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With help from across North America, Hamilton's Playhouse Cinema joins a rare 35mm film club

The Playhouse will screen a 35mm film Friday, after manager restored two 60-year-old projectors in lockdown

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Rewinding film after a screening is just one of many jobs for Jacob Tutt, general manager and projectionist at the Playhouse Cinema. (Kathy Renwald/CBC)

About 100 pounds of 35mm film sit in the projection booth of the Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton.

In a short time, Jacob Tutt will be loading the nine reels that make up the movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The lights will go down, the film will spool up, and Tutt will hope nothing goes wrong.

"I'll be nervous but I'll be prepared."

While people passed time during Covid shutdowns baking bread, sewing, and meditating, Tutt, general manager of the Playhouse, was restoring two 60-year-old film projectors.

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Parts for the Playhouse film projectors were scrounged far and wide. Many film projectors became landfill when movies switched to digital. (Kathy Renwald/CBC)

Now the cinema joins a rare club. Just four theatres in Ontario show movies on luscious 35mm film.

"There's a warmth, softness and depth to film," Tutt says as film whirrs through the projector during a test run. Those are qualities film buffs say are missing in digital movies.

Parts came in from across Canada, U.S. 

Around 2012, Tutt says, film projectors became obsolete overnight with the arrival of digital projection.

Movies started arriving on hard drives. At five bucks, they were cheap for theatres to rent. In contrast, it cost $350 for the shipping of Quentin Tarantino's 2019 release, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, from Los Angeles to Hamilton.

While the pandemic turned the theatre dark, Tutt tinkered.

"I can't tell you how many hours I worked on these projectors," the 25-year-old says.

Tutt lives with his girlfriend Emily Dixon, a garden designer, in an apartment above the theatre on Sherman Avenue North. His short commute, across a hallway, is steps away from the projection booth where he started sleuthing, sourcing, and scrounging for parts.

He found two heavy cast iron pedestals that had been used at Expo 67 in storage at Niagara Custom Lab in Toronto. The lamp houses he needed came from Longview, Texas. 

"Apparently the company who made these lamp houses also made cow milking equipment," Tutt says. 

Film reels were sourced in Brantford, Ont., and the projectors were last used at the National Film Board's Mediatheque in Toronto.

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Tutt restored two 60-year-old film projectors during the pandemic shutdowns. The Playhouse will screen its first 35mm film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Aug. 13 (Kathy Renwald/CBC)

Parts rolled in, assembly began, then oiling, testing and oiling again. After the two big projectors were assembled Tutt turned to the masters — and they are still out there — to fine tune the machines.

An expert from Cinematronix in Toronto arrived. He tackled the aperture plates, filing each one of the small plates that slide inside the projector to the correct aspect ratio. The wiring was checked, the sound checked. Everything was A-OK.

Growing up in the cinema 

When Tutt lines up the reels for the first film screening this Friday,  it will be a dream come true. 

"I grew up in a booth," he says.

His parents own the Princess Cinemas in Waterloo, Ont.

By age 15 he was a projectionist in training.

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A collection of aperture plates that were each hand filed to work in the vintage film projectors at the Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton. (Kathy Renwald/CBC)

When the 107-year-old Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton came up for sale, the Tutts bought the building, restored it and opened in 2019. The young Tutt was put in charge, running the operation and living above the theatre-like something out of the movies.

Advanced tickets are selling well for the first film screening. 

"The only thing that could go wrong is the switchover (from reel to reel) if the timing is off, you could see some countdown numbers."

It seems unlikely. Tutt is well prepared to turn back the clock.