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Stanley
Written by Peter Hanson
Photographed by Leif Zurmuhlen

‘About 90 percent of this job is just walking around and turning things on,” observes Stanley Blakeman, a projectionist at the Spectrum 7 Theatres in Albany.

Blakeman slides out of the multiplex’s smallest projection booth—the one he calls “the coffin”—then walks through an upstairs men’s room to reach one of the other booths. For about an hour, he zips back and forth, activating the projectors for each of the seven theaters. According to a pedometer he once strapped on, Blakeman walks the equivalent of about eight miles each shift.

This wiry man with long, shaggy hair and a hermit’s dense beard does his job with practiced ease, gracefully threading strips of film through the various pulleys and gates of the projection system. He even reacts to a crisis with aplomb. The Italian for Beginners print in theater No. 3 snaps right after he starts the projector, so Blakeman grabs a splicer, joins the two broken parts, and rethreads the picture, taking less than a minute to do so. Then he peers through an observation window at the patrons below him. “It’s rare that anybody will thank the projectionist,” he says. “It’s rare than anybody knows there’s somebody there.”

Despite his hirsute appearance and the solitude of his job, Blakeman isn’t a recluse. He’s been married to jewelry designer/hospital worker Merricat Blakeman for more than 30 years, and he’s also a prolific writer. He calls his books “psychological bildungsromans,” borrowing the German term for books about personal growth, and his oeuvre includes seven novels. Although the first was completed in 1974, none has been published.

Born in Rawlings, Wyo., Blakeman studied theater at University of Wyoming, where he met Selkirk-born Merricat. After school, he and his wife moved from Wyoming to the Capital Region so he could pursue a career as an actor-director in New York City. That didn’t work out (“I didn’t have enough ego to get through those really bad times,” he says), so Blakeman sought another way to make a living. All the while, he continued writing novels.

After a stint as a security guard, Blakeman took his first movie job in 1978, managing a now-defunct East Greenbush drive-in called the Auto Vision. “That was seven months of hell,” he says, “what with the neighborhood kids setting fire to the field behind the screen and them going around breaking up the speaker poles. By the end of the summer, I was quite frazzled. I learned a lot about people.”

A few stops and starts later, Blakeman found permanent work as a projectionist in 1981, the same year he began working for the Spectrum’s owners at their first theater, the 3rd Street in Rensselaer. Although he says he considers himself a writer first and a projectionist second, Blakeman digs many aspects of life in the booth.

“I watch the credits because I like the names,” he says. “One of my favorites is Brick Mason. I’ve seen him on a few. I think he’s like an art designer or something. . . . Sometimes I’ll remember very clearly what a movie was about, but I won’t remember the title or director. I showed Fiddler on the Roof for a month, and I knew all the words.”

Blakeman’s post atop the Spectrum gives him a unique vantage point for observing colorful moments. “We had a cross-dresser at one time come in as a man,” he recalls. “People came out of the theater and said ‘There’s someone in there making a nest.’ He was changing into women’s clothes and drinking Listerine and yelling at the screen. That was one of my favorite moments.”

The projectionist says that one of the pleasures of his job is seeing how audiences react to onscreen thrills, chills and weirdness. “Mulholland Drive—there were certain scenes where I liked to walk in just to see the audience reaction,” he says. “After a while, you can predict what’s going to happen. People don’t realize what they look like from above.”

Sections of Blakeman’s novels have been written in the booth between movie starts, including parts of Icons, which came closer to publication than any of his other tomes. Completed in 1982, the book is the second in an ambitious trilogy. “The trilogy started out in Russia with this acting couple—their theater life—right about the time of the revolution, and it got them through to when they’re exiled in Scotland,” he explains. “The second novel is about them adopting a little Scottish boy and moving to America. It turns into political science fiction.” The Scottish boy grows up to become a subversive in a United States overtaken by right-wing extremists.

In 1988, after more than two dozen publishers turned the book down, a small press offered Blakeman a “subsidy publishing” deal, in which the author funds printing costs while the publisher handles marketing. “The only reason I did it was I was so frustrated with having all those books—it was my sixth novel, and I hadn’t had any luck with the others,” Blakeman says.

After Blakeman sent in his sizable investment, the publisher flew the coop. Years of legal battles followed, and Blakeman eventually reclaimed the copyright to his book as well as a fraction of the money he invested. “It was very frustrating when Icons was almost published,” he says. “The letdown was horrible. It almost stopped me writing entirely. The world’s rough out there in literature. The last few years have been really difficult for me to keep on writing after that whole debacle.”

As he’s completed one novel and started another since the Icons incident, it’s clear that Blakeman has made peace between the rigors of the marketplace and his need for creative expression. And even with his busy writing schedule, he’s found time to pursue other hobbies: He plays the flute for relaxation, and he’s working toward a pilot’s license. “I soloed on the 16th of February, right before I turned 50,” he says proudly. “That was one of my goals.”

Blakeman says he’s comfortable with the path his life has taken. “I don’t feel like I’ve done nothing other than projecting,” he notes. “I think I’ve done enough other things in life—my life’s been a learning experience. I’m psychologically sound enough to realize that some people make it in their chosen profession, and some don’t.”

Still, Blakeman takes pride in the work to which he’s devoted much of his life. “There have been times where I’ve gotten prints that are so destroyed that I’ve been embarrassed to show them,” says the man who once stayed at the Spectrum from 11:30 PM to 5:30 AM to reassemble a print of the epic Sunshine after it spilled off a projector. “I have enough sense of professionalism after 30 years that bad prints are an irritation to me—I feel like I’m cheating the audience.”


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