When Rob Baxter went to the Uptown Theatre last month, he thought it would be just another night at the movies. But what he found out should make every Washington filmgoer jump out of her stadium seat in outrage.
On March 8, the Austin, Texas–based lighting designer and production electrician had just finished some work for the New York City Ballet at the Kennedy Center. Baxter wanted to see The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but when he got to the theater, an ambulance was taking away projectionist Andy McCormack, who said he’d been overcome with toxic fumes, possibly from spilled cleaning solvent.
Firemen briefly held up the screening to investigate the smell, and after Baxter came back a half-hour later, the film still wasn’t running. So the former movie-house manager ran upstairs and found an Uptown custodian finally starting up the first reel—without any sound. Baxter put things right and then settled down to watch what he calls “a pristine print” of Return, which had already been playing at the theater for three months.
“It was obvious that these guys were using their cotton gloves,” he says of McCormack and the other two Uptown projectionists, José Gonzalez and Steve Guttag. “I had no idea that I was walking into such a fantastic movie space. I’ve been in the Steven Ross Theater at the Warner Bros. Studio in L.A., and the Uptown was nicer.”
Not news to most area film lovers, who know what a treasure the deco-era movie palace is. But listen to what Baxter found out from an Uptown manager: Loews Cineplex Entertainment, which operates the theater, wants to replace the Uptown’s two ’60s-vintage vertical-reel projectors with a modern, horizontal-format platter system. That would also mean cutting the hours of the theater’s professional projectionists, who belong to Local 224 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and leaving the house managers to run the new equipment—most likely by just hitting Start.
In other words, one of the best places to watch a movie on the East Coast might soon become a lot more like Regal Ballston Common 12. On the Uptown’s 32-by-70-foot screen, we’re talking hairs the size of anacondas when someone forgets to clean the film gate. Dancing green scratch lines that run across the frame for 45 minutes. Ruined prints and canceled shows when the plattered film runs off its numerous rollers and pulleys while the manager is downstairs filling out time sheets or cleaning up a Coke spill.
“I don’t like platters,” says David Hoag, a projectionist at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, which still uses a vertical change-over system like the Uptown’s. “All that film is out in the air—it gets easily scratched, picks up dirt, and it’s easily degraded. When we showed A Hard Day’s Night, it had just come from a platter, and it had all these sideways scratches.”
Loews Vice President for Operations Paul Wehrle admits that the chain is “looking to upgrade” the Uptown’s projection equipment. But he denies that the change is imminent, and he scoffs at worries that a platter would ruin the Uptown experience. In fact, he suggests, it’ll enhance it.
“There’s less of a chance of something going wrong,” he says, adding that the Uptown’s current system leads to interruptions and color shifts. “[The platter is] just the contemporary way of exhibiting films.”
And you’re welcome to it, says Gonzalez, who makes $12 an hour. “The image you will see on the screen, the sound quality you’ll hear, the professional presentation, lack of interruptions…will not be the same—not by any means,” he argues. The 15-year union veteran says he’ll quit when a platter is installed and managers are projecting.
Wehrle counters that Loews has “no intention of having nontrained people running that booth.” But according to Keith Madden, president of Local 224, Loews and other exhibition chains habitually reclassify ushers as supervisors so they can operate projectors without running afoul of labor laws.
“It’s a craft. It’s not rocket science, but you’re better off knowing what you’re doing,” says Madden. “Hollywood pays tens of millions to produce and distribute these films, and the whole business comes down to having the projectionist have the last cut.”
Wehrle hesitates for several seconds when asked if the Uptown’s union projectionists are on their way out. “I’m going to use dedicated projectionists to the extent we feel is necessary,” he finally says. “These guys are trying to make it into an exhibition issue, when what it really is for them is a jobs issue.”
THE IMMODERATE CENTER
Bill Wooby’s game of chicken with the D.C. government might finally be paying off—at least for him.
The city and Wooby have just signed a letter of intent that, if finalized, would give Wooby $1.6 million and end the 18-month battle over Wooby’s Millennium Arts Center (MAC)—a battle featuring suits and countersuits, waves of city inspectors, and a nasty feud between Wooby and D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.
Under the agreement, which must also be approved by MAC’s bankruptcy judge, Wooby would give up MAC’s lease for the Randall School Building, the ramshackle space at 65 I St. SW where the MAC director has attempted for four years to realize his vision of artists’ studios, cinemas, apartments, a restaurant, and exhibition and rehearsal space under one roof. The agreement also would absolve MAC of the $750,000 in rent and utilities it owes the city on the building.
According to Ambrose, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is contributing $600,000 toward Wooby’s settlement and is negotiating with the District to take over the Randall—more than a year after Wooby’s own deal with the Corcoran to share the building melted down.
Wooby has refused to comment on the arrangement, and for good reason: Although he’s poised to become a rich man, the future of the two dozen tenants in the Randall is far from certain. Under the letter of intent, their leases would be terminated immediately. Should D.C. turn around and sell the building to the Corcoran, the letter stipulates that MAC’s artists could stay—at $13 a square foot, and only after the Corcoran renovated the building into space for continuing-education classes and its College of Art & Design.
That process could take ages in a building that Corcoran President and Director David Levy has said needs at least $15 million worth of work. And longtime MAC tenant Judy Jashinsky, who currently pays $8 a square foot for studio space, says that many of the center’s artists won’t be able to afford the new rent, anyway.
“Thirteen dollars a square foot is too high for artists in Washington,” she says. “The artists are being used in a bigger game, and it’s just a very sad thing.”
For the moment, it appears that Wooby might be one of the winners. At the very least, he would be able to afford to move out of MAC himself: According to Jashinsky and other MAC tenants, Wooby’s been sleeping in the space for over a year.
“At first we thought he was being protective—attached to it in a way you wouldn’t be to a normal business,” says Jashinsky. “Now it’s just part of the whole sadness.”
ROOM TOO SPARE
Corcoran Chief Communications Officer Jan Rothschild seems to be going to a better place, too: After spending the past eight years flacking for some of the most critically savaged visual-art shows in District history, the 47-year-old has become an associate director at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Rothschild will be overseeing not only the Whitney’s communications and marketing efforts, but also its Web site, publications, visitor services, and retail. But first, she gets to spend some quality time with the creator of one of the Corcoran’s recent clunkers.
Judith Lieber? Nope, clunkier. That’s right: J. Seward Johnson Jr., whose “Beyond the Frame, Impressionism Revisited” was declared by more than one Washington-area arts writer to be the worst Corcoran show ever. Rothschild will be staying at Johnson’s Greenwich Village house until she finds her own place.
Actually, it’s just a room in the house. Which is under renovation. And doesn’t have any closets. “I have a hot plate plugged in over the sink,” says Rothschild. “What else would I have done? I don’t know anybody! I’m from Georgia! I’m a hick!” —Robert Lalasz
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