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Todd-AO: The Show of Shows

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

Written by: John Belton, New York, USA Issue 66 - November 2001

We live in an era of convenience-store cinema. Movies are available when and where audiences want them. At the local multiplex or megaplex, the latest blockbuster plays on two or three screens simultaneously; for the convenience of customers, the most popular feature starts every hour on the hour in a couple of theaters. Video rental outlets provide an array of recent, brandname hits, arranged by genre, in a way that echoes product displays at the local supermarket or 7-Eleven store.

Cable companies present recent theatrical releases on a pay-per-view basis, saving viewers the effort of going to a video store to get a film. Telephone and cable companies are also experimenting with "video on demand," a new distribution technology that would enable viewers to order a film from a central computer warehouse (where it has been stored digitally) and have it play on their home tv set at the exact time that they want to see it. Convenience-store cinema reduces the movies to the status of consumer commodity. It destroys their aura; it erodes the distinctive nature of motion pictures as a theatrical experience.

There was a time, back in the 1950s and 1960s, when going to the movies was a special event, much like going to the theater for a live show. The films themselves were unique attractions in terms of subject matter (in many ways, they still are). However, their variety was further reinforced by the fact that they were made in different processes--they were shot in Technicolor or in Eastman Color; they were filmed and projected in Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, Technirama, Super Panavision 70, Ultra Panavision 70, and, for a short period, 3-D. 

A handful of films were even presented on a theatrical basis. They weren't just shown; they were "roadshown;" that is, they were exhibited only two or three times a day (a matinee and two evening performances); all seats were reserved; and tickets were sold in advance. The Rolls Royce of the roadshows was Todd-AO, a wide film process developed by Michael Todd and American Optical (whose initials follow Todd's name). Todd-AO had aura. There were only sixteen and a half feature films made in Todd-AO; yet they were so special that they won a total of eighteen Academy Awards (not including the award Todd-AO and Westrex received in 1957 for developing the process). The first fourteen Todd-AO films grossed more than $262 million, led by "The Sound of Music" ($79.8 million), "Airport" ($45.2 million), "Cleopatra" ($26 million), and "Around the World in 80 Days" ($23.1 million). 

Seeing a film in Todd-AO was a rare event in another sense: there were only about 100 Todd-AO equipped theaters in 50 major cities. Films released in Todd-AO did not play, as "Toy Story 2" did this past summer, in several thousand theaters at once; "Oklahoma!" (1955), the first Todd-AO film, opened at one theater (the Rivoli in New York City) and eventually played in only 60 theaters. "Oklahoma!" was a hot ticket; even Cecil B. DeMille had trouble getting seats during the first few weeks of its run.

Todd-AO was about showman-ship. It provided high quality subject matter, lavish production values, big screen entertainment, and six-track stereo magnetic sound. Todd-AO was a class act. Todd referred to his films as "shows," insisting that "movies are something you can see in your neighbourhood theater and eat popcorn while you're watching them." To drive home the distinction between "movies" and "shows," Todd's initial contract with exhibitors stipulated that no popcorn was to be sold in the theaters playing his films.

If "movies" were the routine fodder of the mass audience, Todd's "shows" were pitched at a "class" audience. His shows were designed to be seen in a select number of top-tier, first-run movie palaces by an elite audience of traditional theatregoers, who were willing to pay top prices to see Broadway-style entertainment in exclusive, roadshow situations. As Todd explained it in his own, Runyonesque lingo: with a roadshow "you make believe you got round actors and sell hard [reserved seat] tickets." If the show is high enough in quality, "the carriage trade will swim a river of crocodiles to see it. To show they got class and appreciate the arts, they'd be insulted if you didn't charge premium prices and make it a little hard to see. This way they don't have to rub elbows with the gum chewers. Besides, if you get the reviews and have a hot ticket, the gum chewers will figure out how to get in as well. Once you're a hit in New York, you'll have to fight the out of town exhibitors off with a stick."

Todd was the quintessential showman. He began his "theatrical" career as an assistant to a street peddler/pitchman who used him to demonstrate a potato peeler. The con artist made the peeler appear to pass through Todd's neck without spilling a drop of blood. His first big stage success came from a Flame Dance performed by former ballerina, Muriel Page. A reworking of the moth and the flame story, the dancer flirted with an on-stage gas flame until her costume went up in flames, leaving her apparently nude (though she wore a flesh-colored leotard under her moth wings). Todd sold this striptease to a middle class public by presenting it as a symbolic, moral tale that is told through dance. 

Todd excelled in providing high life for the masses and low life for the middle and upper classes. He opened a 5000-seat night club in Chicago which catered to middle class families. The club served champagne cocktails for 25 cents and dinner for 75 cents; the floor show started at 6:15 so that parents could get home in time to put the kids to bed. One of his most successful Broadway productions was "Star and Garter," a vehicle designed for burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. The play opened in the wake of a Supreme Court judge's ruling that denied the Minsky Brother's request for a renewal of their theatrical license, declaring that burlesque was "inartistic filth." Todd made burlesque "artistic" by hiring a highly respected theatrical director to stage the show, by opening it in a legitimate, Broadway house, and by charging top dollar for reserved seat tickets. 

Todd spent some time in Hollywood in the late 1940s, but was unable to get any projects produced. In 1950, Todd became involved with the promotion of a film-lecture on Tibet by Lowell Thomas, Jr. at Madison Square Garden. Through the Thomases, Todd learned of Fred Waller's experiments with Cinerama. On seeing the process for the first time, Todd was blown away. He told his agent, "This is the greatest things since talkies. We're going to revolutionize the industry. We're going to make millions with this." To Lowell Thomas, Todd declared that Cinerama had tremendous affective appeal for audiences. He said "it'll hit 'em and squeeze 'em . . . hit 'em and squeeze 'em." Todd soon became a partner with Lowell Thomas, Sr., in the formation of a production company (Thomas-Todd Productions) that had exclusive rights to produce films in the Cinerama process. 
Cinerama was a multi-film widescreen process that used three interlocked motion picture cameras to film a panoramic angle of view on three separate strips of 35mm film. This triptych image was accompanied by six tracks of stereo magnetic sound plus a control track, which were played back on an additional strip of 35mm film. In the theater, the images were projected, side by side, by three interlocked projectors onto a deeply curved screen.

Together with his son, Michael Todd, Jr., Todd produced the first half of "This Is Cinerama" (1952), the first Cinerama feature. This included the famous rollercoaster ride, which the younger Todd filmed at the Rockaway Playland Amusement Park for only $32, and aerial scenes of Niagara Falls filmed from a helicopter. Shortly after the Todds returned with the European footage, including the "Temple Dance" from Verdi's "Aida;" the canals of Venice; the gathering of the clans in Scotland; a bullfight in Madrid; Spanish dances; and the Vienna Boys Choir, Merian C. Cooper (producer of "Grass, Chang", "King Kong", and "Four Feathers") took over production of the remainder of the film (the Cypress Gardens and "America the Beautiful" sequences). Unable to get along with Cinerama's board of directors, Todd was forced to the sidelines and sold out his interests in Thomas-Todd Productions for $300,000 shortly after the triumphant release of "This Is Cinerama".

Even before the opening of this film at the Broadway Theatre on September 30, 1952, Todd told his son of his plans for an improved Cinerama process. The complex three-screen system was plagued by technical problems, ranging from severe optical distortion in the side panels to annoyingly visible seams where the three images joined. Todd envisioned a "Cinerama where everything comes out of one hole." Others in the film industry came to similar conclusions. Twentieth Century-Fox went to work on the development of CinemaScope, a 35mm anamorphic widescreen process featuring four-track stereo sound. CinemaScope, which premiered with the release of "The Robe" a year later, emerged as a "poor man's Cinerama," adapting certain elements of Cinerama to make it suitable for exploitation by the film industry as a whole, but lacking Cinerama's illusion of depth and full stereo effect. Todd's attempt to duplicate the impact of Cinerama was even more ambitious, involving the development of image and sound technology that would be the equal of, if not superior to, that of Cinerama.

An inveterate producer, Todd immediately began to assemble a cast of characters who would provide the basic ingredients for a new widescreen process. He hired Dr. Brian O'Brien, whom Todd referred to as the "Einstein of the optical racket," to design a lens that could duplicate the wide angle of view of the Cinerama system (146 degrees). O'Brien had earlier designed and built an ultra-high speed movie camera for the U. S. government. This camera operated at 10 million frames per second and was used to film A-bomb explosions. O'Brien suggested the use of wide gauge 65mm film and put Robert Hopkins and the research staff of American Optical to work designing a series of lenses, ranging from a 128-degree bug-eye lens to lenses with angles of view of 64, 48, and 37 degrees. 

One of the chief problems with Cinerama was its reliance on a single focal length "lens" (made up of three 27mm lenses). Traditional motion pictures were filmed with a variety of lenses of different focal lengths which were used for long shots, wide shots, medium shots, and close ups. As New York Times critic Bosley Crowther noted, Cinerama "lacked the flexibility of the images and the facility of varying the shots." O'Brien's battery of lenses introduced a greater optical variety into the Todd-AO system, permitting the full range of expression traditionally found in Hollywood production. Cinerama's single lens restricted it to documentaries and travelogues; Todd-AO's lenses of varied focal lengths enabled the process to tell stories.

Todd enlisted the aid of the Mitchell Camera Co. to design a 65mm camera. The Todd-AO camera had a three-blade dissolving shutter with an opening of 170 degrees, and ran at a speed of 140.25 feet per minute, or thirty frames per second (fps) rather than the 24 frames per second of standard 35mm film (or the 26 frames per second of Cinerama). This higher speed smoothed out action on the screen, improved sharpness and resolution, and made the projected picture free of light flicker.

American Optical was also asked to develop a projection system that could be installed in existing booths and that would eliminate the distortion involved in projecting images from extreme projection angles (such as the theater balcony) onto deeply curved screens. Phillips of Eindhoven, Holland, worked with American Optical on the design of an all purpose projector head (for both 70mm and 35mm) and booth equipment. The projection aspect ratio of Todd-AO was 2.21:1.

Westrex developed recorders for six-track stereo magnetic sound. Six-track sound proved vastly superior to the four-track sound used on the 3-D and CinemaScope systems. One of the problems with four-track stereo was the awkwardness with which it handled "travelling dialogue" which traced the movement of speaking characters from theater speaker to theater speaker across the screen. Crowther complained that travelling dialogue was distracting, noting that "the business of switching from one to another outlet [speaker] . . . as the character moves becomes an obvious mechanical contrivance that confuses the image on the screen." Todd-AO's six-track sound provided smoother coverage of sounds as they moved from one speaker to another behind the screen. For the Todd-AO projection booth, Ampex built a special "equalizer-relay-switching rack" which could play back Todd-AO's sound as well as all other sound systems (monaural optical, monaural magnetic, Perspecta Sound, four-track stereo magnetic sound, etc.). 

For financing, Todd went to an old gambling crony, Joe Schenck, a highly-placed, well-connected executive at Twentieth Century-Fox. Schenck put together a group of backers, including George Skouras (the president of United Artists Theaters) and producers Arthur Hornblow, Jr., and Edward Small. Together, they formed the Magna Theatre Corporation, which would produce, distribute, and exhibit Todd-AO films.

The key to the success of the new process, however, lay in the acquisition of a hot property that would be a sure-fire hit. Todd wanted Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!", which had opened on Broadway in 1943 and had run more or less continuously ever since then. Hornblow, who had worked with Rodgers (and Hart) on Mississippi (1935) and was one of the few people in Hollywood whom Rodgers trusted, got Rodgers and Hammerstein to join Magna's board of directors, to agree to write an original story for the first Magna production, and to produce "a limited number of musical pictures," two or more of which were to be distributed by Magna.

By mid-June 1953, Todd had begun to shoot test footage for a demonstration reel designed to sell the process to Rodgers and Hammerstein and others. As Thomas Hauerslev reports, one of first scenes Todd filmed was the rollercoaster ride at Rockaway playland--footage that had proven extremely effective in selling the participation effects of the Cinerama process. Later that summer, Academy Award winning director Fred Zinnemann was hired to direct additional demonstration footage. On June 23, there was a demonstration of the Todd-AO process at the Regent Theater in Buffalo, New York. Rodgers and Hammerstein apparently saw this demo (or a later one in August) and were so impressed with the process that they agreed to let "Oklahoma!" be the first Todd-AO film. And they also got Todd and Magna to pay dearly for it. As Art Cohn reports, "they held out for $1,020,000 cash and forty percent of the net profits," while also reserving the option to buy additional Magna stock at bargain basement prices.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, were not impressed by Todd, whose brash, tough-guy pose alienated them. They insisted on retaining creative control of the project themselves. They demanded, as well, that the integrity of the original stage musical be respected and forbid the inclusion of any sensational "audience participation type of screen action," such as the rollercoaster ride used in Cinerama. Finally, they requested that Todd have nothing to do with the actual production of "Oklahoma!" 

"Oklahoma!" premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on October 13, 1955. Since Todd did not believe that the film fully exploited the Todd-AO process, he got Louis de Rochemont to produce a short, "The Miracle of Todd-AO", to accompany it. The short featured Cinerama-style events, including a rollercoaster ride, an aerial barnstorming tour of the Grand Tetons, skiing in Sun Valley, and a motorcycle chase up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco.

While "Oklahoma!" was being filmed, Todd began production on his own Todd-AO project, "Around the World in 80 Days". "Oklahoma!" grossed over $7 million (including its 1983 re-release), while "Around the World in 80 Days" topped $23 million and swept the 1956 Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Best Screenplay--Adapted, Best Color Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music.

Because the Todd-AO process involved filming at 30 frames per second--a speed that deviated from that used in standard, 35mm projection (24 fps, which was the exhibition industry's norm), Todd-AO was forced to shoot its first production in 35mm, 24 frame-per-second, CinemaScope versions as well as in Todd-AO. This provided them with prints that could be run in non-Todd-AO-equipped houses.

Todd-AO was designed as a single system format in which image and sound were to be carried on a single strip of 70mm film. However, for initial theatrical presentations of "Oklahoma!", Todd-AO relied on a Cinerama-like double system. Its six magnetic tracks were placed on a separate strip of film that was projected in synchronization with the image. It should be noted that Todd-AO's sound recording system, like Cinerama's, operated at the speed of 24 frames per second, requiring special interlocks for post-production synchronization with the 30 frames per second image track.

Todd-AO's use of 65mm film and of a five-perforation frame resulted in an image quality that approached the three-strip, six perforation frame of Cinerama. Robert Surtees, director of photography on "Oklahoma!", noted that Todd-AO's use of a 65mm negative made it, "from the standpoint of optics alone, a superior picture process" to all other 35mm widescreen processes. For Surtees, it was "the epitome of perfection for the director of photography." 

Cinerama introduced the curved screen to motion picture exhibition. Though curved screens automatically amplified the sense of audience participation by surrounding spectators with the image, they also presented several problems. Light reflected from one edge of the screen struck the opposite edge, washing out the image. Cinerama's louvered screen, consisting of 1,100 vertical strips, prevented the reflection of light back on to the other side of the screen. 

Todd-AO's use of a lenticular screen--"a plastic-coated fabric with an aluminum surface embossed in a formation of lenticles, or tiny lenses"--prevented its deeply-curved screen surface from reflecting light back on to itself at the extremities, solving the problem in a somewhat different way which made it more compatible with traditional screen design. 

Deeply-curved screens also introduced distortion into the image. Anytime that a flat image is projected upon a curved screen, the horizontal lines of the image are necessarily distorted. CinemaScope minimized distortion by opting for a slightly-curved screen--a screen which curved at the approximate rate of one inch per foot, resulting, in the case of a sixty-two foot wide screen, in a five foot curve. The CinemaScope curve compensated for the horizontal expansion of the image, keeping the screen at a more or less constant distance from the center of the projection lens and, thus, insuring a focus that was as sharp at the edges as at the center. 

The use of wide angle lenses in photography, upon which the Cinerama and the Todd-AO almost exclusively relied, compensated somewhat for this distortion, as did Cinerama's use of three separate projection booths, which facilitated the proper angling of the side booths and made possible more or less head-on projection. The Todd-AO screen, which curved to a depth of 13 feet with a width of 52 feet and a height of 26 feet, threatened to increase distortion, especially under the restrictions of single-booth projection. Todd-AO's ingenious solution to the problem of distortion was to compensate for it in the printing process, by introducing optical distortions into the projection prints. Thus American Optical developed an "optical correcting printing process which eliminates distortions in wide films when projected from high angles onto a sharply curved screen." A demonstration of this "corrective printing process" was given, in early May of 1956, to participants at the 79th SMPTE conference in New York, where an uncorrected 70mm print of "Oklahoma!" was screened together with a corrected print at the Rivoli Theatre, where the projection angle was 22 degrees and the screen curved to a depth of 13 feet.

The chief drawback of this corrective printing process lay in the incompatibility of the deeply-curved, Todd-AO screen with other widescreen process, such as CinemaScope, which involved no corrective printing process. Thus CinemaScope films, as well as "flat" widescreen films, were therefore terribly distorted when shown on a Todd-AO screen. And, of course, corrected Todd-AO prints would appear distorted on flat screens, underlining the incompatibility of the process.

Todd-AO made going to the cinema a "theatrical" experience. It did this in part by drawing on theatrical material. Todd, a Broadway producer, launched Todd-AO in collaboration with the Broadway playwright and composer team of Rogers and Hammerstein, whose theatrical properties provided the basic dramatic material ("Oklahoma!", "South Pacific") to be filmed in the system. Even though "Around the World in 80 Days" superficially resembles a Cinerama travelogue, it, too, has theatrical origins, deriving from Mike Todd's collaboration with Orson Welles on a Broadway version of the Jules Verne novel in the mid-1940s. Todd-AO producers continued to ransack Broadway for material, adapting "Porgy and Bess", "Can-Can", and "The Sound of Music" for the screen and spearheading a trend in which producers began to draw more and more regularly upon Broadway for material for their big-budget, wide-screen spectacles. 

The ultimate success of the Todd-AO process can be measured, in part, by the failure of rival systems, such as Fox's CinemaScope 55 and Grandeur (which was revived for their production of "The King and I"), and Fox's own capitulation to Todd-AO, through the studio's acknowledgement that, by 1958 when "Around the World in 80 Days" was experiencing record profits at the box office, "CinemaScope had lost much of its novelty and that customers were no longer drawn to theatres solely because the picture was in the CinemaScope process." In 1958, Fox made an investment of $600,000 in the Todd-AO Company, securing the right to make pictures in that process, and, in 1958, secured control of the Todd-AO Corporation. 

Finally, five years later (just after Todd-AO bought into the Dimension-150 process), Cinerama abandoned its cumbersome three-strip process for Ultra-Panavision's single-strip 70mm system, tacitly acknowledging the technological superiority and economic viability of 70mm as a format and thus following (albeit belatedly) Mike Todd's example in his switch from three-strip Cinerama to 65/70mm Todd-AO. In 1963, for the filming of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", Cinerama abandoned its three-strip process for Ultra Panavision 70, a 70mm system that employed anamorphic optics to squeeze a wide angle of view onto a single film strip and which, when unsqueezed in projection, produced a Cinerama-like image with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1. Throughout the 1960s, Cinerama continued to compete, though with varying degrees of success, with other wide film systems, faring well with "The Battle of the Bulge", "Grand Prix" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" and not so well with "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Ice Station Zebra". With the collapse of the Cinerama theater chain (with its deeply-curved screens) in the early 1970s, Cinerama became indistinguishable as a presentational process from other wide film systems and disappeared (though its assets were not finally liquidated until 1978).

The heyday of Todd-AO lasted from 1955 to 1965. By the late 1960s, the roadshow market had collapsed. Curved screens gave way to flat screens, which provided a better surface for the traditional (uncorrected) widescreen image. The use of extreme, wide-angle, "bug-eye" lenses resulted in optical distortion when films shot with them were projected on flat screens; bug-eye lenses quickly disappeared. But Todd-AO nonetheless permanently transformed the face of motion picture exhibition. It introduced the first successful 70mm format. Though only 65 films have ever been filmed, released, and projected in 70mm since the 1950s, the format remains a viable, alternative production standard to 35mm. Until the release of "Baraka" (1992), Todd-AO had not been used for filming a full-length feature since 1971. But, in recent years, a number of new films have been shot in 70mm, relying on Todd-AO/Glen Glenn's Cinespace 70 camera, Panavision's Super 70 camera ["Far and Away" (1992)], and the Arriflex 765 ([used for parts of "Far and Away" and of "Little Buddha" (1993/4)]. Until recently, 70mm served as a popular projection standard for films shot in 35mm and blown up to 70mm, providing higher quality images and six-track stereo magnetic sound.

Beginning in the early 1960s with films such as "The Cardinal" (1963), 70mm served as a popular projection standard for films shot in 35mm and blown up to 70mm. The large format provided higher quality images and, more importantly for many audiences, six-track stereo magnetic sound. Unfortunately, the costs associated with 70mm blow-ups were considerable. it cost $12,000 to make each 70mm stereo magnetic print, whereas individual 35mm prints cost as little as $1,500 to $2,000. the advent of digital sound systems in the 1990s enabled the film industry to cut the costs associated with blockbuster entertainment, permitting six-track stereo sound to be featured in conjunction with the cheaper 35mm film format. As a result, 70mm has all but disappeared as a widespread, commercial medium; its chief use today is in the production and exhibition of IMAX films.

The demise of 70mm represents a significant loss to the film industry. The showmanship of Todd-AO--the powerful sense of theatrical presence it provided--has not survived. Individual films still function as spectacular events; "Jurassic Park", for example, was something of a narrative rollercoaster ride. But there is no process that thrills us today the way Todd-AO did almost 40 years ago. The movies were once magic. With the demise of Todd-AO, the show of shows, a little of that magic has been lost forever.

(The author wishes to thank Roy Frumkess, Rick Mitchell, and Daniel J. Sherlock for their help in the preparation of this article and to thank Films in Review for making the piece available to "..in 70mm - The 70mm Newsletter".)
 

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