Keeping house for Oscar: Robert Rigamonti runs the show at Academy Theater


“It’s one of the best theatres in the world, in terms of sound quality, picture quality and comfort,” enthuses Robert Rigamonti, house manager at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

It is in line with his personality that Rigamonti would not mention those areas under his reign—guest service and smooth operations—on the list of the venue’s top assets. But this author witnessed firsthand how this consummate professional—celebrating 20 years on the job this fall—guides his team calmly, coolly and collectedly, not to mention with much charm, during several high-profile Oscar events. While the 81st Annual Academy Awards are presented at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, of course, the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills hosts several dozen events during the weeks leading up to “The Biggest Movie Event of the Year.”

“We show each film that has been nominated in every category twice,” Rigamonti details. “During the day it’s screened at the Linwood Dunn in Hollywood and in the evening here at the Samuel Goldwyn, to give voting Academy members the opportunity to see any film that they might have missed. During Oscar week, we add numerous celebrations and panels on foreign-language films, feature animation, make-up achievements and short subjects.”
As if that were not enough, on Oscar day Rigamonti is also on patrol “keeping things moving” along on the red carpet. A few days later, during his well-deserved post-Oscar break, he was kind enough to make a special trip back to the Goldwyn to provide the readers of Film Journal International with exclusive insights into his domain.

Ironically, when the opportunity first arose, Robert Rigamonti wasn’t all that interested in working in Beverly Hills for Samuel or Oscar. In 1989, he recalls “the Academy was working on a complete remodel of the lobby and the theatre—it was officially dedicated on December 8, 1975—and they wanted to bring on a professional theatre staff.” Doug Edwards, who was in charge of special events at the Academy at the time, “liked the work I did volunteering at the American Cinematheque and asked if I wanted to come in and become a theatre manager. I said, ‘Oh no, not at all,’ but he insisted… So I thought I’d ask for what at least in 1989 terms was too much money.”

After Edwards said okay, Rigamonti “came in right in the middle of the remodel and when all the membership screenings for the summer were taking place at the Writers Guild Theater down the street. In December, we re-opened the Samuel Goldwyn as an all-new facility. I hired a couple of people, and for the next few years, there were maybe three or four of us…a formal theatre staff, but no uniforms, rather casual.”

As the activities were extended and responsibilities kept on growing, so did the dress code and the team—to close to 30 members today. Included are two additional managers, Richard Stermer and Rose Wilson, Rigamonti says. “Between the three of us, we handle all the events at all three Academy venues.” In addition to the 1,012-seat Goldwyn, there are the 67-seat Little Theatre on the third floor of the executive headquarters and the 286-seat Linwood Dunn auditorium at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies at Fountain and Vine in Hollywood, which is also the future location of the planned Academy Museum. Together these venues show “at least four different pictures, weekend afternoons and evenings for the members, and often family movies in the morning, where members are free to bring their kids and grandchildren, of course.”

Rigamonti continues, “Because the Goldwyn was built as and is maintained as the ‘Gold Standard’ of motion picture projection and viewing, we also do a lot of theatre rentals. Many of the studios like to use our facility for their premieres. If someone spent years and years of their lives on a film, and they want to see it under the best possible circumstances, they select the Goldwyn.” While this option is available April through December, when the Academy Awards are approaching, official Oscar business always takes over. “Starting in October, we begin hosting many committee screenings—such as all entries submitted to the Foreign Language Film Award—and then actually close for rental events in January and February.”

Also on the Goldwyn’s “very active” program are lecture series and seminars “on a variety of topics from screenwriting to hair and make-up, to casting, to comedy in film” that are open to the general public. Rigamonti fondly recalls the beginning of the four-year-long “Great to Be Nominated” summer series: “Every Monday night we showed the features that received the most nominations but didn’t win for that given year—paired with a newsreel and the animated short that won. We played the appropriate soundtracks as walk-in music before the program’s producer, Randy Haberkamp, would give an introductory lecture presentation on what was happening in world history. It was really a wonderful treat.”

In case of the Best Pictures, “the Academy owns prints of all films,” he explains, not to mention other rare prints from the Academy Archive or on loan from individuals, studios and other institutions.

“In case of a standard screening of a full-length motion picture,” the Goldwyn’s very well-equipped booth (for more details, refer to our sidebar) usually has two projectionists on hand, Rigamonti assures. “When we do a clip show, there are as many as five or six people in the booth because these presentations can get very, very complicated with various media, formats and so on. More and more, we are doing digital clips… Over the years, particularly in the past five or so, the booths at the Goldwyn and Dunn have become quite complicated. They are state-of-the-art, with computers everywhere, and we can project in any format, both picture and sound. It takes someone very savvy to keep everything running.” Rigamonti gives credit: “Our technical expert, Helmet Kaczmarek, is charged with having all of the systems talking to each other, keeping everything tweaked and in top running order. It’s a monumental job for him and Marshall Gitlitz, our chief projectionist. And the hard work of our theatre operations manager, Moray Greenfield, keeps all the diverse aspects of our different venues coordinated and humming.”

Has the Goldwyn team ever put out any fires? “Ohhhhh, we have had evenings where things were smoking in the booth,” Rigamonti recalls of literal combustions. “Nowadays we’re not running vintage stock as much anymore, but are trying to strike new prints from the original elements. So we’ve got newer film that is less likely to break or explode.”

Old, new, video, digital or on celluloid, Rigamonti says of the sophisticated high-tech set-up, “It projects every little thing. Our systems are so up-to-the-minute and so precisely calibrated that you can see things on our screen that you don’t see anywhere else. Yes, it will happen occasionally that a filmmaker comes in and says, ‘Well, wait a minute…’ When it’s our fault, we fess up to it, but I have to say that the Academy has gone well out of the way to hire the best projectionists in town. The Goldwyn is considered the top union position. Everybody here is highly skilled and has had years and years of experience working in all kinds of houses. They’re really sharp and it takes a lot to throw them off.”

Rigamonti estimates between 300 and 350 films were shown pristinely as part of the “Nominated” series, and later on discussion panels with people involved in the making of the films were added to the presentations. For The Godfather, he recalls, “we must have had 19 people on stage, everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to actors, casting directors and cinematographers.” Pressed for another favorite, he names the special screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm and the tribute to Olivia de Havilland. “She flew in from Paris to be with us,” he acknowledges, “and we showed clip highlights from her esteemed career. Over the years, we’ve presented the works of Vincente Minnelli, Billy Wilder…so many wonderful people, and have had many a great evening when they come in. Robert Osborne and Leonard Maltin hosted several of those tributes, people who are really at the top of their game.”

Preceding or following these events, Rigamonti and his team often “have large parties here in the lobby.” While catering duties “with a staff of up to 60 sometimes” are handled by long-trusted vendors, Rigamonti supervises the training and scheduling of the entire theatre staff. “It can get tricky at times,” he admits, “because, as theirs is a part-time job, we don’t have the monopoly on people’s time. Our team members are in school, work other jobs and, when they are actors—of which we have quite a few—they are going to auditions. I always ask for potential conflicts at the beginning of the month and try to schedule around those while covering all our events. We go from four people during a regular weekend screening to up to 20 for big in-house events with a reception.” And that’s not even counting security. “It used to be that you could just walk in the front door,” Rigamonti recalls. “Now everybody is screened before you come in. It’s gotten more complicated over the years.”

Looking at the highly sophisticated audience in attendance, how does he make sure that no one hands a script to the likes of Steven Spielberg? “That, or handing anyone an 8x10 glossy or a business card, is grounds for immediate dismissal,” Rigamonti says only half-jokingly. “We have very strict prohibitions against doing that. This said, working here is a great way for a young actor or someone starting out in the film business to get to know the industry. The Academy really is the epicenter of Hollywood. Everything goes through here—The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” he chuckles.

In addition to running the front of the house and “unique to this position in this town,” Rigamonti believes, “the house manager will then sit down at the sound console and become the theatre/stage manager who runs one, two, fifteen microphones, recording the program and doing light cues… I used to do both jobs, but now together with my manager colleagues, we split up the responsibilities.”

Rigamonti admits, “I don’t get out much to other theatres to watch a movie, but when I do, it’s a big treat. I love to go because I can have popcorn there and drink Coca-Cola.” That fun comes with a price, however, as “my feet stick to the floor, people talk and attend to their BlackBerrys,” Rigamonti finds. “None of that happens here,” he asserts, before pausing. “Well…it rarely happens. And when it does, it stops very quickly because audience members are used to a quiet, clean theatre and won’t tolerate it. We also ask people here to respect their fellow artists by staying seated throughout the entire credits.” Something we can’t say about commercial movie theatres.

Asked if he believes sticky floors are really so common, Rigamonti responds, “Admittedly, it has been less so over the years. But I’ve got to say, here in the Samuel Goldwyn I feel perfectly comfortable—if it has been a long day—about kicking my shoes off and digging my feet in the plush wool carpeting. I wouldn’t do that anywhere else. You just can’t get as comfortable.” That’s good housekeeping indeed.

Technical Information:

Seating capacity:
Width: 93 1/2’ (28 m)
Depth: 124’ (38 m)
Stage: Curved – 16’ x 65’ (5 x 20 m)
Screen: Maximum Size – 54’ x 22’ (16 x 7 m)
Projectors: 2 Norelco AA 35mm/70mm projectors; 2 Kinoton EP38 “studio” 16mm/35mm projectors; 2 Barco DP-3000 DLP Cinema 2K projectors featuring Dolby 3D Digital Cinema
Media: Dolby DSP100 Show Player with DSS 100 Show Store (JPEG2000, MPEG2, DCI-compliant); HD-CAM; Digital Betacam (NTSC/PAL; Panasonic DMP-D50k 1080p Blu-Ray Disc Player; Betacam SX; Betacam SP; DVD (NTSC/PAL); SVHS; DVI-D (HD) and SVGA computer graphics (PowerPoint) from remote lectern position in auditorium or booth
Sound: Eight-channel discreet AES digital audio from Dolby DSP100 Show Player; all Dolby analog and digital formats for film and video, including: Dolby SRD, Surround EX, Dolby E, Dolby Digital (professional/consumer), Dolby SR and A-type stereo optical, Dolby A and SR noise reduction; DTS in 35mm, 70mm and 16mm; SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) 8-channel 35mm audio magnetic track interlock (6, 4, 3, 1-track heads), 35mm 4-track magnetic and 70mm 6-track magnetic (either conventional or Dolby-encoded)
Control console: Soundcraft 24 channel; wireless handheld microphones (10);
wireless lavalier microphones (6); RTS intercom systems

Seating capacity: 67
Screen: Maximum Size – 15’ x 8’ (4.6 x 2.4 m)
Projectors: 2 Kinoton FP30 16mm/35mm projectors; 1 Panasonic DLP video projector (3500 lumens); 1 Digital Projection 5GV DLP video projector (5000 lumens)
Media: Digital Betacam (NTSC and PAL); Betacam SX; Betacam SP; DVD; SVHS; Hi-8; U-Matic (3/4” tape); SVGA computer graphics (PowerPoint) from auditorium or booth
Sound: Dolby SRD; Dolby SR and A-type Stereo Optical; SDDS 6-track only; DTS; DVD (5.1 channel Dolby); 35mm audio magnetic track interlock (6, 3, 1-track heads)
Control console: Sony 8-channel audio mixer

Seating capacity: 286
Screen: Maximum Size – 42’ x 18’ (13 x 5.5 m)
Projectors: 2 Norelco AA 35mm/70mm projectors; 2 Eastman 16mm projectors; 1 Barco DP-3000 DLP Cinema (2K) projector featuring Dolby 3D Digital Cinema
Media: Dolby DSP100 Show Player with DSS 100 Show Store (JPEG2000, MPEG2, DCI compliant); Digital Betacam (NTSC/PAL; Panasonic DMP-D50k 1080p Blu-Ray Disc Player (with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-MA decoding); Betacam SX; Betacam SP; DVD (5.1 channel Dolby/DTS); DVI-D (HD) and SVGA computer graphics (PowerPoint) from remote lectern position in auditorium or booth
Sound: Eight-channel discreet AES digital audio from Dolby DSP100 Show Player; Dolby SRD; Dolby Surround EX; Dolby SR and A-type Stereo Optical; DTS 35mm only; SDDS 8-channel; 35mm audio magnetic interlock (6, 3, 1-track heads); wireless handheld microphones (8); wireless lavalier microphones (4)
Control console: Soundcraft Ghost 24 Channel Audio Console