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Retrospective Recaps History of ‘the Dome’

Times Staff Writer

For a quarter of a century, Southern California movie fans have referred to it simply as “the Dome.” From its opening Nov. 7, 1963, it has been an event theater, a showcase for films “of scale” and an attraction for people who take either their films or their dates--or both--seriously.

Big place, big movies. Over the years, the Dome--officially, Pacific Cinerama Dome (nee Theatre) , on Sunset near Vine in Hollywood--has presented such out-sized epics as “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Battle of the Bulge,” “Grand Prix,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Apocalypse Now” and “E.T.: the Extraterestrial.”

During its first six years, the Dome was the envied host of exclusive runs of some of Hollywood’s most prized new features, and even now, on the eve of its 15-day retrospective silver anniversay celebration, films playing there often outgross the same films playing in much larger theaters across town in Westwood.

But there is one thing that the Cinerama Dome has never done during its 25 years of continuous operation, and will not do during the retrospective that begins Thursday night with Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” It has never shown a movie in Cinerama.

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“ ‘Mad World’ isn’t Cinerama, it was never meant to be,” said Kramer, whose only comedy opened the Dome and then played there for 66 weeks. “This was a blown-up-size print from Panavision which fit the Cinerama screen.”

The original Cinerama process, introduced to startled audiences in New York in 1952 with “This Is Cinerama,” used three strips of 35-millimeter film, three projectors, a wide curved screen, a seven-track stereophonic sound track and a crew of five nervous technicians to make it all happen.

The effect was an illusion of depth and atmospheric sound that seemed to suck audiences right into the picture, put them in the seat of a careening roller coaster or a looping aircraft and made their stomachs flop from the disorienting experience.

Cinerama, like its contemporary 3-D, was a novelty born of the desperation of film industry executives attempting to stem the stay-at-home trend caused by television. The new process did draw crowds--the same kind of people who line up for the Free Fall attraction at Magic Mountain--but it added nothing to dramatic storytelling.

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"(Cinerama) started the wide-screen revolution, but it was just too cumbersome and it didn’t lend itself to dramatically involving films,” said Ron Haver, film director for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It would get you involved, but only on a purely physical level.”

“This Is Cinerama” is among the 35 films on the Dome’s retrospective schedule, but it is the one-strip version that was optically converted--seams and all--from the original three negatives and which was released for 13 weeks at the Dome in 1973. “How the West Was Won,” the last of the three-panel Cinerama features, was playing at the nearby Warner Hollywood Cinerama when the Dome opened and was never shown there.

The Dome was built in the midst of the wide-screen frenzy and at the same time that Cinerama Inc. was converting to a single strip process that it called Super Cinerama. “Mad World” was the first film that bore the Super Cinerama logo, but as Kramer said, it was closer to Panavision and other wide-screen, one-strip processes being developed than to the thrill-ride process associated with the name.

However, when the Dome was built, management was not sure the original Cinerama process would not be used again. The theater was equipped with the immense wrap-around screen and the three projection “ports” necessary for showing Cinerama films. But the ports and the full screen were never used.

“This theater was going to be a prototype construction for Cinerama presentation all over the world,” said Michael Forman, chairman of Pacific Theaters and the son of Dome founder William Forman. “It was supposed to be an experiment for a cost-effective way to build a cinema.”

Forman said the Dome was built on a crash program that took 17 weeks of 21-hour work days, with the deadline being the Nov. 7, 1963, opening of “Mad World.”

“ ‘Mad, Mad World’ had been picked as the first film before we bought the real estate,” Forman said. “We tried to buy some property at La Brea and Hollywood Boulevard, but we couldn’t get it. When we got this property, we had six months from purchase to construction.”

The Dome was a much-heralded showpiece for F. Buckminster Fuller’s then-trendy geodesic design. The building consists of 316 five- and six-sided concrete panels. The molds for the panels were meant to be reusable, but the expense of the Cinerama Dome made them obsolete and they were destroyed. “We rebuilt a (Cinerama) theater in Honolulu in 1964 and others in Europe,” Forman said, “but none used a concrete dome.”

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The Pacific Cinerama Dome has succeeded almost in spite of its curved screen. The theater management has taken every technological step available to overcome the curvature of the screen’s side panels, but some moviegoers still complain of distortion.

“The problem with the Dome is a technical problem,” said Haver. “You cannot exhibit a normal Hollywood film on that screen without distorting it. All the films that are made are made to be shown on flat screens and that screen is not flat.”

Haver said the distortion varies from film to film and depends on where you sit. Get there early and get a center seat and the Dome is one of the finest theaters in America.

“It’s one of my favorite places to see a film,” Haver said. “I think it was one of the first theaters in the world designed specifically for wide-screen movies and specifically for contemporary film design.”

The retrospective includes many of Hollywood’s flashiest wide-screen films, including five Steven Spielberg pictures, two of the four “Star Trek” pictures, several musicals and the two movies that frame the Dome’s entire history--"It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and the current “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

The schedule:

Thursday: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” invitational premiere.

Friday: “Star Trek 3,” “Star Trek 4,” “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

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Saturday: “1941,” “Jaws,” “Back to the Future,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Sunday: “This is Cinerama.”

Monday: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

Next Tuesday: “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Woodstock.”

Nov. 9: “Camelot,” “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Nov. 10: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Barry Lyndon.”

Nov. 11: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Napoleon,” “Apocalypse Now.”

Nov. 12: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Sting,” “Out of Africa,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Nov. 13: “Zoot Suit,” “Fame.”

Nov. 14: “Splash,” “Outrageous Fortune,” “Blazing Saddles,” “American Graffiti.”

Nov. 15: “The Untouchables,” “Top Gun,” “Deliverance.”

Nov. 16: “Yentl,” “All That Jazz,” “New York, New York” (original uncut version), “Tommy.”

Nov. 17: “This is Cinerama,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”


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