That Was Cinerama: A Critic Waxes Nostalgic With the summer movie season just weeks away, we'll be hearing plenty about new digital this and computer-generated that. Bob Mondello thinks that's the perfect reason to indulge in a little nostalgia for Cinerama, one of the grandest Hollywood spectacles of old.
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That Was Cinerama: A Critic Waxes Nostalgic

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That Was Cinerama: A Critic Waxes Nostalgic

That Was Cinerama: A Critic Waxes Nostalgic

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In a couple of weeks, "Spider-Man" and "Shrek" are going to usher in the summer movie season. And every week, we're going to be hearing about some new digital this and computer-generated that. Bob Mondello is here to wallow in nostalgia with us about a different kind of movie technology.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Cinerama, that post-war movie technology that put you in the picture with a massive curved screen so large that it stretched across three panels, and Bob's here with us to talk about this.

Hello Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: Hi. It's great to be here, especially about something like this.

NORRIS: Well, before we actually start talking about these old movie spectacles. It's interesting, I saw the TV show "Entourage" had thrown a party at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, and I thought it was so interesting because - and actually ironic because Cinerama was actually designed to compete with the TV.

MONDELLO: That's right. The whole idea of widescreens - you have to sort of put yourself back in the 1950s and '60s. Television screens were smaller then, and for the most part not in color yet. And so you were getting this really small thing that was supposed, you know, it had started competing seriously with movies, and so what they did was they tried to stretch everything to give you an experience that you couldn't get on the small screen.

NORRIS: In fact the ad said that you won't see this on TV. Now, Bob, I want you to take us inside one of these Cinerama theaters, because there is only a small number of them across the country.

MONDELLO: Well, that's true. They outfitted some older theaters with Cinerama, but basically the front of the auditorium was curved. It was this huge, almost a semicircle, it sort of wrapped around the audience. And up in the balcony area they would have had three projection booths. There was...

NORRIS: Three?

MONDELLO: Yeah. Well, they had to because the thing was so wide. The one in the middle - the one you're used to thinking of as the projection booth - would be showing the picture that was straight ahead. It would be the center section of the screen. And then off on the left-hand side they would have a projector that was shooting across that to illuminate the right-hand side of the screen. And then they'd have a right-hand projector that was shooting across to do the left side of the screen.

It was an enormously huge thing. I remember going into these places and thinking, oh, my God, it just wrapped around you. It was gorgeous.

NORRIS: Now for a magnificent screen like this you wouldn't show just any film. How were these screens used?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Well, the very first picture they did was in 1952, it was "This is Cinerama." And the thing that everybody talked about was this rollercoaster sequence. And when this thing opened, they covered it on the front page of The New York Times it was so spectacular. They talked about women shrieking at this and men sitting there with their mouths hanging open. And it was as if people had never seen anything on screen before, because it really did wrap around you. And the one that I remember, I was too young to see that when it first came out. But what I remember was from "How the West Was Won."

NORRIS: Mm-hmm.

MONDELLO: And the thing I really remember, and that I think everybody sort of remembers is this amazing thing that they saved for the end, this buffalo stampede; it was just breathtaking.

NORRIS: Now, that film "How The West Was Won" was released in 1962, it actually played for many years in the Cinerama theaters. And you're talking about this amazing scene when the Indians are stampeding this herd of buffalo, and you feel in the audience like they're coming right over the top of your head.

MONDELLO: You totally do.

(Soundbite of movie "How The West Was Won")

Unidentified Man #1: The Indians are stampeding the buffalo.

MONDELLO: Now you're starting to see them on one side of the screen and they're coming at you, and they're still kind of far away and they come roaring across you. Now you notice that the music disappears because this was something that you were actually experiencing as if it were real. And then they come right across the front of the auditorium.

(Soundbite of movie "How The West Was Won")

(Soundbite of stampede)

NORRIS: What we're hearing there is a herd of buffalo.


NORRIS: Sort of moving across this village, these tents.


NORRIS: This village filled with settlers.

MONDELLO: Just watching it wiping it out, just completely destroying it. And it felt like it was sweeping you and it and everything away. It was just amazing to watch.

NORRIS: If this was so wonderful, why weren't more films made to take advantage of this new technology?

MONDELLO: It was also expensive. And it was complicated. If you had three separate images that you were sort of blending on the screen, then you had to have three separate cameras, which meant that you couldn't swing the cameras sideways, you couldn't pan across something. And so a lot of the moves that we're used to in movies, you couldn't do. It was actually kind of constricting. So anyway, they decided that this was not great.

Actually only two of the movies made in this three-camera Cinerama even have plots, and the rest of them were essentially travelogues where they would show you fabulous things.

NORRIS: The kind of thing you might see in IMAX theater now.

MONDELLO: That's exactly right. And the IMAX is one of the technologies that's come along later to try and duplicate this amazing thing. But it doesn't stretch around you the way that Cinerama used to.

NORRIS: It was too expensive to use this Cinerama technology to make feature films, but they did try to keep using the theaters with a slightly amended technology. Tell me about that.

MONDELLO: Oh, that was Ultra Panavision, it had almost the same width; they actually use it for things like "2001" a little later.

NORRIS: A "Space Odyssey," yes.

MONDELLO: Right. But the one that I remember, actually the very first thing to play at the Cinerama Dome in California was "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," which was this amazing, they used it - it's a comedy. And it was hysterical and big and sweeping all the time, it sort of a great race movie. I remember at the end they had all these comedians and they had gotten them up on a fire escape somehow, and there was a hook and ladder truck that came to rescue them. And there were too many of them on the end of this hook and ladder, and so it started swinging back and forth.

(Soundbite of movie "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World")

Unidentified Man #2: We can't control it. There's too many men on it.

NORRIS: And that's what you - whoa...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: ...from one side to the other.

MONDELLO: And it was fabulous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: You know, lots of pictures later used widescreen. It's one of the reasons we have the big cinemas that we've got now, where they basically try to fill up the whole front wall of a theater these days, because that gives you the impression that you're seeing something that's really wide. But most of the time it's nothing like what this was where it wrapped around your peripheral vision.

NORRIS: Bob, you are making me very nostalgic. I grew up in Minneapolis. And just outside the city in St. Louis Park there was the Cooper Theater, one of...

MONDELLO: Oh, right.

NORRIS: ...small number of Cinerama theaters that...

MONDELLO: It was actually built for it, yeah, that was...

NORRIS: And it's gone.

MONDELLO: No. They tore them all down. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two theaters that are still equipped to show true...

NORRIS: True Cinerama.

MONDELLO: ...real Cinerama with a three projectors in this country. That's the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, and the Martin Cinerama Complex in Seattle. But it's a technology that has gone the way of the dodo.

NORRIS: So if you watch that stampede sequence on home DVD, it just not...

MONDELLO: It doesn't even matter if you had a 101-inch screen, it just not - if you had a 110-foot screen it wouldn't be the same.

NORRIS: Thank you, Bob.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure.

NORRIS: That was our movie critic Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You'll find a vintage graphic that describes the Cinerama process from start to finish at

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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