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Cinerama Comes Home

by Leonard Maltin
September 25, 2012 1:00 AM
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Larry does a slide-show lecture before every screening, and this helps put the movie—and the experience—into its proper context.  John isn’t available for questions beforehand, because he’s so busy; when Cinerama built its own theaters around the world, it required five men to project and monitor each presentation.  John does it all by himself, and spends about eight hours cleaning, inspecting, rewinding and setting up every film.  P.S.  He loves it.

The beauty of Cinerama, which I never really understood, is that unlike more modern large-format films, it isn’t meant to overwhelm you.  IMAX is impressive, but your eye can only focus on about 25% of the picture at any given time.  The same is true for the Circlevision 360 shows at Walt Disney World.   Cinerama was designed to correspond to the human eye; the deep curviture of the screen, at 146 degrees, matches the back of your eye exactly, so if you sit in the center of the theater, you get the same feeling of peripheral vision you experience in real life!  Cinerama’s inventor Fred Waller had tried many multiple-camera systems before hitting on this idea.

What knocked me out, as much as the picture, was the sound.  Hazard Reeves, the designer of the Cinerama sound system (which predated the introduction of stereophonic movies by one year), developed a seven-channel soundtrack in which the placement of the microphones during recording would be replicated by the placement of speakers in the theater. The result is a “live,” immediate surround sound that I would match against anything Dolby Digital has to offer.  In fact, the rich orchestral sound in Cinerama movies sounds better than anything I’ve heard in a contemporary movie theater---better, to my ears, because it seems as if the orchestra is there with you. What’s more, there’s true directional sound, because of the microphone placement during recording. Nothing had to be simulated in post-production.  (Incidentally, the film’s  magnetic soundtrack runs on a separate sound reproducer, quite apart from the three projectors.)

This is Cinerama opens in black & white, with famed newscaster and globe-trotting author Lowell Thomas as your host; he was also a key investor in the company.  Thomas discusses the history of moving images, with illustrations from ancient times through the development of motion pictures.  Then, after describing the innovative process we’re about to see, he says simply, “This…is Cinerama!”

On cue, the small, nearly square black and white image gives way to a giant, wide, curved three-paneled screen, with a picture almost twice as high as Thomas’ prologue.  The sharpness is incredible, and the color resolution dazzling, as the camera takes us on the roller coaster at Rockaways Playland in New York.  Again, it’s not just the first-person ride that makes for a visual thrill, but the accompanying sound—natural and realistic—that puts this over.  From there, we travel around the world with Cinerama:  to Niagara Falls…the canals of Venice…Vienna, where we hear the famed Boys Choir sing “The Beautiful Blue Danube”…to Scotland, for a rally of the clans…and to Spain, for a bullfight.  Finally, we enter the famous La Scala Opera House in Milan to witness a production of “Aida.”

After intermission, there is a sound demonstration—without picture—before we visit Florida’s Cypress Gardens.  If this sequence, with an everglades tour and an exciting water show, seems a bit extended, that’s because Cinerama inventor Fred Waller was also an investor in Cypress Gardens—and, believe it or not, the inventor of the water ski!  Finally, we travel from sea to shining sea in an airplane journey across our great land.

Corny?  Of course it is, but it’s also tremendous entertainment.  One cannot pretend that This is Cinerama is a 1997 film; it was made in 1952, with all the attendant sensibilities.  I loved every minute.

I saw three Cinerama films altogether during my weekend in Dayton, and with each one I gained new appreciation for the process.  The screen itself is something of a marvel.  Waller discovered that if he used conventional screen material, his deeply curved surface would simply bounce its own light back onto the center of the picture.  So he developed a sort of venetian-blind screen, a series of separate, slightly overlapping slats which reflect the light out toward the audience.  The screen at the New Neon consists of 980 flexible bands, which Larry Smith estimates took 2,000 man hours to install!

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  • Dave Kirwan | September 27, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    Great piece! I grew up in Hartford, CT in the 60's, home of one the Cinerama Theaters. Wonderful stuff! One thing I never see fully explained in Cinerama articles though, is the use of such a narrow-angle lens when so much of these things were shot. The exaggeration of depth (even when one views only one 'panel' at a time on an old 3x4 TV set) is outrageous! When Jimmy Stewart walks towards us, he seems to be taking 8 foot strides!

  • Kevin Barry | September 27, 2012 7:31 AMReply

    Great article, Leonard! I was lucky to have seen both The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grim (where is that movie?!) and How The West Was Won during their original Cinerama releases at the Loew's Cinerama Theatre in NYC (formerly the old Loew's Capitol), I also saw How The West Was Won again years later at the Neon Movies in Dayton (I bought the $10 "sweet spot" seats) and I was expecting to see a faded and scratchy remnant, not the sparkling print that looked freshly minted. I bought my first Blu-ray player prompted by Dave Kehr's article in The New York Times when How The West Was Won was released in the "smilebox" format. I also saw Windjammer in Cinemiracle at the Bellevue Theatre in Montclair, NJ, and I remember the projection system broke down about three times. This Is Cinerama was revived years ago at the Ziegfeld Theatre in NYC with all three panels on 70mm and the effect just wasn't the same. I'm so excited that there are dedicated film enthusiasts working to bring these memories back for us.

  • John | September 25, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    You described the uniqueness of Cinerama perfectly Leonard! At age 12 I saw "This is Cinerama" in 1952 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco and was totally stunned by the enveloping experience. Screens were small and almost square (the same size as in the Lowell Thomas prologue to "This is Cinerama") in even the biggest movie palaces in those days. This was before CinemaScope and the other wide screen processes that we take for granted today. It was also the first experience for most of us with any form of stereophonic sound. At home and at the movies we lived in a strictly mono sound world. This was the one of the greatest experiences of my young life and I've been fascinated by Cinerama and other wide screen processes ever since. Needless to say I saw all the follow up Cinerama films several times and was sad to see Cinerama come to an end with "How the West Was Won" only 10 years after the process premiered. I suppose those joint lines and that complex, labor intensive projection system sort of doomed it from the beginning though, certainly after Mike Todd did almost (but not quite!) the same thing with one camera and one projector and 65mm/70nn film with his Todd-AO system.

    I'd like to but can't make it to LA this weekend to see all of the Cinerama films, even though the majority will be projected digitally. I was able to see "This is Cinerama" and "How the West Was Won" in three strip Cinerama at the Dome a couple of years ago though and feel very fortunate in having that opportunity, something I could only dream about in past decades. My Blu-ray/DVD copies of "This is Cinerama" and "Windjammer" are in the mail from Flicker Alley and I can't wait to see them! No way they can re-create the theatrical experience but they'll definitely bring back some fond memories and should actually look quite good in Blu-ray on HDTV! Who would have thought we'd ever see them in any form on video? Kudos to all involved in the restoration and presentation of these revolutionary (for their time anyway!) films! Long live Cinerama!

  • TC Kirkham | September 25, 2012 7:02 PMReply

    Dammit, Leonard! Now I want to see this on a Cinerama Screen! I've been to two Cinerama theaters back when I was a kid, but they were showing regular movies by that time. And now there are none around the Boston area. I'll have to make do with Faux IMAX...and the BluRay to try it out with, though the experience could never be the same....::sniff::

    Thanks for a FANTASTIC article as always!

  • Larry Smith | September 25, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    Great article about Cinerama and it’s growing revival. I especially like the story about John Harvey a one man Cinerama projection team. I hope the showings at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles sells out and the Blu-Ray DVD sales hit the roof! I’ve seen Cinerama presented in the 3-projector process nearly 100 times and it still amazes me with the 3-D you are feel with out needing glasses and the sound separation unprocessed (raw and full range).

    Thanks Leonard Maltin for all that you do for film history, classic movie appreciation and being a friend since the Minneapolis Cinecon in the mid-1980s.

    Larry Smith
    Nitrate Film Specialist
    Library Of Congress
    Culpeper, VA.

  • Norm | September 25, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    Excellent treatise on "Cinerama." I doubt if there has ever been quite a thorough treatment on the subject. Makes one want to fly to Dayton.Maybe one day...

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