Longtime Clayton projectionist reflects on a life in film

Everyone has a favorite movie. For Charlie Thorns, it’s “Gone with the Wind.”

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Charlie Thorns has been the Clayton’s projectionist for nearly 30 years.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark
Charlie Thorns has been the Clayton’s projectionist for nearly 30 years.

“Gone with the Wind had 14 reels. I did 13 changeovers and played it 14 straight nights. The best part of the movie is, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ And I knew it was over,” said Charlie Thorns with a laugh.

Thorns has been the projectionist at Dagsboro’s Clayton Theatre for nearly 30 years and a self-proclaimed projectionist since the age of 8.

“I’ve been doing it since I was 8 years old. I started in Exmore, Va., on the Eastern Shore,” he explained. “My dad, he was a manager of two theaters — a white theater and a colored theater. This was before desegregation, and I used to work the colored theater.”

As the man behind the reel for decades, Thorns has shown countless of films, but he stands firm that “Gone with the Wind” is his all-time favorite.

“It’s one of the all-time classics. I love the movie. The special effects in it back in 1935 — which is why it won 10 Academy Awards — to me is great.”

Thorns is a wealth of information about the film and is able to spout off detail about the film from its varying posters (one shows Vivien Leigh wearing a more modest dress) to the spiral staircase inside Tara (it was fake).

“This movie was shot in 1935. When they’re walking through the burning of Atlanta… that big building behind them that’s burning, that’s actually the sound stage for ‘King Kong.’ They wanted to destroy the building… so that’s what you’re seeing,” he said.

“The scene where she’s walking through and there are all the soldiers on the ground and some of them are moving? What they did was they put strings on some of the extras dressed as soldiers and attached strings to them and then to mannequins. So when you moved, you moved that mannequin.”

One of Thorns’ most vivid memories of showing films is when he was young and working at the segregated theater run by his dad.

“One night we were playing a 3D movie, and we had the place packed… 300-plus people. Just before a spider was about to step out into the audience, the film broke. Well, back then, it was emulsion print, and the hot light would ignite the film. Well — poof! And all we saw was the doors open and all of those people were outside in 10 seconds,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen people move so fast.”

Thorns has also run a drive-in movie theater, working both the projector and the ticket booth.

“A lot of people would get off from work and come to the drive-in to eat dinner. We used to have all-nighters, dusk to dawn. By four o’clock in the morning, you could put anything on the screen and nobody would know, because they were all asleep,” he recalled. “Sometimes, I would work the ticket booth, and all of a sudden you’d hear from the trunk, ‘Are we in there yet?’”

Thorn eventually joined the Army and served in the 547 Engineer Battalion but soon became a projectionist there too.

“Then I got into the service, and they found out that I ran projectors, so I wound up in the service club, running movies. I went in for infantry, but they transferred me to Germany for a little over two years and I spent about six years in military.”

Some 37 years ago, Thorns and his wife moved to the area, where they discovered the Clayton Theatre.

“I’ve been doing it off and on in different theaters,” he said of his work as a projectionist. “We came to the movies here one night, and it was ‘Return to the Jedi.’ I brought my daughter and son that night, and we’re sitting in the theater, looking around. ‘Are we the only three in here?’ They ran the movie. I said, ‘Man, I’m not working here.’ … Well, guess what!”

Thorns has shown Alfred Hitchcock movies and James Cameron films and everything in between. He was born into the film industry, but with the majority of movie studios going digital at the end of 2013, Thorns may be out of a job.

“Going digital… It’s just taking my job away. You don’t do this for the money. You do it because you love it,” he explained.

In order to stay open as a single-screen theater showing first-run movies, the Clayton Theatre must replace its original MotioGraph projectors running 35mm film and make other upgrades that could cost more than $100,000.

In order to raise the funds, the Clayton has been holding Clayton Classics, where every Monday night at 7 p.m. patrons can see a classic film for only $4.

February is featuring Jimmy Stewart films, with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” showing on Feb. 18 and “Winchester 73” showing on Feb. 25. In March, Clayton Classics will feature John Wayne films. January was filled to the brim with Bogart classics.

“Since we’ve started this, it’s been a hit,” said Thorns of the community support. “We’ve sold out nearly every Monday night.”

The Clayton Theatre is located at 900 Main Street in Dagsboro. For more information, call (302) 732-3744 or visit www.theclaytontheatre.com or www.facebook.com/pages/The-Clayton-Theatre.