November 21, 2018

The film projectionist you wish you knew

The most famous man in Hollywood whom you’ve probably never heard of is 97-year-old Charles Aidikoff.

For nearly 50 years, Aidikoff has been operating a private screening room where filmmakers, Academy members and even studios can show their work to small, invitation-only audiences. There was the time, for example, when Denzel Washington wanted to see the final cut of one of his movies, alone, without distraction. Or the many occasions when directors, like Judd Apatow, want feedback from friends before handing a film over to a studio. But lately Aidikoff’s tiny theater has been filled with Academy voters scrambling to see all the nominated films before final voting begins on Feb. 8. With 57 luxe-leather seats, a red carpet, a curtain and the latest screening technology available, The Charles Aidikoff Screening Room beats the heck out of the living room couch.

On a late afternoon earlier this winter, a small group of Aidikoff’s friends were invited to a screening of the Oscar-nominated film Les Misérables. One perk of being a theater operator is the ability to screen current releases for friends, which Aidikoff does most Sundays, publishing his weekly selection on a private hotline. As is his routine, the moment Les Mis ended, Aidikoff leapt to the door to poll  his guests as they made their way out.  

“So whatdidya think?” he asked, looking playful and relaxed in a bulky Dodgers jacket and his signature black-rimmed eyeglasses. He spoke with the excited impatience of a boy outside a candy store.

“That was quite a production,” said Roger Small. “What’d you think?”

“The only complaint I have about the film is the songs and the music kept getting in the way of the story line!” Aidikoff exclaimed. Then he chuckled at the absurdity of his critique (the film, of course, is a musical).

A bonafide movie buff with an encyclopedic frame of reference, Aidikoff estimates that he’s screened-and-seen approximately 50,000 films. His favorite director, whom he’s met, is Orson Welles (“better than Spielberg!”); he prefers good old-fashioned drama to any other genre (tops are “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind”); and he is not particularly fond of movie critics (“Don’t listen to ’em!”). He is, however, a bit star-crazy, judging by the walls of his theater, which are covered head to toe with snapshots of himself with all the famous faces who have dropped by over the years — from Welles to Harvey Weinstein, Anne Margaret to Paris Hilton, from Uma to Scarlett to Penn and Pacino, and seemingly everyone in between. It would hardly be a stretch to say that if you work in Hollywood and you’re not on Aidikoff’s wall, you should work harder. Or as his friend Small put it, “You’re not anybody in Hollywood until you’ve had your picture taken with Charlie Aidikoff!”

But ask the nonagenarian if he still goes gaga meeting movie stars, and he plays demure. “Oh no,” he said, cracking a smile. “They all come to see me.”

Aidikoff will turn 98 the weekend of the Academy Awards. But even more remarkable than his age or the company he keeps is his storybook life. He has lived the American dream the way most people only experience it at the movies.

A child of the Great Depression, Aidikoff grew up in a solidly middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family. His father was a projectionist at a Coney Island movie theater and taught him how to run the projectors in the booth by the time he was 9. His dad later got the boy his first job as an usher in that same theater, and before long, encouraged him to join the family business – the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) — to broaden his prospects.

“My dad said to me, ‘Charles, look, you are working 50 hours a week. I’m working 28 hours a week and making 25 dollars more than you’re making. Don’t be a schmuck. Become a projectionist.’”

Since steady jobs were hard to come by, however, eventually that wasn’t even enough, so Aidikoff and his wife decided to move to California, where there would be more demand. After a short stint running projectors at local theaters – and, this being California, at the drive-in movie — Aidikoff decided to open his own business. At the time, there were only a handful of private screening rooms in existence, so he paid a visit to one near Sunset and Doheny and asked the owner if he could buy it. He cobbled together the $45,000 asking price through a bank loan and some money from his mother-in-law, but when he returned with a check, the owner raised his price by ten grand.

“I told the guy, ‘I’m gonna put you out of business,” Aidikoff said.

Aidikoff went down the street to 9255 Sunset Boulevard where the American Broadcasting Company had offices, along with the reputable Ashley-Famous talent agency. He asked the building manager for a space, and the manager offered what no one else wanted: 850 square feet off the main lobby with no windows. “Great,” Aidikoff said, “I don’t need any windows.” There was another catch: an obligatory 10-year-lease for $550 per month. Aidikoff signed, set his rate at $12 per hour, and on Dec. 12, 1964, opened The Charles Aidikoff screening room.

Then, like out of a Hollywood movie, he got his big break: Elton Rule, the president of ABC, asked if he could rent Aidikoff’s screening room all day, every weekday, leaving Aidikoff nights and weekends and any other time ABC didn’t need it. Aidikoff repaid both his loans within two years and bought a house in Studio City.

For 26 years, the screening room on Sunset was the setting for legends: young Steven Spielberg screened his first short films there hoping to land a studio job; George Lucas screened “Star Wars” for the very first time there; in the 70s, the Beatles stopped by. In fact, Aidikoff was so successful that in 1991 he upgraded to a Rodeo Drive location (a strategy centered on proximity to the big talent agencies), doubling his capacity. Today Aidikoff charges between $300 and $900 per hour, depending on the time of day and technology required. Sometimes, the room is used without a screening at all, as when earlier this month sportscaster Bob Costas rented it to conduct a series of interviews with Hollywood celebrities.

For those who work in the movie business, though, Aidikoff is his own brand of celebrity. In 2008, he became a member of the Academy – an unusual and rare honor for a projectionist – and he has been invited several times to attend the Oscars ceremony. “If you have some money you want to throw away, I’ll be happy to take you,” he said with a wry smile. Even with the coveted invitation, to attend – in style — can still be expensive: “You don’t go to the Academy Awards in a car, you take a limo,” he said. But he promises that he gets good seats (“Front row, Mezzanine, where you can see everybody”), and his pal and client Harvey Weinstein has been known to invite him to the afterparties. 

Onscreen and off, Aidikoff has truly seen it all. From silent film to the digital age, he is an emblem of Hollywood history and a bastion of a bygone American age in which skilled labor was highly regarded, and contained the promise of entrepreneurship and enterprise. Are there still projectionists at Coney Island? There are hardly even any more projectors.

But Aidikoff doesn’t lament the past. And he doesn’t give a hoot about Hollywood’s obsession with youth. He’s worked hard for nearly nine decades and isn’t looking for do-overs. So how has he stayed so vital?

“You wanna know my real secret?” he asked. “When people ask I tell ’em: ‘Fast horses and slow women.’ If it would have been the other way around, I would’ve been dead 50 years ago.”