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JUNE 14, 1999

Cinerama thrills again

THIS WAS CINERAMA: A team of widescreen buffs work to restore "Seven Wonders of the World," not seen since 1956.


People think they know what Cinerama is," Dave Strohmaier says. "They don't." According to the film editor, Cinerama changed the face of motion pictures and how we see them.

"Seventy millimeter came and went in the 1930s and nobody wanted it," says Strohmaier. "Then, in the 1950s, Cinerama made that whole thing finally happen with VistaVision, Todd-AO, Cinemascope and all that. But Cinerama is something unique and that's why we want to bring it back."

Indeed it is. Cinerama consisted of multiple projectors throwing an image on the screen that had been filmed on three separate strips of film. To reduce flicker, the three strips ran at 26 frames per second instead of the traditional 24. The effect was a picture three times as wide and somewhat higher than the industry's then-standard nearly square ratio. And that's where restoration problems come in.

When a group of Cinerama enthusiasts recently set about looking for negatives of 1956's "Seven Wonders of the World," the third of seven features to be filmed in the process, they did and didn't find for what they were searching. A downtown Los Angeles film storage house held the left and right parts of the picture, but the allimportant middle part of the image of this eye-popping travelog was not there. Just a note left in one of the cans: "Removed Dec.16,1966."

"I knew that happened to be the year that a 16mm print was struck for schools and TV," Strohmaier explains. "It was made from the middle B panel camera negative."

He was able to determine that the severely reduced non-Cinerama reissue had been optically printed at Film Effects of Hollywood, a company owned by longtime special effects wiz Linwood Dunn. "I talked to him shortly before he died," Strohmaier recalls. "He told us to try Producers Library Service in North Hollywood, where he stored and consigned some film. But it wasn't there."

So Strohmaier temporarily gave up looking for the elusive B panel, and went back to work on his laborof-love documentary about Cinerama. And at the storage facility, he and Gunther Jung, an archivist at Pacific Theatres, noticed a box labeled "Seven Wonders, single-panel version."

"We opened up the box and they were the biggest film cans I'd ever seen," Strohmaier recalls. "They looked like they held 3,000 feet. It was the missing B panel. They had spliced it all together to put it on the optical printer. Then never placed it back into the original cans. It was right there all the time."

While there is a version of the original film in "This Is Cinerama," which has been showing in Dayton, Ohio, for more than two years, the prints in use are IB Technicolor dupes.

"Seven Wonders of the World," which many consider the best of the Cinerama films, hasn't been seen since 1956 and is the center of film buffs' restoration efforts. Originally, copies of all Cinerama prints were made via the highly unusual process of forming them from the precious camera negative.

Now that Strohmaier and his fellow Cinerama scholars have solved the riddle of the missing B panel camera negative, what's next?

Assisting the unpaid Cinerama restoration team is Leon Briggs, longtime Technicolor and Disney employee and now head of his own restoration consulting firm, LB Films.

"Our consortium is working right now with the current owner of the five nonfiction features, Pacific Theatres, to try to put together an approximately 10-minute-long demonstration film to be shown privately to industry leaders sometime later on this year at the Cinerama Dome in L.A.," Briggs says. "This is a nonprofit venture, but definitely worth the commitment. I'm reasonably certain we can get it back to nearly its original state."

Strohmaier also has a personal reason for finding all the pieces of the Wonders" puzzle and putting it back together.

"I saw Cinerama in 1956 in St. Louis when I was a kid," he says. "My first major job as an editor was at Disney working on a nine-camera installation at Epcot, Circlevision. Since I knew what Cinerama was, that's how I got the job. In the process of doing that project, I met my wife.

FAMILY THING: Crowds line up outside a New York City theatre to see the 1956 Cinerama extravaganza "Seven Wonders of the World."

"It's such a shame that this is completely forgotten except for older baby boomers .... They have these long stories about, 'My mom and my dad took me. Drove halfway across the country to see it.' It was a family thing."

Strohmaier adds, "If you rearrange the letters of Cinerama it spells 'American.' You could say that the industry - the film industry today, "Star Wars," anything in widescreen - that was their genesis, Cinerama. Now it's payback time. Time to bring back this piece of Americana."

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