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Winter 2000 Edition

Cinerama Update:
In Seattle

The enormous screen in Seattle's
Cinerama Theatre brings Jimmy Stewart to life in
the film How The West Was Won.
(Photo by Matt Lutthans)

The Revolutionary
3-Camera Process Makes Motion
Picture History Again

Story by Jack Tucker, A.C.E.

Having been dragged into the fight to preserve the Cinerama Dome by Doug Haines--along with ASC, the Editors Guild, Hollywood Heritage, and the L. A. Conservancy--I was not entirely surprised when I received a call from Dave Strohmaier inviting me to come to Seattle in November to attend a test screening of Cinerama. A veteran Film Editor, Dave is known to many of us as "Mr. Cinerama" because of the two years he has spent researching, producing, directing and editing Cinerama Adventure, a documentary scheduled for release this year, chronicling the rise and fall of the 3-camera process and its effect on film history.

Cinerama, as many of us know, is a process by which images are recorded on three separate strips of film and are played back through three separate projectors on a large curved screen creating the illusion of depth. The 146 degrees of image affects peripheral vision and enhances the experience. Several travelogues (This Is Cinerama, Search For Paradise, etc.) and two dramatic features (How The West Was Won, The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm) were produced in this revolutionary format. First exhibited in 1952--the process was innovative in its wide use of stereophonic sound--3-panel Cinerama was abandoned in 1963 in favor of Super Panavision 70.

Cinerama's legacy was the wide screen processes that followed: CinemaScope, Todd-AO, Panavision, Technirama, Techniscope, etc., as well as the "Road Show" format of distribution. "Road Shows" featured reserved seating, an overture before the curtain opened, an intermission and program books sold in the lobby. It elevated the showmanship of film exhibition.

H O W   I T   W O R K S
A detailed illustration from a 1952 Cinerama program explains the process to the novice Cinerama viewer.

On November 10, I flew to Seattle with Dave Strohmaier and Gunther Jung, Pacific Theatre's expert on Cinerama. We carried with us about twenty minutes of Cinerama film, including pieces from How The West Was Won, This Is Cinerama, Search For Paradise and South Seas Adventure. Except for West, all the clips were from old prints whose color had shifted to the pink. Through the cooperation of Dick May at Warner Bros., Dare was able to print up a new section from the original negatives of How The West Was Won--edited by our late member Harold F. Kress, A.C.E.

Since there are no Cinerama moviolas left (each panel is 6 perforations), Dave had to lip sync the track over a bench by comparing film frames with video frames of the movie. Amazingly, he managed to do this perfectly and after many long hours prepared two test reels.

Our destination in Seattle was the old Cinerama theatre on 4th Avenue. This theatre had been slated for destruction, but the protests of concerned citizens had reached the ears of Paul G. Allen, of Microsoft fame. He saved the day by purchasing the theatre and embarking on a multi-million dollar campaign to restore this piece of Seattle history. Mr. Allen made it clear that he wanted his theatre to be state of the art while preserving its historical aspects.

In Seattle, Dave, Gunther and I linked up with John Sittig, Pacific Theatre's Director of Cinerama. We were also joined by Richard A. Vincent of Theatre Management Associates, Inc. of Denver, which also owns a Cinerama theatre in need of restoration. Arriving at the theatre we joined John Harvey, who brought Cinerama back to Dayton, Ohio where he regularly runs How The West Was Won in Cinerama, and Matt Lutthans, a leader of the Friends of Cinerama.

I observed that the theatre was indeed state of the art. Instead of standard poster display cases, attractions were promoted by 42 inch tall plasma screens that featured artwork and actual trailers of coming films. Jeff Graves of Vulcan Northwest, Paul Allen's Cinerama project manager, recalled Allen's instructions, "I want this to be the best in the world." Obviously nothing had been spared to make everything the best that was possible.

The 800 seat theatre is managed by Kiki Santiago and General Cinema books the films to be played. It sports two screens; a 68 foot by 32 foot flat screen for standard films and, behind it, a gigantic curved, louvered Cinerama screen for 70mm and Cinerama presentations. Switching the two screens, while a technological miracle, takes nearly eight hours.

The balance of November 10 was spent aligning the three projectors and preparing to test out on the screen the two reels we had brought. The Cinerama projectors were found in Peru and painstaking restored to their original state. It was nearly 8 o'clock that evening before we were able to run a reel The lights dimmed, the curtains opened--remember when they used to do that--and all three panels came on. It was a flying scene from Search For Paradise. The years had not dimmed the effect of the three integrated images on the gigantic curved screen.

Suddenly, we lost the left panel coming from booth A. The whole thing shut down. We yelled up to Gunther Jung in that booth, "What happened?" Apparently the sensors on the projector thought there was no film running through it and it automatically shut us down. It was the triumph of technology over artistry.

We rethreaded and started over. This time it went smoother. I began to realize that Cinerama was not designed to be run by the kid who sells the candy at the concession stand while moonlighting as a projectionist. All three projectors have to be in sync, in frame, in focus and in tune with what's going on.

Dave Strohmaier, Otto Lang and John Harvey
(Photo by Jack Tucker, A.C.E.)

The next day, a press screening was organized for 3 p.m. A game plan was worked out. First, the reel with the clip from How The West Was Won would be run. After a fifteen minute intermission - it takes time to load those reels--the second reel would begin with the famous "roller coaster sequence" from This Is Cinerama. Prior to that, at 1 p.m., we would run footage from Search For Paradise for Otto Lang, the 91year-old director of the film, who was currently living in Seattle.

Included in the Search For Paradise footage was the river rafting sequence shot on the Ganges river in the Himalayas. There, the river had never been rafted before or since, and during the shooting the raft carrying Lang had overturned, resulting in the death of one crew member and the permanent loss of one Cinerama camera. Mr. Lang was pleased to see this footage again in the format that it had been shot.

As we were sitting around, I overheard some of the exhibitors who were with us bemoaning the state of showmanship today. They collectively agreed that it was the major thing lacking in today's theatres, and why wasn't something done about it since whenever attempts were made in this area, the public loved it.

The press arrived and interviewed Otto Lang, Dave Strohmaier, John Harvey and Jeff Graves. Then they went into the theatre and the first reel was projected. I climbed up into the top row of the balcony and watched the clip from How The West Was Won. It was my first time seeing it in Cinerama since 1963. Even from that far back the experience was impressive.

For the second reel, I went down and sat in the fourth row, exactly behind the God spot--the perfect seat in the theatre to experience Cinerama. The lights dimmed and over the speakers we heard Lowell Thomas speaking the words he had spoken at that historic moment in 1952 when the world was introduced to Cinerama.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," Thomas cried. "This is Cinerama!"

An image appeared on the screen as the curtains began opening. It was the roller coaster beginning its ascent up the hill for the start of the ride. As I sat there the curtains continued opening until the screen filled my vision on three sides. The roller coaster was almost at the top of the hill. And then it started down.

I could feel it in my belly as I hurtled forward with the rollercoaster. Smack and the vehicle cut to the right. Smack it cut to the left. My heart was in my throat. The 146 degree screen completely fooled my body. I knew I was watching a movie, but my body didn't buy what my mind said. The stereophonic sound of the roller coaster added to the illusion. It was just as good as that first time seeing This Is Cinerama.

Kiki Santiago and her friends loved it. These were people who had never seen this before and they were impressed. So were the television reporters. We made the evening news. As of this writing, the plan is to open the Seattle Film Festival this May with the running of How The West Was Won in 3-panel Cinerama. If that meets with success, then perhaps at long last Cinerama will come home to the theatre that was built for it, but never showed it: the Cinerama Dome.

Maybe 2001 will be the year How The West Was Won plays at the Dome in 3-panel Cinerama. I understand that Cinerama projectors are being restored at this very moment. I believe that tourists and natives alike would easily pay twenty dollars for the chance to see that film in Cinerama. It's cheaper than a ticket to Seattle.

As I checked out of the Ramada Inn in Seattle, the young girl at the desk noticed my Cinerama hat-courtesy of Kiki Santiago and friends.

"Are you with Cinerama," she asked?

"Sort of," I replied. "I support it."

"That's cool," she replied. "The old things are the best."


On the morning of December 10, Dave Strohmaier, Doug Haines and I appeared before the Los Angeles City Council to support Pacific Theatres' proposal to develop the Cinerama Dome property. This is tied in with our agreement with them to restore the Dome and preserve it. It passed in the blink of an eye. It's the first step in the chain to bring How The West Was Won home to the Dome in 2001.

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