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Pacific Theatres Also Owns the Cinerama Technology. What Happens to It Now That the Chain Is Closing?

Gene Maddaus
·7 min read

Angelenos are still processing their grief about the closure of the ArcLight theaters. Pacific Theatres announced on Monday that it would close all of its locations, which include the ArcLight Hollywood and the historic Cinerama Dome.

Not as well known is that the theater chain also owns the Cinerama technology. The three-camera filming technique was introduced in 1952 in response to the rise of television, and was virtually obsolete by the time the Cinerama Dome opened on Sunset Boulevard in November 1963. The name lived on for a few years after that, in the form of single-camera 70 millimeter releases that were marketed as Cinerama films — including “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” the first film ever shown at the dome.

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The dome itself was not outfitted with the three-camera projection technology until 2002, to coincide with the format’s 50th anniversary. The same year, David Strohmaier released the documentary “Cinerama Adventure,” detailing the history of the process.

Strohmaier now lives in Idaho, where he is finishing up a restoration of MGM’s “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,” one of just two narrative films ever produced in the original Cinerama process. He has previously restored the other one — “How the West Was Won” — and several Cinerama travelogues.

In an interview, he said he is not worried too much about the closure of Pacific Theatres. The interview has been condensed and edited.

So where do things stand now? Pacific Theatres owns the process, right?

Yeah, and the travelogue films, and they own half of the two MGM films. Me and my team have restored all the Cinerama travelogues by scanning them and combining them together, so you don’t need three projectors. It’s all on a digital DCP kind of thing. I’m finishing up “Brothers Grimm” now. I’m almost done with it. That’s for Warner Bros. and Cinerama Inc.

Do you have any idea what is happening on the Cinerama side, and whether that will affect “Brothers Grimm”?

It shouldn’t, because Warner Bros. is the distributor of record. Cinerama used to be a distributor, years ago. They did a lot of that type of stuff as an outcropping from acquiring the Cinerama process around 1958 or 1959. Then the original Cinerama company went bankrupt, and Pacific Theatres took over. That was probably ‘62 or ‘63.

It seems like they acquired it just as it was no longer commercially relevant.

It was still commercially relevant. The original Cinerama theater in Los Angeles was the Pacific Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. That’s where they installed it. That’s where the big premieres were for the Cinerama travelogues and “How the West Was Won” and “Brothers Grimm.” I believe three-panel was still playing at that theater when they were premiering “Mad Mad World” (at the dome).

Why are there only two narrative three-camera films?

It was a complicated process to even film in, let alone project. A lot of actors didn’t like working in it because your eye-line was always different. It was awkward to work with the system. No director could make his day. The sun would bleach out one of the three panels because it was so wide. You almost had to stage everything so you’re away from the sun somehow. It was decided after “How the West was Won” and “Brothers Grimm” were finished that “Let’s just use 70 millimeter and call it Cinerama.” So they did that. It pretty much fit the same screen. It just didn’t have the same dimensionality. But you could make better movies with it. That’s when “2001,” and “Mad Mad World,” and “Ice Station Zebra” and all those 70 millimeter Cinerama movies came along. They had intermissions and overtures. That lasted until ‘69, when they stopped saying it was in Cinerama.

Do you have a purist’s approach, that the only true Cinerama is three-camera Cinerama?

No. A purist will say that kind of thing — “That’s not real Cinerama, blah blah blah.” Well, they sold it as Cinerama. It fit a similar size screen. It was still incredibly impressive. Hardly any film grain. It was a big, large format way before IMAX. I consider that part of the Cinerama legacy — those 70 millimeter films.

If someone has only seen IMAX, how is Cinerama different?

It’s more immersive. It pulls you in. IMAX is just a giant, big elephant. Cinerama is like an octopus coming at you.

Can you explain your personal connection to it and why this is something this is so meaningful to you?

I saw it as a kid. This is the story you’ll hear from anybody who’s into this stuff. They’ll say, my parents took me. We drove in our station wagon to St. Louis, Missouri, where we saw it for the first time. And all the kids went crazy and they’d go back to grade school and tell all the other kids and they’d beg their parents to take them. It was sort of an early virtual reality experience. It felt like you were in the movie. It felt like, when they had an aerial flying over a mountain, that you were in the cockpit flying, and had that goosebump thing going on.

What was the heyday of Cinerama?

I would say it was from 1952 to 1964. And then it had an afterlife with the 70 millimeter Cinerama productions. When the dome was built and they ran “Mad Mad World,” it was all 70 millimeter. It wasn’t the three-panel process. However the projection booth was actually built for the three-camera process. And there were actually portholes and everything there, but they covered them up with curtains all those years, until 2002, when we cleaned up all those old windows and put the other projectors in. And now we could run the Cinerama process. It happened way after the dome was built.

So now there’s only two theaters that have the capability to show a Cinerama film?

The technology still exists in Paul Allen’s theater in Seattle, except they’ve closed down too. I’m not sure what’s going to happen there since Paul Allen died. Then there’s one in England, which is part of a museum, the Bradford National Media and Science Museum. I usually go every year, when there isn’t quarantine, for some kind of showing. Then there’s the Cinerama Dome. So there’s those three locations that can do it. You just gotta turn the electricity on and open up.

In an age when you can go to an IMAX theater, does Cinerama offer something unique?

It still has something going for it. I just had a phone call today with a guy from Singapore who wants to revive a Cinerama form of an IMAX kind of thing, with a curved screen. There’s one French guy that started filming some stuff, and he sent me some dailies. So there’s some interest, but I don’t know that it’s anything more than millionaires playing.

When did you become the leading guy on this?

I suppose when I did the documentary. I did it to prove film history experts wrong. They would always equate Cinerama with 3D — “It came and went back in 1953.” I knew that wasn’t true. I saw it in 1957 and 1964 as a kid growing up. So when I started doing some research. I found out that I was right. And then I figured maybe I should make a documentary.

Cinerama was ‘52, and then 3D came along about ‘53. So film historians put those two together, and say those were just gimmicks and they went away. Cinerama — they call it a fad actually. I remember bell bottoms were a fad back in the 70s. If something’s a fad, it lasts four to five years. Cinerama lasted close to 14 years. I call that more of a phenomenon than a fad.

Do you have any feelings about the announcement that the Cinerama Dome is closing?

I’m not taking it that seriously. It’s a registered landmark and all that stuff. There was an article someone sent me. The impression was they’re going to get the rent down and then they’ll stay open.

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