By far the best movie theatre of my youth was the Cooper Theatre near Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was an orange circular building with a Cinerama screen. Seating was by reservation, and programs came as hardback books. The films were major events and would play for many months.
My grandmother loved the Cinerama movies, which originally required three projectors running in sync to fill the super-wide curved screen. The promise was the films would “put you in the picture.” Only a handful of films were made in this process before 70mm single-strip wide-screen was perfected. I have a vague memory of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won in three-strip.
Thus, when the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, one of three Cinerama theatres left in the world, recently had a Cinerama Festival, two of my high school friends from Minnesota and I went to see How the West Was Won. That was last night.
The film had premiered in 1962 and won three Academy Awards. It had a lot of stars for its day: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Robert Preston, Richard Widmark, Andy Devine, and more. The main thing I remembered last night was the music. It still soars, and it sounds great with all those speakers.
My romanticism of the three-strip process, however, evaporated. The seams could be often seen. Our present IMAX beats the socks off it. Even so, last night’s event was wonderfully nostalgic. I remained in awe that someone had thought Cinerama up and made it work, and I loved that there was still a way to show the original in the geodesic dome, now a historical landmark.
The first Cinerama film, This is Cinerama, came out in 1952. The first single-strip 70mm Cinerama film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, directed by Stanley Kramer, came out in 1963. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was also shot on 70mm stock for Cinerama and played 103 weeks in Los Angeles after it opened in 1968.
As film critic Leonard Maltin explains, “The beauty of Cinerama is that unlike more modern large-format films, it isn’t meant to overwhelm you. IMAX is impressive, but your eye can only focus on about 25% of the picture at any given time. The same is true for the Circlevision 360 shows at Walt Disney World. Cinerama was designed to correspond to the human eye; the deep curvature of the screen, at 146 degrees, matches the back of your eye exactly, so if you sit in the center of the theater, you get the same feeling of peripheral vision you experience in real life. Cinerama’s inventor Fred Waller had tried many multiple-camera systems before hitting on this idea.”
Stanley Livingston, one of the child stars of How the West Was Won and one of the kids in the TV show My Three Sons, was at the theater last night introducing the first new film in 50 years to be shot in three-strip Cinerama, a 28-minute travelogue of Los Angeles, starring him and directed by Dave Strohmaier, called “In the Picture.” As the movie shows the curvy road in Griffith Park, it gave the same thrill of roller-coaster wooziness that the original This is Cinerama did. A sailboat sequence in San Pedro offered a similar spectacle of Windjammer.
Afterwards, as my friends and I chatted what a shame the Cooper was demolished in the nineties--and we checked messages on our smart phones--and as I drove home with the 7-inch screen of my car radio telling me what I was listening to on satellite radio, I realized what a rocket we’re on with technology. For an evening, it was fun to get back to the sixties.
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