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Fade to Black

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton (Right) in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

I lost a good friend of forty-six years yesterday morning. Lee Sanders died of pancreatic cancer in a hospice only two blocks from my apartment. Since he was admitted a week and a half ago, Martine and I had taken to visiting him at least every other day.

Searching through my vast archive at Yahoo! Flickr, I am dismayed to find I have no photos of him. I realize now why this is so: Lee was a motion picture projectionist and an avid film goer, so I only ever saw him indoors where I would have had to use flash, which I hate. So I’ll reproduce this scene from the 1924 film Sherlock Jr., with Buster Keaton as a projectionist. I did not want to take any pictures of Lee at the hospice, because he deteriorated so markedly from visit to visit that it saddened me to have to document it. The last day, just hours before his passing, he was barely able to talk articulately; and he was obviously in great discomfort with his swollen left arm, which was elevated on pillows.

Lee had been not only a projectionist, but an officer in IATSE Local 33. He was frequently interviewed about the art of projection and the plight of that art now that digital projectors were being installed in theaters around the country. In a website entitled A Hollywood Job Fades to Black: Film Projectionist, you can hear his voice saying that he intended to be “the last projectionist alive.” Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.

I know union people because my father was a shop steward for MESA in Cleveland. Lee did not quite fit the image: He was articulate, soft-spoken, and scholarly. He spent his spare time seeing great films. His favorites included F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). You can see a list of Lee’s favorite American films, to which I’ve added my own in the rare cases where we disagreed:

In fact, Lee was a major influence on my film-going. I could never hope to have seen as many pictures as he had—though there was a time in the late Sixties and early Seventies when I could match him film by film.

Something of a renaissance man, Lee was also an avid reader and aficionado of classical music. He frequently drove up to Carmel for the Bach Festival. And he was not only active in the Culver City Democratic Club, but honored by them with a plaque appreciating his efforts that he had hung on his hospice room wall.

Although he never married and had a family, Lee was well liked. I remember his telling me he took a date to a quadruple feature and was surprised to find that she couldn’t (and wouldn’t) sit through the whole show. Martine liked him better than all my other friends.

In all our years of friendship, I never remember him getting angry. He was like a Bodhisattva among people pretending (badly) to be wrathful deities. But then he was a graduate of the Besant Hill School of Happy Valley in Ojai. The school was co-founded by Annie Besant, J. Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley. His time there was a happy one, and he remained close to the school all his life.

Now there is a hole in my life with Lee’s passing, and I am not sure how to fill it.


3 thoughts on “Fade to Black

  1. Thanks for the beautiful tribute to our late friend.
    Some here may recall the screenings from Lee’s very extensive collections of 16mm films in his apartment off Sunset in the 1970s and ’80s. I saw many many classics there that I might never have seen otherwise. I understand Andre DeToth and Kathryn Bigelow both attended, although never on a night I happened to be there.
    Lee told me not long ago that his collection wound up at UCLA , who I hope will treat the films with the care they deserve. He was sad about the “death of cinema,” which he linked of course to the end of motion picture film projection, and dated to about 18 months ago — and if he said it, it must be true.
    Lee was a fount of knowledge not just about classical cinema, but the nitty gritty of the history of motion picture projection in this country. He knew all sorts of darkly funny stories about the union busting activities of the corporations who installed popcorn jockeys in multiplex projection booths in the 1970s and later. I wish someone who knew him had gotten him to write it all down.
    The last time I saw him, about three years ago, he came up to Berkeley. I spent a day with him on Telegraph Avenue. He spent $300 on books at Shakespeare Books — mostly on books on the history of music, and on American labor history. Then he walked across the street and spent another $300 on books on the same topics at Moe’s. He was a man who loved culture in all forms.
    He will be missed.

  2. He will indeed be very missed. Sadly I only knew Lee for a very short period of time but in that time I feel like I got a real sense of the man. As you both know he was a very generous man and he graced me with a few hours of his time to discuss his life as a projectionist for a documentary I was working on. I knew in an instant that we were kindred spirits and that as much as I THOUGHT I knew about film, he knew volumes more. Spending time with him is hospice was difficult but saying goodbye to him and us both knowing it was the last, was a gift beyond words. I knew him little but loved him large.

  3. Hi, I met Lee this past year while shooting a short documentary called Man In The Booth. I really enjoyed meeting him and hearing his story. The movie is now making it’s rounds in the film festival circuit. The director, William F. Reed, really admired Lee and went to visit him at the hospice. William edited together a short memorial clip if you’d like to watch and share with his others who knew him.

    Anderson William

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