Kodak Moments: Eastman Museum's Dryden Theatre is a showcase for rare nitrate and more

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Cinemas Features

On the third floor of his mansion in Rochester, NY, George Eastman, founder of Kodak and inventor of motion picture film, had a screen that pulled down from the ceiling. He used it to show movies to friends.

Eastman never had a family of his own, so when he died in 1932, most of his wealth went to the University of Rochester, but he did leave some to “his favorite niece,” Ellen Dryden. Four years after the George Eastman Museum was founded in 1947 on the site of his estate, she funded construction of the Dryden Theatre, a 535-seat auditorium attached to the museum.

The Dryden Theatre opened to the public on Wednesday, March 14, 1951, with a screening of the Jean Renoir silent classic Nana. Today, the Dryden is the George Eastman Museum's main exhibition space for showcasing its motion picture collection, prints from the world’s finest archives, and premieres of select releases. To date, more than 13,000 titles have been screened; the theatre attracts more than 40,000 visitors annually.

Dr. Bruce Barnes, director of the George Eastman Museum, picks up its story: “When we were founded,” he says, “we had only the second department of film in a museum in the United States. At that time, there was very little ‘after-market’ for movies; studios would release a film and it would play in first- and second-run theatres and then it had no value to them.”

Until 1951, all those old prints were on nitrate stock.

“The studios had this problem,” Barnes emphasizes. “The old film was highly flammable and was difficult and expensive to take care of; they started disposing of that nitrate film in a variety of ways. So, there’s a huge amount of lost film from, particularly, the early Hollywood years.”

Studios—and even theatres, where sometimes prints were stranded—began sending their unwanted negatives and prints to the George Eastman Museum. 

“Today,” adds Jared Case, head of collection information, research and access, Moving Image Department,we have 28,000 titles; about 6,000 of those are nitrate prints. We have the original nitrate negatives for Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, among many others. But the ultimate goal of having a motion picture collection is showing it. It’s about conservation with a purpose.”

The Dryden shows about 400 different titles a year—including shorts and features.Every week, the theatre holds a Monday matinee for seniors. On Tuesday through Saturday, they program at 7:30 in the evening. During the academic year, they tend to show silent films on Tuesday evening. The theatre also hosts special events and several film festivals. All screenings are free to those 17 years old and younger to encourage moviegoing among the young.

“When we’re curating,” offers Jurij Meden, curator of film exhibitions,“we try to represent the breadth of perspectives in film history. So, you’ll see silent films, acknowledged classics, some documentaries and foreign films. We try to make our programs interesting and relevant, but we’re shaping audience’s tastes—not just catering to their expectations.”

When the Dryden was renovated in 2013, the number of seats was reduced to 500—250 in the balcony, 250 down below—all padded, with no cupholders. No food or drink is allowed; the theatre is considered an exhibition space, free from the distraction of crunching popcorn.

The Dryden has another strict policy: If the movie was made and released on film—and is available on film—they will only show it on film. And, Barnes observes: “Every foot of every film we show is inspected before it’s projected.”

“We have only one screening per day,” Meden adds, “but an hour before, we begin a procedure where we test both projectors we’ll be using to set the focus and the sound levels and the framing—so it’s a process.”

The screen is 27 feet wide. Because they show so many formats, masking is fully moveable left and right, up and down. “We have changeover projectors,” explains Patrick Tiernan, assistant collections manager. We’ll put up the first two reels, align the projectors, move the masking. We’re committed to showing film in its original format, so we have lenses and gates for silent, classic Hollywood, flat, scope, and we can even play 1:1.8, which was a short-lived ratio between sound and silent movies.”

The Dryden has two pairs of film projectors in the booth. “The Century projectors we use are the same projectors that were installed when the theatre opened in 1951,” Tiernan explains. “We believe that if we take care of them, they’ll last another 50 or 100 years. They’re wonderful old elegant machines; they do what you tell them to do.”

The second set is Kinotons, German projectors from the ’90s. They’re needed to show 16mm prints. Speed converters attached to all projectors enable them to show silent prints. The digital projector is a Barco 2K.

“Every time we screen a film at the Dryden, we try to put it into context,” Meden points out. “Every film is introduced—the director and title and background—but we always talk about the particular film print the audience is seeing: Where did it come from? What is its condition? Is it polyester or nitrate? Is it scratched? Also, we always remind people about who our projectionist will be and which machines we’ll be using.”

“We believe that film is a performing art,” Barnes reiterates, “and everyone and everything that’s involved in that performance is very important. We consider all of that part of the experience of seeing a film.”

“The audience gets that little bit of extra knowledge,” adds Spencer Christiano, chief projectionist. “That might not mean anything to them the first time they hear it, but over time they get a course in film history.”

“We show film in the Dryden Theatre both from our own collection—and we borrow from other archives,” Barnes acknowledges. “Less than half of what we show is from our own collection.”

The Dryden is one of only five theatres in the United States legally allowed to show nitrate film. They screen nitrate prints occasionally throughout the year.

“One of the most exciting things we do is ‘The Nitrate Picture Show,’ a three-day film festival we hold the first weekend in May,” says Barnes. “It’s the only festival of its kind in the United States and we show only films on nitrate stock. We show about nine films in the festival and this year—May 4 through 6—will be our fourth year.”

“At first, it was nerve-racking projecting nitrate film,” admits Christiano. “You hear all of these tales about projectors bursting into flames and projectionists running out of the booth on fire. But once you’ve actually done it for a while, it’s just like any other projection. I mean, we treat every print as if it’s the last surviving print—because in some cases, it is.”

“We use special fire magazines for showing nitrate,” Tiernan explains. “They’re closed cabinets on the feed arm and take-up reel; between them and the projector are ‘fire rollers’ which cut off oxygen to the closed magazines. So, when the projector is operating, everything is pretty sealed up to minimize the danger.”

“When we project nitrate, we have three projectionists in the booth at all times,” Meden notes. “We have one at each projector to keep an eye on how the print is tracking; the third projectionist is there to pay attention to focus because some of those old prints are warped.”

“For decades, it’s been believed that nitrate film is something that you keep in a vault,” Case laments. “These are old films, but they’ve been taken care of; why not have them be shown? If we want to know how people saw and made films in the 1940s, we should be watching the nitrate films.”

Barnes is proud of the festival. “People come from around the world because when you’re watching a nitrate film, there is no question of its visual superiority. There’s much more silver in the film, so the blacks are much blacker, there’s more subtlety in the color, it’s just a much richer experience. I’ve seen Casablanca several times, but on a nitrate print it was absolutely magical; it was luminescent in ways you just cannot imagine.”

“The really special thing about nitrate,” says Meden, “is that a film print seventy or eighty years old can still be shown—and look great. That’s something that will never be true about any of the carriers of digital images or any of the digital formats.”

With film roots in the past, the Dryden Theatre looks ahead. “We want to be the place, the community, that invites people to see cinema the way it was meant to be seen and where we can teach people about cinema to make sure that legacy doesn’t die,” says Case. “It’s important to us not just to preserve the film, but also to preserve the experience.”