Time Traveling to the New Neon
This article first appeared in
The 70mm Newsletter
Mr. David Joachim. Pictures by: Thomas Hauerslev
Issue 53 - June 1998
Harvey rewinding Cinerama film
It isn't replete with brilliant lights; its
slate gray and beige colors are drab and uninviting; its rounded triangular
shape makes it almost like a homely-looking spaceship. It's nothing like
the monstrous UFO that beckoned people the world over to an odd American
outpost in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", but the
New Neon Movies does resemble some sort of otherworldly vehicle that has crash-landed
in the unlikeliest part of an unlikely cinematic Mecca. It has blended in
with a pair of anachronistic diners nearby and hidden behind an enormous
parking garage, apparently escaping detection from many of the locals.
Earthlings fortunate enough to share the psychic message urging them to
convene in Dayton, Ohio were luckier than those in Steven Spielberg's 1977
sci-fi classic: government intervention prevented most of Spielberg's
characters from realizing their dream of bridging the space/time continuum.
The New Neon's travelers have numbered in the thousands and come from more
than a dozen countries and most of the United States. Since August of 1996,
they have been allowed to board the 212 seat spaceliner for weekend
excursions back in time.
I bought my first class tickets in April of '97 and booked passage for a
three day trip. My fellow travelers came from America's East and West
coasts, as well as parts of Europe. We shared a common bond: an undying love
of the world's greatest widescreen process, Cinerama.
In the years B.C. (before Cinerama), screen dimensions and stereo sound
meant nothing to me. Many of the theaters I frequented as a youngster paid
little or no attention to proper masking and projection, and sound was
always monaural. I didn't understand the concept of the wide screen until I
took a field trip to New Orleans' Martin Cinerama theater and saw "How
the West Was Won" as a teen-ager. It was an assault on the senses
that would forever change the way I would judge film technology. Cinerama's
power was too great to ignore and forget. I pined for its return, a return
that wouldn't occur for over three decades.
Further in 70mm reading:
This is Oyster Bay
Historical Wide Screen
in70mm.com's Cinerama page
Harvey original Cinerama equipment.
No one in the universe could have been more impressed by Cinerama than John
Harvey. As a youngster, he began hanging around projection booths, absorbing
technical information from veteran projectionists. Watching "This is
Cinerama" at a Cincinnati theater when he was 17 galvanized his
desire to become a projectionist. He was eventually trained by Cinerama and
projected films in the process during its heyday. As Cinerama theaters began
going dark in the seventies, John began acquiring various discarded prints
and projection equipment. He developed his own method of showing the films
in his home, using a series of mechanical shafts and timing belts to
synchronize the machines. He eventually converted a significant portion of
his home into a personal Cinerama theater, complete with recessed lighting,
motorized curtains and original selsyn-interlocked projectors. He even has
his own popcorn machine and napkins with the Cinerama logo on them.
When Larry Smith, the New Neon's manager, convinced John that his modest
theater could be modified to show the films to admiring fans, Cinerama
enjoyed a revival whose success few could have predicted. The sporadic
publicity it enjoyed (mostly in trade magazines) served to energize its
fans, who used word-of-mouth to help sustain the project. After negotiating
rental details with the films' copyright holders, Smith and Harvey converted
the theater in less than a month. 88 of the theater's 300 seats were removed
to accommodate the three projectors and curved screen. And what was supposed
to be an oddball, two month experiment designed to keep the New Neon from
being converted into a twin cinema, has evolved into a remarkable run with
an international cult following.
The West Was Won" in 3-panel Cinerama. Copyright Cinerama Inc.
The New Neon's success resembles a surprising off-Broadway hit, with a one
man cast and an untested understudy. (Larry Smith has tried to absorb some
of John's considerable knowledge of how properly to present the films should
the projectionist fall ill, but is grateful he has never had to fill in for
him. The gratitude shown by Cinerama fans from across the globe seems to
energize the sixty year old projectionist, and seems to immunize him from
illness and fatigue.) John has perfected a system that enables him to
automate much of the process that once required over a dozen technicians. He
moves from machine to machine, constantly making subtle adjustments and
corrections that go undetected. He resembles a circus performer who keeps
plates spinning tenuously on thin, wobbly sticks. Film buffs are drawn to
Dayton to see Cinerama offered by film exhibition's greatest performance
The New Neon's 18-by-48 foot curved screen is modest by Cinerama standards,
although perfectly proportioned for the 90 by 90 foot auditorium. There are
no bad views from the 120 seat center "sweet spot." Harvey has
paid homage to the magnificent Technicolor IB prints by slavishly preserving
them and keeping them remarkably free of scratches and dirt.
Jung preparing a Cinerama
"How the West Was Won" looks practically as good now as it
did when I saw it in 1963. I expected "This is Cinerama" to
suffer significantly from the ravages of time, but its Technicolor hues are
also intact (even if more than a few of its weathered frames have had to be
replaced by spacer [a.k.a. slugs in Hollywood, ed]).
"Cinerama Holiday", the second film produced in the
process, is the most cinematic and dazzling of the three features I got to
see. Yellows and greens make cameo appearances in a few scenes, but the
starring color is pink -this is an Eastman print that has faded in the
intervening four decades. The now mono-chromatic classic features ambitious
skiing and bobsledding sequences that required cleverly improvised rigging,
but it doesn't rely solely on dizzying moving shots. It also uses the
enormous aspect ratio to present events as diverse as a fashion show and a
re-enactment of a jazz funeral.
Veteran Cinerama technicians recall the alignment problems that dogged them
when they shot the various travelogues. "Cinerama Holiday"
has an infamous shot where a woman standing too close to one of the frame
junctures appears to have three legs. I never saw that shot in the film;
apparently John deftly adjusted the projection mask and hid the flaw. He
knows where all of the flaws in his prints are--he's seen them thousands of
When Hollywood finally acknowledged Cinerama's superiority as a widescreen
process, they attempted to mold it to fit their way of making films. "How
The West Was Won" endures as a classic despite MGM's attempts to
circumvent the complicated filming process. Entirely too much of the film
relies on process shots filmed in 65mm. As a teen-ager I didn't notice the
annoying graininess that's now all too apparent. The famous buffalo stampede
is the only sequence that seems to hold up, despite its reliance on Ultra
Panavision. The dust the beasts stir up as they storm the railroad camp
hides much of the grain of some of the 65mm clips.
Troller, John Marsh, Betty Marsh York and Fred Troller.
What really stands the test of time is the sound. John Harvey beams when he
points out that the president of IMAX admitted he preferred Cinerama's sound
to IMAX sound. The IMAX chief confessed to the preservationist that he
should have listened to Hazard Reeves, Cinerama's sound designer, when IMAX
was being developed. He appreciates Cinerama's wide dynamic range and true
stereophonic effect, an effect that relies more on proper microphone
placement than it does on a postproduction engineer's idea of how sound
should be positioned after the fact.
John Harvey wishes Hollywood would acknowledge that they were wrong to run
from Cinerama's demanding technology. He wonders what might have evolved if
they hadn't worked so hard to develop easier widescreen processes. The same
ingenuity that spawned digital sound, Wescam aerial photography and
computer-generated special effects, could have been used to refine Cinerama
and make it more practical.
Now Smith and Harvey have formed the Cinerama Preservation Society, a
not-for-profit organization designed to preserve the rare three strip
process. John Harvey keeps increasing his inventory of Cinerama films, and
the pair hopes to ultimately build a museum dedicated to other lost
widescreen formats. America's Library of Congress has honored their efforts
(as well as England's Museum of Photography, Film and Television), by
putting "How The West Was Won" on its preservation list. The LOC
will try and coax a new print of the film from Ted Turner, its copyright
During my visit to Ohio, I took in an evening showing of Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet".
English literature's greatest work, presented in 70mm, drawing a
near-capacity crowd of Daytonians, some of whom were obviously sitting in
the New Neon's cushioned, crimson seats for the first time. I watched them
crane their necks as they surveyed the auditorium, staring at John's
makeshift projection booths and curved, louvered screen. When a few of the
patrons began making inquiries about the odd setup, I tried to explain what
Cinerama was. They struggled to grasp the concept, but I couldn't help but
feel they didn't really get it. I couldn't fight the feeling that more than
a few of them thought I had just landed in an alien spaceship.
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