By Dr. Eugene Patronis
Jim Sorensen’s blog of April 22 made reference to the high efficiency loudspeakers and low wattage amplifiers employed in the movie theaters of years ago. This reminded me of a war story that might be of some interest. Actually it is a home-front story that occurred during WWII.
During that time the child labor laws were suspended to allow younger people to fill the desperate need for manpower sometimes even in hazardous occupations. A young boy of my acquaintance starting with a minor theater job worked his way up to being employed as one of the projectionists in the two theaters located in his home town of Quincy, Florida. This was a hazardous occupation because the 35 mm cellulose nitrate film employed at that time, even though not quite an explosive, was highly flammable and extreme care was necessary in handling this product that hurtled through the projector at the rate of 90 feet per minute all the while being exposed to an intense light source furnished by a carbon arc lamp. The standard reels of that era had a capacity of 1800 feet of film for a running time of at most 20 minutes so a minimum of two projectors were required for an uninterrupted presentation of a full-length movie. The ability to make a seamless changeover from one projector to the other was part of the projectionist’s art. Newsreels, cartoons, and other short subjects including previews of coming attractions were usually spliced together to try to make up a full reel. This young boy in the projection booth was surrounded by a concentration of the latest and most sophisticated technology of that day. The youngster was curious as well as ambitious and simply operating the equipment was not completely satisfying to him. He had to find out what made it all tick. In between changeovers there existed about a ten-minute interval where his full attention was not required. He employed those intervals to learn as much as he could about all of the apparatus and the physical principles upon which it was based. In exchange for a promise not to neglect his regular school studies, his school principal and school librarian arranged for him to borrow most of the available books necessary to accomplish his objective.
Altec Service Corporation had the contract to periodically perform preventive maintenance on and test the performance of the projection and sound equipment for both theaters. The projectionists were expected to perform routine maintenance tasks. The boy’s first couple of encounters with Altec service engineers was disappointing to both them as well as himself. They were disappointed because the kid was constantly peppering them with questions and he was disappointed because they were as mute as the Sphinx. In retrospect, they really couldn’t be blamed. These were much older men who were greatly overworked because of the war and needed to complete their work and get on to the next appointment. The third encounter, however, was magic! The engineer’s name was Robert Albert Passmore to whom the boy became eternally grateful. Robert had the patience of Job in answering the boy’s questions and they became fast friends. Robert probably tolerated the boy because Robert was largely self-educated, had had a helping hand along the way, and this was his way of paying forward. He was a wise man and it is possible that some of his wisdom rubbed off on the youngster.
The larger of the two theaters ran first run movies and operated seven days a week. In order to conserve electrical energy as part of the war effort, the starting time on weekdays was 4:00 PM with closing occurring usually by 11:30 PM. Starting times on Saturday and Sunday were 2:00 PM with approximately an 11:30 PM closing. The projection and sound equipment for this theater was first-rate for its size. It featured a Wester Electric Mirrophonic Sound System consisting of a 91A power amplifier, a 12A power supply, a 25A high frequency horn with a 555 compression driver, and a TA4194 18″ bass driver mounted in a TA7395A low frequency horn; all properly signal aligned! The power amplifier’s output stage consisted of a single WE300B triode operated in pure class A that under the best of conditions could output about 10 Watts. The power supply had to be well filtered for the power amplifier because of the single-ended class A mode of operation. A separate supply also furnished low voltage DC for the exciter lamps in the sound heads as well as higher voltage DC for the photoelectric cells also in the sound heads associated with the projectors. The 35 mm projectors were Simplex Model E-7 equipped with Peerless high intensity carbon arc lamps and Western Electric sound heads. The arc lamps were powered by a Hertner motor-generator set consisting of a three phase AC motor driving a DC generator.
School being out during the summer months left the boy’s mornings and early afternoons free. As a result of intense self-study and lots of trial and error he was soon able to construct radio receivers from kits and eventually to design and construct unsophisticated mixer-power amplifier combinations for use in public address systems that were rented out to provide extra income. Another significant contribution to the boy’s technical advancement came about from a completely different direction. John Calloway Byrd was the wire chief for the locally owned telephone company. John and the boy met purely by accident when John was splicing an underground telephone cable close to the boy’s home. Naturally the youngster had to stop and ask questions! Fortunately for the boy, John willingly responded to the questions because the wire chief was working alone and occasionally could use an extra pair of hands. From then on the boy tagged along with John on his repair and construction calls whenever he could. John taught the lad how to climb poles and string wire on rural telephone line construction, repair phones, and eventually how to splice multi-pair cable. John also introduced the boy to Fred Kilbilka who arrived a year or so later to become the telephone plant engineer. Fred taught the boy about the instrumentation used for level measurements on both local and lond distance lines as well as other aspects of telephone plant operation. In later years the boy would grow to always treasure the generosity of these men in sharing their knowledge with him along with their friendship.
This story began early in 1944 when the manager of the Quincy theaters, Ferdinand Christian Marxsen, made it possible for the boy to begin his wonderful adventure. World War II ended in the early fall of 1945 and shortly thereafter many veterans returned to civilian life. Among them was Henry Curtis Davidson who had been assistant theater manager prior to his induction into the army. Both of these men made significant and selfless contributions to the boy’s development. Things were not always rosy for the boy because a year or so after the war’s end the suspended child labor laws were re-imposed and the boy was denied his projectionist job because he was not yet 16 years of age. There is a happy ending however. The boy continued his technical pursuits by repairing radio receivers and renting his public address systems until he could be re-hired by the theater at age 16. He continued to work at the theater until the end of the summer following his high school graduation when he left for college to pursue a Ph. D in experimental physics. When the boy became a man he felt obligated to always pay forward in memory of those men who had contributed so generously to his own desire to learn.