Few people would have seen more movies than Aaron Swank of Newcomerstown during the 1956-86 era. He was kept busy running the projector at some drive-in or movie theater every week. Since Aaron served as a relief operator, he worked in Newcomerstown, Newark, Coshocton, Mt. Vernon, and Cambridge for several different companies.
When working, his job was to take care of all equipment at the theaters including projectors, wiring, and speakers at the drive-ins. Only members of the Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators were permitted operator responsibility. Knowing when and how to change the lens for different movies was very important.
35 mm movie reels at that time were received in multiple canisters placed in one box. Since each roll was only 18 minutes long, there were usually five or six large rolls included for a movie. A two-minute warning was given the operator to change rolls so there would be no break in the movie. This consisted of a couple of circles in the upper right-hand corner. Sometimes today you can still see those in an old movie on television.
After a reel was run, it then had to be rewound for showing the next evening or to be sent on to its next stop. Some were rewound by hand but later they used an automatic rewinder and then placed the reels in order in compartments for ease of using the following night. Once in a while his young daughter Betsy went to the movies with Dad and had the privilege of rewinding the films.
After seeing all those films, it seemed only natural to ask Aaron about his favorites. At the top of his list were Westerns, especially those starring John Wayne and Randolph Scott. The Shootist, the last film Wayne starred in was a favorite.
Drive-ins were popular spots and the Heath Auto Theatre was a favorite of Aaron’s. The projection booth was on top of the concession stand with a 465′ screen and room for 600 cars. When working the drive-ins, dust was always a major factor as the projector and film had to be kept clean to run smoothly.
Another favorite place to operate the projector was at Starlite Drive-in near Newcomerstown, which opened on June 24, 1949. Their projection room with the popular Brenkert Enarc projector was partially underground. They had a wooden screen tower with a canvas screen and could park 300 cars. A tornado hit town in 1955 and did considerable damage to the screen so a new cement block tower was built.
Here you could see a movie for 44 cents and children under 12 were free. They continued to operate until the end of the season in 1986 when the screen was demolished. Now it is a housing development with Star Lite Drive running down its center.
At the drive-in theaters, Betsy placed the speakers on the poles in the spring and helped take them off in the fall. Taking them off was a little dangerous as often wasps would make their nests in the speakers during the summer. Betsy said she undid the screw on the top with one hand and had a can of wasp spray in the other.
Some evenings, his wife Mary, daughter Betsy and perhaps a friend would go along to the drive-in with him. They would bring along popcorn and kool-aid as they curled up on blankets in the back of their VW van.
Many will remember Mr. Swank from his twenty-seven years of teaching history and political science at Madison High School and Buckeye Vocational School. Playing trombone in bands on the weekends gave him great pleasure also, especially the good times with the Rich Simcox Band.
“I got to meet a lot of nice people I never would have met,” smiled Aaron. However, on his musical evenings, he had opportunity to meet Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagon. His students always enjoyed hearing of how Mr. Swank passed up by choice almost meeting two men who were to become president of the United States with a simple, “No.”
As you can tell, operating the projector at one of these theaters was a busy occupation. You had to stay in the booth the entire time in case there would be a break in the film, a ghost shadow, or another problem. Of course, the best nights were those when everything ran smoothly…but those didn’t happen very often.
You can still enjoy a drive-in movie close-by today at the Lynn Auto Theatre in Strasburg. They have two screens and great choices for your watching enjoyment. Come as you are in your family car!