John Harvey 64, has spent his professional life in the hardware end of the movie-exhibition business. He had saved a three-strip trailer for How the West Was Won; it sat on a shelf in his home, whispering to him across the decades. "There was a feeling from day one about Cinerama that just wouldn't leave my mind," he says. And so, in 1983, spurred into action by a whatever-happened-to article he read on Cinerama, Harvey set about building himself a three-projector screening room so he could watch his six-minute trailer and recapture the magic. Soon he was spending his vacations traveling the world, scavenging parts from old theaters and junkyards, visiting technicians who had worked on the old movies, making friends with other Cinerama guys. He found one projector in Indianapolis, another somewhere in Europe; the third came in pieces from all over. (Because of its larger image size and faster projection speed, Cinerama can't be shown on standard projectors.)
"I was so eager to have the biggest screen I could have in that dwelling," he says. "I didn't care about it as a house." All told, he had spent tens of thousands of dollars on home Cinerama; he's never tabulated the exact amount. By this time, he had managed to cobble together, from upwards of 20 sources each, complete and surprisingly well-preserved prints of How the West Was Won and This Is Cinerama.
In 1996, Harvey was persuaded to install his Cinerama projectors in the Neon Movies, downtown Dayton's lone art house, and build a screen there even larger than the one in his house. One could no doubt debate for an eternity the question of how many people in greater Dayton and the world at large would pay to see Cinerama Holiday - Quentin Tarantino, for one, made a pilgrimage from Hollywood but last May, after four years of well attended screenings, The Neon finally forced him to deinstall Cinerama. After making inquiries about acquiring a Cinerama site in Branson, Missouri the tourist destination known as the Las Vegas of the Midwest, Harvey is now looking at helping to restore a former Cinerama theater in Omaha.
inerama guys always argue that the 3-panel process never should have been used for narrative moviemaking. As a former Cinerama crew member says in Dave Strohmaier's documentary, "It hit you right in the gut. That was its great virtue, and that's, of course, its great flaw. [It's] too visceral, too much horsepower, to make a feature." Having seen Cinerama presentations of both This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won, and bits and pieces of a few other films, I would have to agree. The actual images were as vast and overwhelming as advertised, and also mesmerizing there's an oddly pleasant sensation of surrendering yourself to the screen as if it were a hot bath; and even the dullest sequences afford a kind of meditative enjoyment. The travelogues also have a poignant time capsule quality, especially in the glimpses of bystanders, who often gawk straight at the camera they look so alive in Cinerama, and yet in real fife, presumably, most of them are so dead. It's like stumbling on an old home video of Grandma, one where she's now three stories tall.
In addition to John Harvey's legendary home Cinerama system, there is a peppering of others located in the U.S. Midwest, Australia, Holland, and England. Lest you think that Cinerama is of interest only to a small group of fanatics, consider that the British Government installed a complete Cinerama theatre in their National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England. In Hollywood, Crest National Labs is in the process of building a luxurious new screening room specifically for Cinerama projection of films that they will soon be reprinting.
It's not just the bigness. The pictures onscreen have unusual depth and clarity. The effect is like getting a slightly updated prescription for your glasses: it's not that the focus is so obviously better than what you're used to; you simply see more-individual blades of grass, the weave of fabric, the texture of an actor's makeup.
In 1964, Cinerama, Inc., announced it was on the verge of filing for Chapter 11. In a subsequent reorganization, the company came under the control of Pacific Theatres. The Cinerama name and accordion logo would live on for another few years, licensed to features such as Grand Prix, Ice Station Zebra, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which were filmed in other widescreen formats but said to be "presented in Cinerama." (The curved screens were retained, but the films were shot in single strip 70-mm. and had a smaller aspect ratio.)
The focus of the Cinerama community has shifted to Washington State, where Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, enters the story as a kind of deus ex machina. In 1998 he was buying some DVDs in a Seattle video store when he was asked to sign a petition to save the Seattle Cinerama Theater, which was then slated for demolition. As the name implies, the theater was designed expressly for Cinerama; like the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, it is a relic of the early 60s, when Cinerama, Inc., was going through an expansive, unduly optimistic phase. Allen not only signed the petition; the next day he bought the theater, which he has had renovated in meticulous fashion as both a state-of-the-art showplace for contemporary movies and a temple of Cineramiana, complete with brand-new curved screen and three rebuilt Cinerama projectors (salvaged from a Peruvian theater by way of a Miami dealer in theatrical scrap). This past June, in association with the Seattle Film Festival, the theater had its first Cinerama screening, borrowing Harvey's prints for a packed one-day marathon of This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won.
The key issue, if Cinerama is to have any future, will be the availability of new prints. Harvey's are already well into their ninth life and won't remain in showable condition forever; there are a few others scattered around the world in similar condition. The original negatives are deteriorating, too, though they are eminently salvageable, someone just needs to throw a bunch of money at the problem (restoring a Cinerama film, as you might guess, is at least three times as expensive as restoring a comparable normal movie). Pacific Theatres, which owns all the films except for the two MGM features (which are now controlled by Warner Bros.), has shown intermittent interest in Cinerama, and is currently investing about $150,000 in striking a new print of This Is Cinerama. Restoration work is also being done on that film's negative, but the fate of the other features remains uncertain.