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Once Upon A Time In The Rex: 85th Anniversary

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Alain DORANGE. Except when noted, all pictures courtesy The Rex Cinema, Paris Date: 04.12.2017
The GRAND REX is lit from top to bottom. Image by Le Grand Rex. Used by permission

Click to see enlargement

I am writing this article in honour of my father Claude Dorange, who was Chief Projectionist at the Rex in Paris, from 1951 to 1983. From the dome-shaped ceiling of sparkling stars and moving clouds, his spirit guards over the projections.

Like all dreams becoming reality, my first visit to this magical place was in July 1955 when I was 6 years old, at the time when the Grand Rex was called simply Rex. Upon arriving into this atmospheric theatre, I was breathless when my mother took me to the Mezzanine level (between the Foyer and the Balcony). We went to see the movie “The Racers" and before the movie started we saw the famous attraction "La Féérie des Eaux" (The Musical Fountain). I still remember it like it was yesterday and I was so impressed that I asked my mother to see it a second time and we did. From that moment, I was infected by the Cinematographic Virus and up to now, no cure has been found!

Born in Tunis in 1893, Jacques Haik was working during his youth as an accounting clerk. However, he grew passionate about Cinema, and his belief that it would continue to grow led him on this different path. In 1910, he introduced to France the short Charlie Chaplin movies. Chaplin later on became known to Parisians as ‘Charlot’. The success was immediate and twenty years later, in 1931, Jacques Haik bought a piece of land in Paris, on the Boulevard Poissoniere. The goal of monsieur Haik was to have a theatre dedicated to the 7th Art. On this street, the Rex was built. Auguste Breton was the architect and the interior design that was so atmospheric was done by John Eberson, who had done many similar theatres in the U.S.
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Le Grand Rex

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The balcony under construction.

During the evening of December 8th 1932, the giant theatre Rex first opened its doors. Outside was a frozen winter and inside, thanks to smooth air conditioning, it felt like summer. The interior design of this atmospheric theatre immersed the audience in comfortable pleasure. The 3,300 guests (the total seating capacity at the time) were dressed in tuxedos and amazing dresses. They were introduced to this new temple called "Rex - Theatre Jacques Haik". The opening of the Rex was a big event for Paris. A staff of 80 were dressed in red suits and white gloves, helping the guests to find their seats. The audience were amazed by the luxurious décor, looking at the dome ceiling with sparkling stars and clouds, saying: "Oh my God, we hope it will not be raining tonight". Facing the audience, was a screen surrounded by five arches with alternating colours and velvet Italian style curtains. The stage measured 24m wide by 8m deep. Among the guests were filmmakers the Lumière brothers and French illusionist and film director, George Méliès. Once all guests were seated, the show began with 36 Rex dancing ladies on stage along with the Rex Orchestra, composed of 60 musicians. A Wurlitzer organ played some melodies and finally the movie was presented. The movie was "Les Trois Mousquetaires" (The Three Musketeers) a French movie by Henri Diamant-Berger.

Despite the tremendous success of this fantastic theatre, it did not rescue the fragile finance of Jacques Haik and he was broke. The Rex was sold to the Société Gaumont, who then sold it to three buyers: Jean Hellmann, Alan Byre and Laudy Lawrence. The Rex would end up becoming the sole property of Mr Hellmann. But then came the second world war in 1940, and the Germans took over the theatre, using it as a Deutsches Soldatenkino for their troupes. The Rex would  recover its dignity on October 13th 1944 after the liberation.

By 1947 the Rex belonged to the Hellmann family and that is still the case as of today. After Jean Hellmann, his son Philippe Hellmann was in charge and today the grandson, Alexandre Hellmann. Here is a resume of the most notable dates for the Rex:
The GRAND REX is sold out. Image by Le Grand Rex. Used by permission

Click to see enlargement

• December 8th 1932: Rex inauguration
• October 13th 1944: Rex re-opens after the German occupation with an American movie "It Started with Eve" starring Deanna Durbin and Charles Laughton
• June 18th/19th 1953: Demonstrations of CinemaScope by 20th Century Fox. A curved screen (18m x 7m) along with a permanent flat screen is installed. The Fox director for Europe and Middle East, Albert Cornfield, introduces the CinemaScope concept to the invited guests. Henri Chretien who is 74 years old is also present, comes on stage to thank Spyros Skouras of 20th Century Fox
• December 4th 1953: Premiere of "The Robe" on a flat screen of 16.8m x 7.4m. The show ended January 21st 1954
• June 1st 1954: Demonstration of the Perspecta Sound consisting of musical shorts such as “Capriccio Italian”, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, and sequences from "Julius Caesar" and "Knights of the Round Table"
• March 25th 1957: “La Féérie des Eaux" (The Musical Fountain) is first shown with the movie "From Here to Eternity"
• December 16th 1960: The first Todd-Ao movie “Can-Can” is shown in France. To have a larger screen, 2 arches are removed and so remain 3. The screen is now 18m x 8.30m.
• October 24th 1963: French Premiere of "Cleopatra" with guests coming to the Rex by the Paris metro, stopping at the station "Bonne Nouvelle”. This is indeed ‘Good News’ because this is where the Rex is situated and Elisabeth Taylor is attending the premiere
• February 1968: The Winter Olympic Games at Grenoble are presented live on screen (10m x 7.5m) thanks to the Eidophor video projector (black and white). I remember a very sharp picture despite only 625 resolution lines
• December 1968: Phenomenal success of the Walt Disney cartoon "The Jungle Book". The movie is shown from December 11th 1968 to February 27th 1969 with 20,000 entries a day at times! This is also the year the Rex shows the “La Féérie des Eaux" (The Musical Fountain) before the movie. This tradition continues every Christmas Season to this day. In 2016, it was shown before Walt Disney cartoon "Moana"
• July 21st 1969: An Eidophor live presentation of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon
• 1974: In the basement, 3 small theatres are built and another 4 in 1984, with one final one in 1998. From 1974, the Rex is now called the Grand Rex. This also the year all seats at the Foyer and the Mezzanine are replaced by larger armchairs bringing the total capacity from 3,300 to 2,800
Advert for "The Robe", the first CinemaScope movie in France. French newspaper Le Figaro, December 4th 1953.

• October 1981: The Grand Rex is classified as an Historical Monument by the Ministre de la Culture, Jacques Lang
• December 8th 1982: The Grand Rex turns 50
• 1984: The Grand Rex renews its past tradition as being a part-time Concert Theatre. Billy Joel being the first of many concerts that continues to this day
• May 11th 1988: Premiere of the Luc Besson movie "Le Grand Bleu" on a new widescreen installed in front of the existing one, rolling from the ‘sky’ in front of the audience seated at the Balcony level. This screen is called the "Grand Large" with dimensions of 24.9m x 10.40m. "Le Grand Bleu" played for 22 weeks, the short version (130') and the long one (180'). This was not a 70mm blown up copy but a 35mm. The American distributor, for some obscure and unjustifiable reasons did change the soundtrack from Eric Serra, substituting a replacement score by Bill Conti, and also changing the ending. This movie did not perform well in the US
• April 9th 2009: The projectors are replaced by digital ones (Barco) in all 9 theatres, including the Grand Rex. Only one 70mm projector remains and is unfortunately never used
• December 8th 2017: The Grand Rex is 85 years old, ‘Live long and prosper’

The fabulous decor inside this theatre can be seen from many photos available online. Suffice to say that once you are inside, you feel as though you are outdoors at a constant comfortable temperature.
The theatre is composed of four levels:
• The Foyer with 1,368 original seats brought down to 1,000 seats when renovated
• The Mezzanine with 660 seats down to 400
• The Balcony (IMAX theatres also have a similar slope) with 1295 seats
• The Ceiling or Coupole standing 24m high from the Foyer, is a dark blue with shining stars and moving clouds. Whilst seated and waiting for the movie, this is an unforgettable view and you cannot help but to look up at gaze in wonder
The Successive Owners Of The Rex. Top Left: Jacques Haik. Top Right: Jean Hellmann. Down Left: Philippe Hellmann. Down Right: Alexandre Hellmann (present).

Popular legend had it that something unbelievable happened, during the construction phase: the space for the projection booth was totally forgotten from the blueprints. So the story went, it had to be put in place at the last minute by building an extension protruding outside the building, which is easily visible to the public. Actually, this explanation is not correct. The blue prints did show already the projection booth protruding outside the building in order to have more seats at the Balcony. As a matter of coincidence the Rex theatre in the town of Berkhamsted ( Hertfordshire - UK ) is also designed with a protruding projection booth.

So back to our Rex.

Since its opening in December 1932, the projection booth was equipped with 3 Simplex projectors, 1 Hortson for 16mm films and 1 Brenograph. The first projectionist was Marcel Cerf (1911-2010) who was a photographer, a reporter as well as a Paris historian. The distance between the projectors and the screen is 47m (42m for the Grand Large) with a stiff downward angle of 28 degrees. To counteract the resulting Keystone distortion, the windows of the projectors were tailor made in order to have a perfect screen rectangular shaped. For the launch of CinemaScope mid 1953 (for demonstration purposes), the original Simplex projectors were replaced by 3 Simplex XL and Simplex Sound equipment with LPC Magnetic Heads. The lamp houses are from Excelite and installed by Brockliss.

By mid 1960, prepared for Todd-AO, 1 Simplex XL and the Brenograph are removed to install 2 Prevost Actua 70 (35/70) also with Excelite lamphouses 130 Amps. An additional Simplex Amplifier rack was added to accommodate all the sound systems including the 6 magnetic soundtracks for the 70mm movies.
Claude Dorange, Chief Projectionist at the Rex from '51 to '83 and the Prevost 35/70mm projectors in 1965.

In 1970, the 2 Prevosts are replaced by 3 Cinemeccanica Victoria 8, so only 1 Simplex XL 35mm remains as well the Hortson 16mm.

In 1988 the platters were installed (Kinoton ST270 for 35mm and 70mm) mostly for a cost saving by reducing the staff. Technically speaking, the projectionists gave me the following consequences: "You take the film from the center (first wearing) of the platter and then travel a long distance, passing many rollers and as such collecting dust and more wear and tear. Conclusion: the life of a copy is much shorter than the one used on a changeover method with two projectors."

In 2010, the Digital is winning the war against the Argentic (film). Only 1 Cinemeccanica Victoria remains. In March 2015, the Grand Rex is now equipped with new Barco; 2 Barco DP2K-32B for the Grand Large screen (2 in used for 3D) and 1 Barco DP4K-32B for the screen on stage. These projectors are ‘inaugurated’ for the Premiere of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2" on March 10th 2015.

The sound system has been continuously upgraded since the beginning, from the humble Simplex amplifiers to the state of the art which the Grand Rex has today. For the Main Channels:
• Equipment from D&B Audiotechnik
• 3 Amplifiers D20 delivering 6400W of power
• 2 Speakers Left/Right c7 series on stage
• 2 Speakers f1222 series at centre stage
• 2 Sub-Woofer B4 series delivering 2000W under 131db
• Additional 2 Speakers c7 series at the Left and Right of the external arch and 1 Speaker f1222 series at the centre of the Grand Large screen

For the Surround Channels (common to the Stage Screen and Grand Large):
• 8 Amplifiers CROWN XTI 2002 delivering 1600W, 8 Ohms Bridged
• At the Balcony, 12 Speakers JBL 9320 (4 Left,4 Right and 4 Back) in 7.1 mode
• At the Foyer, 10 Speakers FIDEK 12-MVP (3 Left,3 Right and 4 Back) in 7.1 mode
• At the Mezzanine, 6 Speakers FIDEK 12-MVP (2 Left,2 Right and 2 Back) in 7.1 mode
• Total: 28 Surround Speakers

Due to the geometry of the theatre, the Dolby Atmos or similar cannot be installed.
7OMM film ready to be projected. Picture by: Richard Patry. Special thanks to Stéphane LANDFRIED.

The screen sizes are summarized as follows:
• For movies having the academic ratio of 1.37:1; 9.65m x 6.55m
• For Scope movies at 2.35:1; 16.8m x 7.40m
• For 70mm movies at 2.20:1; 18m x 8.30m
• For 2.35:1 movies on le Grand Large Screen; 25m x 10.40m (260M2 ).
If you recall the Gaumont Palace demolished many years ago in Paris, their Cinerama screen was 560M2 for a theatre of 6000 seats i.e. double that of the Grand Rex.

Here is a complete list of movies shown in 70mm:
• "Can-Can" (Todd-AO) 16-12-1960 to 5-1-1961
• "La Fayette" (Super Technirama 70) 16-12-1962 to 9-3-1962
• "Cleopatra" (Todd-AO) 25-10-1963 to 30-1-1964
• "The Great Wall" (Super Technirama 70) 14-8-1964 to 10-9-1964
• "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines" (Todd-Ao) 8-10-1965 to 16-11-1965
• "Congress of Love" (MCS 70 Superpanorama) 27-1-1967 to 9-2-1967
• "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (70mm blown up) 8-3-1967 to 30-3-1967
• "McKenna's Gold" (Panavision 70) 21-3-1969 to 22-4-1969
• "Sleeping Beauty" (Super Technirama 70) 1-4-1971 to 22-4-1971
• "Star Wars" (70mm blown up) 15-10-1977 to 30-11-1977
• "Star Wars”, “Episode 4: The Empire Strikes Back” and “Episode 5: The Return of the Jedi" (70mm blown up) 12-10-1983
Le Grand Rex's water fountain on the stage.

Click to see enlargement

• "Episode 5: The Return of the Jedi" (70mm blown up) 19-10-1983 to 16-11-1983
• "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (70mm blown up) 12-9-1984 to 9-10-1984
• "Mad Max-Beyond Thunderdome" (70mm blown up) 25-10-1985 to 14-10-1985
• "Aliens" (70mm blown up) 8-10-1986 to 21-10-1986
• "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (70mm blown up) 12-10-1988 to 6-11-1988
• "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (70mm blown up) 18-10-1989 to 28-11-1989
• "Beauty and the Beast" (70mm blown up) 21-10-1992 to 1-12-1992
• "Interstellar" (IMAX + Vistavision + Anamorphic transferred to 70mm) 31-10-2014. This was a pre-premiere and a projection from a temporary booth built at the Mezzanine Level, so the guests were seated in the Foyer and in the Balcony. Philips projector DP75 + Platter. Dialogue in English with virtual French sub-titles and DATASAT sound. The lamp house is a Kinoton lamp house 7000W
• "The Hateful Eight" (Ultra Panavision 70) 11-12-2015. Same arrangements as above, this is also a Pre-Premiere since the World Premiere was on December 25th 2015. The 1.25 anamorphic lens was from Barco and the covered screen is 17m x 6.2m, respecting the UP70 ratio of 2.76:1
• "Dunkirk" (IMAX + Panavision 70 and projected on 5-70mm) 17-07-2017. This is a Pre-Premiere with the same concept as for "Interstellar"
Claude Dorange, Chief Projectionist at the Rex from '51 to '83 and the new Simplex machines in 1953.

Along the years there have been many anecdotes, and here are some narrated by my father:

The Rex was initially supposed to be a replica of The Radio City Hall of New York but the final decision was for an Atmospheric Theatre.

During the projection of "Rock Around the Clock” with Bill Haley, the excited audience removed some of the seats and threw them at the screen.

During the projection of "The Birds", the spectators were so much so on the edge of their seats, you could have heard a fly in the crowds!

For "The Guns of Navarone", there was always a lot of applause when the guns were dropping into the sea. The same went for the movie "The Train" when Burt Lancaster, at the end, was killing the Colonel von Waldheim played by Paul Scofield.

For "Gone with the Wind", the screen, which was 9.65m wide, was enlarged to 14m during the burning of Atlanta.

In the early 70's, during the Entr’acte a 35mm with 4 magnetic tracks were playing some tunes but there was not much interest from the audience.

When reviewing "Cleopatra" in the morning two days before the Premiere, Fox asked the Management to have all non-necessary staff for the projection to be out of the theatre. It was a matter of National Security!

At the end of the movie "Seule Dans la Nuit" / "Wait Until Dark" (1968) with Audrey Hepburn, the theatre was put into full darkness (even the emergency lights) to create a better effect during the final fight. It was the only time the dome lost its stars and clouds.

At one of the Midnight shows for "Thunderball", there were so many people outside pushing to get inside that the police had to use water guns to disperse them.

The Rex is magic and is here to stay, this giant theatre is a landmark for the movies. The front of this massive building, with its tower 36m high bearing the three red letters ‘Rex’ can be seen from a fair distance along Les Grands Boulevards of Paris. Legend has it, that the Lumière Brothers said to George Melies in 1895 at the Grand Café, "The Cinematograph has no future. It will last two to three years, no more". How wrong they were.

This present article is a dedication to the Grand Rex and to wish it A HAPPY 85TH ANNIVERSARY!
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Updated 04-05-22