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Always focused, whether at work, at home, or out in the community
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Technology changed but Jim Hollister's dedication was always a constant during the 67 years he manned the projector booth at the historic Catlow Theater in Barrington.


Courtesy Tim O'Connor and the Catlow Theater archive

The Catlow movie theater


Daily Herald file photo


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Published: 11/5/2009 12:02 AM

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On one of Jim Hollister's last days before death ended his 67-year career running the projector at Barrington's classic Catlow Theater, a button broke minutes before the Saturday showtime. The movie would be too blurry to watch unless the 84-year-old projectionist could figure out a way to focus, and do it right now.

Focusing was never a problem for Hollister.

The polio he survived as a child left him with "the limp," which he knew would keep him from going off to fight World War II. So the teenager got odd jobs at the Catlow Theater and learned how to run the projector when the regular projectionist, Ray Jahnke, joined the Navy. Hollister remained focused on that task until he showed "The Informant" last Thursday, his last regular working day before he died in his sleep Sunday at home.

"He retired after 50 years. I think that lasted two weeks," recalls his wife, Abigail, who was the recipient of her husband's focus even before their nearly 43-year marriage.

Hollister braved a winter storm just to pick up her engagement ring, Father Fred Licciardi recalls during Wednesday's funeral mass at St. Anne Church in Barrington.

The Roman Catholic priest tries to sum up Hollister in a single word. He ponders "reliable," "dependable," "constant" and "unwavering" before settling on the perfect choice: "faithfulness."

Hollister was faithful to his wife, daughters Elisabeth, Sarah and Julie, his community and his job.

"The man never did anything for a short period of time, including living," says his daughter, Julie Golden.

Baptized in 1925, Hollister was the longest-registered parishioner in St. Anne's history. He worked as a printer in addition to his projectionist job. He was a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, served as village trustee from 1965 through 1969, was an avid beekeeper for 30 years, had lifelong friendships and knew just about everyone because of his active life in the community.

The 1928 red fire engine parked outside the church in Hollister's honor during his funeral was the truck Hollister started with during his nearly 32 years as a volunteer firefighter, says Barrington Fire Chief Jim Arie.

"He certainly was an icon of the community," says John Feit, the department's deputy chief.

"He knew everything that happened in the theater and in the town for the last 67 years," says Tim O'Connor, who owns and runs the Catlow Theater with his partner, Roberta Rapata. "I never remember him telling the same story twice either. He was like having our own personal Barrington history teacher. It won't ever be the same around here without him, that's for sure."

Owners of the Baloney's restaurant in the theater, Rapata and O'Connor bought the Catlow in 1988.

"When we bought the theater, Jim and the other old projectionist just came with the building," Rapata says. "People try to make it like a little family. If you work as a team in this world, everything does get done."

Hollister was a key part of that family.

"When Ray (Jahnke) retired (in 1995), it was just the two of us," O'Connor says, noting he generally ran the projector on weekends and Hollister did it on weeknights. "But whenever I got sick or tied up on some project, we'd call Jim and, no matter what, he'd be there for us. I can't think of one time when he said, 'Sorry, I'm too busy to do that.'"

That dedication is why filmmaker Kimberly Weaver, an editor and animator who grew up in Cary, made a documentary about Hollister ("Man of Many Reels") in 2002. She was surprised to discover Hollister did not share her love of film.

"He never really watched the movie," e-mails Weaver, who now lives and works in Chicago. "He had a little TV up in the booth that he would watch with headphones while the film was playing out. He had been doing it so long that if something went wrong with the projector, he could tell right away from the sound it was making."

The Hollister daughters figure the last movie their dad watched from the booth might have been "Pretty Woman." He didn't climb those narrow steps to the projection booth to be entertained. He did it for his job.

And when that projector knob broke a few Saturdays ago, Hollister didn't have time to let his mechanical brain muse about possible fixes, or even to get help. He focused.

He came down the stairs at the end of the night looking as if "he'd been to war," Rapata remembers.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"That knob is not right," Hollister told her. "I had to hold it in focus for the whole movie."

Keeping the focus is how Hollister lived.