Sixty years ago, Hollywood was in deep trouble.
Movie attendance was in decline because people preferred to watch “I Love Lucy” on television in the comfort of their own homes. To lure them back into theaters, a new widescreen format called Cinerama was introduced, debuting Sept. 30, 1952, when “This Is Cinerama” premiered in New York City.
And it worked.
Hosted by travel writer and journalist Lowell Thomas, who was also one of the producers, “This Is Cinerama” featured simultaneously projecting images from three synchronized projectors — the movie was shot with three interlocked cameras in a process known as three strip — onto a deeply curved screen. The system, which re-created the full range of human vision, was invented by Fred Waller.
Though the film seems dated today — the three separate panels are clearly visible — one can understand the impact this film made around the world as viewers were plunged into the seat of a roller coaster or traveling across country on the nose of a B-28 bomber.
“This Is Cinerama” also took viewers to faraway places such as the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, to witness a lengthy sequence from “Aida,” a bullfight in Madrid and water-skiing demonstration at Cypress Gardens in Florida.
Despite the fact it was only in a limited number of theaters, the film was No 1 at the box office. Studios stood up and took notice. Less than a year later, 20th Century Fox presented its first widescreen CinemaScope epic “The Robe,” and other big-screen formats followed suit including VistaVision, Todd-AO and Super Panavision 70. Cinerama’s legacy can be found today in the popular big-screen format Imax.
The ArcLight celebrates the format’s 60th anniversary Friday through Oct. 4 at — where else? — the Cinerama Dome with presentations of 12 Cinerama titles. Highlights include popular films from 1962 “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” and “How the West Was Won,” and “It’s Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” from 1963 and 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was shot in Super Panavision 70.
The festival also features the premiere of “In the Picture,” the first three-strip Cinerama movie that has been made in 50 years. The short tribute to Cinerama was directed by film editor David Strohmaier, who has been digitally restoring and remastering several of the Cinerama features and previously directed the 2002 documentary “Cinerama Adventure.”
Strohmaier, who grew up watching Cinerama movies, recalled that the success of these films was “so “immediate you couldn’t get tickets. Cinerama was breaking records right and left.”
By the 1960s, he said, “there were 274 theaters around the world who showed these movies. Downtown Tehran had a Cinerama theater. It became an event. Cinerama was more a phenomenon than a fad. It lasted a good 12-13 years.” (Eventually, the high cost of producing three-strip films become too steep and the studios stopped producing them.)
On Tuesday, Flicker Alley is releasing the Blu-ray and DVD of “This Is Cinerama” and the 1958 “Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich” in a format called Smilebox, which replicates the curved screen of the theatrical Cinerama experience.
“I think ‘This Is Cinerama’ is as significant a picture as ‘The Jazz Singer,’” said John Sittig, the ArcLight Cinemas director of projection and sound.
“ ‘The Jazz Singer’ was not the first talking picture and it wasn’t even 100% talking, but it was it the one that everyone points to, and it is the same with ‘This Is Cinerama.’ There were several widescreen movies in the 1930s and Disney did stereophonic sound with ‘Fantasia'…"
“This is one that really struck culturally with the public,” said Flicker Alley’s Jeff Masino. “I find the films such a fascinating record of the world 60 years ago.”
For more information on the Cinerama events at the Cinerama Dome, go to https://www.arclightcinemas.com/news/promotion-cinema. For Flicker Alley information, go to https://www.flickeralley.com.