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"THIS IS CINERAMA!", part 4

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in70mm.com
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Greg KimbleDate: 06.10.2002


Twilight

 
The five-year contract with Stanley Warner had expired and Lowell Thomas hoped for a change in management - for the better. For a time, it seemed as though it might happen. The company was acquired by Nicolas Reisini, an import/export tycoon who had been entranced with "Napoleon" and had a real vision for the company.

Filming of "Cinerama Holiday"Filming of "Cinerama Holiday".

His first idea was a good one - Itinerama. He put Cinerama on trucks, and took it all over Europe to the countryside where there was no theater nearby. A tent was put up, and 3,000 people could view a Cinerama film. And so it was that one memorable night in France, Abel Gance, who had the idea nearly 40 years before, was the guest of honor at a Cinerama screening.

Reisini also began an aggressive global building campaign. Over 200 purpose-built theaters were planned, to bring Cinerama to the world. When the Tokyo theater opened, it was such an event that even the Emperor came.

Reisini's second idea wasn't bad, either. He made a co-pro deal with MGM for a string of traditional dramatic films. George Pal brought his special touch to The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, a bio-pic interspersed with dramatizations of their fairy tales. It featured several visual effects and was moderately successful.

Further in 70mm reading:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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Cinerama Films

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But it was the classic "How The West Was Won" which would become the crown jewel of Cinerama, the last 3-panel film, and the highest grossing film of 1962, just as TIC had been 10 years before.

3-strip frame composite from "Search For Paradise"Actual 3-strip frame composite from "Search For Paradise". Click picture to see enlargement.

"HTWWW"
was a multi-generational story which followed the Prescott family as they headed West. Shot entirely on wilderness locations with several units, an all-star cast, and three directors over a two year period, it was a major achievement for director general Henry Hathaway, who studied the Cinerama process in depth and learned how to work around its limitations.

Hathaway proved that the process, thought difficult and expensive, could be effective with the right property. It is a taste of what might have followed. If only…

Unfortunately, Reisini's vision had expanded faster than his revenues. His 360° consumer camera wasn't selling, nor his home video tape recorder. The company, unfamiliar with studio accounting practices, had taken a bath in "overhead" charges on "HTWWW". When the 70mm comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" proved a success, he decided the 3-panel process was just too expensive and made all future films in either Technirama or Super Panavision 70, hoping to trade on the established marquee value of the Cinerama name. Of course, audiences weren't fooled by this bastardization of the process - it was impossible not to notice that there was only one projector.

Several subsequent films were advertised as being "in Cinerama" among them "Khartoum", "Grand Prix", and "Ice Station Zebra". Originally contracted for 3-panel, "2001" was shot in 70mm when effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull saw the long, slender design for the Discovery spacecraft and knew it would kink badly at the blend lines. "The Greatest Story Ever Told" actually began production in 3-panel, but after a few days director George Stevens was talked into using Ultra-Panavision by ill-informed advisors.

 
 
3-strip frame composite from "Cinerama Holiday"Actual 3-strip frame composite from "Cinerama Holiday". Click picture to see enlargement.

Now it happens that the original specs for Ultra-Panavision (70mm with a 1.25 squeeze) yield the same aspect ratio as Cinerama (2.76), and 3-panel prints could be made from the negative, although this has never been done. (Imagine the chariot race from "Ben-Hur" projected this way!)

Worse, Reisini also called a halt to all R&D, which stopped production of Waller's design of a 35mm 16-perf pull-across camera with a curved gate, and curved real element lens. Three-panel prints would be made from the single negative, forever solving the image kinking problem where the panels (each with its own vanishing point) met. Waller had never stopped trying to improve the process, and had always seen 3-panel as first generation technology. He would know none of the fate of his brainchild, however. He passed away in 1954, just days after receiving an Academy award for Cinerama.

The Cinerama name rapidly lost its caché and market share. Theaters were un-converted to conventional projection. Of the several purpose-built "Super Cinerama" theaters, only a few remain, and only two, the Seattle Cinerama and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, are equipped to show 3-panel films. (The Cooper in Denver, Colorado was recently demolished for a parking lot despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.) The company assets and distribution arm were purchased by Pacific Theaters, which mothballed the equipment and sold the remaining prints as sound spacer.

The last presentation of 3-panel projection was at a festival in Paris in 1972. As late as 1976, Lowell Thomas was still trying to revive interest in the process for the nation's bicentennial. He firmly believed that someday, someone would help Cinerama achieve its potential. And so it languished, presumed dead, for nearly 20 years.
 
 


The Cavalry Arrives

 
In 1983, American Cinematographer Magazine commissioned a 20th anniversary retrospective article on "How The West Was Won". Appearing in the October issue, it celebrated Cinerama and mourned its passing.

3-strip frame composite from "Cinerama Holiday" Actual 3-strip frame composite from "Cinerama Holiday". Click picture to see enlargement.

This caught the eye of retired projectionist John Harvey, who decided he would bring back Cinerama "if I have to do it by myself." He ferreted out three projectors and a sound head and installed a full working Cinerama theater - in his home. At first he only had 4 minutes of footage. Gradually, he cobbled together a print of "TIC" and one of "HTWWW", the latter in IB Technicolor. Eventually he acquired a pristine, but faded Eastman print of "Cinerama Holiday". These he happily shared with the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England beginning in 1993. For years this was the only place on the planet where Cinerama could still be seen.
 

In 1996, Larry Smith, manager of the small art house cinema, The New Neon in Dayton, Ohio, convinced Harvey to move his equipment there. And so began the renaissance of 'ole 3-eyes. Press attention brought people from all over the world to see the process they thought was lost forever.

Not long after, Paul Allen saved the Seattle Cinerama Theater from the wrecking ball, and restored it to its full 3-panel glory, ordering new prints of "TIC" and "HTWWW".

3-strip frame composite from "Seven Wonders of the World"Actual 3-strip frame composite from "Seven Wonders of the World". Click picture to see enlargement.

Much of the continuing interest in saving Cinerama can be traced to the efforts of Dave Strohmaier, who has spent 5 years researching the process, and collecting memorabilia and interviews with surviving cast and crew for his documentary, "The Cinerama Adventure". A labor-of-love project, it is now being completed with the help of the American Society of Cinematographers and Laser Pacific.

The original film materials for all the travelogues have been vaulted for decades. Fading as we speak, they are awaiting restoration - if only someone will put up the money.

And what of the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood? Nearly lost in a planned conversion to flat-screen and buried inside a parking structure, the Dome was saved largely through the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy under the direction of Doug Haines' Friends of Cinerama. This is quiet vindication for John Sittig, long time Pacific Theaters manager, who has been quietly lobbying behind the scenes for years to install Cinerama in the Dome.

This fall, it will happen at last. Made at the order of Michael Forman, head of Pacific Theaters, a new print of "This Is Cinerama", struck from the original negative by Crest Lab, will be shown on September 30th, the 50th anniversary of the original premier in New York. This will mark the first time 3-panel has ever been shown in the Dome. In October, a 40th anniversary re-premier of "How The West Was Won" is planned.

This will be welcome news for millions of baby boomers for whom Cinerama is a cherished childhood memory of an utterly unique experience they've been denied for over 40 years. Come September, they'll all feel a bit like Lillith Prescott toward the end of "HTWWW", when she is joyfully re-united with her family after decades of separation.

"Oh my," she  gently weeps, "I swore up and down I wasn't going to cry."
National Museum of Photography, Film and Television

Seattle Cinerama

Dayton article #1 and #2

 

Cinerama Adventure web site

"The Cinerama Adventure" update

 
 
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Updated 17-07-13