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Interview with Mr John Sittig of Arclight - The Dome, Hollywood, Los Angeles
September 2012

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Mark Lyndon. Transcribed from audio files by: Margaret WeedonDate: 04.04.2013
ML: We hold these truths to be self evident that nothing has moved humanity more than the Moving Image; and that the greatest exemplar and exponent of the Moving Image was and remains Cinerama - and that you sir are the primus inter pares- ‘the first amongst equals’ in the world of Cinerama. The question is “What brought you into this world of Cinerama?”

JS: When I was seven years old living in Columbus Ohio, Cinerama had opened in Cincinnati which was about 100 miles away and, this is before freeways, and my parents took me to see Cinerama at the RKO Capitol Theatre in Cincinnati; even though I was seven years old I can still remember where I was sitting in the balcony and the thrill that I felt when Lowell Thomas said – “Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Cinerama” – and that curtain opened, and kept opening, and kept opening; so when I came to work at Pacific Theatres thirty/forty years ago, I knew that the Foreman family had purchased all the rights to Cinerama, and so it has been a three decade trek for me to get them to agree to fund the restoration, both photo-chemically and in digital, of the Cinerama titles. Now we are sitting here on the third day of our 60th Anniversary of Cinerama, and we have people literally coming from half way around the world to see it.

ML: Now that you are viewing it from a projectionist booth, is there a special job satisfaction in presenting this to the public?

JS: Cinerama was never an easy process, either in production or exhibition; in exhibition we are running four pieces of 35mm film on projectors that are 35 feet apart from each other, and the magnetic sound dubber; there is an infinite number of things that can go wrong and it was not by chance that Lowell Thomas produced break down reels for when they had problems; there is a sense of accomplishment in running technology that is 60 years old, and doing it as well as they did back in the fifties; seeing and hearing the appreciation of people after the show is worth all the work that we put into it.
More in 70mm reading:

in70mm.com's Cinerama page

Cinerama Remaster

The Cinerama Dome Celebrates Cinerama's 60th Anniversary

Kevin Brownlow Interview

Carl Davis Interview

Dave Strohmaier and Randy Gitsch - in conversation with Mark Lyndon

Internet link:

ArcLight Hollywood
ML: With all due respect to IMAX, it never got a President to weep, it never got the American people to view it with any patriotic feeling, or pride.

JS: There is definitely in every one of the Cinerama films a patriotic feeling; the songs that they sang, some of the places they go to and – also with all due respect to Imax – Cinerama, at least to me sitting in the fifth or sixth row, gives me a greater sense of involvement in the picture than Imax does. Imax is super, super sharp, and large, but just the configuration of the screen – regardless of how big it is – does not give you that sense of participation in the picture.

ML: People like IMAX, but it is not a love affair – Cinerama is the real thing; this is a serious love affair.

JS: It is really people our age who remember it as a childhood memory, but all of our memories can be a little bit tainted - we remember the fun things, the wonderful things that happened, and it brings us back to that time.

ML: I was 12, it was my twelfth birthday, and they took me to see "Seven Wonders" and I have never been so utterly overwhelmed by something in life – as the surreal poet friend of Lowell Thomas says – “It is more real than real”! It is life as it should be and you hope it will be, but they had many misadventures; “Cinerama Mis-adventure “– Jim Parker, who played the sergeant, came to a sad end; I hear, but whether it is true or not, that when he got there he said I do not want to go anywhere else, I have come to it, and there is nowhere else to go.

JS: That is what I understand, and he was not even supposed to be in the raft: he was not in that particular sequence but he was with the crew, and on the last run he asked “Can I go?” – it was certainly tragic. Also Bob Morgan, one of the stunt men on “How the West was Won”, was run over by the train in the cowboys sequence. That was one of the things with Cinerama in that you could not do safe stunts and special effects, because of the vastness of the image. You could not have things just slightly off set because they would be in the picture; and so it was dangerous. If you have seen the Cinerama camera, unloaded, with no batteries, etc., it is 200 pounds; and the guys would have to lug it up to the top of Kilimanjaro, or on a raft on a river, or whatever; it was a daunting experience to bring those images to the world-wide public.
ML: Regarding the camera – I was talking to Dick Babbish about ten years ago and there were plans for a new kind of camera which would have been a cross between a VistaVision camera where the 35 mm would travel horizontally, and it would have a special lens at the front which would give you peripheral vision,– Fred Waller ‘s thing was peripheral vision. What makes this vision so real is that nobody else has achieved it – (well maybe the Russians, but only for about five minutes!). But we won’t go into that !!

This peripheral thing – at the World Trade Fair of 1939 - and then Waller does the gunnery trainer which saved a quarter of a million airmen’s lives in World War II. But they would not invest too much in research and development; but why? - that has always been a mystery to me. They made a ton of money out of “This is Cinerama” but they are not investing in a new camera.

JS: They made a ton of money but it cost so much – For instance to outfit the theatre; to retrofit the theatre; and then the cost of running with five projectionists and the box office to sell tickets; then they paid the rent on the theatres because Cinerama did not own the theatres. And so forth; Cinerama was always underfunded from day one to the time that it ceased operation: when we did the photochemical reconstruction of “This is Cinerama” we found that every single print that was ever made of that picture was made from the camera negative. They never went into positive copies, because that would have cost more money; thus the negative was so bad that we actually printed the film upside down and backwards to take advantage of the opposite end of the sprocket holes which were not as badly worn.

ML: So there had to be so much improvisation and (as they say about genius) 99 per cent perspiration and 1 per cent inspiration! That seems to be the guiding star all along in the whole revival when you do not have a ton of money; it is such a shame. I was wondering, why did they insist on having let us say Dr Brian O Brian’s bug eyed lens stuck on that 70mm camera so that you would have something that would be at least a bit more true to the original vision?

JS: I do not know the personalities and the politics behind it, but Mike Todd was in on “This is Cinerama” and then he left with Dr O’ Brian, American Optical, and Phillips came up with Todd AO, so there may have been a kind of butting of heads – I do not know!
ML: A projectionist I know who ran Cinerama in Liverpool, Mike Taylor, said that Hollywood did not understand it; they did not care about it, it was beyond them, and they killed it. Would that be a fair comment?

JS: I do not know that they did not understand it, I think they were afraid of it and the other thing is Hollywood has always worked on economics and even at the height of Cinerama’s popularity in the 60s with the 70mm theatres there were less than 300 theatres worldwide that could show Cinerama and, if it was the three strip process, there was not a pristine clean way to make conventional 70m or 35mm prints to play every place else. When they went to 70mm Ultra Panavision or Super Panavision it was easy for them to make reduction prints to 35mm for the tens of thousands of theatres to play it also. So I think that is probably what eventually killed three strip Cinerama.

ML: I was there the last three strip presentation in the Royalty Theatre in London – the last screening of “The Best of Cinerama” – it was a compilation of the cream of all the travelogues - and at the end of it the credits came up and everybody stood up, and we all felt as if we were witnessing the last voyage of the Mary Celeste; you felt there was a collective feeling of “you will never see it again” and we were heartbroken, but we will put on a brave face.

JS: Yes, well when we opened Arclight here in 2002, the owners of the company funded a photochemical print of “This is Cinerama” and “How the West was Won”. And we played those every year for the last ten years and people always asked me – “When am I going to get to see “Seven Wonders” “; when am I going to get to see ....??! - and my answer has been probably never because it cost so much to do a photochemical print and with only two theatres and one museum left it is not worth it. So, much as I love celluloid and have not quite embraced digital yet, it was digital that allowed us to re-master all these other films that people have not seen for 50 years.

ML: It is a funny thing that the revolution that began with "This is Cinerama" and changed the shape of screens in the theatres has now come into the home, in the domestic setting, and you can have surround sound, we have it at home and it is quite common now with regular citizens; and big, wide screens in their living rooms; I am certain that "This is Cinerama" is what began the revolution.

JS: Absolutely, almost a year to the day after “This is Cinerama” opened, “The Robe” opened in CinemaScope and that was followed by Vista Vision and Panavision and Super Scope and all those kind of things, but it was “This is Cinerama” that got the ball rolling.

ML: How do you see the future? Could it be that more big curved screens will start appearing in cities around the world?

JS: I would love to see it but I really do not see it happening, because producers I think are looking for the best format to go into other ancilliary markets, and even brand new theatre buildings really do not have the front wall of an auditorium to put in a curved screen that would do justice to Cinerama. The nice thing about having the Cinerama pictures in digital now is that there are a lot of theatres in a lot of countries that have not seen Cinerama, ever, and they will be able to see it; maybe not on a curved screen, but they will be able to bring this product to basically any theatre in the world that has a digital set up. It is not going to be quite the same, but it is as close as we are probably going to get.
ML: So as long as you can run the Dome, pilgrims will come, and again in Bradford as long as they can run the National Media Museum, pilgrims will go there – and in Germany (where I will be next week in Karlsruhe) – there will be Cinerama shown there - and they are showing “West Side Story” so I can boast that I was in the same auditorium with half the cast of the stars in “West Side Story”! They are showing a 70mm format because it is only, what it used to be here, a theatre with a single lens set up and they will be showing a 70mm print of “How the West was Won” there for the 60th anniversary.

ML: I would like to thank you very much for your time – and for having granted us this interview.

JS: I am happy to do it – everything I have done for Cinerama has been a passion of mine and I do it from the heart, and for an appreciative audience that comes to every show here.

ML: because it is so rare and it is such a special thing. Thank you so very much

JS: you are quite welcome - it has been a pleasure.


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