So what exactly lies behind that “Employees Only” door in the lobby of The Grand Cinema in Tacoma? Or behind the bright white light high up at the back of each theater?
The Grand’s projection area is more a warren than a room, a dark cave heated to near-tropical temperature by the humming computers. Low-ceilinged and up a narrow flight of stairs, the room is actually three or four: a central headquarters holding a central monitoring screen and second computer, and two or three narrow corridors holding the projectors. With huge air ducts, heating and air conditioning boxes hulking in the corners, and esoteric film posters lining the walls, it feels like a secret clubhouse.
And in the Theater 1 space, there’s even a set of 35mm film (yes, actual film) projectors perched atop the digital one and kept — unusually for indie movie houses — in working order, just in case anyone wants to screen a reel-to-reel film.
I love The Grand. It’s like a big family.
Lisa Fruichantie, projectionist
Lisa Fruichantie has been a projectionist at The Grand since 2005, when a frustrated projectionist stopped by the cafe where she was working. Thanks to prior film experience, Fruichantie was able to solve his problem. When she reports to work for the 5 p.m. shift, she’s already spent a few hours in the morning screening every film to ensure everything works.
“Just in case we get subtitles in German or something,” explains head projectionist Pat.ci Noriega, who’s sitting at the second computer making a trailer — a common task in a cinema that brings in foreign indie films with no English trailer.
As each projector hums to life and bursts out its beam of colored light, Fruichantie keeps an eye on them on the central monitor. It shows how long each film has to go, with tiny icons confirming things are working: the projector lamp, the douser (like a shutter for the lens). She can manually troubleshoot if need be.
But it also helps to keep an eye on the theater screens themselves. Some embarrassing moments include subtitles that flipped on and off, or the time everything went blue on the screen.
“It was just after we’d converted to digital, and we didn’t know how sensitive the equipment was,” Fruichantie explains. “I thought it was the file and swapped it out, but it stayed blue. Everything was blue.”
After sending in a team of chemical investigators, the problem was discovered: popcorn oil.
“It’s everywhere in here, in the air,” says Noriega.
They cleaned and fixed all the projectors and put up curtains and doors, and the screen went back to normal.
Other items on Fruichantie’s work schedule might include setting up microphones for a post-film talk (all the audio equipment is up here, too), adding slide content for upcoming events and festivals, contributing to the projectionist log, and even taking a turn cleaning up downstairs.
“When you’re a nonprofit, everyone takes out the trash,” says Fruichantie.
But it’s worth it.
“I love The Grand,” she says. “It’s like a big family.”