Performing the role of ‘magician’

ODT visual journalist Craig Baxter first met Gary Gutschlag in December 1977. Craig was 8 years old. His father, Ray, had somehow got tickets to an advance screening of Star Wars at the Octagon Theatre. A friend of Ray’s had organised for them to visit the theatre’s projection booth and Gutschlag gave young Craig some film strips from the movie Sleeping Dogs. It was a magical moment that has stuck with Craig, who continues to love the movies. After 54 years on the reels, Gutschlag stepped out from behind the dancing lights of the projector for the last time on Wednesday. He talks to Craig about a lifetime making magic.

Gary Gutschlag is clear about the role of a cinema projectionist.

"Your job is to be a magician and not be seen."

An honest sort of joker, Gutschlag’s cinema journey began as a 12-year-old in Gore.

He was the ice-cream boy, selling cones from a tray when cinemas were the social epicentres of communities.

It probably goes without saying, but it was a different time.

"How many people would we have given gastro to in those days? Because the ice cream would have been handled about half a dozen times before it got to the customer. And then if they didn’t sell, they’re put in the freezer for the next day. And there’s no bags, no gloves, and I think na, yeah."

Retiring cinema projectionist Gary Gutschlag weaves his magic on his last day at Dunedin’s Rialto...
Retiring cinema projectionist Gary Gutschlag weaves his magic on his last day at Dunedin’s Rialto Cinema, where he has worked since the Hoyts multiplex closed, this week. Photo: Craig Baxter

At 16 he got his first projection job, at Cinerama in Christchurch, and dropped out of school.

"It was the hype of cinema, and I thought, ‘great, I’ll see all these movies’."

What he did not know then was you don’t actually see a movie when you are the projectionist.

In the old days you were too busy changing, threading, rewinding and changing again reels of film. Later, platter systems that semi-automated projectors led to multiplexes, so you were too busy running from theatre to theatre checking there were no problems.

It didn’t matter. As soon as he stepped into the dimly lit projection room, surrounded by the clacking of film reels and the anticipation of audiences below, he was smitten.

Dunedin’s picture palaces, from top, the Octagon, the St James and the Century in their heydays....
Dunedin’s picture palaces, from top, the Octagon, the St James and the Century in their heydays. Photos: ODT files
It was the kind of work that appealed to someone who "hated" dealing with the public.

A two-year apprenticeship, or 1250 screenings, was required to become a licensed projectionist.

Licence acquired, he relieved in cinemas around the country and did a stint in Melbourne before landing a job in Dunedin.

The early days were filled with the challenges of working with traditional film projectors and reels — a far cry from the compact digital technology taken for granted today.

Handling epic films like Ryan’s Daughter and Dr Zhivago on 70mm reels — there were about 12 reels for each one — was heavy work, and probably contributed to his current back problems.

But he was young then. And a showman.

That’s what he misses the most about the old days. The showmanship.

"You created your own show basically — you put your slides, advertising, shorts on, you put interval where you thought it should go. Downstairs you did your promotions.

"Now you come in, watch a movie and go away again."

The 1970s and 1980s were, in his opinion, "absolutely" the best era to be involved in cinema.

With one TV channel and no streaming sites or video shops, if you wanted to see a movie you went to the cinema.

"They were full houses and you had a lot of regulars coming in."

Photo: Craig Baxter
Photo: Craig Baxter
He reckons the most popular movies he screened would have been The Sound of Music, "of course", and "all the big 70mms — Lawrence of ArabiaGone with the Wind — they were great, big productions".

His own favourite film is not one he screened.

"I like Shoot ‘Em Up. I love Shoot ‘Em Up. What Clive Owen can do with a carrot is just incredible."

But that was later, long after stints at most of Dunedin’s picture palaces. The Century and St James were tremendous, but one has a special place in his heart.

"The Octagon was of course my favourite."

The projection room was set out nicely. The Phillips projectors were water cooled with a big water bath up front. They took 70mm film.

He had his own toilet, and an outside door to let the breeze — and police — come in.

"Yeah, the police used to go up to the Methodist Mission carpark and look over the Octagon and then jump the fence on to my little landing and come watch movies."

He had a little oven, a chaise longue and a TV.

Sometimes movie intervals might even have been altered to accommodate things happening on television, such as an All Blacks game here and there. Maybe.

The staff at the Octagon were a great bunch and their camaraderie was unmatched. Most of them were now gone.

"It was a really great time."

In 2017 Gary Gutschlag received the New Zealand Motion Picture Industry Council’s "Unsung Hero"...
In 2017 Gary Gutschlag received the New Zealand Motion Picture Industry Council’s "Unsung Hero" award for his long contribution to the industry. Photo: Peter McIntosh
His recollection of standing watching the bricks of the old theatre being pulled down to be replaced with the concrete slabs of a new Hoyts multiplex, is punctuated by the words "... bad. Bad, bad, bad".

While this author refused to set foot in the shiny new multiplex for a full year out of protest at closures of other movie theatres around the same time, Gutschlag did not have that luxury.

It turned out Hoyts was a new era of enjoyment for him.

While partly having stayed in the projectionist booth to avoid management, he nevertheless was involved in the employment of more than a few good keen cinephiles.

Seeing the success of people such as Stuff television and film critic James Croot and film and television editor Jabez Olssen, who has worked extensively with Sir Peter Jackson, both Hoyts usher and candy bar alumni from the 1990s, brought him joy.

"It really makes me proud. Because I class the cinemas as a stepping stone to work. And you can’t make a living being an assistant, a candy bar person or something like that. The success of some of the people who were there is amazing."

His most memorable night in film was also at Hoyts, though not really to do with film.

It was when someone got into the projection room and emptied the contents of a fire extinguisher over everything.

"Ah, I cried. It was just like a white Christmas. We blew up about three vacuum cleaners that night and one air compressor. It was unreal. We ended up getting a specialist crew down with their own bath and they stripped every projector and every sound tower down to its nuts and bolts and washed it all. It was, ah ... yeah, it was sad. We had to get it off the film and everything. But we did screen the next day."

Cinema’s evolution has brought with it now the end of projectionists.

"From carbon arcs, to zeniths, to 35mm to digital projectors. I mean I like it, digital, fibre. It takes 18 mins to load a film in now. Auckland creates a playlist, puts the ads and trailers in and it’s all scheduled — it’s just not personalised; you can’t touch it.

"Projectionists are done."

With his departure there will be "about four" projectionists left in the country.

The idea that people paid money to "look inside someone else’s brain, at their imagination"...
The idea that people paid money to "look inside someone else’s brain, at their imagination" fascinated Gutschlag, pictured at the Century Theatre in 1993 just before it closed. Photo: ODT files
He is willing to risk upsetting the remaining few with his thoughts on whether digital quality is as good as  film.

"I’ll get shut down by old projectionists but OK, the era of film and all that is nice, but for public viewing now digital is crisp and clear and it’s the same from one show to the other. You know, 3200 hours on a projector you get a warning light to change a bulb, but this just keeps going. The show goes on."

And now he must go.

"I’ll become a full-time carer for my wife. I’ll moan and groan to her about my back. I will probably die before the week is up," he jokes.

He does not have any plans to visit any movie theatre.

He might watch Indiana Jones at home this weekend.

"Ah, I suppose. If I can sneak in, I’d like to see Beekeeper. That’s my type of movie.

"Ultraviolence. The you-can’t-take-it-seriously type of stuff. Entertaining."

He is discerning. He saw John Wick and didn’t like it. Too long, he says.

"I get critical. I like being at home where I can talk and say, ‘that’s rubbish’.

"I hate the cinema theatre with someone eating chips and commenting."

"Nope, it’s not my place."