Bruce Bartoo’s last day was Friday, after more than 28 years at the arts center.
As the longtime film projectionist at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Bruce Bartoo wasn’t surprised to be the last to leave a screening of a documentary there last Sunday.
This time, though, something was different: After more than 28 years — and an estimated 5,000 films — Bartoo had turned the projector off for the final time.
“When they went to the credits at the end, I’m bringing the lights up for the credits, and it occurred to me: ‘Oh, geez — this is the last time I’m going to do this,’” said Bartoo, who retired from the Wexner Center on Friday.
“There wasn’t anybody in the audience that I knew, just the ushers,” Bartoo said. “It was kind of fitting because projectionists — we’re dinosaurs. And it’s a very solitary thing. It was kind of nice to be all to myself.”
On Monday, Rachael Barbash — until recently, the content and technology manager at the Gateway Film Center — will follow Bartoo as the second full-time projectionist in the 31-year history of the arts center.
Bartoo, a 70-year-old Worthington resident, is among the last of a breed in central Ohio. With digital projection having rendered 35 mm prints increasingly obsolete and shown less and less often, fewer projectionists are accustomed to working with celluloid.
The job involves loading a projector with film and changing reels to assure nonstop playing, all with an eye for potential problems mid-performance. By contrast, digital projection involves pressing buttons.
Boasting a single-screen, 295-seat theater, the Wexner Center is among a handful of local venues to regularly show movies using both digital and film formats. (The Gateway and the Drexel Theatre in Bexley also can show movies using film prints.)
“For a long time, we had this guideline that, insofar as we can, everything would be shown in its original format — film is film, video is video,” Wexner Center curator-at-large Bill Horrigan said. “It’s become more complicated with all this digital restoration going on, and fewer film prints being available, but Bruce has rolled with the punches.”
The only child of an aeronautical engineer (who worked for a NASA facility near Cleveland) and a homemaker-turned-school official, Bartoo grew up in North Olmsted. As a child, he enjoyed popular movies over artsy films.
“Maybe there were film buffs in New York and L.A., but ... film buffery wasn’t everywhere,” he said. “People went to the movies — people went to the movies a lot.”
Bartoo, who as an adult has helped organize 24-hour science-fiction and horror movie marathons at the Drexel, grew up with a particular passion for science-fiction films, such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), a Robert Wise-directed classic in which space aliens turn up in Washington, D.C.
An undergraduate at the University of Miami in Florida, he attended film school at Boston University. To help subsidize a feature-length student film he was working on, Bartoo worked as a union projectionist, including in an X-rated movie house operating in what was once the grand, stately RKO Boston Theatre.
“The first place I worked was like the Ohio Theatre,” he said. “It had been renamed, and it had been chopped up.”
The job came with perks: Since the featured attractions were shown using 16 mm prints, Bartoo could set up a pair of hour-long reels and take it easy while the film unspooled — a plus because Bartoo and his Boston University classmates were working around the clock on their own movie.
A series of movie-theater manager jobs in Massachusetts followed, allowing him to develop an appreciation for the solitary pleasures of working in movie houses.
“When everybody else you know is out going to parties and going out to dinner and going to the movies ... you’re working,” Bartoo said. “Being an only child, I kind of liked being alone.”
In 1986, after giving a non-film job a try, Bartoo and his wife, Amy, returned to Ohio — and, with it, came the itch to return to the world of celluloid and popcorn. A year later, Bartoo was hired to manage the now-defunct Drexel North; three years later, he applied at the Wexner Center.
Barbash inherits a projection system that has the capacity to present movies using not just 35 mm and 16 mm prints, but also via digital cinema packages (DCPs), Blu-ray, DVD, Beta and VHS, among other formats.
“I’ve learned so much about these systems, and most of these systems were installed when I was a child,” Barbash, 36, said of learning the ropes from Bartoo. “He’s been great.”
Although digital increasingly dominates, even at the Wexner Center, leaders sought a replacement for Bartoo who had experience with film formats. Cinephiles point to the unique texture and beauty of movies shown on film.
“It’s important that we have digital and film,” said Barbash, who has worked with prints during her 13 years at the Gateway. “Both ... have a place in the cinema.”
In his day, Bartoo salvaged more than a few less-than-ideal screenings. In the late 1990s, an inferior print of John Ford’s Western “The Searchers” (1956) was sent for a showing; the print had so many splices that dialogue would fade in and out during scenes, yet the show went on.
“Bruce had to kind of baby that thing into the best shape that he could,” said David Filipi, film/video director at the Wexner Center.
Bartoo is quick to point out that projecting 5,000-plus films is not the same thing as watching that many films.
“Imagine you’re sitting in your living room watching a movie,” he said. “But, in the next room, it’s your telephone, and your telephone is going to ring five or six times during that movie, and you have to get the phone on the first ring all the time.”
Newly retired, Bartoo’s plate is clear of such duties — but he still will be at the movies.
“I’ll probably be coming here as much as I go anywhere else,” he said. “I’ll be able to sit and enjoy the theater.”