We were talking to Lily the other day about a movie she saw in her class at school. At some point I realized that although she had most likely seen either a DVD or videotape (or even a movie on the internet), in my mind I was imagining an old reel-to-reel filmstrip, of the kind we used to watch when I was in school. Yet another way to define eras…

I’m not sure why my mind set on that image; I hadn’t thought about those kinds of films in years. It was like my brain momentarily forgot that video had happened; when I thought of “movie” and “school”, I heard the click-click-click of the projector.

I miss reel-to-reel movies. I used to spend about as much time watching the projector wheels turn, or watch the film feed through the machine, as I did the movies. Watching a DVD player just doesn’t generate the same fascination with light and moving, intricate parts. DVDs don’t have the same color saturation those old reel-to-reels had, either. Every movie looked like an old episode of Wild Kingdom.

Thinking back, I would guess our classroom movies through grade and middle school had a failure rate of about 10%, meaning that the film would break, making that tell-tale flapping noise. Or in some cases the projector might eat, shred or melt the film, which always led to an entertaining (and sometimes stinky) 10-minute intermission where the teacher tried to disentangle the mangled strip.

Sometimes the video portion of the film would work, but the audio wouldn’t quite match up. You might get the Charlie Brown audio, or you might get nothing at all. And frankly, some of the films were so bizarre and clearly from another era that even when the audio and video did work, the overall entertainment or educational impact could still be hard to discern.

Still, I miss seeing that projector roll into our classroom, knowing the lights would soon dim and nobody would much mind if your head sank just a little lower into your arms as you folded them across your desk.


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10 Responses to Reel-to-Reel

  1. Nathan D says:

    I’m of the age where I got to see the transition from the “reel” film to VHS during my school years — there was definitely something romantic about the old-school movie projector. Though, any time the lights went out and the TV came on was a good day.

  2. Charley says:

    excellent job of capturing the memories. Though to clarify: reel-to-reel we identified as a film, and a film *strip* came in a little plastic tube, along with an audio cassette. You had to advance the still frames manually, usually when the audio went “beep!” Sometimes the tape was lost or messed up and the teacher had to read the audio portion. I used to fantasize about growing up and becoming “guy who reads audio portion of filmstrips.”

  3. Jeff H says:

    The best part of the film projector days was the need to rewind the film. If he was in the right mood, our fifth-grade teacher would let us watch it backward. No audio, but I remember sitting there in the dark with 20 other kids after one film about frontier life (or some such), eagerly waiting for the scene in which the blacksmith took a swig of water and then spat it out in a clear jet on to the ground.

  4. MrFares says:

    Backwards, Backwards!
    Snakes eating mice were our favorite.

  5. Jim says:

    Yeah, filmstrips were AWESOME. I miss them. I can only assume that they aren’t used at all any more. I hope. Or maybe I don’t.

  6. Steve C says:

    I got in trouble when I was in preschool because I called out the teacher for making up her own narrative for the filmstrips. Apparently, schoolteachers didn’t like their students correcting them. I also got in trouble when I was in fifth grade because I had a cast on my leg and I was trying to drag the old projector machine to my class. And I managed to make it tip over and crash. Too bad they didn’t have the DVD machines hooked up in the room back then.

  7. pipelineblog says:

    I wonder where all those old school filmstrips are? Lots of cool stuff there, I would imagine, but they also take up space.

  8. Stanton says:

    At some point during grade school my class took a field trip to a local (one-screen) movie theater. We’d arranged a special screening of a movie version of Tom Sawyer. The film was probably not in the best condition and I remember several stops and starts as the projector operator tried to get it to feed thought the machine correctly. Finally, it seemed to be going pretty good, and we settled in to watch the hijinks. About 5 minutes later, the film jammed again and we were treated to the largest, most spectacular version of a projector lamp burning through a film cell that I will ever see. I was too young to know any curse words at the time, otherwise I might remember exactly what shouted epithets floated out over our heads from the projector room.

  9. Phil says:

    Annually, we would get the Bell films “Our Mr. Sun” and “Hemo the Magnificent”. Two reels each, I think.

  10. Steve C says:

    Hemo the Magnificent rocked, in a really campy way. So did Disney’s “Our Friend the Atom,” which memorably promised us how nuclear energy would save the world and I would be driving a flying car today. Did anyone else have to watch old black and white science films that were made in the early fifties. Says something about my school district’s budget, I guess. I just remember this old guy who would come on and say, “Hello friends, welcome to junior science!”

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