Published January 1, 2010
It took me two and a half days on a two-lane road to get from Hermosa Beach, Calif., to Aspen, Colo., in 1952. I rented a room in the Jerome Hotel for $5 a night with a bathroom down the hall. The thermometer hovered around zero all day. The sky was so clear you could see at least halfway to Las Vegas from the top of Ajax.
I finished a day of filming untracked powder right under Aspen’s two chairlifts. You could do that in those days. It was time to get over to the Wheeler Opera House to show my latest movie, “Wandering Skis.”
This was my first big showing of one of my ski films in the Opera House. Before, I had always shown them in Steve Knowlton’s Golden Horn Bar and Restaurant and then passed the hat during intermission.
It was still dark at the Opera House except for one 40-watt light bulb in the lobby. I started the long climb up the four flights of stairs to the projection room that was above the balcony. Holding my tape recorder in one hand, I carried in the other hand a suitcase with my two rolls of 16mm silent film and my two rolls of tape-recorded background music that I would play during the show.
I groped my way up the three flights of stairs in the dark shadows of another 40-watt light bulb in the projection room on the fourth floor.
I met the projectionist and neither one of us could figure out how he could afford to buy a house in town on his $2-an-hour wages when houses already cost almost $2,000.
We discussed how the evening would work. I told him I would set up a table on the stage with my tape deck plugged into his public address system and I would control the volume of the music and turn it down whenever I narrated. Once we set both of our volumes, he didn’t need to do anything except try and keep his projector in focus. This was a difficult job because the light was caused by two pieces of carbon burning at a supposedly predetermined rate of speed. This light was focused on a mirror that reflected it in the opposite direction through a couple of condensing lenses, then through the film and finally through the primary lens and onto the screen. It was a wobbly image at best, but it was the best available at that time in movie projectors.
I explained to him, “No two projectors run at the same rate of speed. So I will occasionally fast forward my recorder or shut it off so I could keep the music in sync with the film.”
The ticket sellers showed up next and I explained, “Yes, we’re trying to charge as much as $1.50 a ticket. Yes, there will be the normal discount for ski instructors—the same discount that the local hardware store and grocery store gives to them.”
About 10 minutes before it was time to start the show, the theater was two-thirds full—time for one final discussion with the projectionist so our cues would be the same.
Standing in the projection room, I heard some wind-driven hail hitting the fourth floor window. But the “hail” had a certain rhythm to it. Looking out the window I saw a man’s face staring in at me. His hand was holding a coin that he was tapping on the window. Remember, it was the fourth floor, dark outside and temperatures of 4 below zero.
With the projectionist’s help I pried open the ancient window. The first words of the man at the window were, “I really want to see this movie and I don’t have the $1.50 to pay for it. Is there any chance you can let me sneak in the window?”
What could I say? “Anyone who can and will climb up four stories on the outside of a building on a 4-below-zero night is welcome to see any of my movies free,” I said.
When he was safely inside and thawed out enough to talk without shivering he said, “Can I holler down for my girlfriend to climb up the rest of the way? She’s waiting outside on a ledge on the third floor.”
I said “Of course.”
So she did, and then they did.