Cinerama Secret Weapon Of The Cold War
THERE WAS MORE THAN ONE AMERICAN TECHNOLOGY THE SOVIETS SOUGHT TO COPY
1954: THE SOVIETS HAD JUST EXPLODED their first I l-bomb; the McCarthy hearings had come to an ignominious end in Washington; Stalin had died and Khrushchev had risen to power in Moscow. And in Damascus, Syria, Harris Peel had a problem.
Peel, the information director for the U.S. Hmbassy in the Syrian capital, needed something quickly. The Soviets were inaugurating a new front in the Cold War. The International Trade Fair was due to open in Damascus in just a few weeks, and the Soviets were pouring men, material, and money into it in an all-out effort to gain friends and influence in a region of growing strategicimportance. They had hired 1,200 laborers and spent a half-million dollars to build a 3,500-square-foot pavilion that would dominate the fairgrounds with a 100-foot steeple topped by an illuminated Red Star.
The United States, meanwhile, had nothing. With little time and zero budget, Peel cast about for some way to rescue his country’s prestige. Then he had an idea: Cinerama.
The year before, in Washington, Peel had attended a showing of This Is Cinerama . Since its unveiling in 1952 at New York’s Broadway Theater, This Is Cinerama had been a runaway success, thrilling audiences with its stomach-convulsing views taken from the front of a roller coaster and its breathtaking low-level aerial shots of such landmarks as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. The movie’s revolutionary three-panel ultra-wide-screen projection technique immersed audiences in a panoramic view of the action. You didn’t watch This Is Cinerama , you experienced it. It had become the most-talked-about film since —well, since the introduction of talkies in 1927. How better to showcase the best America had to offer?
A few phone calls later and it was arranged. Cinerama, Inc., agreed to donate everything needed to build a temporary theater. The Air Force agreed to fly over 12 tons of equipment, including a 75-foot-long, 25foot-high curved movie screen. A Cinerama crew and a handful of local laborers built a 2,000-seat open-air theater just in time for the opening of the month-long fair. “We busted our butts for five weeks to make this thing work,” Frank Richmond, the supervisor, told a reporter. “It worked, but God knows we had no rieht to think it would.”
On opening night, September 2, 1954, throngs swarmed the fairgrounds. Tickets were distributed free by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and demand far outstripped supply. Thousands showed up without tickets. Richmond looked on in horror as the metal fence around the complex started to yield to the crowd. “It scared me to see those iron fences bending under the weight of hundreds of people pushing,” he said, “and inside, without protection, $100,000 worth of equipment.”
THE FENCES, HOWEVER, HELD. EXTRA POLICE WERE DIS patched to maintain crowd control, and the U.S. Information Center in Damascus barred its doors and posted special guards to keep crowds from storming the building in quest of nonexistent tickets. Black marketers scalped passes, and a counterfeiting ring faked them. Each night people who couldn’t get tickets climbed nearby eucalyptus trees, stood on barrels, or balanced on bicycles to get a glimpse of the spectacle. A nearby restaurant with a partial view of the screen was packed every night. The USIA distributed 150,000 tickets during the show’s month-long run, and informal estimates had a total of nearly a quarter-million people seeing the show. The population of Damascus was 360,000.
Peel’s idea was such an overwhelming success that the State Department investigated the possibility of installing Cinerama on a retired aircraft carrier and taking it to ports all over the world. The plan was abandoned only after the expense of taking a carrier out of mothballs was found to be prohibitive. At a subsequent fair in Bangkok, the demand for tickets was so great that the film was held over for two weeks after the fair ended.
The Soviets were not pleased. They at first tried to take credit for Cinerama, claiming they had developed it years before but abandoned it. Then after a month in Damascus, seeing their grandiose display of tractors, automobiles, and other products go ignored, they complained to the tradefair officials that they were the victims of unfair competition. U.S. CINERAMA SHAMES REDS , announced one newspaper headline. CINERAMA SUCCESS MADE COMMIES SCREAM FOUL , wrote Variety . Unable to beat Cinerama, the Soviets set out to do the next best thing: steal it. Spying, of course, was something the Soviets were good at. They had proved remarkably resourceful about ripping off American technology, be it atomic bombs or military aircraft. Besides, how complicated could a movie camera be?
Cinerama had been conceived 15 years earlier by Fred Waller, an inventor also credited with developing, among other things, the water ski. Born in 1896, Waller had a background in photography and a fascination with movies and human perception. In the 1920s he developed a number of special effects shots for movies by D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMiIIe. Intrigued by how a wide-angle lens seemed to give a sense of depth to an image without any 3-D mechanism, he set about creating a film process that might mimic the way he thought a human eye perceived the world.
Panoramic and wide-screen film processes had been experimented with before, but they had never become popular. The photographer Mathew Brady had employed series of exposures to create panoramas of Civil War battlefields. In 1927 the French director Abel Gance shot the ending of his silent film Napoléon with three cameras to create a suitable big-screen finale for the five-hour epic. The technique, named “polyvision,” worked but was never used again, mainly because of the high cost. Also in 1927, the French inventor Henri Chrétien patented the anamorphic or “squeeze” lens. It compressed the horizontal dimension of an image by half to fit it onto a standard frame of film. The image was then projected back through an anamorphic lens that restored it to twice as wide. Chrétien tried to sell his idea to filmmakers in France and the United States, but to no avail, and the idea sat on a shelf for 25 years. Until the arrival of Cinerama, nearly all films were done in the standard aspect ratio of 1.33 to 1.
Waller conducted studies to determine that it was peripheral vision, and not straight-ahead vision, that mattered most in spatial orientation. He walked around with toothpicks stuck in the bill of his baseball cap to mark the limits of his peripheral vision, and he learned that he could navigate a room full of furniture even with the center portion of his vision blocked, but that when he blocked his peripheral vision, he lost his depth perception and stumbled. Moreover, he concluded that to fill the field of vision, a display surface should be curved like the human eye. With this knowledge he set about devising a system of synchronized cameras to create his motion-picture process.
Invited to develop something for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, Waller brought together 11 synchronized 16mm cameras to produce a hemispherical image of two frames over four frames over five frames, projected on the inside of the domed Perisphere building. He called it the Vitarama. The fair organizers were impressed but decided the process was too radical and impractical. He was developing a scaled-down version of the Vitarama when World War II broke out.
That gave him a more practical use for his concept. The Department of War needed to train aerial gunners for combat without having them all fire at actual towed targets. Waller created the Flexible Gunnery Trainer. It used five interlocking projectors and a spherical screen. The trainees were placed in actual gun turrets and wore headphones playing the sounds of engine noise and gunfire as projected aircraft dove at them out of the projected skies. A photoelectric scoring system rated their performance. Starting in August 1940, 75 trainers were built, and they were put to use nearly round the clock. They were so effective that one hour with them was considered equivalent to 10 of actual in-flight practice. The first group of graduates hit 80 percent of their targets in combat and suffered no losses. Thousands of lives were saved.
After the war Waller returned to the laboratory. On a converted indoor tennis court in Oyster Bay, New York, he now developed Cinerama, a three-camera, three-projector system that projected a 146-degree image on a curved screen made up of hundreds of narrow vertical strips. The screen itself was a big innovation. To achieve the same panoramic effect, a standard flat screen would have needed to be enormous, perhaps hundreds of feet wide to fill the audience’s field of vision. The curved screen was expensive to install, but without it the system would have been useless.
The cameras and projectors were also custom-made. To achieve a higher-resolution image, the new system used frames six perforations high instead of the usual four and ran at 26 frames per second instead of the standard 24. Six times as much negative was exposed as was customary. The three-in-one camera wasn’t as big as the 11-eyed monster Waller had designed for the world’s fair, but it was still hefty, weighing around 200 pounds. The three synchronized cameras each used a specially built wide-angle Kodak lens with a focal length of 27 millimeters—the same as the human eye. Gearing allowed the camera’s apertures and focus to be adjusted as one.
With financial backing from his sailing partner David Rockefeller, as well as from Time and Life magazines, Waller did some black-and-white test shots with the system, including one of the Atom Smasher roller coaster at Rockaway Beach. He also brought in Hazard Reeves, a sound engineer, to develop a seven-channel, multidimensional sound system to go with the enormous moving images. The seven tracks fed eight speaker channels, five behind the screen and three around the auditorium. To accomplish this, Reeves invented full-coat magnetic film. Standard mono movie soundtracks at the time were done optically with the soundtrack on the edge of the film, but in Cinerama the soundtrack was contained on a separate reel and played in interlock with the three projectors.
Waller and company invited a number of Hollywood executives to view the test shots. They were duly impressed, but they ultimately demurred when they realized that the system would require them not only to replace all their camera equipment but also to revamp their movie theaters.
Enter Lowell Thomas. At the time, Lowell Thomas was a nearly ubiquitous journalist, showman, radio commentator, and adventurer, a sort of one-man media empire. He had a daily radio show heard by millions and was the voice of Fox Movietone newsreels. His sonorous voice and distinctive “So long until tomorrow…” sign-off were brands to themselves. He was also a tireless promoter, a man who counted among his friends Presidents, Hollywood stars, and business titans.
Upon seeing the demonstration reels, Thomas was hooked. He recalled his adventure during World War I as a correspondent in the Middle East with Gen. Edmund Allenby and a daring English officer named T. E. Lawrence. He had turned those experiences into a hugely successful multimedia lecture tour after the war. “In Cinerama,” he wrote, “that would have been overwhelming. … Here was a process that would take you places, make you feel you were there, and even add a touch of glamour to reality.”
Thomas brought in a friend and fellow adventurer, Merian C. Cooper, a Hollywood producer who, among other things, had written and directed the 1933 movie King Kong . Also aboard was the Broadway impresario Mike Todd. The highpowered trio put together a montage of scenes to highlight Cinerama’s immersive effect, with roller coasters, airplane rides, and scenic vistas. There was no story, no star—just Cinerama, along with some voice-over by Thomas and a majestic musical score.
On September 30, 1952, at a gala black-tie premiere at the Broadway Theater in Manhattan, Cinerama became an entertainment reality. The response was overwhelming. The New York Times covered it, on the front page, as “frankly and exclusively ‘sensational,’ in the literal sense of the word.” Audiences gasped and screamed. During aerial sequences they leaned in their seats as if to compensate for an aircraft’s steep bank. Thomas claimed that at one show a man turned to his friend and said, “I’m leaving. I can’t take it,” and his companion replied, “Don’t go now or you will be killed.”
During its 13-week run in New York, This Is Cinerama became the top-grossing movie of 1952. In the two years after, it grossed a formidable $17 million, playing to more than 9 million people in just 13 theaters. It had cost only $512,000 to make. In many cases, those seeking tickets had to wait in line for up to four hours and pay more than twice the price of a standard movie, the most expensive seats going for around $3.50 (about $30 today). Theaters reinforced the idea that a Cinerama production was an event and not just a movie by either refusing to sell popcorn and candy or not allowing patrons to carry them to their seats. Some patrons dressed in formal wear. By 1956 This Is Cinerama had surpassed Gone With the Wind as the top-grossing movie of all time.
BACK IN DAMASCUS, THE SOVIETS, EMBARRASSED AND angry at being upstaged at the trade fair, resolved to acquire Cinerama’s secrets. Said Thomas: “Not long after Cinerama opened in London, they sent a planeload of scientists to the British capital, and while Washington slept and did nothing more about using this magic medium and failed to continue the success of Damascus and Bangkok, the Russians copied Cinerama.” He added that nothing less than our national security was at stake. No one knows exactly how the Russians learned the inner workings of Cinerama, but it may not have been too hard. Popular Science had run a cover story detailing the mechanics of Waller’s invention in August 1950, two years before the premiere of This Is Cinerama .
According to David Strohmaier, a Cinerama aficionado and the producer-director of Cinerama Adventure , a film documentary that chronicles the history of Cinerama, the Soviets may have reverse-engineered a Cinerama projector simply by obtaining a sample of Cinerama film. As for the secrets of the cameras and their custom-built lenses, that would have required a bit more work, or perhaps a little luck, he says, but not too much.
Otto Lang, the director of Search for Paradise , Cinerama’s fourth feature, told of filming high up in the Himalayas in the Kashmir region of India in 1956. The caravan of men and packhorses was wending its way up the rocky and narrow footpaths running between the snowy peaks when, he wrote, “during one of our halts, I noticed another, smaller film unit following us. Wherever we stopped, they also stopped, to set up their camera in the exact spot and take the identical shot.” The other crew, it turned out, was from Moscow. Noticing that their rations seemed rather skimpy, Lang invited them to join his team for lunch.
“Of course, what intrigued them most was our monster Cinerama camera,” Lang wrote. “I saw no reason to hide it from them, assuming that they already had detailed drawings and specifications for this camera—if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be Russians, with their widespread network of spies in the United States.”
Lang was probably right. In 1958 the Soviets introduced their own three-panel wide-screen process, which they called Kinopanorama. Then, at the Brussels world’s fair that year, they took the grand prize, beating out Cinerama with the film Great Is My Country . Carl Dudley, a Cinerama engineer working at the fair, suspected that Kinopanorama’s technology was stolen from Cinerama, and according to his daughter, he “paid off one of the projectionists to bring over one of their reels at two in the morning and put it through a Cinerama machine.” Surprise—the two were completely compatible. The only difference was that Kinopanorama had nine-channel sound to Cinerama’s seven channels.
The biggest challenge to Cinerama’s supremacy, however, came not from behind the Iron Curtain but from Hollywood, as the major studios scrambled to come up with their own wide-screen processes. Right after the premiere of This Is Cinerama , Twentieth Century—Fox raced to France to track down Chrétien and his squeeze lens, beating out Warner Brothers, the story goes, by a matter of hours to secure the rights to the invention. A year later, in 1953, Fox released The Robe using its newly christened CinemaScope process. As released, CinemaScope had an aspect ratio of 2.55 to 1 (Cinerama ranged between 2.59 and 3 to 1). Subsequently Paramount introduced VistaVision, followed by RKO’s Superscope, then Technirama, and Panavision, and on and on. The 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio was dead.
Cinerama fans and executives liked to joke that CinemaScope and the others were the poor man’s Cinerama, but the new processes had certain advantages. First, they didn’t require Hollywood studios to replace all their production equipment and theaters to revamp their interiors. On average, to convert a theater to show a Cinerama production cost upward of $200,000 and a good chunk of seats. Also, three projectionists and two soundmen were needed to run a Cinerama feature, compared with just a single projectionist for the standard movie. Second, Cinerama didn’t lend itself to conventional Hollywood storytelling. The process’s ultra-wide-angle view forced directors to rethink the framing of shots (somewhat as did 3-D, around the same time). It also eliminated that old Hollywood mainstay, the close-up. In Hollywood, actors and actresses were the stars of their films; with Cinerama, the film itself was the star.
Thomas, Cooper, and the other Cinerama pioneers all understood this. In their minds, Cinerama was not a competitor to Hollywood but something that existed in and of itself. Indeed, the most successful Cinerama productions were to be documentaries and travelogues, films that would put the audience in the middle of the scene. Cinerama might have continued as a stand-alone film experience, like IMAX today, but financial pressures and a number of strategic mistakes doomed it.
Following the tremendous success in New York in 1952, Thomas and company faced great pressure to expand their business quickly. To do so, however, required enormous amounts of money, not just to build the complicated machinery and convert the theaters but also to produce the pictures themselves. The Thomas concepts Seven Wonders of the World (1956) and Search for Paradise (1957) would rely on huge expeditions that traveled around the globe using a small air force. By May 1953 This Is Cinerama was pulling in $45,000 a week playing at just three theaters in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, but the company was struggling to pay off a $1.6 million bank loan and meet another $2 million in production commitments.
Desperate for cash, Thomas and company sold out majority control of Cinerama in August 1953 to Stanley Warner, a theater chain in the old Hollywood tradition. Bad feelings were probably inevitable, and they emerged before the ink on the deal had even dried. “There had been plenty of acrimonious bickering in connection with the negotiations,” Thomas wrote to a colleague. The Stanley Warner people, he complained, “seemed to go about what they were trying to do on the theory that Cinerama was just another sort of movie.” And they wasted a lot of time and energy trying to line up traditional Hollywood projects.
COOPER AND MANY OTHER CINERAMA originals quit in frustration, but Thomas persevered. “Although it seemed utterly hopeless, I continued to haunt the scene—hammering away at Stanley Warner telling them their best bet was to stay in the non-fiction field,” he wrote. Eventually, Stanley Warner grudgingly gave Thomas permission to go ahead with the adventure travelogues Seven Wonders of the World and Search for Paradise . Despite the commercial success of these two films, in 1958 the company gave up, selling out to Nicolas Reisini, an import—export businessman. By then Thomas too had quit and had moved on to promote his television show “High Adventure.”
Reisini, who had been entranced by Gance’s Napoléon , thought Cinerama had potential as a medium for dramatic film. He was partly right. In 1962 the classic How the West Was Won , starring James Stewart, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm were released. How the West Was Won , like This Is Cinerama before it, was the top-grossing movie of the year. But Reisini was in over his head. Struggling to balance the books, he decided to do away with the Cinerama process and exploit its name recognition alone. Thus a number of subsequent films were released as Cinerama films in name only. They included It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Khartoum (1966), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). All used an ordinary screen and a single projector.
Oddly enough, the last three-panel film to bear the Cinerama name was made by the Soviets. In 1957, before the Soviets came out with Kinopanorama, Thomas explored the idea of a travelogue of the vast Soviet empire and began corresponding with the minister of culture in Moscow. The 1958 appearance of Kinopanorama, which led to 15 movies released in the Soviet Union, derailed those plans. But then in 1966 the two countries agreed to a cultural exchange, and out of that came Cinerama’s Russian Adventure , a compilation of scenes from three Kinopanorama favorites (again, the two systems were completely compatible), narrated by Bing Crosby. It played briefly in Chicago and was unseen elsewhere in the States.
Before that, Cinerama had been called to serve the nation one final time. On a Friday evening in late October 1962 a Cinerama engineer named Norman Karlin got a call from Merian Cooper, who was not only the director of King Kong but a former air ace and a general in the Air Force. Remember the low-level aerial footage of Havana taken for Seven Wonders of the World? Cooper asked. Sure, Karlin recalled answering. “Well, pull out those reels for a special screening tomorrow morning,” Cooper said. “We could be at war in 48 hours.” The next day Cooper and a handful of Air Force officers showed up at Cinerama’s Los Angeles headquarters to view the movie and consider if it would be a useful tool for the pilots who would be ordered to make low-level bombing runs into Havana. As it turned out, they didn’t need the film. The nations backed away from the nuclear brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Until his death in 1981, Lowell Thomas still believed that Cinerama could be revived. The subsequent success of the largeformat IMAX may have proved Thomas right. IMAX, which premiered in 1970 and displays a 70mm image on a giant 70by-35-foot screen, has stuck to the adventure-documentary themes Thomas preferred all along for Cinerama. Also, IMAX has never really seen itself as a competitor to Hollywood fare and only recently started to run regular feature films in IMAX format (including Fantasia, The Matrix , and Polar Express ). Since its founding, IMAX has expanded to more than 235 theaters worldwide.
Over the years memories of Cinerama have faded, and with them understanding of the impact Cinerama had on films, not just in bringing new life to the industry, which in the early 1950s was struggling, but in forever changing the way we see movies. Without Cinerama, we might still be watching movies in a 1.33 to 1 format. Cinerama made wide-screen the standard. In the minds of many, Dave Strohmaier admits, it was a passing fad. But he couldn’t agree less. “Bell bottoms lasted, what, five years?” he says. “I think if you’re around 14 years, you’re past the fad stage.”