September 20, 2019
In last week’s column, I described how I often find myself falling down rabbit holes while doing genealogical research. This week I thought I’d describe the results of one such detour. Lately I’ve been doing some descendancy research on my mother’s maternal line. Mom’s grandfather was the child of a Utah polygamist, and, as would be expected, this grandfather had lots of siblings, full, half and even three quarter ones. My goal was to follow each of the many siblings and their descendants forward as far as I could since knowing who all of those descendants were and are can help in confirming DNA matches and can sometimes result in contacts with long lost branches of the family.
Everything was going well; I was finding lots of distant cousins and confirming how they all fit in the family tree. My goal was simply to confirm family relationships using censuses, birth and death certificates, obituaries and other newspaper articles that are readily available online. I wasn’t planning to research each individual in great depth as part of this project. As I was accessing a 1910 census for the household of one of my great grandfather’s nieces, I noticed that her son was listed with the occupation of projectionist – movie theater. Knowing a distant cousin’s occupation was interesting but not really something that I usually would follow up on; however, in this case, the occupation was just too tantalizing to merely note and move on.
I’m sure that my mother and her siblings never even heard of Edwin Earl Bennett, that long ago projectionist, but if they had, I’m also sure they’d have wanted to know more about him. My mother’s side of the family has always been fascinated by the movies; even when they were poor during the depression, my mother and her sisters would scrape together the dime (a nickel for the movie ticket and a nickel for a candy bar) it took to feed their weekly movie-viewing obsession. Even now, my own sons and their cousins are all big movie buffs, so, of course, I was off down a rabbit hole after Earl, as he seemed to be called in most records.
My first step was to find out whether being a movie projectionist was just a sometime occupation or whether it was his career. Since the backbone of American research is the federal census, I started by checking each census he should appear in between his birth in 1893 and his death in 1940. I quickly located him in the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 census. In each of the censuses, except the 1900 one when he was only seven years old, Earl was identified as a movie theater projectionist in Southern California in either Los Angeles or Pasadena. Further records such as a World War I Draft registration card, marriage, city directory entries and birth records for his children also all list Earl as a movie projectionist
Working in movie theaters was definitely Earl’s occupation for his entire working life, and as a movie fan myself, I needed to know more about what that entailed. A quick and dirty search on Wikipedia and a few specialty movie occupations websites gave me the basics of what Earl’s working life was like. By 1910, he was already working in movie theaters at a time when many of the early projectors were still hand-cranked. Apparently, there was a knack involved in keeping the projector moving at a constant speed so that the film didn’t speed up or slow down. Perhaps a young seventeen year-old arm was strong enough to keep the film moving smoothly for the length of a typical ten minute or so film of that period.
As movies evolved and became ever more popular, projectionists’ jobs became more skilled. The projectors were large, bulky machines that required on-the-fly repairs to keep the show on track. Projectionists had to be able to splice film quickly, replace blown-out bulbs in projectors and seamlessly change from one projector to another as films became longer and required more than one reel to play the entire movie. There was even an element of danger involved since the large light bulbs used in projectors sometimes exploded, injuring or even killing nearby projectionists. Then there was the film itself that was nitrate based in the early years and very flammable. Sometimes the film would spontaneously burst into flames, hence those round metal containers that everyone associates with film. They weren’t just to keep the reel of film safely wound but were actually a safety precaution designed to keep the film from bursting into flames and burning down the entire theater.
In that heyday of the movies when Earl was running the show (literally), the movies were a weekly or even twice weekly escape from everyday life for many people, and the theaters themselves reflected that. One theater that records show Earl working at was The Strand Beautiful in Pasadena. When it was built in 1914, it advertised its amenities as including “forced cool air” that must have been a relief on hot summer days in a time when no one had personal air conditioning and boasted of a 900-seat auditorium with plush seats and art deco décor including an onyx and mahogany lined lobby decorated with carved Corinthian columns interspersed with friezes of musical cupids. It also had a large projection booth with room for six projectionists at a time, who staffed the four state-of-the art projectors. Earl must have had work buddies to help pass the time when everything was working smoothly and everyone had seen the show a dozen times already. His family was probably proud of the work he did, and undoubtedly got free passes to all the movies. Even during the lean years of the depression, Earl’s projectionist work went on; he must have taken pride in keeping the movies running so that everyday folks could escape from the bleak conditions outside that air-cooled theater.
Earl’s career spanned the era from the early silent movies to the talkies to classic movies like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. I’ll probably never know if he enjoyed all of those movies that he projected or if it was just part of the job to him, whether he was impressed with the luxurious movie palaces where he spent his working life or became blasé about the extravagant settings, but I’m glad to have fallen into that rabbit hole that led me to learn something about the kind of life he must have lived. No, I didn’t add any new names to the family tree or make any breakthroughs on figuring out who someone’s parents were, but I spent a little while thinking about a lifestyle that no longer exists for either projectionists or the people who found joy in the films he projected. I have a clearer picture about a relative, albeit a fairly distant one, and the life he led. For me, that’s the point of genealogy and one of the great benefits of taking a detour to chase down a rabbit hole.
Researcher/Director at Large