume, and he took those responsibilities very seriously.

"I'm the guy who came up to the booth 20 minutes early to oil the machines, to clean the lenses, make sure everything's OK," he said.

He remembers the importance of movies in those days, when children came to school every day talking about the movies they had seen the night before. He remembers looking out from the projection booth and seeing the entire theater packed, and knowing that if he got caught up reading a newspaper or daydreaming and forgot to trim the lamp, he would have to face their wrath when the picture disappeared five minutes before the end of the film.

"That's embarrassing, and that's when you catch hell from the manager," he said. "It's inexcusable, it seems to me, but it does happen."

When Wagner learned at age 16 that he had high blood pressure and could not do anything too strenuous, he decided to turn movie projection into a career. At that time, there were about nine movie theaters in the Tri-State area, and Wagner worked at most of them at one time or another, including the Colonial and Academy theaters in Hagerstown.

For 3 1/2 years during World War II, Wagner showed films for soldiers overseas, then returned to Hagerstown and continued as a projectionist until he was laid off and went to work at Fairchild, a hardware store and Mack Trucks.

"I've never done anything, except process inspecting, that I liked to do any better than being in a theater," Wagner said. "It broke my heart when they decided that at The Maryland Theatre they weren't going to have any more movies."

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