Traverse City Record-Eagle

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August 4, 2013

The man behind the projector

TRAVERSE CITY — A long road landed Billy Heck in the small film booth perched at the rear of the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City.

"There's a lot of steps in this film booth to make everything run right," said Heck, the State Theatre's projectionist, as he pushed a button to check the alignment of the next film on the screen.

He peeked through a window in the front of the booth to see the screen, while someone's voice crackled on his handheld radio.

"Julie to Billy," the woman said. "The house is empty."

Heck's face reflected in the thick glass next to the theater's hulking digital projector. He smiled. He might not have recognized that face just a few months ago. He saw a confident man who takes pride in his work.

All Heck needed was a chance, an opportunity, to get his life moving in the right direction.

Three months ago, the Iraq war veteran worked the night shift at Home Depot loading trucks and going nowhere fast. Heck, 28, was doing everything he could to make ends meet for his family. He worked hard, but it was not the career he once envisioned.

He didn't whine, or look for sympathy. He did his job, followed orders, earned a paycheck.

Then, in May, just two days after buying a house with his wife of two years, the same day the couple learned they would soon be parents of twins, he received a phone call. It was Michael Moore, founder of the Traverse City Film Festival. The call changed Heck's life.

Moore offered the Manton native a job as a full-time projectionist, the first such position under the Film Festival's new policy to hire and train military veterans.

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