BROOKE GLADSTONE: We just heard about a brand new technology that may or may not enhance your movie-watching pleasure. Now a salute to an older innovation. It was just 50 years ago that the square screen gave way to the wide screen and changed the way we look at film. Sara Fishko has this tribute to Cinerama. [GRAND, STIRRING MOVIE MUSIC UP & UNDER]
SARA FISHKO: When was the last time you got dressed up to go to a movie? 50 years ago, on September 30th, 1952 to be exact, everybody in the movie audience at the Broadway theater on 53rd Street was dressed up. It was the premiere of Cinerama, which would literally change the shape of things to come. [ELECTRONIC NEWS "BEEPING"]
MAN: Hello, everybody--
SARA FISHKO: A large velvet curtain covering the screen opened part way to reveal world traveler, correspondent Lowell Thomas.
LOWELL THOMAS: --you are about to see the first--
DAVID STROHMAIER: A movie started -- a regular movie -- you know like a square image on a screen--
SARA FISHKO: Filmmaker David Strohmaier saw Cinerama as a young child.
DAVID STROHMAIER: -- the favorite memory is Lowell Thomas saying "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama."
LOWELL THOMAS: Ladies and gentlemen--: this is Cinerama!
SARA FISHKO: And the curtain opened to the widest screen ever seen.
DAVID STROHMAIER: And then you heard this huge loud noise which is a clang of a roller coaster starting with the -- all the rumbling-- [ROLLER COASTER WITH PEOPLE SCREAMING] and then the curtains opening, all at the same time, it's like one of those goosebump moments. [ROLLER COASTER WITH PEOPLE SCREAMING]
SARA FISHKO: Cinerama -- the pioneering wide-screen process -- used 3 images projected at once to create a wide curved picture that mirrored what the eye could see, peripheral vision and all. It came along at a particular moment. [BOUNCY 50s MUSIC UP & UNDER] It was the early 1950s.
JOHN BELTON: During the post war period, people were coming off of 40 hour weeks that they worked during the war.
SARA FISHKO: John Belton is the author of a book called Wide Screen Cinema.
JOHN BELTON: And, and 2 week vacations became a routine part of everyone's employment package in this post-war period. So people had lots and lots of leisure time to do things, [MUSIC FADES] and they didn't want to go to the movies any more.
SARA FISHKO: They wanted to buy cars. They wanted to go on trips, barbecue in the back yard, entertain....
JOHN BELTON: All of these activities are not things you can do in two hours. There's a kind of refocusing of leisure time.
SARA FISHKO: And there was TV, of course. And the movie business felt it all. Movie attendance dropped by 50 percent between 1948 and 1952. Cinerama was [BIG FILM SOUNDTRACK] just what the business needed. Cinerama was the brainchild of inventor Fred Waller who brought it to showman Mike Todd and adventurer Lowell Thomas, who was convinced the new format would revolutionize the industry.
LOWELL THOMAS, JR: My father had traveled so much around the world, he, he was full of ideas--
SARA FISHKO: Lowell Thomas, Jr.
LOWELL THOMAS, JR: -- of things that could be done with this wide-screen technique that actually embraced about 140 degrees.
SARA FISHKO: Cinerama screens were huge -- 60 feet wide with 15 feet-deep curves on either side.
LOWELL THOMAS, JR: And it'd be so much better to, to look at the world with the same kind of view that the human eye has when you're right out there instead of like looking through a key hole which was basically the ["TRIBAL DRUMS" MUSIC UP & UNDER] motion picture technique in those early days.
SARA FISHKO: So that's what early Cinerama pictures were --travelogues with more than a dash of kitsch --titles like [HAWAIIAN MUSIC] Search for Paradise and South Seas adventures with stereophonic scores to match their spectacularly-sized pictures.
DAVID STROHMAIER: It was always very American.
SARA FISHKO: David Strohmaier has just completed a documentary film on the history of Cinerama.
DAVID STROHMAIER: They would start out in the United States; they'd be flying over the Statue of Liberty or something on our "trip around the world," you know, and maybe the announcer Lowell Thomas would say: Next stop -- Bangkok or something, you know, and then suddenly you'd be swooping down into Bangkok, and you'd get an aerial view of it. Next stop -- something else. At the end of the movie, you would get this very rousing, patriotic thing where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was singing This Is My Country or something--
MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR: [SINGING] THIS IS MY COUNTRY LAND OF MY [BIRTH]--
DAVID STROHMAIER: --and then the movie would be over.
SARA FISHKO: And it was incredibly successful. Even in that first year, 1952, when the first film, This Is Cinerama, was playing in only one theater -- and remember this was an independent production, east coast based.
DAVID STROHMAIER: Hollywood was getting pretty concerned. It was filling up every night. People could not get tickets -- you had a waiting list of 3 and 4 months to get tickets to see Cinerama, and then you go down to the local movie theater where they're playing Shane or something, and it was maybe a, a third full.
SARA FISHKO: This Is Cinerama was the top-grossing film of 1952. Soon after it appeared, Pizzaramas and Burgeramas, Launderamas and Motoramas dotted the main streets of America. [KELVINATOR COMMERCIAL PLAYS] [VERY EXCITED VIOLINS] WO
MAN: Don't buy any food keeper until you've seen the fabulous Fooderama by Kelvinator.
SARA FISHKO: Cole Porter used it in his lyrics to a song from Silk Stockings... [SONG SILK STOCKINGS]
MAN: [SINGING] CINERAMA-- WO
MAN: [SINGING] VISTAVISION OR--
MAN: SUPERSCOPE OR-- [NEWSREEL ABOUT PRESIDENT EISENHOWER (IKE)]
ANNOUNCER: President Eisenhower takes an afternoon off to see a movie. While other...
SARA FISHKO: Cinerama went to the very top--
ANNOUNCER: ...to see Ike. It's a special showing of Cinerama. [LUSH MOVIE MUSIC]
SARA FISHKO: And they even tried to make real Cinerama movies with star directors like John Ford and Henry Hathaway--
MAN: [SHOUTING] All aboard for the--
SARA FISHKO: -- How the West Was Won was filmed in Cinerama-- [SOUNDTRACK HOW/WEST/WON/GALLOPING HORSES]
SARA FISHKO: Its theme of the expansion of the West seemed somehow related to the format.
MAN: [SHOUTING] Don't know how to unhook 'em!
SARA FISHKO: And - the Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm-- [CLIP FROM SOUNDTRACK PLAYS]
MAN: And not another word out of anyone!
SARA FISHKO: --whose theme seemed-- not related at all.
MAN: Once upon a time, there was a cobbler...
SARA FISHKO: And Cinerama was not immune to Cold War politics either. The Soviets invented their own wide-screen, 3 camera process called Kinopanarama, and the two countries battled it out over-- er-- screen size. But-- it rose, and it fell. It presented huge artistic, financial and logistical problems to filmmakers because of its 3-strand technology. Later, the studios created single panel wide-screen formats with compound names: [LUSH AND LEISURELY MOVIE MUSIC UP & UNDER] Vistavision, panavision, cinemascope, techniscope -- and there was 3D, and, in a whole new concept, smell-o-vision which pumped aromatic oils into movie theaters to enhance the film-going experience. The advertising campaign for smell-o-vision, by the way, provided a lovely capsule lesson in the history of movies: "First they moved (1895); Then they talked (1927); Now they smell!" But I digress. Right now a few impassioned people are busy trying to preserve the Cinerama story as well as the physical remains, if you will, of the process. The prints, in particular, of the few films made in the original 3-part system, complete with seams showing between the panels when they're projected. That's all part of it -- the seams, the ungainly equipment, the novelty of even having tried it at all.
DAVID STROHMAIER: It is a novelty, but it is more than that. To this day, every movie theater you walk into, Cinerama has had its effect -- not only just on the filmmakers, but on the fact that you're watching a screen that is not square any more. It's wide. Cinerama did create the revolution that Lowell Thomas said it would.
SARA FISHKO: So put on your tux, your gown, and toast the process that made movies wide.
LOWELL THOMAS, JR: I think it's great just to bring it back, you know, 50 years later to just have a reminder of how it started and who started it.
SARA FISHKO: Maybe it will come to your town soon.
LOWELL THOMAS, JR: I'd sure like to see it again.
SARA FISHKO: For On the Media, I'm Sara Fishko. [MOVIE MUSIC FINALE] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Megan Ryan; [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER] engineered by Rob Christiansen and George Edwards, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Natasha Korgaonkar, Andy Lanset, Wayne Shulmeister [sp?] and Sharon Ball [sp?]. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.