Historic Movie Projector at the Aztec Museum
By Bill Papich

When “The End” came on the screen as the last movie played at the Aztec Theater in the 1970s, it was not the end for one of the theater’s two projectors.

One of the historic “Super Simplex” movie projectors lives on as an exhibit at Aztec Museum. According to the projector’s serial number, it was made in the early 1950s.

“Most people have no idea what went on in the projection booth,” said Frank Bolkovac of Monroeville, Pa. The 65-year-old retired movie theater projectionist operated Super Simplex projectors for 49 years. It got hot in the projection booth. The light in the Super Simplex that projected film onto the screen heated up to 6,000 degrees. Old photographs of Super Simplex operators show them in projection booths with their shirts off.

The light came from two carbon rods in the projector, similar to welding rods, placed tip-to-tip, with a precise gap between the tips. When electricity was passed through the rods and across the gap a very bright arc of electricity was produced.

 

As the carbon rods burned down, a motor advanced them closer together, so the gap between the rods kept the same distance for a steady arc of electricity. About four inches of carbon rod would burn up to play a 15 inch reel of 35 mm film.

The Super Simplex projector at Aztec Museum had a twin. Two projectors were needed because a film reel held only enough film for 15-18 minutes of play, so when a reel of film on one projector ran out, the other projector was turned on to play the next reel of film.

A feature length movie required several reels of film, so the projectionist had to switch from one projector to the other several times. The projectionist also had to replace the carbon rods in each projector as the rods burned up.

It is unknown what happened to Aztec Theater’s other Super Simplex projector.

The first Simplex projectors were produced in New York City in 1909. The improved Super Simplex projector came out about 1930, said Tom Wilson, a movie projector collector in Ohio, who checked on the serial number of the Aztec Theater projector.

“You see a lot of variations of the projector,” Wilson said. “They were pretty much just a workhorse projector.”

Today’s movies are played digitally, without film, on movie projectors that use a special type of xenon gas discharge lamp. The lamp produces light by passing electricity through ionized xenon under high pressure.

Thousands of Super Simplex projectors were produced. Bolkovac said some film collectors still use them and some projectors are in home theaters.

“If you took care of them, they ran forever,” he said.


Article appeared in the Talon, February 16-28, 2014. Volume 22, Number 4.

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