From the vantage point of the projection booth, Charles Aidikoff has been a witness to the history of Hollywood.
“I’m the oldest active projectionist in the whole wide world,” says the spry Aidikoff, who celebrated his 90th birthday Feb. 18 and still runs the Charles Aidikoff Theater in Beverly Hills, along with the help of his son and grandson.
After getting his start as an usher at the RKO silent movie house in Coney Island where his father worked as a projectionist, he got his union card with the help of his dad.
While earning 35¢ an hour as an usher, his father told him, “Don’t be a schmuck, become a projectionist!” since he was getting paid $70 a week to handle the cellulose nitrate reels.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1955 and went to the local union office to find work. “They stuck me in the Fine Arts and they were playing ‘Fantasia’ day after day,” he says. “I can’t stand to work in a theater.”
So, he set out on his own and started his own screening room in 1966, originally on Sunset. In those days, most of the big studios had their own screening rooms. But many producers needed somewhere to screen their dailies and show off rough cuts.
A parade of stars, directors and executives have sat in the dim light of his screen over the years. But Aidikoff sees it as part of his job to protect their secrets — including from them.
When showing dailies and rough cuts was a big part of his business, he was commonly asked “What do you think of the film?”
His answer: “I don’t. I’m a neutral person. I just project the film.”
Today, there’s less and less film in the Aidikoff screening room, which Charles co-owns with his son Gregg and employs his grandson Josh. The always welcome snacks, remain, however.
Along with the two giant Simplex machines, the room is also outfitted with a digital projector and an array of electronics.
While the projection room back in Coney Island must have resembled a furnace, the booth at the Aidikoff looks like the bridge of a submarine.
“I love the new stuff,” Aidikoff said, pointing out the digital equipment he’s installed in recent years. Soon, he predicts, the all the old film stuff will be cleared out. “I give film five to ten more years.”
But for as long as distributors are still shipping reels, Aidikoff does have one piece of advice: “When they send film into a theater, write on reel one how it’s supposed to be projected. Is it scope or 1.85? Dolby or Dolby SR?”
After all, he adds, after the long process of making a movie, “the projectionist is the one guy who can still fuck it up.”
Which brings him directly to his second point: “Why hasn’t the Academy honored one projectionist in all these years? They don’t have one projectionist in the Academy.”
He adds, “I want to be a member of the Academy. There’s no one older than me.”