Historic projectors used to show movies for eight decades at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda could be headed for history's dustbin, to be replaced by more modern and easier to use equipment.
But critics say the performing arts center and moviehouse -- which boasts a functioning Mighty Wurlitzer organ -- would be making a mistake as the film industry accelerates its move from celluloid to digital.
"Carbon arc systems are very scarce and precious, and films look better that are projected with them," said Edward Summer, a Buffalo native and member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, whose mother lives near the theater.
"Within a few years, getting hold of film and an authentic movie theater that can show the film will be a very, very special thing. If the Riviera goes the way of all modern movie theaters, then why would we think of them as anything but a modern movie theater with nice decor?" he said.
The 1927 not-for-profit theater is on the Register of Historic Landmarks.
Ray O'Keefe, executive director of the Niagara Aerospace Museum, also wants the Riviera to reconsider its decision.
"[The carbon arc projectors] are a way to see films the way they were originally projected. It seems that if someone were to turn that into a drawing card, it might be advantageous," O'Keefe said.
Carbon arc systems refer to the bright arc of light created between positive and negative copper-sheathed carbon rods. The light source is considered clearer and brighter than Xenon bulbs, its common replacement. They also need to be replenished and adjusted regularly, just as the 20-minute film reels must be manually switched over by a projectionist from one projector to the other.
Frank Cannata, executive director of the Riviera, said he wants to use a $12,000 state grant to update the projection booth. He hopes to increase the number of occasional film screenings and said the platter system is a more sensible choice, given the theater's dependence on volunteer projectionists. That's because once the reels of a film are spliced together, they are threaded through a single projector and guided onto a large cylinder with the press of a button.
"As much as we like to preserve as much of the historical integrity of the building as we can, we have to be practical," Cannata said. "One of the issues is that using [carbon arc projectors] is pretty labor-intensive. It takes a great deal of time to learn how to operate the machines."
The Riviera currently has four volunteer projectionists. Cannata said the plan is to convert the lamphouse on one of the projectors to a Xenon light source and cannibalize the other projector for parts.
However, ditching the carbon arc lamphouses also may eliminate classic movies from being shown at the Riviera, according to both the chief operating officer and the chief projectionist at Shea's Performing Arts Center. Shea's is the only other theater in the Buffalo area still using carbon arc projectors.
Joe Heckt, Shea's 84-year-old union projectionist, said last month's screening of "Miracle on 34th Street" -- which also played the Riviera -- or this Sunday's program of Buster Keaton silent films would not have been allowed on a platter system. That's because films for carbon arc projectors are simply transferred from shipping reels to projection reels, while a platter system requires them to be spliced together.
"It's just a situation where these classic films, they just won't put them on the platters. They won't give you the prints," Heckt said.
Shea's CEO Anthony Conte said the theater considers its carbon arc projectors an essential part of the theater's motion picture presentation.
"We would never give up our carbon arc projectors," Conte said.
Timothy Wagner, a film technician and part-time projectionist at the George Eastman House in Rochester, said one problem with carbon arc projection is that the rods are no longer manufactured in the United States, making them more costly.
Wagner also noted it takes more skill and constant attention to operate a carbon arc projector.
Cannata said he is willing to consider using the grant for other projection booth enhancements if more volunteer projectionists step forward.
He also recognizes the enduring appeal of older films and expressed concern over the prospect of being denied prints in the future. A screening of "Niagara," the 1953 picture starring Marilyn Monroe, drew a sold-out crowd of 1,150 patrons recently at the Riviera, he said.