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A Cinerama Holiday

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: David Page Issue 45 - June 1996
On the 20th of April 1996, a friend (that is Barrie Pick by name) and I went on a two week holiday to the west coast of America, to spend four days in Los Angeles and the rest of the holiday in Las Vegas. Some time prior to leaving the U.K. Barrie had written to the Cinerama Dome in L.A. hoping that as "Cinerama nuts", we could be shown around the cinema. Happily, a favorable reply was recieved from Mr John Sittig, Director of Theatre Operations for Pacific Theatres, welcoming us and agreeing to a tour of the Dom e. He also hinted that there might be something else for us to see at the the same time.

Full of anticipation, we arrived in L.A. on the Saturday evening, spent most of Sunday orienting ourselves around the Hollywood area and the hotel. We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt on Hollywood Boulevard. We could not find a hotel right next door the the Dome! Nor any unusual hotels with names like "Motel Cinerama" or "The 70deMille Hotel", so we had to make do with the movie- drenched Roosevelt! We were well located, opposite Manns Chinese and within walking distance of Sunset and the Dome. So, at 9 am sharp on the Monday morning, we rang John Sittig. Unfortunately, he was unable to accompany us personally, but he did make arrangements for us to meet the Managers of both The Cinerama Dome and The El Capitan that Wednesday. The latter was an unexpected bonus.

Before the planned visits to the two Pacific Theatres, we resolved to look inside Manns Chinese. The film showing at the time was "The Substitute", so we had to buy a ticket to get in (oh well, you cannot have it all good). The exterior of Manns, whilst extraordinary and very interesting - although in need of some refurbishment - was not the object of our attention. Through the lobby and to a door at the side brought us to look upon an enormous auditorium which was quite a sight. A vast sea of red velvet seats lay before us and at the end was quite the largest expance of curtain I think either of us had ever seen. It was and awe-inspiring sight. We deliberated as to the possible screen size lurking behind that great mass of curtain. How much masking would there be? Would the whole area we were looking at be filled with image when 70mm was projected? Well we did find out that there was a great deal of masking for no r mal 35mm projection, but even so, the image was large and clear and the screen did have a slight curve. As for the film, well we stayed for about half an hour, decided that it looked formular "Blacboard Jungle" stuff and came back out into the lobby. I asked one of the assistants about the size of the screen etc, but he just referred me to someone I never did get to see. Pity. Anyway, it was an experience and our first taste of Hollywood cinema. It just whetted our appetites for the forthcoming visits down the road!

9:45 am Wednesday 24th April saw both of us eagerly waiting outside the El Capitan Theatre for our appointment at 10 am. The managers greeted us and invited us to feel free to look around. First, though, she explained that for some four or five years ago, Pacific Theatres - in cooperation with Disney - had completely renovated and refurbished t he cinema. Amongst other films, the El Capitan is now a premiere venue for Disney features and on special occasions there are live shows at the start of selected Disney films. She was obviously proud of the theatre and after a few more words, we went on a tour of closer inspection. The size and general layout was much more traditional than we had previously seen, in that there was a proscenium stage with ornately decorated boxes at either side. The ceiling was also ornately decorated. What was very obvious , though was the remarkable amount of care (and money, no doubt!) that gone into the renewal of this cinema. In the lobby was the story of how Pacific Theatres and Disney had teamed up to reopen this theatre. How, many years ago under different management, the building had been made to look more modern by hiding the original features behind plain exteriors and the name changed to Paramount and how the recent refurbishment was accomplished. Now, though, here it was in all its original glory and it was very fine indeed. The best part of our visit was yet to come, because we were introduced to the projectionist, Jose. The four of us talked for a while and Jose agreed that as Barrie and I had to leave to visit the Dome before the first public show, we would provide us with a private demonstration of what, they called their "curtain show". Neither Barrie nor I were ready for what was to come. Barrie settled himself into the best seat (as usual) and I flew around to find the best view from which to video this "event". Eventually, the house lights dimmed; the music began and the front set of curtains slowly rose, gathering as they went up. Then, a spotlight shone and a second set of curtains parted and finally a third, shimmering set separated to reveal the screen . All the while there was a constantly kaleidoscope of light and colour. It was quite dazzling and magical. There followed a couple of trailers and the five minute "show" climaxed with THX and Dolby demos. WOW! It was very impressive and exciting. After tha t, having spent nearly an hour there and having had our own private show, courtesy of the El Capitan staff, we left. We were very happy! 

11 am we arrived at our "place of worship"! The Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard. Our first view of it was as we rounded the corner of Sunset and Vine. There stood what appeared to be this giant up-turned golf ball, half buried in the ground surrounded by trees and a parking lot. Built just 33 years ago specifically to show Cinerama, it is the only completely new cinema which has been constructed in Hollywood over the last 60 years or so. The cinema was first conceived through the vision of William Foreman, founder and President of Pacific Theatres, as the future home of all movies projected in the then revolutionary process called "Cinerama". The facts surrounding the design and construction were impressive and worth relating. While Mr Foremans vision to create a theatre just for Cinerama was ambitious, even more impressive was the fact that it was to become the first and only geodesic dome built entirely of concrete. It was a huge undertaking which was further complicated by a construction timetable all but impossible to meet. Construction began July 1963 with a promise to have the theatre ready for a November 7th world premiere of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World". Only by literally working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 17 weeks could the timetable be met. Overhead, the actual dome itself is made up of 316 precast concrete panels and there are a total of 16 different size hexagon and pentagon shaped panels, the largest of which measure 10 ft x 12 ft and weigh over 2 and a half ton. The centre of the dome rises some 51 feet and the entire structure weighs 700 tons. The circular base support is 16 feet high and is 10 inches thick.

Now some 33 years later, David Page and Barrie Pick had come to gaze and wonder at what is now one of the few remaining Cinerama theatres left anywhere in the world. We were anxious to get inside and savour the interior. John Sittig had summed up our thoughts very well, when he said to Barrie at the beginning of the week - "I know what you want to see. We will open the curtains all the way for you!". Before the moment came, we met the manageress and Rosemary in the foyer. They both handled our initial excitement very well. In fact I think they both were most understanding and accommodating with two over-excited, schoolboy-like grown men to deal with! They wisked us up to the projection box from where we had a superb view of the auditorium below and the huge curve of curtain at the far end. We spent some time in the projection box, looking at the many pieces of equipment. Up there also, we could clearly see the now boarded up second and third projection windows that were originally intended to house the other two Cinerama projectors. Never used, of course, because (sadly) Cinerama was in the process of transformation into a single lense system. 

Unfortunately, we could not see the Cinerama projection lense, as it was locked away. Oh well, next time, maybe! Then, it was down into the auditorium for the ritual curtain opening. It is al ways a great sight to see a large expanse of curtain open to reveal a giant curved screen. That is precisely what happened here. The screen is, of course, single sheet with a 120 degree curve. At the time of installation it`s 26,2m x 9,8m [2,67:1 aspect ratio] (86ft x 32ft) was the largest in the world. We saw around the back of the screen where the speaker system was located and there, on a wall, was an old original screen control box with buttons marked "small screen" and "large screen". These, of course, were here to change the shape and size of the screen from small prologue to full size in anticipation of 3-strip being installed. They were probably never used and we hope that they are never discharged without thought.

Barrie was getting into his st ride by this time, telling the Rosemary to "set up the sound so that it starts off low and when the time comes for the Dolby or SDDS demo, turn the volume up and make the buggers jump"! Whether any of them took any notice of our well meant but excited adv i se to heart, remains to be seen! We spent a wonderful hour there, taking pictures and talking. We were both very impressed with the overall design. Not just in the circular shape, but the subtleties of gently sloping floors thet echo the design of the whole. There being no traditional proscenium, the floor at the lower level of seating gently rises to the foot of the curtains. It is a wonderfull open design with the 959 seats surrouded by drape. The original Cinerama colour of wine red had been replaced by gold. Whether this was as it was 33 years ago, we do not know. Outside, we were surprised to see the Cinerama concertina logo made in the older, unusual "upside-down" style. John had said that he was unaware of this but doubted whether many others would notice. Indeed, it made us wonder - just how many people visiting the cinema now know what Cinerama was - or is? It meant a great deal to the two of us, however. We had been treated to a marvelous tour of the Dome and seen areas that few have ever seen. To top it all, we came away with a copy of the 25th anniversary booklet, produced in 1988, as a memento of the visit.

That particular morning was the undoubted highlight of our trip - visiting both the Cinerama Dome and the El Capitan. We would thank all of those people we met (and one we did not - John Sittig) for helping to make the day so memorable. We left the area with those famous old english words ringing in our ears..."GIS A JOB, JOHN!"

The next day we drove out of L.A. and on to Las Vegas. On to IMAX, Omnimax, Trumbulls trio and a rollercoaster 950 feet atop the new Stratosphere Tower. But that - as they say - is another story........ 

Further in 70mm reading:

Cinerama Afterglow

Internet link:

 

Who is, David Page?

 

Born, it is rumored, sometimes this century in London. First became interested in big screen cinema after seeing the Cinerama travelogue re-runs at the Casino Cinerama in London in the early sixties. Spent a great deal of time and money at the Casino (and Coliseum, Royalty and Astoria Cinerama theatres!) up until the time when Cinerama finished. Wrote several letters to Films and Filming magazine at that time and consequently received an invitation to the premiere of "Krakatoa" (That was something to be proud of?). Spent many years visiting cinemas in Londons west end and considers some of the best to be Empire, Leicester Square Theatre (before the changes) and the Dominion (when it was a cinema). Deplores the current trend to small, multiplex type cinemas, but acknowledges the impact they have had on raising awareness to a wider audience. Intend s to crack open the champagne (providing someone buys it for him!) when the likes of Spielberg et al begin to realise once again that cinema-going is an event for all the senses - not just the ears - and so support the return of 70mm. Well done, Ken!

Now living in Bristol, England and currently managing a charity providing accommodation for young people committed to abstinence from drugs and alcohol and just returned from a well earned holiday in Los Angeles and Las Vegas (do you have week to hear all about it?), dp.
 

David also wrote:

Cinerama Afterglow
   
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