“My dollar watch ticked off 30 leaden minutes. Even my perspiration was drying up.”
Young Louis was sweltering in the projection booth at the Elmo Theatre. It had been at 110 degrees for hours.
“Then I snapped to full attention. I could see the fire inspector through a small porthole in my booth. From the way he looked over the packed audience, trouble was brewing,” Louis recalled. “My Four Years in Germany” was the first hit feature release from Warner Bros. It dealt with America’s role in World War I and drew huge audiences nationwide.
On Labor Day in 1918, the Elmo Theatre added extra matinees and drew an unusually large crowd. Young Louis, the eldest son of pioneering Chinese merchant Ah Louis, had been at work since early morning. It was 10:30 p.m., and Young Louis’ coworkers still had not shown up.
The Elmo Theatre’s rival, El Monterey Theatre, reported to the fire department that the Elmo was overcrowded. Louis checked out everything in the projection booth, confirming that it met the fire code.
However, there were many standees in the audience, which violated the code. This violation was usually overlooked by inspectors unless there was “dangerous overcrowding,” but only the fire inspector could make that final determination.
Louis recalled, “The inspector wasn’t looking at the screen. He was scowling at the excited faces in the aisles. The usherettes had them properly lined up and were patrolling the open spaces faithfully. But that did not cover the requirements of the ordinance.”
Young Louis’s only hope for passing inspection was to distract the inspector’s eyes to the screen, where a silent film played. As in most silent films lacking live accompaniment, an electric player piano-organ synced to the film, murmuring excitedly in the background. The murmur would build in intensity as the climax of the movie approached.
Louis began to speed up the player piano-organ by about 10 revolutions per minute, making it seem like the climax was very near. He then added another 10 rpm, “until a lusty roar told me that the fateful moment on the screen had arrived. The audience broke into a roar of applause, cheering Old Glory on its conquering way.”
Louis began to breathe more easily. “In 15 minutes it would be all over. Part of the audience who had come in to see the end of the last show would be leaving. The crowd was thinning. In five minutes, the inspector wouldn’t be able to find anything to complain about.”
In the film, Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff was about to launch Germany’s final, unsuccessful offensive. The cannons flashed on the screen. Just then, Louis smelled burning celluloid. Some film had passed the projection lenses but accumulated beneath the intense heat of the carbon arc lamp. A long string of film had ended up burning on the projection booth floor.
For one awful instant, Louis saw the Elmo’s hopes in ashes. He felt the disgrace of losing his fight in the hour of victory.
He quickly recovered his nerves and followed procedure. He kicked out the wooden wedge that held open the iron door to the booth. He closed the shutters on everything but the projection window itself. Then he went to work with the fire extinguisher.
The fire was quickly extinguished. Louis kept the projector running throughout. The inspector never came up to the booth where he might easily have detected the near disaster.
When his wife Stella asked how the film was, Louis would have a real story to tell.
Want to know more about Mission San Luis Obispo? Training classes for newcomers and docents will be held Wednesdays from 7-8:30 p.m. on June 4 (Youth Center), June 11 (Parish Hall), June 18 (Youth Center) and June 25 (Parish Hall). There is no obligation to serve as docents. For further information, call 805-543-9611.
Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association