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Cinerama Down Under

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter


Written by: David Coles Issue 56 - March 1999
David Coles and Ramine at the Widescreen Weekend in Bradford, 2012. Picture by Thomas Hauerslev

Taking 6 years to reach the Southern Hemisphere, 3-strip Cinerama films screened at the Sydney Plaza Theatre from September 17, 1958 to December 2, 1964. Single lens Cinerama opened the next day. The 3-strip equipment (originally from the Roosevelt, Miami Beach, USA) was never reactivated, but remained in place until the theatre closed June 29, 1977. The auditorium has since been a roller skating ring, disco, pinball parlor, church, hamburger heaven and from May 1996, a Planet Hollywood Restaurant. Much of the original projection paraphernalia found its way into a Sydney suburban back garden along with the faded deteriorating prints of those now-ancient Cinerama and Cinemiracle attractions.

My fascination with that most cumbersome of widescreen oddities began in 1961 when, age 12, I saw "Seven Wonders of the World" (The third Cinerama film - 1956). I was quite unprepared for the you-are-there realism of sight and sound created by Cinerama's unique presentation format. From my very first hit (Flying over the pyramids) I was hooked. I have tried substitutes Showscan, 70mm, IMAX 3D, IMAX Dome, Circlorama, but none of them come close to curing my irrational addiction to Cinerama. 

Unlike many film fans, I don't remember the first movie I ever saw. My first motion picture memory is of "The Robe" in 1954 when I was 5 years old. My parents tell me that limited seat availability forced us to sit in the very front row of the stalls. All I can recall of this event is a vague image of sandaled feet. The first time I noticed stereophonic sound was "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1958, when an arrow seemed to shoot through the theatre from the back (I have since learned that this was a 35mm Cinestage presentation with 4-track magnetic sound - the effects channel had Perspecta type encoding allowing this track to "source" from left, right or rear auditorium. The first 70mm presentation I ever saw was probably "Spartacus" in 1961. The image impressed me as being particularly sharp and the film was great but I was not immediately enchanted by the process. The theatre was not very wide, so the size of the screen failed to make an impact.

My mother was interested in travel, but as with many people in the 1950s and 60s, opportunities were limited by distance, time and finance. An office colleague with a similar interest in foreign lands recommended she see the "travel" films showing at the Sydney Plaza Theatre. And so, on a mid -1961 Saturday trip to town for shopping, lunch and a movie, my mother took me along to see the current attraction. I harbored no great desire to see any boring documentary type films, so, when the theatre turned out to be full when we arrived for the afternoon session of "Cinerama South Seas Adventure" I was disappointed not at all. A few months later, on our next trip to the city, we were more successful. A new attraction was screening, "Seven Wonders of the World", in retrospect, probably the most scenic and spectacular of the five Cinerama titles made between 1952 and 1958.

As I settled into my seat at the Spanish-design single level Plaza theatre I was the perfect candidate for filmmakers keen to impress with sights and sounds. I had been given the idea that the film was in some kind of special 3-dimension type process - but the information was vague and I was a 12 year old unversed in the technology of cinema. At 2:15 PM the lights dimmed and Lowell Thomas appeared in standard screen color and monophonic sound!! There seemed to be nothing stereoscopic or noteworthy about the screen image so I thought perhaps it might be the preamble to something more impressive. However Mr. Thomas kept on chatting on about the ancient Seven Wonders, so I was just accepting the idea that what was on the screen was "all there was" when something spectacular happened. You guessed it; the Plaza's lush wine red curtains opened and opened ... and opened, and the whole theatre seemed to be in the air, banking like an airplane, with the pyramids in clear view.

Did the experience of those moments have an effect on this impressionable young lad? Did it ever! While the other boys at school wrote the names of football players (and later girls) on their wooden rulers and pencil cases, mine were of course embossed with that exotic concertina Cinerama logo. Over the next few years, I restricted myself to no more than 3 viewings of each new Cinerama title, so as to retain the excitement of the event. Overindulgence dulls any pleasure.

Further in 70mm reading:

70mm Cinema and Film in Australia


Internet link:


From way back then I have been wanting to know more about this mysterious multieyed contraption. I studied the souvenir programs and persued library reference books in search of answers: What was it? How did it work and who had made it happen? Were Cinerama Inc. and Cinerama Productions the same company and what about the Stanley Warner Cinerama Corporation? Which one of the Warner brothers was Stanley? Why were the films made at an indoor tennis court on a Long Island estate and not in Hollywood? Who was Lowell Thomas? Why was the 6th and the newest Cinerama presentation filmed in Cinemiracle? Why did the travel series end in 1958 followed by a gap of four years before three titles burst forth within a few months followed by an almost immediate conversion to the single lens 70mm technique? This release pattern just didn't seem logical. All these questions, and more, had me puzzled for decades. Sure the encyclopedias told us the basic fact that Fred Waller had invented Cinerama, but the information conflicted on many other things: like whether his 11-camera 16mm Vitarama system was actually used at the 1939 New York Fair (it wasn't), and much of the other detail was vague. And even now, after years of research, I 'm still not sure whether "This is Cinerama" opened at Broadway with 6 or 7 tracks of sound. With no thorough record of Cinerama history in the public domain, I decided 10 years ago to search out the detail for myself. The aim is to see a complete documentation of "The Cinerama Saga".

Much information has emerged in recent years from books like Lowell Thomas┤ autobiography, "Wide Screen Movies" by Carr and Hayes, "Widescreen Cinema" by Belton, and various specialist magazine articles like "..in 70mm - The 70mm Newsletter". Lone Pony┤s forthcoming TV documentary "The Cinerama Adventure" appears to be a worthy coverage of the area, too. However, the whole tale has yet to be told in real depth. The International Cinerama Society, active since 1985, and more recently the internet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.tech have brought a disparate bunch of enthusiasts into contact. And to think, I once imagined myself to be the only person in the world mourning the loss of "ol' three eye"! Upon learning about the efforts of Willem Bouwmeester, John Harvey and others to trace and interview Cinerama veterans, I set about seeing what could be done here on these far away shores.
I started my search with the souvenir book from "Cinerama South Seas Adventure" (1958), filmed partly in Australia. In the hope of finding a familiar local name in the credits I came across just one. Sean Scully played an "outback" 10 year old who "attended" School of the Air and required a visit from the Flying Doctor. This was the first of many roles in a career which has spanned stage, TV and leading parts in several feature films. He is still a busy actor. A phone call to his agent, and Mr. Scully soon rang back with details about his first filming experiences of nearly 40 years ago. His information led me to other local people involved with "Cinerama South Seas Adventure". Interestingly the five main performers in the Australian sequence were all professional actors. Most other featured players in the Cinerama travel films had been "real people" or crew members chosen mainly for their appearance or geographic suitability. Sean Scullys "cousin" in the film had been played by another 10 year old - Janice Dinnen. I traced the other lead players but her name was not familiar to contemporary show business folk. I assumed she must have retired from acting. My next step was to scan the local telephone directory. The surname is not common and so my first call was to a relative who revealed the sad news - Janice had been killed in an accident on the way to an audition in London, 25 years ago. There was a sequel to my search for Janice Dinnen: A few years later I contacted Sydney based film director John Weiley. He had produced and directed two Showscan films in 1987/88 and has made several IMAX format attractions in recent years. These include "Antarctica" (1991) and "The Edge" (1995) which screens at Katoomba near Sydney in Maxivision (8 perf vertical 70mm 24 fps). As Australia's leading large format producer I thought Mr. Weiley might be interested in seeing a vintage wide screen effort, "Cinerama South Seas Adventure". Yes he was indeed interested, not only in a professional level but also from a personal perspective. He revealed that his first wife appears in the film.

John McLean, clapper/loader on the Australian/New Zealand sequences of "Cinerama South Seas Adventure", went on to become Director of Photography on many Australian features. He recently returned to the three-strip arena, spending several days helping with the shooting of a Kinopanorama short subject in 1993/94. How the only working Russian camera system camera has found its way to Australia is yet another Antipodean oddity. In the true spirit of international communication, a family friend in England sent me a photocopy of a letter to the American Cinematographer in which the Australian correspondent enquired about the Cinerama system. I traced John Lasher to nearby Sydney suburb and arranged to meet him in the Plaza Theatre foyer (now a McDonalds) on Cinerama's 40th Anniversary, 8:15 PM September 30, 1992. I updated Mr. Lasher on the status of the Cinerama cameras (stored in a Hollywood basement) and plans for an operating exhibit at Bradford, England [National Museum of Photography, Film & Television] which opened June 16, 1993. He was immediately fired with enthusiasm - "wouldn't it be great", he suggested, "to reactivate a 3-strip camera and film a new short subject!" "In your dreams John", I thought...well, certainly it had seemed an impossible dream to me! But dreams do sometimes come true, and I make this claim as the official Assistant Wombat Wrangler on John Steven Lashers "Bounty" the work-in-progress Kinopanorama short screened at Bradford's Wide Screen Weekend in 1995.

Meanwhile on the research front, I set myself another goal: To document every 3-strip Cinerama season ever presented in the world. An impossible task, you think? Will, I certainly wouldn't try to do the same for 70mm films as a general category. However, the original Cinerama system is a somewhat more manageable arena covering about 150 theatres over a finite period: 1952 - 1972. In fact, starting with a few basic listings from Cinerama Inc. documents, combined with tips from various enthusiasts around the world, Keith Swadkins of The International Cinerama Society has now produced a 36 page listing of Cinerama, Cinemiracle, Kinopanorama and D-150 theatres. There is still information lacking - perhaps you can help fill in the gaps?

It was wonderful to be at Bradford for the re-opening of "This is Cinerama" in 1993. By the greatest fortune I live just a few miles from the back garden. For 20 years it has been the only Cinerama Theatre in the world, where privately, all those films could be seen. That view of Egypt, 34 years ago on a giant 75 x 28 ft 146 degree screen with 7-track You-are-there sound was for me, the event of a lifetime.

Cinerama Down Under Footnotes

3-strip Cinerama also screened down under at the Melbourne Plaza, Australia from December 26, 1958 to June 2, 1965. 70mm single strip from June 3, 1965 to November 4, 1970.

In New Zealand the Auckland Mayfair underwent a refit and became the first venue in the world to be renamed "Cinerama Theatre" (the advertisements never even bothered to mention "formerly Mayfair") 3-strip from November 5, 1959 to November 28, 1964. Single strip from December 12, 1964 to January 23, 1984. In the South Island city of Christchurch the Cinerama theatre (also formerly Mayfair) ran 3-strip from May 9, 1963 to October 16, 1965 then single lens from October 22, 1965 to June 3, 1985. The nation's capital also had a single lens Cinerama Theatre from August 19, 1966.

In Australia several Hoyts theatres in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth were equipped for single lens Cinerama, but of these only the Adelaide - Paris actually ran an official Cinerama season: "Ice Station Zebra" from August 28, 1969 to October 15, 1969. 70mm followed Cinerama down under with "South Pacific" opening at the Sidney Mayfair on December 26, 1958. The 180 week season is still a record in these parts.

The author of this article is planning to produce a trivia-filled publication "Cinerama South Pacific" featuring season dates, theatre photos, plans, newspaper ads, maiden name of Charlies aunt, etc., as a prelude to "The Cinerama Saga".
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Updated 21-01-24