“I often come up here and talk and introduce films, and I think I’m kind of running things, but we know that the person who really ran things here was back in the booth,” Museum of the Moving Image curator David Schwartz said on Friday night. “And his name was Richard Aidala.”
Aidala, who died in August at 63 after a quarter century as the Museum’s chief projectionist, was honored at the launch event for The Booth: The Last Days of Film Projection, an exhibit by photographer Joseph O. Holmes. In a series of more than 30 striking images displayed in the Museum’s lobby gallery, Holmes artfully captures the last days of a dying breed – 35 mm film projectionists.
“The photos are my loving tribute to the profession that Richie personified,” Holmes said.
Born in Brooklyn in 1949, Aidala got his start in “the booth” at the age of 20. His first assignment was screening Hollywood movies for a Brooklyn Navy Yard captain who would select titles to send to sailors overseas. Seven years later, Aidala took over the bankrupt St. Marks Theater in the East Village and turned it into a legendary destination for New York City film fans.
“Probably a lot of you people got stoned (there) frequently,” Schwartz quipped. “And paid $2 to see double features.”
In 1979, Aidala opened an additional, two-screen theater in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He sold both venues in 1982 and went into the restaurant business, but the siren song of celluloid lured him back. When the Museum of the Moving Image opened on the site of Paramount’s historic Astoria Studio in 1988, Richie Aidala was in the booth.
“He probably did about 10,000 shows here,” Schwartz said. “What really meant everything to him was making people happy and putting on a good show.”
For those (like me) who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Aidala, Schwartz showed an excerpt from Behind the Glass, Gabriel Rhodes’ 2008 documentary about the art of traditional film projection. Aidala appears on camera, flanked by film reels like a king by his court.
“I have one guy who could tell you the running time of any film he’s ever seen in his entire life and, if I project a film for him and it’s two minutes short, he’ll tell me it’s two minutes short. He’ll tell me what scene was missing, and he’ll want to know where it is, like I have it in my pocket,” Aidala says in the clip, with the timing of a standup comic. “But this is our audience. And keeping them happy is a full time job.”
Aidala’s appearance on screen elicited tears and cheers from the audience of family, friends, co-workers, and members in the Museum’s Sumner Redstone Theater. Also in attendance where his daughters Rachele, Aimee, and Christina, and his wife of nearly 27 years, Jayne Adamo-Aidala.
“The Museum of the Moving Image was such an important part of Rich’s life; it was his second home, and it was here he had a second family,” Mrs. Aidala said. “He loved everything about it. He loved the business. He loved the shows and the people he worked with.”
Afterwards, the Museum screened SHERLOCK JR. – on the 118th anniversary of Buster Keaton’s birth – with musical accompaniment by Makia Matsumura. Schwartz called the 1924 comedy “the greatest film about projectionists.” And the 35 mm presentation was flawless, which probably would have made Richie Aidala very happy. Although he wasn’t in the booth, his presence in the room was unmistakable.
“He was the heart and soul of this museum,” Schwartz said. “And we will never forget him.”
Photos of Richard Aidala by Jessica Bal. Donations in his memory can be made to Pencils of Promise, 37 West 28th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001.