You probably didn’t know Steve Livernash, but you almost certainly bathed in his light.
Livernash, who died Monday at 77 after a battle with cancer, was among the last of the old-school Boston movie projectionists, a practitioner of a dark and wonderful art that, outside of institutions and a handful of revival theaters, has gone the way of the rotary phone. He worked everywhere from the Combat Zone to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, but during the final chapter of his career he was the main projectionist at the Harvard Film Archive, which, with the 2017 death of film programmer David Pendleton, has lost two of its pillars.
A lifetime Arlington resident, Livernash began spinning film reels in the final days of the old Sack Cinema empire, and he saw the Boston film scene through the rise of multiplexes, the replacement of reels with platters, the coming of home video, the 2001 crushing of the local projectionist’s union, and the death knell that was digital projection.
He saw and screened it all, he worked at just about every theater, and he passed the craft of proper film presentation on to a new generation of Jedi masters who ply their trade at the Coolidge, the Brattle, the Somerville, the HFA, and elsewhere. For those acolytes and for others, Livernash was a font of oral history — the man to go to for tales of Boston’s storied and gritty movie-theater past.
I was lucky to have a long chat with him back in 2011 while working on a story about multiplex projection. Here’s an edited taste of Steve Livernash, raconteur. Hold up a carbon arc in his memory.
“I started working 16mm for the NYU Cinema Studies department, and when I came back to Boston, I sought out the projectionist’s union. I started working [here] in 1974. You begin with the grade E jobs, which are pornography, and one step up the ladder takes you to drive-in movie theaters, undesirable because you can’t get a full day’s pay. I was the last operator at the Medford drive-in. The grade C jobs would be the art cinemas like the Brattle and the Coolidge. I worked pretty regularly at the Orson Welles until it burned down in 1986. Lots of bad prints, a different film every day.
“And then I guess I got as far as the grade B jobs, neighborhood theaters. Grade A jobs were the first-run theaters, but by the time I had the seniority, the old-fashioned downtown theaters were closing right and left.
“The Copley Place opened as a nine-plex and later was enlarged to 11. I was earning $12 an hour for running nine screens. In time we had one guy running 16 screens and one guy running 20 screens. Things would frequently be out of focus and a great length of time would elapse before somebody would deal with it.
“As multiplexes got bigger and bigger, the quality went down and down, because a projector-and-platter arrangement is harder on the film. Count the number of rollers the film has to go through; the potential for damage is so much greater. Every time a print was made up and then broken down, lazy projectionists would cut a few more frames off, so you’d have glitches where one reel ended and the next began. And ‘interlocking’ was when they would run one print through two projectors, attaching leader and stretching it across the booth.
“The projectionists union was pretty weak. There were only 50 members by then and the public would not honor picket lines. Shortly after September 2001, the projectionists were locked out in Boston and replaced by management. It was a really crazy idea because the college grads who were hired as managers, the last thing they wanted to do was get grease on their fingers. And now that multiplexes are going to video, the actual work has disappeared. The programming is done from the manager’s office and you just tell the satellite what film is showing in which theater.
“I’d have to withhold judgment on digital video, because I saw it and used it during its experimental phases. An experienced person could see that the quality was poorer on the video than on the 35mm prints, but the technology has improved. I see something like ‘Avatar,’ though, and I think the 3-D is a stunt. But the teenagers and college students who go to movies haven’t seen the better quality, so they’re perfectly content with what they have. It’s almost like the public has adjusted down to the lower quality, and nobody notices.”
With Livernash’s passing, an era passes, too. In recent years the torch has been handed to a die-hard younger generation, including the Somerville’s David Kornfeld, who hosts the theater’s annual 70mm festival, and Nick Lazzaro of the Coolidge. They and others keep the lamp burning, literally. But it was Steve Livernash who saw the old ways out with humor and class.