This Is Cinerama

June 19th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The word itself has become part of the vernacular, spawning an entire vocabulary of “rama” suffixed words added to the language. The phenomenon involved some of the biggest names in 20th century entertainment: John Ford, Lowell Thomas, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Todd and Merian C. Cooper. But if anyone is still unfamiliar with the subject of this article, this title will surely help–How the West Was Won. The epic 1963 film was the last and most famous to use a cinema technique that had vast entertainment, social and even political ramifications in the 1950s and early ‘60s and set the standard for how we view movies and even television today.

The concept is widescreen, and Cinerama was the father and king of all wide-screen formats in use since that time. It is a filming and projection technique, rather than a film style, genre or subject. Only once before was the wide-screen concept tried in a motion picture, in the final sequence of Abel Gance’s epic 1927 film Napoléon. It took Fred Waller, an innovative engineer and filmmaker, to explore the idea of giving audiences an image on screen that would imitate how the eye sees things. Waller, who was responsible for many early filmmaking gadgets, strapped eleven 16mm cameras together and shot sequences that were then projected on a parabolic screen. The result of this experiment was to wow audiences at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

War worries kept Waller’s invention from gaining any commercial acceptance at the time. However his Vitarama Corp. received a contract from the federal government, and he molded his invention into an elaborate training mechanism for Army Air Corps gunners, the first virtual combat game. The film clips of flying targets, sound effects and a grading mechanism won praise from many aerial gunners who later were faced with real combat situations in the bellies of B-17s and other aircraft.

After the war several factors, especially the introduction of television, precipitated a drop in box office revenues. A few forward-looking individuals then decided to investigate the potential of Waller’s invention, including exhibitors from the Warner theater chain and well-known documentarian and radio personality Lowell Thomas. The idea of involving the audience in a film with enveloping visuals and, just as important, audio from many sources, had great appeal to Lowell in bringing his travelogues to a large audience.

The advent of Cinerama required great preparation, not only in photographing with the special three-film, multi-lens camera, the seven microphone audio recordings and the complicated editing process, but in the preparation of the theaters for exhibiting the films. The premiere on September 30, 1952 of This Is Cinerama set the tone for the technique, not only in the hair-raising reality of a roller coaster ride and other sequences to maximize the technique’s strengths, but in a marketing approach that turned the theater-going experience into a social event, with evening gowns, red carpets and press coverage of non-celebrity theater patrons.

Because of the complexities of exhibition, Cinerama was only available in a few major city theaters, and folks would actually include Cinerama show reservations in vacation plans. President Eisenhower was so enthralled by the vistas of America in This Is Cinerama that he and the state department developed a propaganda use for Cinerama in international fairs and exhibitions where it won many awards. Cinerama’s world-wide popularity did not escape the attention of the USSR and a “wide-screen race” soon developed.

Although travelogues by Lowell and others ran for years – sustaining Cinerama through the 50s while at the same time creating imitators such as Cinemascope, Vista-Vision and other wide screen formats – eventually the demand for dramatic films led to How the West Was Won and a few others. Even though the western won many awards and took in a lot of money, the glamour of Cinerama eventually wore off in an industry often obsessed by faster-cheaper. The process nearly succumbed until resuscitated by Michael Forman and his Pacific Theaters. But the complex Cinerama technique was reduced to one 70mm film frame, still with excellent multi-channel sound, for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The story of Cinerama, the people, places and films that make up its history, is detailed in the fascinating documentary Cinerama Adventure (2003). In its presentation of Cinerama clips, the documentary simulates the experience with an innovative technique. Theater screenings of Cinerama are rare these days and Randy Gitsch, producer of Cinerama Adventure, explains why. “Cinerama was always difficult to exhibit because it required perfect synchronous projection. And today, it’s still difficult to properly present.”

The American Widescreen Museum and ArcLight Cinema are resources for upcoming theater presentations and other Cinerama information.


Paid Advertisement

Related Articles

4 Comments »

4 Responses to “This Is Cinerama”

  1. Jay,
    Great arricle about a nearl-forgotten episode in American film. It brought back great memories for me, particularly as I rememberas a little squirt seeing, in about 1954, the file This Is Cinerama at a specially modified theater in Chicago. I don’t recall a lot, but i remember Lowell Thomas’s voice and — of course — that roller coaster. Man, that roller coaster about scared the bee-jeezus out of me!

  2. Hmm. Looks like I need to work on the proof-reading.

  3. Jay Wertz said:

    Frank: Thanks for sharing your story of seeing This Is Cinerama. This is exactly the kind of reminiscing I hoped this article would generate. I hope more people will come forward. For me, seeing How the West Was Won not only solidified a budding interest in history, but also helped propel a future career in filmmaking. Some of the behind the scenes stories of making HTWWW and This is Cinerama in Cinerama Adventure are absolutely riveting. Hopefully one of the aviation experts on GH will write about stunt flier Frank Mantz who was instumental in making these films. JW

  4. Jay Wertz said:

    For those who are in the Los Angeles area, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood is presenting “This Is Cinerama” and “How The West Was Won” in the original Cinerama widescreen process Sept. 8-10. For showtimes and information go to https://www.arclightcinemas.com/ArcLight/faces/Home.jsp

What is Great History?

Great History's mission is to provide a home for the best and brightest history bloggers writing today. We also allow members to create their own personal blogs and share their writing with our community. Our goal is to bring together all the best in history!

What We Write About

Weider History Group Magazines

Weider History Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Great History | Achtung Panzer!

Copyright © 2013 Weider History Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Although Great History is currently in mothballs, please contact us if you would like to blog for the Weider History Group.