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.”