From arc lamps to laser: A projectionist’s journey

Since the 1960s, Fred Fullerton has been a feature in some of the best cinemas — including Disney’s own one. This June he says goodbye after 54 years in the booth. CT tracks his time in the business.


It was the summer of 1965, when the tills were alive with the sound of Julie Christie ringing up the box office, and a young Fred Fullerton — aged just 15 —  landed his first job in the cinema, leaving school and starting as a probationary projectionist at the Gaumont Cinema in Dingle South Liverpool, in England’s north-west. Thanks to his age, Fred clutched a signed letter from his mother allowing him to work with X certificate movies. The cinema was installed with a pair of the best-looking projectors ever — Gaumont Kalee 21s with elephant (foot) base and lightmaster carbon arc lamps on 20 (single reel) minute changeovers. This was the classic grounding for a future projectionist. There was an air of modernity in the cinema, including the projectormatic automation system that worked by putting a small piece of foil strip on the edge of the movie at the appropriate place near the end of the reel. This foil, on making contact on a pick-up device would complete a circuit. The projectormatic drum would move one line, which was pinned up to hit a micro switch which started the incoming projector. The next pulse would revolve the drum to the next line, which was then programmed (with pins) to hit the changeover shutter and sound changeover micro-switches, continuing on throughout the movie. Futuristic stuff.

At the time, the projectionists in the Mersey area all wanted a job at the city centre cinema, the 2,000-seater Odeon on the London Road. It often ran roadshow 70mm films alongside live stage shows, including playing host to an up and coming four-piece called The Beatles. Opposite the Odeon was the Gaumont that ran continuous shows all day. Five minutes away was the Futurist (part of ABC cinemas) also playing 70mm roadshows. And across the road from The Futurist was the huge ABC Forum running continuous shows. Beside the Futurist was the independent Scala cinema, with xenon lamps — one of the earliest cinemas to use xenon. Also in the city centre were the Jacey, the Majestic, the Essildo and the Tatler News theatre. It was a projectionist’s mecca and, over the years, Fred worked in several venues including the aforementioned Odeon and ABC Cinemas.

Leaving Liverpool

Jumping to the early 1970s, and a move up to Lancashire saw Fred in the Focus Cinema, Skelmersdale. Formerly known as the Oscar Cinema, the American Academy complained over the use of the name, so it had to change. Fred’s flash of inspiration produced “Focus Cinemas”, for which he was paid £70. Nice work if you can get it…

Fred enjoyed his time at the Focus, apart from one ghoulish period in 1973 when they played “The Exorcist” for three weeks. While that in itself was not unusual, strange activity that started in the venue at the same time certainly was. So convinced of poltergeists were staff, that a member of the church was brought in to exorcise the cinema.

Moving into the 1980s and Fred headed south in England to the Odeon Reading as chief projectionist, staying there for two years. It was a typical cinema of the time with many long-standing staff. The Odeon Reading was equipped with the ability to run “double head”, whereby the picture and sound are not married together — a feature often found in preview theatres. Apart from running double head films to trial audiences, Fred also previewed “Out of Africa”, giving him the opportunity to meet Sir Richard Attenborough, as well as Alan Parker when he ran “Mississippi”.

Staying inside the Odeon fold, Fred soon got the opportunity to move to the West End  where he became the chief at the Odeon Haymarket (now owned by Vue). The Odeon Haymarket had old Victoria 10 projectors and mainly ran arthouse material, including “The Last Emperor” in 70mm which Fred found a visually breath-taking work.

A move to the famous Empire Leicester Square soon beckoned, as technical manager of the Empire and Plaza (Piccadilly). In his 10 years there Fred met most of the big directors — Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Lewis Gilbert, Tony and Ridley Scott to name just a few. They showed a number of 70mm films at both the Empire and the Plaza. The Empire was the first cinema in the UK to have Dolby SRD installed for “Batman Returns” and later the first cinema to have DTS installed for “Jurassic Park”.

The Empire hosted a large number of the big premieres, including the Royal Film Premiere for “Titanic”, shown on an epic scale in 70mm. In preparation for James Cameron’s showstopper, the Empire closed for three days of rehearsals with both the director and the producer on site.

Welcome to Mickey’s own movie theatre

In 1999, Disney was building its new UK head office building in London’s Hammersmith. Fred was approached to run the state of the art preview cinema as chief projectionist. It is a role that, on retirement, he will have done for more than 20 years and a job that is one of the highlights of a long career. Unsurprisingly, Fred has seen a lot of industry talent come and watch a movie in this theatre over that time. He is quick to thank his boss Garry Rosen for his great support, saying that together they made a great team on the many high-profile presentations they ran.

While Fred has been in his role at Disney, projection technologies have evolved. Having started with 35mm projectors on changeover, this quickly transferred to digital projection. Fred is enthusiastic about new technical innovations: “Digital brings with it a whole set of rules that had to be learnt as you went along,” he says “As well as all the digital changes, I’m a great fan of Dolby 7.1 sound that the theatre is equipped with. When that setup is perfectly EQ’d, it is the best sound that you can have in the cinema.”

The business of change

Fred’s working life has found him always in the vanguard of an industry in transition — and his passion for the art of projection saw him serve on the CTC committee for more than 19 years. He has also been a member of the Projected Picture Trust for nearly 30 years — reflecting the fact that he started in the days of carbon arcs and changeovers in vast theatres. In his working life he has seen the sub-division of cinemas into smaller screens, the introduction of xenon lamps, the new-fangled multiplexes, single working and digital — sufficient change for most people. He had an amazing time, working in normal cinemas, 20-minute changeovers and 70mm 20-minute changeovers — both with carbon arcs. In the early days if a film was in scope, so was the trailer, so the team had to manage changeovers constantly during the advert and trailer reels. Equally if the main film was in 70mm, the projector had to be converted from 35mm to 70mm as well as being laced up during the first reel. It was a different time, but through it all Fred says “I’ve met and worked with many amazing people in a 54-year career. I am blessed — I’ve had a wonderful time in our industry.”

And what is Fred going to do now that he is retiring? Go to the cinema of course.


About Peter Knight

Peter Knight is the Commissioning Editor for the Cinema Technology Magazine, along with the Managing Editor for the Mad Cornish Projectionist website. He is still a working projectionist and AV technician with an interest in all things projected both in traditional cinema and elsewhere too. Peter has been running his own business since 2017.

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