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Weirs Drive-In projectionist keeps screens picture perfect

Last modified: 7/30/2013 12:29:04 AM
As the sun began to set over Weirs Drive-In Theater in Laconia on Thursday night, Paul Rouillard kept his eye on a lighted telephone pole behind one of the theater’s four projection screens.

“When that light gets wicked bright, I can reflect the picture,” said Rouillard, the theater’s projectionist. “You get a lot of people that get upset, and they say, ‘Turn the movie on, turn the movie on.’. . . But I gotta wait, and as soon as that light goes on, I start the first movie.”

About 8:30 p.m. Rouillard determined the light was bright enough and retired to his projection room overlooking the screens. He flipped on one projector’s bright lamp, followed by its motor and sound, and The Conjuring began to play on the theater’s back center screen.

Within 15 minutes, four of this summer’s films were being projected for hundreds of moviegoers relaxing in lawn chairs and truck beds. Rouillard stepped onto the roof surrounding the projection room and studied each of the four screens.

“Now you come out and make sure it’s all good. See, I got a little bit of a black line at the top of that screen; I can fix that,” he said. “You basically hang around now and hope you don’t hear a (screeching noise). . . . You know the sounds of the machines after a while, and if you hear the wrong click, you just know.”

Rouillard certainly has the experience to judge such things. The Laconia resident has been the primary projectionist for the Weirs Drive-In on and off for the past 33 years. He works every night of the week during the theater’s season, which extends roughly from May until Labor Day.

During those months, he helps out with all aspects of running a drive-in movie theater. He readies the concession stand area, performs maintenance on anything that breaks and assists with directing cars to the screen of their choice.

On Thursday he fixed the Sierra Mist spout on the soda machine twice and sent a parking attendant to inform a white minivan it could not park in the first two rows of vehicles.

But his main workplace always remains the projection room.

“They call this my dungeon up here,” Rouillard said as he began setting up the night’s film reels. “You don’t want to be up here when this place is all running. It gets to about 100 degrees.”

The heat results from four projectors, some dating to the 1950s, running reels of film at a rate of 24 miniature frames per second, or about 48 feet of film per minute. Each machine contains lamps ranging from 3,000 to 7,000 watts to magnify the frames up to 6 million times on the screens hundreds of feet away.

Rouillard took the beginning of the film reel for Grown Ups 2 and expertly threaded it for projection: across the room, into the projector, through a clamp, across the floor, over and under several gears.

“I’ve got quite a lot of film here,” said Rouillard, pointing to the other reels of film stacked around the room. “You ever see a fishing reel when you go deep-sea fishing, all tangled? A film can do that. After you’ve done it so many times, you can get it untangled but if you haven’t done it a few times, it can be a real pain.”

The Laconia theater, which opened in 1946, is one of the last remaining drive-ins in the country that has not converted to digital projection. Rouillard, who believes older machines are more reliable than newer models, enjoys working in the past. The two best pictures, he said, are shown on the old homemade projection screens instead of the newer, technologically engineered ones.

After Rouillard set up the eight films that were shown Thursday night, he descended to the large, circular parking lot where patrons were setting up camp around their cars. Families with children produced frisbees and tennis balls to keep the young ones occupied until the start of the movies, while older folks tailgated out of the back of SUVs.

Rouillard said the theater is very lax on rules for the viewers.

“They can do pretty much whatever they want for all we care, as long as they’re not hurting the people next to them,” he said. “They’re here to have fun at a reasonable price. We want to see them enjoying themselves so they come back.”

The atmosphere provides for a good time for the moviegoers and an interesting night for the theater’s employees. Rouillard said he has dealt with it all during his years at the theater, including lost children, lost cars, overly amorous teenagers and a family of bears who wanted to watch a movie, too.

His favorite memories, though, are simply interacting with the people.

“The people are great,” he said. “You get to laugh a lot on this job. I’ll go out and talk to people before the movies start. I get people who know my name and say hi to me every year.”

After making his rounds with the patrons, ticket sellers and parking attendants Thursday, Rouillard stuck to his projection room for much of the night. Kevin Baldi, a volunteer projectionist whose relative Pat Baldi owns the theater, helped with some of the tasks and kept Rouillard company during the slow hours when the movies were running smoothly.

“We don’t really have to (stay up here), but we just do it more or less to be here for any problems,” Baldi explained as he stood on the roof outside the projection room. “As the expression goes, we’ve got hours of sheer boredom and if something breaks, moments of terror.”

(Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or mflanagan@cmonitor.com.)


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