The California Theatre: San Jose's 70mm Secret
The 70mm Newsletter
by Robert Smith
are few theatres left in the world that display 70mm film with some
regularity. One of the best, and best preserved, must surely be San
Jose's California Theatre. It is also a bit unknown.
Located between 1st and Market near modern San Jose's attractions (the
Tech Museum is a short walk), the California Theatre is one of the
finest extant 70mm houses in the world.
Built in 1927 as part of the Fox chain that included the San Francisco
Fox and also the Village in Westwood, the California (aka Fox during
part of its life) has always been considered the finest theatre in San
Jose. Its transition through the years ended with its closing in the
early 70's, with the expectation that it would suffer the customary fate
of truly beautiful theatres from the cinema's golden age.
Fortunately, a new life developed for the California Theatre in 2004,
largely as a by-product of Silicon Valley's success. The San Jose
Redevelopment Agency partnered with the Packard Humanities Institute to
fund a major restoration of the original theatre. See
for more photos and details.
The restoration and enhancement of this theatre is magnificent. The
backstage was greatly enlarged with modern facilities for live
presentations. The retail space near the front was converted to a part
of the theatre. For most of the year, the theatre is home to the San
Jose Opera and other live performances.
in 70mm reading:
by Robert Smith
California has also been equipped with two restored theatre organs and
also Norelco DP70 projectors. For the last several years, during January
and also during the summer, a short 70mm program has appeared. This
summer, the 70mm films are "The Sound of Music", "Playtime",
"Cleopatra", "West Side Story", and the obligatum of every 70mm
festival, "Lawrence of Arabia". This report focuses on the
7/31-8/1 presentation of "Cleopatra".
I first saw "Cleopatra" in 70mm in its roadshow release in 1963.
The film had been released at 4 hours 3 minutes but was cut about 20
minutes almost immediately, so I originally saw the slightly cut
version. Later 35mm releases cut the film even more. While I have seen
the film many times since in 35mm and on video, this is the first
re-viewing for me in 70mm, using the
new print that Fox created
a few years ago.
As a film, "Cleopatra" is arguably the most "spectacular" film
ever made, with sets, costumes, cinematography, and music to rival or
exceed the other 70mm event films. It is also an excellent drama with
superb acting and pitch-perfect dialogue written by director Joseph L.
Mankiewicz, exploring themes of ambition, obsession, betrayal, and
dissipation as well as passion and aspiration.
by Robert Smith
major subtext of the film is the passage of time and humans' inability to
control time or mitigate its effects. This is laid out in the plot itself,
the sharp yet melancholy dialogue, and the beautiful fresco-like paintings
first displayed in the main title. These paintings morph from a decayed
state to a vivid recreation of events long ago. We feel that we can almost
touch and even smell the very distant past.
How ironic, yet serendipitous, it is to see this film in a beautifully
restored print in a theatre that is itself beautifully restored. How sad to
realize that most of the cast and crew of this masterpiece are now gone,
even as they appear to be in their prime on the screen. "Cleopatra"
is now as much a part of history as the events that it portrays. Thanks to
film, especially 70mm, we can still see it, not as a faded fresco, but in
its original magnificence.
There is much to say about the theatre itself. The lobby almost looks like a
set for "Cleopatra"! The theatre has not one but two Wurlitzer
theatre organs, both owned by the Packard Institute. One is in the lobby,
and the other more traditionally located in the auditorium. The acoustic
isolation of the auditorium is so great that I would guess both organs can
be played at once without any sonic conflict.
The auditorium organ was played before the overture and then during the
intermission before the entr'acte. This is very unusual for a roadshow and I
cannot remember an instance during the 50's or 60's where a theatre organ
was played during a 70mm presentation, with the exception of "Scrooge"
at Radio City
Music Hall in 1970 (which had a floor show.)
The admission price was a grand total of $5.00, which included free popcorn.
This is not that much more than the original roadshow price for
"Cleopatra", forgetting a factor of 5 or 6 inflation! The auditorium was
over half full on a Saturday night, and the crowd was very appreciative of
by Robert Smith
discussing the presentation, I should warn you that I am very particular, so
please take this into account.) The film was reasonably well exhibited, with
some problems. The soundtrack is now DTS, which sounded fine, but I still
prefer 6 track magnetic. I believe that the front stereo sound stage is now
only 3 channels instead of the original 5, which still thankfully had the
original directional dialogue. The center channel seemed trimmed a bit low
to my taste, making panning to the sides actually increase the volume of a
sound. I was sitting in the 3rd row, and could not hear any surround
activity; this could of course be an artifact of the size of the auditorium.
The picture had some problems. The aspect ratio was about 1.9, but should be
2.2, so some image was lost from the sides. The aperture plates were not
right, giving a gray imminence to the edges of the image. The top masking
had some issues on both sides, which may be the curtain. These should all be
fixable issues (unless different focal length lenses cannot be secured.)
This does raise some issues about the contemporary exhibition of classic
70mm films. During the golden age, a roadshow print would arrive at the
theatre some days before the engagement was to begin. This would allow the
staff the opportunity to note the cues, time the curtain, and adjust all
aspects of the projection. I can remember having two dry-runs before opening
just to make sure everything was perfect.
by Robert Smith
of course, a 70mm film may be exhibited once or twice as a part of a series
or festival, meaning that there is no opportunity to get it right. For
example, the 2008 showing of "How the West Was Won" at the Cinerama
Dome suffered from this problem in that the sound was woefully incorrect,
but with only one showing, there was no chance to fix it.
Another problem for 70mm is that the proper theatres no longer exist. As
magnificent as the California Theatre was and is, it is not the perfect
visual or aural configuration for 70mm. Theatres like San Francisco's North
Point, Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, the Cooper in Omaha or the Capri in Des
Moines were optimized for 70mm exhibition. Most of these houses have long
since been destroyed. So, we are often left with the "compromise" of a
theatre like the Egyptian in Hollywood or the Castro in San Francisco as our
only remaining venues for 70mm exhibition.
I should be remiss not to note that Gary Lee Parks, author of Theatres of
San Jose, and Jack Tillmany, author of Theatres of San Francisco, were both
in attendance. We had a good conversation with them about the presentation
and theatres in general. (See
www.arcadiapublishing.com for details about their books.) One of the
joys of 70mm presentations is the people you meet and talk to.
I hope that you are able to make a trip to San Jose to see 70mm at the
California sometime. Help make this theatre better known. While you are in
the Bay Area, please check out the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto. Also run
by David Packard, it is the finest repertory theatre in the world for
main-stream Hollywood classics of the 30's through 50's. And don't forget
our beautiful Castro Theatre in San Francisco, which has a vibrant and
eclectic program of old and new films shown in what is now San Francisco's
About the author
Robert Smith is a vice president of
engineering at a research firm in Palo Alto, and also works at Stanford
University. During his college career, he was a union projectionist in Des
Moines, IA, projecting 35mm and 70mm films. He is particularly interested in
roadshow and "event" films and standards of excellence in theatre operation
and film exhibition. His major claim to fame is that he saw "Doctor
Zhivago" 175 times and still likes it!
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