The Man in the Flying Leatherette

The gentleman in the curiously afloat theatre seat is Mr. Peter Schaeffer, account

peter schaeffer cinerama ad

Will it happen to me, too?

executive of McCann-Erickson, the advertising firm that initially handled Cinerama. Lynn Farnol, who will appear many times in later posts concerning Cinerama publicity, writes in “New Screen Technique,”edited by Martin Quigley Jr., “A policy was established, as clear cut and as well defined as any ever known in or out of the motion picture industry. Without making any secrets out of anything, the technical etails of the operation of the new process were not to be divulged….The appeal adopted by the advertising agency…and its able account executive, Peter Schaeffer…was a simple one: what Cinerama does to you! ….Lastly, Cinerama was to state, bluntly and directly, that it was not a three-dimensional process.”

Note that “New Screen Techniques” was published in October of 1953, just a month after the introduction of supposed rival CinemaScope, and just at the time that Stanley-Warner began rolling out THIS IS CINERAMA in its owned and leased theatres. The first of those theatres was the Boyd in Philadelphia where, CinemaScope having premiered two weeks before Cinerama, began to advertise in its ads for THIS IS CINERAMA, “Not Just Another Scope Picture”.

Was This Vitarama?

There’s been so much pubished on- and offline about Fred Waller’s multi-lens camera morphing from Vitarama into the Gunnery Trainer, that I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said. (Although as recently as last week, I read on a blog that Vitarama was shown at the 1939 World’s Fair. Can somebody please put that rumor finally to rest!) But, I came upon a NY Times article from June 26, 1949 that has me somewhat puzzled because I think I remember hearing about this. and I couldn’t get close enough to John Caron, Waller’s step-son, to ask about it. I would be surprised if he couldn’t share some memories. For two years, Chicago was host to the Rail Fair, an event on Lake Michigan which was extremely well received in its two year engagement.

“The Chicago Railroad Fair, made possible by the cooperative efforts of thirty-eight of the country’s carriers plus the Pullman Company, opened its second season today on the on the shores of Lake Michigan. Included in the Eastern railroads exhibit is something new — Vitarama Hall, in which is shown for the first time in Chicago a new method of presenting pictures.”

Doing some online research I came across the “Jim Hill Media” site /03/22/1306.aspx#.UG2Cv1Ez4it...And in the post there titled “Do Disneyland’s roots really lie in the Chicago Railroad Fair?” there is this description:

“3-D movies or CircleVision 360? “Vitarama, a new 3- dimension picture discovery which has thrilled and mystified private audiences, is brought to the public for the first time as a feature attraction at the joint exhibit of the nine Eastern Railroads. Only machine of its kind in the United States today, the Vitarama uses simultaneously five different screens to depict the part played by the Railroads in the growth of America. Vitarama Hall holds 650 spectators.”

And, furthermore, at the risk of finding coincidences everywhere…and you know what they say about coincidences…I must mention another attraction that Hill describes. Not about the Vitarama thing, but with Fred Waller possibly in attendance there, and his invention of water-skis, and the possibility of one day in the future needing something with a lot of movement for a Cinerama segment. Keep in mind the opening Florida sequence in Act II of THIS IS CINERAMA.

Hill continues: “And that’s not all. One of the shows at the Fair was the “Cypress Gardens Water Thrill Show–the world’s foremost water ski, aquaplane and water toboggan champions skim over the blue water of Lake Michigan at 40 miles an hour while performing unbelievable feats of skill and daring. There are spectacular routines by the lovely Aqua Belles from Florida’s famed Cypress Gardens” So, please comment if you know anything more about Vitarama’s exposure at the Chicago Railroad Fair

Parting Thoughts from the ‘Rama Fest…and into the Baker booth

roller coaster cartoon

One of many such cartoons in the early days of Cinerama

Final notes on the second and third days of the 60th Cinerama Anniversary Festival at the Dome. Wow, it was really exciting to see new real Cinerama footage in IN THE PICTURE. Amazing to see how the 60-year old camera was brought back up to snuff and running again. Panel registration? Well, maybe it’s the camera, maybe it was in the printing, but there was considerable jiggling and jumping up and down, particularly between the Abel and Baker sections. But I noticed little if any color or exposure mismatches between the panels. The location audio, recorded with a single microphone, was very smoothly and effectively spread by Chase Audio. I’m tempted to call the short itself “charming”, and the short included a couple of those expected POV shots, though, with the camera being handled about as gingerly as the only working Cinerama camera on hand should have been, don’t look for any of those hair- raising setups with the camera rigged to bobsleds, jet planes, runaway trains, or roller coasters. And, by the way, the print of THIS IS CINERAMA has been so “cleaned up” (and is probably the same on the blu-ray which I haven’t run yet) to such an extent that you can’t notice any more the tell-tale editing spots on the Atom Smasher ride where Mike Todd, Jr. had spliced together the sequence from the two, three, or four (depending on whom you’re reading) takes. There was a lively discussion on a few years back on exactly how many edits there were, and where they can be spotted. The one in particular which always stood out for me occurs after the first drop and the coaster reverses direction towards Brooklyn, and then turns back towards the ocean, and then midway up the second hill. In the original film, the Abel panel suddenly goes at least one whole f-stop darker than the other two…as the skies had obviously changed from one take to the other. Kinda missed that. Progress!

audio dubber

The 7-track Cinerama audio dubber

the automation screen
Automation in the Baker booth

baker projector
The “Baker” Projector

A projectionist ready to begin the THIS IS CINERAMA show


Searching for Paradise at the Dome….did I find it?

SEARCH FOR PARADISE, is the fourth Cinerama travelogue, and which I saw again for only the second time last night. Actually, parts of that film, the closing moments involving B-52′s and F-3 fighter jets, comprised the opening sequence in both Act I and II of THE BEST OF CINERAMA, the 1962 compilation film, which I enjoyed at the New York Capitol. So, would I like it any more than I did 57 years ago? Well, yes and no, despite the knowledge that this faded magenta print from Australia was the only current viable option because the digital remastering is not yet complete. I really liked how that remarkable Cinerama high resolution could still be so staggeringly sharp, even when the image is dim and reddish. Remember how you could count the feathers on the Native American costumes in HOW THE WEST WAS WON? It’s still that sharp in places, and the seven track sound is remarkably crystal clear. All the better to hear the often silly dialogue and lyrics attributed generally to Lowell Thomas. The audience laughed often. And I had completely forgotten the hair-raising ride in a jeep down a steep Himalayan  mountain trail. But there was a problem last night. And it’s not the fault of Dave Strohmaier, or any of the Pacific’s (or ArcLight’s)  staff….they really did their best to put on a faultless Cinerama presentation. But without access to the 35mm prologue, a digital version was projected. (This DVD has been offered online from Australian sources for years.) For most of us kids, the “jump” from standard 35mm to full-screen Cinerama was the first thrill of the show. Unfortunately at the Dome the digital projector would allow only a “dead-centering” of the image; thus, the prologue was shown not at the bottom of the center panel….which emphasizes the height of the full screen…but in the center of the screen; and without benefit of masking either top or bottom, the transition lost most of its effect. I overheard many many complaints. Same with the breakdown reel for SFP shown after the main feature; it was also a digital presentation, but often unintentionally funny due to Thomas’ deadpan delivery. It would be nice to experience the real transition once again.

(Not having seen Oklahoma in 70mm in 1955, I became really confused when I first saw “80 Days,” the next year in the new Todd-AO process. Its prologue was deliberately printed centered top-to-bottom in the frame, and about a third or so of the full frame image. So for months I maintained the erroneous belief that Todd-AO projection would fill a screen as high as Cinerama’s. Not so, of course.)

But, again, this fault was not the intention of the current Cinerama showmen.

Leave it to digital and digital projection to show how really good and versatile film projection still is.

I’m not alone in trusting that the digital restorations will attempt to maintain the correct geometry between the prologues, and other 35mm material, and the actual Cinerama stuff. (As of Friday, my TIC and Windjammer DVDs hadn’t arrived yet. From what I’ve heard this weekend in emails, they got it right, tho the actual transition in WJ might not be at the exact moment as was in the original film.). So, overall it was well worth the trip and the jetlag. I somehow don’t dislike SEARCH FOR PARADISE as much as I did in 1957. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score seems more hummable now than then. And as I look across the screen, I seem to see more cleverly-staged action in the corners.

Back in the fifties, there were dozens of cartoons and jokes revolving around the question, “what’s happening on your side of the screen?” Never more apparent than in the fourth Cinerama escapade. Director Otto Lang seemed to always keep the frame(s) full of activity. And that looks really good on that Dome screen.

In attendance last night was Mrs. Diomtri Tiomkin who was applauded when John Sittig announced her presence. Prior to SFP, the GRIMM showing experienced some difficulties, possibly a film break….which pushed the other show’s start back a half hour. At that early afternoon performance, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris were in the auditorium. Also the son of inventor Fred Waller.
Tonight will be the second showing of IN THE PICTURE, latest of the 3-camera films. Dave Strohmaier informed me that the film was shot at the original Cinerama standard of 26 frames-per-second, not 24 as the MGM films. Looks like then that there’s no video release planned. A single microphone was used for location shots, not five or more as done previously. There will not be a prologue, but there is an overture. And, for the sake of Cinerama historians all over the world, the actual world premiere date is Friday, September 28, 2012.

Shades of Cinerama Holiday, IN THE PICTURE revolves around the adventures (hopefully) of two married couples in Los Angeles. One of the husbands happens to be Stanley Livingston who portrayed Prescott Rawlings in HTWWW. And the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds will make a brief appearance also. I surely hope she attends tonight’s performance.
And they said “Cannot and Will Not Be Shown on Television.” Psych!!! Those big pictures come to your own Big Screen at home on October 18. That night, Turner Classic Movies will air THIS IS CINERAMA, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, and CINERAMA ADVENTURE. Check your local listings. Go wild, bring popcorn, since in the original Cinerama theatres, popcorn wasn’t allowed. Once again, thanks to Dave Strohmaier and Pacific Theatres for their glorious and highly successful attempts to bring back the Cinerama experience on screen where it belongs agaiin.

There’s a bound-to-be lively Q&A tonight as part of the TIC/ITP showings. I showed Dave the SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD New York world premiere ticket that I have in my Hazard Reeves memorabilia collection (about which, more next week). I’ll present it to him tonight. He also would like my THIS IS CINERAMA Philadelphia premiere ticket, but methinks he won’t get that until he brings back Cinerama to the still-standing but moribund Boyd Theatre. Some Philly folks say this will never happen, that “pigs will fly” before Cinerama runs at the Boyd again. Never say never. Before the Dayton, Ohio “temporary” Cinerama engagement….which lasted four years, mind you…I would have sworn that I would absolutely never see 3-strip Cinerama again…I would see the fall of the Berlin Wall, an African-American take over office as the  President of the United States, but never, absolutely never, see 3-camera, 3-projector Cinerama again. Fortunately, the joke was on me. Happy Cinerama-ing.

The booth from which the right panel is projected


The view of the projector flashing the left side panel


the screen curtain at the Dome

The Cinerama screen is about as wide the as row of lighting lamps above. Not exactly the correct 3-screen aspect ratio. My Australian colleagues have informed me that each side is about 18″ less wide than the Cinerama standard.

Short Subject: the 60th Anniversary Cinerama celebration

Still jet- lagged, I got to the Cinerama Dome as the “Golden Head” show was letting out.
Here’re a few photographs….you can’t miss the camera. I introduced myself to
Dave Strohmaier and asked him a few questions about “In The Picture,” the
latest 3-strip Cinerama film. Yes, it was photographed at the standard 26 frames per second; no, the location sound was not recorded with multiple mikes; and no prologue
but there is an overture. Will take more photos in about an hour before “Search For Paradise” begins. In attendance this afternoon is the son of Fred Waller.

< tiny prologue >

I discovered Cinerama in a bathtub.


I would sit there, eight years old, with my eyes barely reaching the edge of the tub and open and close the shower curtain as if I were operating drapes at the local movie house  and look out at what I supposed seeing Cinerama would be. June, the nine-year old girl next door, and already an ardent movie fan, had been telling me for weeks about “this new movie thing,” that was soooooo big and soooooo high and sooooo wide that it wasn’t like going to the movie houses down the street at all, but more like actually being in the picture. And that’s what I visualized. As I pulled the green curtain back and forth….just a single panel, not two as in most theatres….revealed to me Larger Than Life were a door, walls, ceiling, a sink, a carpet, a commode, a mirror, towel racks, washcloths, soapdishes and accessories consuming most of my field of vision. I wasn’t looking at a bathroom, like I would be looking at a bathroom in a movie in a movie theatre like the Orpheum or the Bandbox down the street, but I was looking around IN a bathroom.

Days went by, and news about this Cinerama, which was strutting its stuff in New York,filtered down to Philadelphia and speculation abounded about when and when and where we would get to experience it as well.Philadelphia Bulletin announces Cinerama

Sometimes the accounts were exciting, but wildly inaccurate. At the end of the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin article above, published when Cinerama was just six days old, there’s an illustration of the Cinerama projection scheme….much like the ones that had appeared in magazines a year earlier, but the reporter’s enthusiasm apparently got out of hand and she breathlessly renamed Cinerama “Cyclorama”.

This Is Cyclorama


Eventually, a year later, this Cinerama thing did come Philadelphia, and it took all of the persistent and whiny powers of an eight-year old to persuade my parents to finally take me all the way downtown to this one particular Cinerama theatre while, if I listed to my parents, there were a half dozen perfectly good other theatres all within walking distance, all showing films from noon till late evening, all where you could sit where you wanted to, and all at reasonably fair prices. “But, daddy, it says here ‘ will not and can not be shown in a neighborhood theatre’”. (Which didn’t turn out to be true, but what the heck), and definitely “can not be shown on tv”. (ditto). For I, too, was at that age an ardent movie fan.

So on a brisk Sunday in January of 1954, I finally experienced Cinerama.

Boyd Cinerama Marquee

Philadelphia Boyd

Not too much later, I discovered at home some past issues of ‘Popular Science’ and ‘Popular Mechanics” …. you know, the ones featuring a new large Super Movie thing that came to be known as Cinerama…in my dad’s work area. I still have them, and am happy to report that I am in far better condition than they are. And I haven’t stopped collecting .

So, even though it’s taken me more than a decade to get started, on this, the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama’s debut next week, I am also eager to begin sharing my own highly personal account of not just Cinerama and its imitators, the Todd-AO’s and the Odd-AO’s, but also the theatres they were shown in, they way they were distributed and advertised, just about anything else I have here about whatever widened my eyes and stretched my hearing at the movies. Not so much because I simply can’t get into my bedroom anymore without stumbling across a stack of archive boxes, as much as a desire to put you In The Picture, as it were, of what it all was about.

Not purely technical information. There are a number of well-written, well-informed sites…and I plan to link to them in time…with all the tech stuff. And I’m not forgetting the many colleagues of mine who have contributed to my collections…they, too, will be acknowledged in future posts.

Most prominent among these contributors would be Mr. Hazard “Buzz” Reeves, Academy Award-winning co-inventor of Cinerama’s sound system and later President of Cinerama, Inc., whose collection of Cinerama memorabilia fell into my possession in the early 1990′s.

Among other things on this site, I hope to impart the unbridled enthusiasm that accompanied the Cinerama phenomenon ….that caused New York City newspaper columnist Walter Winchell to exclaim, “It knocked Broadway silly!” Has any other movie done likewise?

I’ve no doubt that this blog could go on for years…there’s so much to write about. Cinerama’s publicists claimed in the beginning “Others may come and go, but there is only one Cinerama.” And the beat, as they say, goes on. It’s a part of our mindset now. Remember that “Golden Girls” quip in the previous post? When’s the last time you heard a laugh line or a joke about VistaVision or IMAX?

No, wait a minute. IMAX is a joke.

No fair. I’ll leave that for another posting

So, for now, hope to see you at the Dome this weekend, and, Ladies and Gentleman….This Was Cinerama!



< tiny overture >

There is a line of dialogue in the 2002 film, “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” that made me stand straighposter "the secret lives of dentists"t up in my living room and shout.

In the film, Dana and David are now 10 years married, and both succesfully practicing their chosen professions as dentists, but are, in Roger Ebert’s words, “… happy, apparently, but something strange is going on under the surface of this marriage,” and in this one particular scene Dana murmurs to David: “I thought it would be different, you know, our marriage. I thought it would be like Cinerama.”

Like What!!”

And she continues: ” “It would just get wider and wider, and it doesn’t…it just gets smaller and smaller.”

In the novella upon which the film is based, “The Age of Grief,” by Jane Smiley, David’s view of his wife’s widescreen thoughts are more succinct. “I think she thought it would get bigger, like Cinerama, and instead it gets smaller and smaller.”

Same difference.

Cinerama, the name of a particular type of motion picture making and presenting, had long before become synonymous with “uncommonly large,” and references to something being “as big as”  were Cinerama commonplace.

Here’s an example I remember seeing. In the 1988 season opener of the NBC TV sitcom, “The Golden Girl,” the Rose Nyland character, charmingly played by Betty White, insults the full-figured Dorothy (Bea Arthur) by exclaiming “You have a big butt.” Whereupon Dorothy, remembering a certain Cinerama movie, retorts, “and if you wanna talk behinds, they could show ‘How The West Was Won’ on yours!” And this was fifteen years after the last “in Cinerama” shows had been presented, at least in the States.

But, back to Dana and David, I don’t really remember how your marriage worked out in the movie, but unfortunately, in time, Cinerama, too, “got smaller and smaller.”

But that’s the stuff of future postings…another part of ThisWasCinerama.