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Cinerama is big news again! Two authorities on the colossal format offer exciting information about a bigtime comeback, and an upcoming documentary.

(4/24/00; UPDATED with READER RESPONSES 5/13/00 ... SEE Bottom of page!)

Savant posted a (fairly feeble) What is Cinerama? article at the birth of the column in 1977. At that time there was an exciting recreation of the giant 3-Screen process ongoing in Dayton Ohio.

The following are two letters from real authorities on the subject, with information that straightens Savant out on a few issues, news on a rebirth of Cinerama by a web millionaire (a project finally nearing fruition), and details about a stunning-sounding documentary.

The first writer is Scott Marshall, editor of the magazine Wide Gauge Film and Video, who graciously clued me in on errors in my previous article:


This is one of my favorite subjects. I publish a newsletter about widescreen movies called "Wide Gauge" and I've been hired to do historical research for the documentary "The Cinerama Adventure" in production in Hollywood.

Here are a few clarifications and updates on the story of Cinerama:

1) There were more than a handful of 3-panel Cinerama theaters. At its peak (circa 1962), there were about 120 theaters operating worldwide.

2) The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood has been saved. It is being restored, and the three Cinerama projectors have just been installed there (for the first time ever) and will soon once again be used to show the 3-strip Cinerama classics.

From the 35mm print-down version of Cinerama. The compositional solution to most scenes was to group the human action in the middle and let the sides warp off into infinity.

3) The book "Wide Screen Movies" is the most inaccurate account of the subject ever published. Film historian Dan Sherlock has compiled a list of over 200 factual errors in the book. (Interesting ... the R.M. Hayes book is a key source for Savant)

4) The Cinerama screen was louvered, not lenticular like the Todd-AO and Dimension 150 screens.

5) Paul Allen (Microsoft cofounder) is restoring 3-strip to the Seattle Cinerama theater, to start screenings in perhaps a few months.

6) In Dayton, Ohio, the New Neon has cut down its 3-strip showings to holiday weekends only.

Happy to see Cinerama covered on the web. Keep up the good work!"

Scott Marshall Editor, Wide Gauge Film and Video

Recently, Savant was contacted by the maker of the documentary mentioned by Scott above. Fellow editor and now producer Dave Strohmaier is in the final stages of what sounds like the best film-related show since the early Kevin Brownlow historical docus for Thames television. His synopisis was so interesting that I asked to reprint it here intact. Savant knows the show is awaiting completion involvement, but is eager to promote such a terrific-sounding undertaking.

THE CINERAMA ADVENTURE Feature Documentary Synopsis

"The Cinerama Adventure" is a feature-length documentary chronicling the amazing history of the long-lost three-camera, three-projector cinematic process which thrilled millions around the globe in the 1950s and early 60s. It all began with a secret virtual reality aerial training device in 1942, that had a major impact on Allied war efforts. Unlike the 3-D fads that have come and gone, Cinerama enjoyed a steady 14-year popularity playing in over 200 theaters in most major cities around the globe.

Though abandoned in 1966, word 'Cinerama' still brings back fond memories of sweeping aerials, documentary-style travel films, thrilling rollercoaster rides, and other simulated virtual reality experiences designed to lift the audience out of their seats and into the action. This documentary provides an in-depth revelation of this unique widescreen process which first incorporated stereophonic "Surround" sound and was far ahead of its time. In 1952 Cinerama single handedly brought Hollywood to its knees and ushered the film industry into the era of wide screen and stereo sound.

See the varying densities making the 3 panels stand out. As a lab problem, making Cinerama work was no easy task.

The Cinerama story is told mostly in the words of the surviving people who lived it. Over forty original crew members, celebrities, and film historians have been interviewed. Audio recordings of inventor Fred Waller, original Cinerama producers Merian C. "King Kong" Cooper and Lowell Thomas are featured. A narrator is used only to tie together the threads of the story and to open and close the production. The film takes you behind the scenes for the human interest stories of the trials and triumphs that were involved in making these films: stories of international intrigue, hair-raising danger, critical injury and death. The Cinerama crews were spurred on by their need to capture something unusual and different, a form of total cinema imagery that had neither seen nor experienced by an audience before.

Stories we have uncovered include reminiscences about filmmakers such as Lowell Thomas, Abel Gance, Louis DeRochemont, Merian C. Cooper, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and even Howard Hughes. The historical evolution of the Cinerama story includes such notable historical figures as T.E. Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia", Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry Luce and Lawrence Rockefeller.

Many unusual and thrilling production stories were discovered and are featured. For example, one of the world's most valuable paintings was inadvertently threatened when Cinerama crews were filming in the Louvre museum. A grip accidentally started an electrical fire which ignited some furnishings and advanced dangerously close to the Mona Lisa, causing heat damage to the smiling lady. Among the accounts of life-threatening occurrences is legendary Hollywood pilot Paul Mantz's flight into a live volcano to get a breathtaking Cinerama shot, just as his oxygen-starved engines died. Cinerama became involved with foreign intrigue during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. A secret screening of detailed, low-flying aerial Cinerama out-takes, featuring key landmarks and government buildings in the city of Havana, was arranged for U.S. military personnel under alert for a possible invasion of the island nation. While filming a dangerous whitewater raft sequence for Cinerama's "Search for Paradise," the camera raft overturned in the unpredictable current and the Cinerama camera was swept to the bottom of the river, taking the life of one crew member along with it. Filming stunts was often more problematic in the process as illustrated in the runaway train sequence for "How The West Was Won". A veteran stunt man was critically injured when the train suddenly lurched, causing him to fall underneath the wheels of three rolling flatbed cars.

The Cinerama crews contributed to the creation of a brand-new form of entertainment where exotic and hard-to-reach locations were photographed and exhibited in all of their myriad splendor on the giant deeply curved Cinerama screen, with a grandeur never before possible in the motion picture theatre. Audiences shared in the exploits of the Cinerama crews as they forded rivers in India, bungee jumped in New Guinea, dove through the waters of Victoria Falls, or flew across the breathless, changing landscape of the United States. After Cinerama won prizes in several international trade fairs of the 1950s the Russians promptly invented a Cinerama of their own, calling it Kinopanorama. As one would expect the Soviets claimed they had invented it first and that America had stolen their invention. Thus a cold war rivalry in wide screens ensued.

"The Cinerama Adventure" will take us back to one of the early conceptions of wide screen formats, when in 1927 Abel Gance produced his silent film "Napoleon," an epic feature with a three-panel wide climax. Cinerama inventor Fred Waller's gunnery trainer, built to train Allied aerial gunners during World War II, utilized five cameras which simulated peripheral vision and assisted the gunners to more accurately find their targets. This audiovisual trainer was the prototype for Cinerama and was responsible for helping save over 350,000 lives in the war effort.

Fred Waller had a legendary background directing at Paramountıs New York Astoria Studios. Fred directed many of Jazz greats in their musical screen debuts. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Cab Callaway and Bessie Smith worked with Fred in over a hundred musical shorts in the 1930s, some even shot at the famous Cotton Club. Waller's talents went far beyond movies. Over the course of this lifetime he was granted U.S. patents for over 300 inventions. One of the best known of these is the water ski.

The first Cinerama theatrical releases were travelogue documentary adventures which became unparalleled successes even though they first played in only a few exclusive roadshow locations. Their audience attendance rivaled and often surpassed those of competing Hollywood films. The first Cinerama offering, This Is Cinerama, became the number one boxoffice hit of its entire year playing for only three months in one theater.

Hollywood studios, taken aback by Cinerama's early successes, retaliated by organizing technical teams to develop widescreen systems of their own. Thus began an era of processes such as CinemaScope, VistaVision, Technirama, and Superscope, all of which were eventually dominated by Panavision. Such Cinerama films as South Seas Adventure, Seven Wonders of the World, and Search for Paradise, truly amazed theatre audiences. At the peak of the format's popularity there were over 230 theaters around the globe showing 10 performances a week. In 1961 the first dramatic Cinerama productions were produced in partnership with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They were The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, the latter becoming the number one boxoffice champ of 1962. Due to the expense of conventional Hollywood production within the technical restrictions imposed by Cinerama, the bottom line prevailed and How the West Was Won was the last true Cinerama feature. Cinerama lived on in a 70mm version at exclusive Cinerama roadshow houses for over seven more years. The exhibition of classics like It's A Mad Mad Mad World, Grand Prix, and 2001 A Space Odyssey caused the Cinerama name and logo to survive into the 1970s.

The distortion on video copies (the left and right bending radically away) didn't happen on the Cinerama screen. Deeply curved, it brought most warped scenes back into perpective and made the periphery seem to surround the audience. Note the iron handrail making a 20 degree bend across a blend.

This production will be richly illustrated with a combination of recently discovered still photographs, actual footage of onscreen and behind the scenes action, as well as interviews with technicians and cinema celebrities who were involved in the Cinerama process or who were inspired by its magic. To show clips from these lost Cinerama films, a special three panel Rank telecine process has been developed by video and film expert Gregg Kimble in order to transfer the special 6 perf, 35mm X 3 strip full aperture original camera negatives onto digital video. This video then goes into a graphics workstation for the blending and curving of the images in order to give a simulated Cinerama experience. Pacific Theatres Corp. are the owners of the Cinerama assets and have given the filmmakers the rights to use clips from these films exclusively in this documentary. The belief is that this will re-kindle interest in the process; they have plans to resurrect it for periodic screenings as part of the Hollywood Cinerama Dome restoration project slated to begin construction in a few months. Recently the Seattle Cinerama Theater has undergone a complete restoration under the leadership of Cinerama fan & noted baby boomer, Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. This multimillion dollar restoration has included the restoration of the historic 3 panel process and curved screen for periodic revivals.

For the past three years, 63 hours of professional video interviews have been shot in over 13 locations in the United States, England, Norway and Ireland, with all the surviving people involved in the eight films made in the process, and sons and daughters of those who are deceased. This effort should do full justice to this long-forgotten film medium, as well as to provide material for a large supplemental section on a DVD home release of this documentary.

The audience for the production would initially consist of people who remember seeing the process in its heyday. Baby boomers who were taken as children to see the popular Cinerama shows of the 50s and 60s would be a large part of the demographic, as well as the parents who took them. Film history fans, cable network subscribers, and anyone who is interested in the story behind this almost forgotten "ahead of its time" technology will find the subject fascinating. This project would be a natural for distribution to all the classic movie channels, Discovery and History type channels as well as PBS. Cinerama was very big in Europe with over 27 large theaters playing to capacity crowds in the mid 1950s to early 60s, so foreign interest should be brisk as well.

Last October principal photography was completed and there only remain some stills to be photographed and a few more stock footage shots to be located. Editing continues weekly and the show exists in a 72 minute offline digital "first cut" form. This production is still privately financed at this time.

Dave Strohmaier
Cinerama Adventure

Frankly, Savant hopes that this unique project gets snapped up right quick, as in print it really comes off as a lot more exciting than the majority of what passes for documentaries on television. While we're waiting, I thought it would be as interesting for Savant readers as it was to me. GE

A crowded freeway .... another glorious Cinerama vision of the future in How the West Was Won .. was a strip mine! Watching this at age eleven, I remember thinking the whole Cinerama theater was floating and spinning in the air, looking down at a freeway.

READER RESPONSES: The Cinerama aritcle brought some quick and informative emails, which round out the sketchy information in Savant's article above. Thanks as always to contributors, for making DVD Savant more interesting, and more coherent!


Great to see interest still alive in Cinerama. I still have my souvenir program from This Is Cinerama when it opened in Chicago. Glad you liked the scans. (the images of the booklet here are Bill's - GE) The whole brochure is a treat to read. I saw every Cinerama movie as soon as it was released starting with the first in Chicago, then when a theater was opened in St. Louis. I saw the last one here in San Diego. The Cinerama theater carried that name until about six years ago, even though showing regular big screen films, and has now been made into a fourplex. What a shame! - Bill Pritchett

Cinerama was NOT the first to incorporate stereophonic "Surround" sound. This was done almost 10 years earlier in Fantasia's "Fantasound".

And as for the "3-D fads", I admit to being a 3-D fan but really its run was about the same 15 years as Cinerama. Hey, and IMAX is still making them. :) Some cool info on 3D films can be found at: - Eddie. PS. great site!

On a sad note, Cinerama is coming to its end here in Dayton, Ohio, as the New Neon Movies theater has decided to end the showings entirely (due to the dropoff in interest and the economic costs of giving up the seating capacity necessary for the Cinerama setup).

I do have to say that watching How the West Was Won was quite a treat, especially with the remarks by Mr. Harvey on the whole process. - "sylvain"

"Cinerama. One of my favorites. Saw This is Cinerama at the Broadway Theatre in New York a week after it openned. I was 9 at the time. Got hooked and saw all the films through the years.

By the way, the subhead says "3 screen". Not true. It was one screen with 3 panels. The Cinerama documentary you mentioned should be interesting. Several years ago when I joined John Harvey's Cinerama Preservation Society, I received a video of Cinerama related odds and ends. Included were some interviews to be used in The Cinerama Adventure. The comments by Carroll Baker were very amusing.

It's interesting to note that Pacific Theatres, who purchased the rights to the Cinerama travelogues and Cinerama Technologies, was most responsible for the demise of the original 3-camera process. William Forman, the president of the theatre chain (now deceased) shut down the development of a single lens system, not the 70mm films released as "Cinerama" but a lens developed by the engineers that used 35mm film running sideways in the camera ( a la VistaVision) about 12 or 13 perfs wide that provided 146 degrees of view, just like the original 3 camera system. It would have been interesting if this system had been fully developed. One of things that made the 3 projector exhibition so exciting was that each one had its own light source which meant that the image on screen was incredibly bright. A single lens would have probably dimished the brightness, in my opinion. But we'll never know.

Back to Forman. After buying out Cinerama, he authorized the production of a new film, Millie Goes To Budapest (later retitled The Golden Head). Filming started in 3-camera, but was changed to standard 70mm after a few days. This was done because he realized that it was a cheaper way to make the film. The film played, as far as I know, only in London for a couple of weeks. People who saw it say it was terrible. Some of the scenes used the 3 panel stuff converted to 70mm (the join lines were apparent). Another film started in 3 camera Cinerama was The Greatest Story Ever Told. After a few days of shooting, director George Stevens had the filming converted to standard 70mm. None of the 3 camera material has ever seen the light of day.

Cinerama eventually gave way to inferior single strip projection and the rest is, well, history. It's a fabulous story and I look forward to the documentary.

As far as Dayton goes, they will cease showing Cinerama in a few months. Robert Allen's refurbished Seattle Cinerama has all the equipment on hand to show true 3 panel films. But, there are presently no new prints. John Harvey cobbled together a complete version of How The West Was Won for Dayton, but that print is not in the greatest of shape. His print of This Is Cinerama is OK, but Cinerama Holiday and Seven Wonders Of The World are badly faded to pink. Members of the Cinerama Preservation Society paid for a new soundtrack for Seven Wonders since the one previously used was in German.

Martin Hart of the American Wide Screen Museum site told me that there is a problem with the Seattle Cinerama theatre setup. Test projection of John Harvey's How The West print showed that the top of the images never reached the deeply curved Cinerama screen because the ceiling was too low in the auditorium. Perhaps the projection booths were too high. I don't know. But you can certainly contact Martin to find out the latest info. Cheers. - Peter Kline

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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