Celebrating Cinerama: The Birth, Death and Seeming Resurrection of the First Ultra-Widescreen Format
"One night in 1997, I was watching a documentary about Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television, on American Experience," says David Strohmaier. "I said somebody should do something similar about Cinerama. I was in between editing projects and my wife encouraged me to produce a documentary about Cinerama. Based on that, I flew to Dayton, Ohio, to meet John Harvey, a film collector and projection engineer who had built a 350-seat theater where they were showing vintage Cinerama prints during Saturday matinees. There were people there from all over the world."
Strohmaier subsequently compiled some 63 hours of interviews with 45 original Cinerama crewmembers, directors, producers and historians in 11 states, Norway, England and Ireland. He was given rare copies of films by collectors in France, Australia and New Zealand, and access to the original Cinerama travelogues and narrative films.
The result is Cinerama Adventure (www.cineramadventure.com), a feature-length motion picture documenting the birth and death of an art form that left an indelible impression on contemporary filmmaking and culture, including such elements as widescreen movies, stereo sound, letterboxing on television and, arguably, picture windows and wrap-around windshields.
This Is Cinerama premiered on September 30, 1952, in New York City. It opened with a 13-minute black and white prologue narrated by Lowell Thomas. The film was projected in conventional 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The curtains parted and revealed a 32-foot high, 78-foot wide, 146-degree curved screen. Images from three projectors blended seamlessly, filling the screen with moving pictures in an ultra-widescreen 2.65:1 aspect ratio. Twenty-six color images were simultaneously projected every second and each frame was six perforations high, rather than four. The pictures were augmented by seven tracks of stereo sound.
Strohmaier observes that it was a totally engaging experience that critics and moviegoers likened to a rollercoaster ride. This Is Cinerama was the highest grossing film in 1952, even though it was seen on fewer than 30 screens. It was the beginning of a ride that lasted 14 years, a span that included six additional travelogues and the 1962 releases of Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won. The films played on some 200 Cinerama screens in major cities all over the world and in mobile theaters in countless cities, towns and villages.
Strohmaier saw his first Cinerama travelogue during a family trip to St. Louis and How The West Was Won several years later. After studying filmmaking at the University of Iowa, he began his career as an assistant editor at Warner Bros. His eclectic credits as an editor include TV series, movies-of-the-week and various special venue films.
After filming an interview with Harvey, Strohmaier set out to create a 30-minute documentary, thinking he would show it to PBS and they would offer to fund a more in-depth study or point him to a foundation that was interested. He soon discovered there was little interest in films that probed historical perspective.
Strohmaier didn't let that deter him. He wrote, directed and edited Cinerama Adventure and his wife, Carin-Anne Strohmaier, was executive producer. The producer was Randy Gitsch. Their collaboration was pure serendipity. Gitsch is an archivist who began his career as a researcher at RKO Studios. He is currently employed by PRO-TEK Media Preservation Services, a Kodak subsidiary. Gitsch worked on the BBC series Hollywood: The Golden Years, and he also aided director Richard Wilson on the restoration of It's All True, a "lost" Orson Welles feature. In 1997, while he was producing Keepers of the Frame, a nonfiction homage to film restoration and preservation, Gitsch conducted an interview with Harvey, who told him about Strohmaier.
Strohmaier persistently reconstructed the history of Cinerama in between editing jobs. He discovered that Pacific Theaters owned the rights to Cinerama, and arranged a meeting with Michael Foreman, who headed the chain. Foreman gave him free access to all records, including posters, ads, photographs and memos contained in some 500 filing cabinets in a basement in the Pacific Hollywood Theater.
Cinerama, Strohmaier learned, was invented by Fred Waller, who headed the special effects department at Paramount Pictures during the 1920s. In 1937, Waller developed Vitarama, a wide-screen presentation system that used 11 contiguous film projectors.
After the war, Waller produced a simplified three-camera version, renaming it Cinerama, then made black-and-white demonstration films. All the major studios rejected his concept as too costly, but Laurence Rockefeller and Time Inc. funded ongoing research, and Thomas organized Cinerama Productions, Inc., headquartered in Oyster Bay, New York. Hazard Reeves developed a seven-channel stereo sound system, and Hollywood entrepreneur and visionary Mike Todd joined the fold, along with producer-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.
Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, etc.) was set to direct This Is Cinerama. He shot tests during a parade welcoming General Douglas MacArthur to Chicago on a rainy, cold day. Flaherty got sick and died just days later. Todd and his son, Mike Todd, Jr., took the helm and began shooting in Europe within several weeks. Hollywood veteran cinematographers Gayne Rescher, ASC, and Harry Squire led the crew.
"Cinerama was obviously challenging," Strohmaier says. "You couldn't move the camera because unexpected things would show up on the horizon and the depth of field was incredible. Once they found the shot they wanted, the three cameras had to be synchronized so they recorded seamless pictures. Another technical challenge was that the color film speed was only ASA 25 and the lenses were also slow."
One of the keys to Strohmaier's research was the Internet. Martin Hart, a graphic designer and Cinerama junkie, helped him set up a website.
"People began sending me pictures and films of relatives who worked on projects, and telling me stories," Strohmaier says. "Collectors in Ohio and Australia had faded, pink prints of the travelogues. I asked them to project them on a screen and copy them with a camcorder. These tapes provided a reference for locating shots in the original negatives."
Strohmaier notes that no intermediates or duplicate negatives were made in those days. The cut negative was used to produce prints. There was some wear and tear and the lacquer coating was coming off.
"Film industry executives started to help with the project as well," says Strohmaier. "People like Roger Mayer, president of Turner Entertainment, helped to make clips available from the Turner/MGM titles. Lucasfilm, Paramount and the Stanley Kubrick estate came on board as well. People from the IDA like Harrison Engle and Michael Rose were also very helpful throughout post-production."
Pacific Ocean Post (now Riot) in Santa Monica converted the film to video using a Rank Ursa Gold tweaked to handle the six-frame height. Brian Ross at LaserPacific Media developed a 3-D graphics template that blended the three strips so the image appears as if on a curved screen. Cameraman Gerald Saldo frequently donated his services, although Strohmaier didn't have sufficient resources to travel to each interview location with a cinematographer. Usually, he would contact film commissions to find a local cameraman willing to work for a pittance. Strohmaier conducted these remote interviews by telephone, and he'd instruct the cameraman to frame medium shots with little zooms when something particularly important was said.
"I researched each person we interviewed," he says. "A lot of them were in their 80s. I said just shoot everything; don't stop the camera, even if they go off on a tangent. I kept a log of significant statements and created a subject file so I could intercut different people talking about the same thing. It helped the pacing.
"One day I was cutting a scene using stills of this giant tent that they used to show Cinerama films in places without theaters. I got an email from a guy in France, who said he had some footage of them putting that tent up. About three weeks later, I received a couple of cans of 35mm black-and-white film of these giant Cinerama trucks arriving in a village and little kids on bicycles riding out to see them put up the giant tent. It was everything that the people I interviewed were talking about."
Strohmaier also got advice and support from film historian and archivist Kevin Brownlow. "One of the biggest things that made me believe in myself and this project was when I sent some early sequences to Kevin, who has done wonderful documentaries about the silent film era. I walked into my editing room one day, and there was a fax from him that said, ‘This is going to be a superb documentary.' Kevin was helpful in getting the documentary shown at last year's Telluride Film Festival, which resulted in a great review in Variety."
After a special presentation for members of the American Society of Cinematographers, the organization threw its weight behind the project.
"We are doing everything we can to help, because we believe it is important for the industry and the public to know and appreciate this part of our history and how it influenced the future," says John Hora, ASC. " Everyone who had the experience of seeing a Cinerama film has never forgotten it."
Strohmaier also cites Leon Silverman at Laser Pacific Media for a host of post-production help, Ron Stein at Crest National Digital Media, which provided crucial telecine services, Chace Audio and Richard Anderson of Weddington Productions, and Kodak, which donated film. Strohmaier and Gitsch estimate that it would have cost upwards of $1.5 million to produce Cinerama Adventure if they had to pay for rights to reproduce images and for otherwise donated services.
There were times when he got discouraged, but Strohmaier never lost faith.
"One night, we were watching a documentary filmmaker being interviewed," he says. "He did something on Muhammed Ali. The guy said it took him 10 years. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Well, we got five more years to go.' We finished a rough cut about a year after that. I decided to show it to a couple of people. I had gotten a call from Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. in Seattle, where a Cinerama theater was scheduled for the wrecking ball. After they bought the theater, they found my website, sent somebody to look at some sequences and asked me to help them bring back three-panel Cinerama to Seattle."
In addition to the 35mm print version he is striving to complete, Strohmaier says there will also be a DVD some day with ample supplemental material.
This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won are now on the Library of Congress National Film Registry and Crest National has built a Cinerama Screening Room. The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood has been restored and is now equipped to run the system. Allen recently sponsored a Cinerama revival in Seattle. There is now possible interest in restoring the other travelogues.
"That would be the tail which wagged the dog," Gitsch says. "If we made a contribution to saving a precious heritage, it was worth everything."
Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.