Gordon Brinckle, the late, eccentric subject of a new photography book called The Projectionist, was an outsider artist to be sure: A small-town projectionist at the local movie theater, Brinckle spent his free time sketching and constructing a small-scale movie palace called the Shalimar in the basement of his Middletown, Delaware, home. (Which we suppose makes him more like an outsider artist, designer, architect, and engineer all rolled into one.) Photographed and written by Kendall Messick, a filmmaker who grew up across the street from the Brinckle family, the book documents the artist and his process, mixing photographs of Brinckle’s fully realized creation with original artwork, architectural plans, sketches, and linoleum prints of ticket stubs and uniform designs. Brinckle had some vocational training but was otherwise self-taught, and the book is a fascinating glimpse at how an artist can work in a vacuum and yet still mimic the methods used by designers far and wide.
“Gordon designed, constructed, and decorated his theater with a meticulous attention to detail that some might say bordered on obsession,” Messick writes. “He continuously redesigned and changed its layout over the years. Upon close inspection, a visitor to the Shalimar would be struck by his use and adaptation of mundane household items, such as plastic nightlights, which were used as footlights on the stage, or lawn ornaments that were faux-painted by Gordon to blend into the auditorium surroundings, evoking feelings of opulence and grandeur.” We’ve excerpted some of our favorite photos, along with more of Messick’s commentary, below.
“You never know what people keep in their basements. The home of the late Gordon Brinckle (1915–2007) in Middletown, Delaware, was a stellar example of just how unexpected a basement’s contents can be. Who would believe that a house whose exterior reflects the familiar, cookie-cutter architecture of the 1950s once contained a fully operational 1920s-style movie palace?
In 1969, when I was four years old, my family moved into the house across the street from the Brinckle family — Gordon, Dorothy (Dot), and their daughter, Sandy. Sandy used to babysit my brother and me, and it was through her that I discovered the Shalimar, her father’s movie palace in the basement. Although I saw it only once as a boy, a distinct impression of something wonderful remained with me through the years, which would eventually lead to my fortuitous return visit twenty-five years later and the subsequent realization of The Projectionist.
Back in the 1960s, Middletown was a one-stoplight town surrounded by farmland; fast food restaurants, chain stores, and cultural opportunities were at least a half-hour drive away. For a young boy, the only real excitement the small town had to offer was the Everett Theatre and its weekend programming of the newest movie releases. Gordon was the projectionist of this single-screen theater that had been operating since 1922.
The Brinckles were not particularly social people. Gordon’s wife, Dot, was a bit more outgoing, but Gordon had always been a loner. Though I remember seeing him walking down the aisle of the Everett with his flashlight as he headed up the stairs to the projection booth on Friday and Saturday nights, my boyhood impressions of him are vague. On the rare occasions that I ran into the Brinckles, Dot typically took the lead in conversations while Gordon silently looked on. I later came to learn that during most of his adult life, Gordon spent his days in the basement building the Shalimar, his own miniature version of a movie palace, while at night he was behind the projectors at the Everett, showing films to eager audiences. His busy work schedule, coupled with Gordon’s reticence, meant that only a precious few knew of the existence of his fantastic creation.
In December of 2001, I was visiting my mother, who still lives in my childhood home in Middletown, when she got the news that Sandy had died after a long battle with cancer. I accompanied my mother across the street for a visit to the grieving parents and couldn’t help but wonder whether the theater was still there after so many years. I later asked Gordon about it and he replied, ‘She’s decorated for Christmas. Would you like to see her?’ And with that, he led me down the basement stairs like the usher that he had been years before.
I was unprepared for the experience of seeing the Shalimar that day. My childhood recollection consisted of a vague impression of a stage, theater seats, and a box office. The reality of Gordon’s ‘theatre of renown,’ as he lovingly called it, however, was beyond anything I could remember or even imagine. Everywhere I looked, there were intricate details in the design and decoration that spoke to Gordon’s passion and obsession. In the tradition of the movie palaces of the past, he had decorated the auditorium for Christmas. The added layer of ornament took the opulent 1920s style to new heights, leaving me with questions about the quiet man that was behind such a creation. Shortly thereafter, I asked Gordon whether he would allow me to document his life and his theater, so that his story could be shared with others. He was immediately enthusiastic, and I began to work with him in late 2001.
Throughout his life, Gordon dreamed of owning an actual movie palace, but on a projectionist’s salary the possibility of accomplishing this goal seemed remote at best. So in 1959 he began building his dream in the basement of his Delaware home. At this point he had been living in Middletown for twelve years with his wife, Dot, whom he had met during the war, and their young daughter, Sandy. The Shalimar is a larger, grander version of the Alvin Casino. Gordon inventively combined and adapted various styles that were popular during different periods of the twentieth century to craft an environment that was completely original. Gordon’s theater boasts a marquee that distinctly recalls the 1960s; an auditorium decorated in the “semi-atmospheric” style of the 1930s, which attempts to bring the outdoors in through the use of fake foliage and wildlife; and three working curtains that open to reveal an actual movie screen. Nine authentic movie seats were originally bolted to the floor of the auditorium. There was a projection booth with 16-mm projectors, an organ alcove complete with a working organ, and a small chapel. Not only did Gordon design, build, and decorate the space, he also did all the electrical wiring and installed more than nineteen audio speakers into hidden panels in the ceiling and the walls, making it possible for the organ music that he so loved to flood the space.
His creation was not so far removed from the palaces that inspired him, which were often built with elaborate facades designed to enchant and transport the audience. Given the time and commitment Gordon made to build the Shalimar, it is surprising that he did not use his basement theater to regularly show movies to friends and family. After all, the projection room was outfitted with a working 16-mm army issue RCA projector, special effects lights, and stereophonic sound. But what compelled Gordon to construct the Shalimar was not only his dream of owning a movie theater but also his interest in preserving the history of movie palaces. In his writings about the Shalimar he views his ‘theatre of renown’ as a museum dedicated to this history.
History and storytelling are also central to my work as an artist. I generally commit years to each individual project, ultimately creating exhibitions of still photography, film, and video to preserve and share stories that would otherwise go unheard. I am most often drawn to the stories of aging individuals, so a sense of urgency propels my work, since the people that I choose to work with are often in their final years of life.
The Projectionist follows in this tradition. My initial work with Gordon consisted primarily of still photography. I began making images of him in late 2001 and continued until he and his wife passed away within a month of one another in late 2007. Initially, all of the photographs were portraits of Gordon inside the Shalimar or stills of the theater itself, captured in deep, saturated color to augment the palette that Gordon had used in decorating his movie palace. In many of these photographs, Gordon became my muse, dutifully shuffling about in his self-created fantasy world, operating the projector, serving as usher, and performing for his audience. The wildly colored and patterned jackets that he was famous for wearing to greet patrons at the Everett in his final working years became a staple of our collaboration, and the color film fittingly echoed Gordon’s zeal and devotion to his theater, highlighting the fantastic secret world that he had created in his basement.”