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Projectionist recalls his zeal for the reel

May 18, 2004|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

There are exactly 62 steps on the fire escape leading to the projection booth at The Maryland Theatre. George Wagner, 90, knows that because he climbed those stairs hundreds of times to watch and learn the trade he loved.

"I was only 18. I couldn't get into the union until I turned 21 in 1935, so I would sneak in," Wagner said. He parlayed that love of film into a career that lasted more than 25 years.

Wagner and his wife, Genny, have been married for 56 years and have three sons.

Wagner recalls seeing the silent film "The Birth of a Nation" projected onto a sheet when he was 7 years old.

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Hooked on pursuing a film career, Wagner sold salve for a mail-order company so he could win a small projector as a reward.

"Later I saw a man who worked as a projectionist and he was driving a convertible, smoking a big cigar and making about $45 a week," Wagner said. "I was making about $7 or $8 a week then, so I knew this was the career for me."

After an intense apprenticeship, he started working as a projectionist. Even a stint in the U.S. Army in World War II didn't dampen his zeal, as he managed to get a job operating the projection equipment at the Newfoundland base where he was stationed.

For about 25 years, Wagner worked at The Maryland Theatre and the old Academy Theater on West Washington Street.

"I always loved seeing the theater filled with people and knowing I was in charge of putting on a good show for them," he said.

Even when he went on to other full-time jobs as an inspector at Fairchild and Mack Trucks, Wagner said he worked part time at the theaters.

Wagner has been a volunteer at The Maryland Theatre for more than 20 years and still is a member of its board of directors. The George A. Wagner Projection Room at the theater was named in his honor.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Bros. owned nine theaters in and around Hagerstown, Wagner said. The Maryland Theatre was the "A" theater, which meant it got the top movies first in the area.

Born in Hagerstown, Wagner was the eldest of eight children, three of whom - in addition to Wagner - still are living. He attended eight years of St. Mary's Catholic School and later took a high school equivalency test when he had to go to work to help his family instead of going on to high school.

"My whole life, I was only out of work two weeks, even through the Depression," Wagner said. "I have been very fortunate in that I always had a job I liked, whether at the theaters, Fairchild or at Mack Trucks. I made a good wage, had good benefits and no long commutes - you can't get any better than that."

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