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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Cinerama Out Of Doors

Being more or less thick on the subject of Cinerama (and never having seen it projected), I was not aware that Pacific Theatres owns both the process and all but two features utilizing its three-panel system (How The West Was Won and The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm belong to Warners). These ads were ones I came across in a box of Los Angeles newspapers. Cinerama was plentiful there during the fifties and early sixties, but its presence at a drive-in seemed almost inconceivable. Something about Pacific’s three-strip adventure rang a bell which was answered upon looking back into Greenbriar’s archive. Seems I’d featured this self-same outdoor venue three years ago (March 2006) after stumbling over images in a trade magazine. Let’s then consider today’s post a sequel to that, and attribute my revisitation to ongoing amazement that at least one venue actually played Cinerama to parked cars and in fact presented authentic three-panel in LA for what would be a last time for years to come.

Cinerama had been LA exclusive to the Warners Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (shown here). They exploited the process through the fifties, and after an early sixties lull, were back playing Cinerama in 1962. Pacific’s chain bought the process around that time and decided to introduce it as an outdoor attraction. Their Century Drive-In was closed and retrofitted to the drumbeat of ads promising The Newest, Largest, Most Spectacular Screen Anywhere In The World. Three-panel Cinerama was over nearly everywhere else by then. Single-strip 70mm had replaced it. This Is Cinerama’s opening at the Century on April 17, 1964 might as well have been a dinosaur exhibit for all the future this process had. They played it three weeks with two shows a night. Seven Wonders Of The World moved in on May 6 for five weeks, buttressed by a sub-run of McLintock, which was, of course, standard 35mm and must have looked punk on that giant screen after the Cinerama blow-out. The final three-panel date was South Seas Adventure, which started June 10 and ran three weeks. Pacific thereafter used conventional film and stored away their Cinerama negatives. The Century was twinned in 1973 and demolished in 1984. People who went there said it was great but for plane noises in and out of LAX. There’s a fantastic documentary called Cinerama Adventure that’s an extra on Warner’s DVD of How The West Was Won. It’s feature length and covers all history of the three-panel process. Here was my first time seeing footage from This Is Cinerama and the other travelogues. Is anyone exhibiting Cinerama nowadays? The fan base is a dedicated one. I read of one enthusiast who constructed a three-panel system in his house. Pacific has made new prints of Cinerama features. Are any of these forthcoming to their Dome theatre in Hollywood? I missed the ones they ran previously, including How The West Was Won. For all that’s written on the history of the process, here’s my go-to site for most detailed and reliable coverage.
UPDATE 6/10/09: Craig Reardon e-mailed a reminiscence of Pacific's Century Drive-In that's so good I just had to ask his permission to reprint it here. Thank you Craig, for allowing me to share the following with Greenbriar readers:
I'm FROM Inglewood, California, and grew up only a few blocks away from the Century Drive-In. As drive-ins go, it went! ( I couldn't resist.) No ... as drive-ins go, or rather did go, back in their heyday, I imagine the Century was one of the nicer ones. It had that big, art deco sort of marquee as pictured in your latest blog. It also had a big sort of 'frame' to the back of the screen, facing the street (which was Century Blvd.), that was memorably decorated with a gigantic mural of SHIPS sailing, sails unfurled, almost like a frozen scene from The Sea Hawk. It made a great impression on me, over and over again, when my Dad and Mom would take my brother and I to see something, there. I can't furnish any particulars about its history. That's the sort of remarkable information I'm more liable to find YOU turning up, one of these days! However, I can attest to having seen Gigi there, as well as Ben-Hur, so it was certainly there in the late1950s. Under the original screen, there was a complete playground and giant sandbox for kids to cavort in, while it got to be dark enough to start the first show. Often Mom would chaperone us while we played on the swings or the spinning disc-like thing that kids used to love to clamber up on, trying to beat the pull of centrifugal force and stay on, but have long since been removed from all playgrounds, another victim I presume of spurious litigation that's taken a lot of the fun out of childhood. I checked out your earlier 2006 post, with the additional pictures of the snack bar. That might've been taken right out of my brain! How well I remember that place. I DO remember that curved screen. It was not a pretty sight, particularly, vs. the more monumental, original screen. Our family did not take advantage of the chance to see these Cinerama screenings, alas. However, I did see This is Cinerama at the Warner Cinerama in the early '60s, during a (presumed) reissue, with my Dad. The rollercoaster beginning was unforgetable, at the time, and that sense of vertigo and giddy fun is very well suggested in the wonderful documentary, Cinerama Adventure, that you refer to, included by WB Home Video with How the West Was Won. Speaking of which, we ALSO saw that, in its original 3-projector exhibition, at a Cinerama theater in San Diego, visiting my uncle and aunt. That was memorable. This was a theater, like many others across the country, 'specially made to exhibit Cinerama films. It was beautiful inside, with a long, long curving proscenium with red curtain (as I remember.) They sold actual, slenderhardcover 'books', souvenir books, about the movie, in the lobby. The illustrations in the much abbreviated simulation included with the superb Blu-ray version of HTWWW are taken from that original souvenir book. You had to buy it, by the way! It did not come with the price of admission! The WB Blu-ray, especially the 'SmileBox' version, does a tremendous job in suggesting what it was like to see this splendid entertainment as it originally looked. The lines, that were not objectionable, but were visible, are almost entirely gone in the excellent restoration, as you know. In the theater, I remember being transfixed seeing the THREE projector beams meeting in the air about in the middle of the darkened theater, on their way to illuminate the three areas of the continuous, curved screen. Back to the Century, however! No, I'm sorry to say that no remnant of that special, 1964 screen, nor indeed any portion of the Century, still survives. Oh, pardon me ---- I'm addressing your 2006 post! You yourself point out in the most recent one the facts ---- it was demolished. Leave it to you and your supernatural ability to ferret out this information! ---- you even have the year it all came down: 1984. My family moved away to Redondo Beach (about a 45-minute drive from Inglewood) in 1970, and so we weren't there when this happened. Plus, I was out on my own, finally, about 1979, and I didn't know the Century was gone until I visited the old neighborhood again in 2005, and saw that one of the big box stores (Wal-Mart or Costco) currently sits without distinction where this marvelous relic of the waning golden years of moviegoing once reigned. The screen was actually visible, in spite of a 'screen' of tall eucalyptus trees encircling the back ofthe lot, from our nearby high school! Often, when there in the evening, I would pause to watch a 'silent' portion of a contemporary film, showing there. I well remember seeing (but, not hearing, of course!) the blood 'n' thunder conclusion of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave playing out, in the late '60s, as I waited for a ride from home to pick me up from some evening function, there! It may amuse you to know something I accidentally discovered. During the fine 1954 (I believe it is) George Cukor film, The Marrying Kind (written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, I believe), the young married couple played by Aldo Ray and Judy Holliday go to to a drive-in, one night. Now, the story is set in either New York or New Jersey. But, the drive-in marquee you see them exiting past, after the show, is....The Century! After all, it says so, right over the marquee, just as your vintage photo confirms. So, in other words, that fictional couple drove a hell of a long distance to see THAT movie! For me, it's a charming memento of hundreds of hours spent spellbound, staring at the screen through the windshield of my Dad and Mom's Ford station wagon (PAST the heads of my Dad and Mom!), at some of the amazing movies of that time.
The Century was located across from an Inglewood landmark that IS still there, today, as it has been for decades: the Hollywood Park Racetrack! This was evidently first built by a consortium including many actual Hollywood figures, hence the name. I infer it was a place for them to go, reasonably local to Tinsel Town, and watch their ponies perform. The other mecca for that was Santa Anita in Sierra Madre, which is east of Pasadena. From one or the other of these places, you still see many, many snapshots or newsreel glimpses of the celestial celebrities of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, up in the stands or private boxes, watching the races. So far, Hollywood Park has ridden the changing times and fashions and other social upheavals (including the shift from a poly-ethnic mix in Inglewood, when I grew up, toward its current Afro-American primary composition, today), and escaped the wrecking ball. The poor Century Drive-In was not fated to go the same distance, and it's a shame. However, today's kids would not know what to make of it, I imagine. Also, as your column often points out, and with admirable clarity and honesty, there were not in those days the magnificent options available in home theater and home video. I look at some of these things on our big set, especially in the Blu-ray format, and I think they look as good or even BETTER than they did in movie theaters, 'back in the day', let alone through my parents' tinted windshield, much as I loved the adventure of going to the drive-in. One of the other things I left out was that it was usually an occasion to go to our favorite local delicatessen, Dino's, and grab four delicious 'grinders' (submarine sandwiches----I'm not sure which of several parallel names for these familiar delicacies 'clicks' in your neck of the woods). As that song that another wonderful 'Dino' used to croon says, "Memories are made of this ..."


Anonymous G. D. Wilson said...

I saw a CINERAMA screening only once--a great experience if you're lucky enough to be seated in the center of the screen, otherwise forget it, you won't get the full effect of the three panel system. Of course the prized center seats were sold-out first, usually at a higher ticket price.Patrons seated to the left or right might as well have stayed home.

7:26 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The only movie theater in Buenos Aires that had the three projector booths for Cinerama was the Gaumont.

I have never seen a Cinerama projected, except for probably some clips in an amusement park. But I remember other widescreen experiences at the Gaumont that either had the same effect on me or that were probably better.

The Gaumont suffered a lot of changes throughout the years and it was splitted into three theaters. The main screen is still the one of the best places to watch a film.

And they also preserved the small orchestra pit were Ciriaco Ortiz and his musicians played background music to silent films from 1925 until the sound film revolution.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

John, not only did someone exhibit Cinerama recently... you sat within 30 feet or so of him at Cinevent! That's Larry Smith, then of the New Neon theater in Dayton OH, now at Library of Congress:

Unfortunately, the documentary on HTWWW deliberately omits the role played by Larry and John Harvey in helping save and, for a time, revive Cinerama; but a search for their names and Cinerama will turn up plenty of news stories. Anyway, next year let's make sure you two meet up.

1:09 AM  
Anonymous East Side said...

I feel like the old man of the mountain. I saw "How the West Was Won" (in the original three-panel release) along with "Brothers Grimm" (probably the first movie I ever saw),"It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" and "2001" all in Cinerama. The early movies were pretty overpowering for a barely-school age kid. I didn't like "Mad Mad World" -- too long and too big for a comedy.

I also saw "This is Cinerama" when it was re-released circa 1970 before the process went bust. Even then, that rollercoaster ride had people in the audience screaming. I wonder if IMAX has that same effect on people today.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Boy, it's kinda scary when you have to beat the bushes just to find someone who has seen a Cinerama film! Growing up near Hartford, Connecticut, I had plenty of opportunity to see 'em. SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIM and THIS IS CINERAMA... saw all of those. Vivid childhood memory of running up to a front row, so I could turn my head to the far left then right, and stil see nothing but movie!

3:11 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

John, this is a great post! I'm linking!

I had no idea that Cinerama had ever been shown in a drive-in. How wonderfully weird!

And yes, the Cinerama Dome did show How the West Was Won a few years ago, and I got one of those prized, center row seats. It was pretty keen, even if the movie was kind of stodgy, in the same way that Cocoanuts is stodgy as an early talkie, because they hadn't figured out how to move the camera for the Marx Bros. or use the camera in the Cinerama process to its greatest advantage. (Some might say they never did!)

Thanks again for a great post!

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to go to Dayton to see THIS IS CINERAMA and HOW THE WEST WAS WON about 12 years ago. And yes...John Harvey and Larry Smith deserve a lot of praise for making that happen for a couple of years.

8:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dennis, your comparison of HTWWW with "The Cocoanuts" was an apt one. I've put off watching the DVD because I was afraid it might be a long haul, although seeing it in Blu-Ray will probably help.

G.D. Wilson, my fear of attending a Cinerama show would be ending up in a side seat and unable to relocate. I'm assuming a full house would leave most of its audience disappointed.

Michael, I did meet Larry at Cinevent, but did not realize he'd managed the New Neon and shown Cinerama there.

East Side, was the 1970 reissue of "This Is Cinerama" actually 70mm?

Dave K, you had it made. Rest assured we never had Cinerama at the Liberty. In fact, our screen was letterboxed for scope features, as it was never widened in the fifties or after.

8:44 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"East Side, was the 1970 reissue of "This Is Cinerama" actually 70mm?"

As I recall from asking Larry about it years ago, the last true Cinerama showings were around 1965, and everything after that was anamorphic 70mm, until John Harvey installed it in his home in the 80s.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Jay Allen Sanford said...

There is some info about Cinerama drive-in screenings in San Diego in this history of SD drive-ins, including dates -

Same website has detailed histories of Diego's grindhouse theater row and the CA Pussycat Theatre chain -

3:53 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

Regarding the rerelease of "This is Cinerama": My memory tells me it was in the only Cinerama theatre in Rhode Island, which was where my family saw the other Cinerama movies, including "2001."

Like I said earlier, I wasn't crazy about "Mad Mad World," but it's too bad the original print that I saw isn't around. It's strange to live long enough to have memories of movies that no longer exist.

8:20 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

I saw HOW THE WEST WAS WON in CINERAMA on 'The Great White Way' back during its original run, and sad to report, that as a thirteen year-old, was bored to tears.

I've never gone back to give the feature another chance.

The CINERAMA 'seams' on the screen were very irritating to me.

But, I can also be irritating, so I guess we're even.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I beg respectfully to differ with G.D. Wilson. To be sure, there was a reason rows five to ten in the center section were called the "sweet seats," but Cinerama wouldn't have been the wonder of the age throughout the 1950s if three-fourths of the audience had gone home wondering what all the fuss was about. I've seen How the West Was Won seven times in Cinerama (twice in 1963, twice in 1964, then in 1996, 2003 and 2008) and This Is Cinerama three times ('63, '96, '02). I wasn't always able to nail down sweet-spot seats, but I assure you they were both worth the trip every time. (On the latter title, I also saw that woebegone 70mm reissue in '73 with its tinny color and 20 percent of the picture missing; it should have been called This Isn't Cinerama.)

How the West Was Won has been my favorite movie ever since I saw it at age 15. For years I was abashed and embarrassed to say so; seeing it in '96 -- once again, at long last, in true Cinerama -- made me realize my embarrassment was based on the general release and video versions. As long as I know HTWWW still exists in its three-strip, seven-track version, I'll never be embarrassed about it again. (HTWWW, by the way, was the last real Cinerama movie; those bearing the name after that, from Mad, Mad World to 2001, are all impostors.)

That Cinerama Adventure documentary is indeed splendid, marred only by its failure to acknowledge the life's work of John Harvey. By diligently patching together a projection and sound system and assembling prints of all the features, John single-handedly preserved Cinerama for posterity. For this alone, he deserves a place of highest honor in film history.

And just a word, if I may, about those seams between the panels: They're part of the deal, like 3-D glasses or (in older movies) monaural sound or black-and-white photography. If that's going to be a deal-breaker, then by all means don't bother with Cinerama.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Griff said...

Jim Lane is onto something. In three-projector Cinerama, HTWWW is akin to a great movie. There has really never been anything like the original Cinerama.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I Remember my disappointment when THIS IS CINERAMA was shown in Boston in 1973-heralded by the old "Puts you in the picture" slogans-on a TINY FLAT SCREEN!I still feel empathy for those exhibitors who were forced to display posters promising a 3-d-like experience and then have punters sit through a ratty old film of a roller coaster ride, etc.To this day I'm wondering-WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

4:23 PM  
Blogger Cooling fans said...

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5:25 AM  

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