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My Cinerama Memories from Detroit

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Robert Jameson, USA Date: 10.11.2013
Detroit was once one of the wealthiest cities in the United States and the downtown area a microcosm of New York. It had a large working class and middle class population but went downhill after civil riots in 1967 then economic problems with the rise of oil prices in the early 1970s. The auto industry did not produce efficient automobiles and several factories closed production for years after 1973. The downtown area, once the pride of several pre- WW-II skyscrapers actually had a problem leasing space and subsequently several 30 and 40 story buildings and large hotels closed. More recently, some of these have been development in the city with three of the hotels re-opened as half condos. There has also been several new condominium projects which were developed within the frame of older structures in the central business district along with new sports stadiums. Another problem in Detroit had been corruption in local government as the prior mayor was convicted of fraud and corruption and is serving time in a federal prison. With a few exceptions, most of the residences with money have moved to a sprawling suburban area which the larger homes being the furthest away from Detroit itself. The metropolitan area now reaches approximately 40 miles by 40 miles and appears more like a northern versions of Los Angles with freeways cutting across the landscape.

Cinerama had a rich history in Detroit. Having a large working class population there were several beautiful movie theaters in the Downtown area, most built in the 1920s. The Music Hall was originally a playhouse called the Wilson Theater and was built by the Dodge Family. I had first gone to see "This is Cinerama" with my parents in 1953 but was too young to appreciate or remember the experience. Later, When I was older my family took me to see "South Seas Adventure" and it made a permanent impact. The Music Hall then showed "Windjammer", repeated "Seven Wonders" and all the rest, however, I had never seen Search for Paradise until the performance at the Dome last year.
More in 70mm reading:

Hazard Reeves letters

Lowell Thomas letters

Internet link:



The Music Hall was much like the Casino in London for size and appearance, however, slightly smaller. It had a 146 degree louvered screen and the 3 booths were on the main floor. It had a rather larger mezzanine and a balcony, however, the balcony was never used for Cinerama, as the first row was about 20 ft higher than the top of the screen. The red-wine curtains opened from the side, therefore the entire curtain moved pulling the center as opposed to opening from the center, which along with the top black masking curtain used during the prologue, gave the appearance of the screen opening in height and width. After "Holiday in Spain" and the "Best of Cinerama" the theater closed for two weeks while they installed the 70mm equipment in the B Box and installed a flat screen for an exclusive showing of "El Cid". During that time, and since matinee's of "El Cid" were only on the weekends and on Wednesday, all the other days were free for workman to dismantle the strip screen (behind the flat screen) and install a 146 degree single sheet Cinerama screen. They added 3 straight steel frames behind the new screen. Those frames were taller than the top of the original Cinerama screen (as they were anchored into the ceiling above the screen). They covered those with maroon curtain material but the color they used was darker than the Cinerama screen curtain. But it, nevertheless, blended in well. After "El Cid", they played "Grimm" and "West" on a 146 degree, low reflectance single sheet screen and it looked terrific. The manager, Russ Russo hated the original strip screen and really liked the single sheet screen. So yes, to those who doubt, there were 146 degree single sheet screens that were constructed in the early 1960s. Once they played "Mad World" and everything was switched to 70mm they found out the installation was not very good for 70mm. The problem was that the projection angle was too low, which resulted with a cut off of image at the upper left and right corners. Also, the mezzanine overhang was low. That meant they could not substantially raise the level of the projectors. The result was that about 5 feet of screen on each side was not used in the Ultra Panavision image and the corners were chopped off if the center was framed properly.

Everyone complains about the dome angle being too high. Being too low is not that good either. For single sheet the best is straight-on projection.
A friend of mine and I wrote an article about Cinerama and the Music Hall in our school paper around 1963. The local paper in Dearborn then used it. Once the manager at the Music Hall saw it, we were both allowed to attend performances free. He had Lowell Thomas' address. I am sorry we never took any photos. But it strongly looked like the Casino. I only saw Patton there then a return of 2001. Beautifully presented. Presently the Music Hall presents music groups, small concerts and some plays. You have probably seen some outdoor photos of the theater in the Cinerama days. Over the years the large painted Cinerama Music Hall sign with the Cinerama logo had been painted over. They must have used great paint when doing the sign because every few years they paint the upper part of the building because it tends to bleed through the layers of new paint!

Around 1964 the Detroit Cinerama Company bought or leased the Cass Theater, an old playhouse and converted it to the Summit Cinerama. The theater was slightly smaller than the Music Hall, had one balcony, and they constructed a projection booth at the back of the main floor with straight-on projection. They installed a single sheet screen of approximately 120 degrees which was slightly higher in the center. The reason I said "approximately" 120 degrees was that Mr. Russo said that none of the 2nd generation Cinerama theaters had exact size or curvature screens, that all were individual to the installation which was being converted or built." Also, that most of the 120 degree screens, like their larger 146 degree brothers, were slightly straightened at the ends for better projection angle. Quite often, the curtain tracks of the newer Cinerama theaters, like at the Summit, were usually curved more than the screen and that was done to basically impress the public. The Summit had peach colored curtains which covered all 4 walls of the auditorium. I did not especially like since they reflected a lot of light from the screen. The floor on the main floor went uphill right to the screen.
The first show was "Circus World" and it had a run of the remaining 70mm titles. It became one of the most popular places during the exclusive run of "2001". The image looked and sounded great at the Summit, as it was very immersive and the theater was quite impressive. After the Cinerama titles ran out they showed other 35mm and 70mm reruns for a while. Eventually, the Detroit Cineramam- company ceased operations, the theater was renamed the Pandora and the owners showed porn movies in the middle of the screen. A friend of mine, who hated three strip Cinerama and also hated single strip Cinerama said "[he] only liked strip movies" and went to see them at the Pandora!

The Music Hall was re-converted into a performing arts center. All Cinerama equipment had been thrown out. Only a historic plaque on the outside of the theater mentions Cinerama. A small portion of the curtains were donated to the City of Detroit, and are presently on a small auditorium stage of the City of Detroit Chamber of Commerce. I attend some meetings there and instantly recognized the curtains and knew where they were from. The Summit Theater, which was one block from this building, was torn down about 25 years ago. I understand some of those curtains are at the Trenton Theater, which is a small playhouse in Trenton, a southern suburb of Detroit. The projectors from the Summit were shipped to the Redford Theater, in Redford, MI about 10 miles NW of Detroit, and are still used at the Redford.
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Updated 04-05-22