Screen Movies Magazine
The Thrillarama Story (from Issue 6)
Freddie Shafer returns to WSMM with an article on one of the lesser-known Cinerama clones, THRILLARAMA…
The Broadway premier of This Is Cinerama on September 30 th 1952 changed the motion picture business forever. The worst slump ever felt by theatre owners and movie producers alike, followed by the lifting of wartime restrictions against television, which quickly grew to compete with motion pictures for an audience. While many movie houses were either closing or doing half their normal amount of business, Cinerama was packing them in, despite an admission price in excess of four times the usual ticket price.
Almost immediately every studio began working on a widescreen process of their own, hoping they could pull off the same feat. Twentieth Century-Fox introduced CinemaScope less than one year later. In 1954 Paramount Pictures introduced VistaVision. The following year, irrepressible showman, Mike Todd and his associates, Rogers and Hammerstein and American Optical among them, introduced one of the most successful processes, Todd-AO.
If you asked anyone in 1955 who was the biggest name in widescreen cinema, they would have replied, “Cinerama”. None of the other processes were so extreme, so radical – or so big.
A Plan Is Born
It was in 1955 that a certain Mr. Albert Reynolds first came up with the idea of creating a widescreen process that would actually compete with Cinerama. Cinerama’s weakness was in its costs; it was very expensive to install and none of the equipment could be used to show a regular feature, with the possible exception of the single 35mm projector used for the This Is Cinerama prologue, and in those days two were required to show a movie. In addition, the three projection booths required to show Cinerama had to be located on the ground floor of the auditorium because head-on projection was necessary to match up the joining seams of the three-panel image. All Cinerama films were 6 perf instead of 4, making the image 50% higher than normal.
Reynolds’ idea was to duplicate Cinerama’s effect with a two-camera, two-projector system. It was this idea that he shared with friend and co-worker Dowland Russell. Albert Reynolds and Dowland Russell were employed by Interstate Theaters in 1955, where they oversaw the operations of its drive-in theaters. At this time, Interstate was a division of ABC Paramount, with its offices in the old Majestic Theater building in Dallas. 1955 was the year that Interstate sold the drive-in properties to the Mercison Group. Reynolds was well connected in the exhibition business, and he took advantage of this opportunity to put his plan into operation.
If ‘Thrillarama’, as it was to be called, was to have any chance, the first thing that they required was a camera which had two lenses and the capability to expose two rolls of 35mm film simultaneously. He knew that such a camera had already been built, so his next step was to go and talk to Arch Oboler.
Oboler had used the Natural Vision 3D camera to film his hit movie Bwana Devil. It was actually two cameras acting as one. To produce a stereoscopic image on screen, two views of a scene are required representing the image as seen by the right and left eyes. The Natural Vision rig places two mechanically linked cameras ‘face-to-face’ with each lens shooting into a front-surface mirror angled at 45 degrees towards the scene being filmed. The whole rig is then encased in a large blimp (the Natural Vision rig was often referred to as ‘the barn door’), as can be seen from this picture showing the filming of a sequence from Warner’s Charge At Feather River. All that would need to be done to make a Natural Vision camera into a Thrillarama camera would be to fit wide-angle lenses to the cameras and re-align the mirrors so that instead of shooting a left and right eye view of a scene, they would shoot the left and right halves of a 2.66:1 panoramic image that would be twice as wide as the standard 1.33:aspect ratio normally used (see diagram). In theaters, which already had twin 35mm projectors for normal presentations, it would only be a matter of utilizing the mechanical linkage that had been used for 3D projection, and re-aligning the projectors so that the left projector would cover the right half of the curved screen, and the right one would cover the left – the actual curved screen being the only additional installation required.
Reynolds then obtained the assistance of a Mr. Jimmy Skinner, a sound and projection expert who also worked for Interstate Theaters. Dowland Russell handled the accounting end of the enterprise. Money was raised and stocks were sold. Reynolds and Russell each received stock in Thrillarama Inc. without putting up any money, as their contribution was not financial.
Another organization which received stock in the company was The Raphael Wolf Production Studio, based in California. It was this studio that signed on to make the first film in the new process. Wolff Studios was not actually in the business of making feature productions; they made industrial training films and educational types of pictures. They were about to get their feet wet in a big way.
Raphael G. Wolf was a member of The Explorers’ Club. He once flew into, and photographed, the arctic polar regions. When he was just 19 years old he made a 3200-mile journey by canoe from New York to New Orleans via waterways. The trip took six months.
When the opportunity came to make Thrillarama Adventure!, he wasn’t the type to back away, and the film he would eventually make could have been one of the best travelogue films ever made, if things had gone a little differently.
Wolf and his team traveled 50,000 miles through Mexico, the United States, Canada and Nassau, to make a 90-minute travelogue that would exploit the ‘thrills’ of Thrillarama. The feature, which would be shown with an intermission due to the 45-minute capacity of the double-sized 3D reels, began with a plane flight over the Florida everglades, then, still in Florida, it went on to Crystal Springs, where the audience got their first underwater ‘thrill’ of the process as ‘mermaids’ performed an underwater ballet.
In Canada we are treated to a dog sled ride, and then a Winter Carnival. An arena full of stunt-drivers put on an automotive derby, with lots of close-calls and satisfying crashes. In Mexico we see The Plume Dancers and The Apache Belles at Tyler Jr. College. There were calypso singers in Nassau and water skiing in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. marines stage a mock battle in a training mission, and from there it’s off to the races at Santa Anita – with the Thrillarama audience right behind the lead horse! And what new widescreen process can make its debut without a ride on a roller coaster – especially after the way Cinerama fans made such a fuss over the Atom Smasher at Rockaway’s Playland.
While the film was being prepared, a closed theater in Hollywood was used to view the rushes, and later, the cut workprint. It was here that first clouds of disaster began to loom overhead.
Dowland Russell, on hand to see some of the footage, was baffled to see that the horizontal registration of the cameras was off from one shot to another. “Sometimes, a person would walk towards the center of the screen, and before they got there, they would already be seen on the other side of the join line. There would be two of them!” he recalled. “In one shot, a woman carrying a huge basket on top of her head walked into the join line and disappeared, before walking from the join line on to the other half of the screen”.
When he pointed out these errors to the crew, they told him it would all be corrected in post-production. “I think at that time”, he told me, “I was the only one who realized how much trouble we were in”.
Early on, a theater had been set up in Dallas, just for experimental purposes – to work out the bugs of the process. Now the film would be played in Houston, where they decided that Thrillarama should have its premiere. In a press release, Albert Reynold stated, “It was invented in Texas, funded with Texas money, and so it’s only natural that its premiere should be in the biggest city in Texas”.
The first press announcements of Thrillarama didn’t appear in any papers until July 29 th 1956, just twelve days before it was to have its premiere. It was referred to as, “Big As Texas”, and “An All Texas Deal”. And, it had a promotional send-off as big as Texas.
On Thursday, the evening of the premiere, a parade began four blocks away and ended at an outdoor stage across the street from the Metropolitan Theater. The parade started at 7.15 and lasted 15 minutes. At 7.30, live entertainment began on the stage and featured The Apache Belles Of Tyler Jr. College – who also appeared in the film – and the appearance of Mexican entertainers Charro Aceves, Maria Teresa and others. At 8.00 PM, with many motion picture businessmen in attendance and a sold-out audience of excited patrons, Thrillarama Adventure! hit the screen for the first time to a paying audience.
Finding someone around today who could say they’ve actually seen Thrillarama Adventure seemed such a long shot that I didn’t think it was worth looking for one. The film ran for seven days, and it received as many good reviews as it did bad. Hubert Roussel of The Houston Post wrote a flattering article, and said he actually held his breath during some of the underwater scenes. Paul Hochuli, Press Entertainment editor, praised the film for its content but reported the many flaws of the process. He said that the picture looked good if you were in the very centre of the auditorium, and near the front, but if you were seated off to the side, everything appeared to move ‘uphill’ as it passed you on the sides of the screen. This effect was also apparent to spectators sitting farther back. He also reported the fact that one of the panels would ‘jump’ occasionally. Even the most favourable reviews commented on the lateral registration, which, according to Dowland Russell, the projectionist, while holding a cue sheet, was doing his best to correct.
Thrillarama Adventure! was scheduled to open in Los Angeles on August 31 st, and in Miami later the next month. ‘Corrected’ were prints were supposed to have been made, but I found nothing to indicate that they ever were – or that any other prints were made at all. It may have been the same print that played all the engagements – all of which were short.
Dowland Russell left Thrillarama right after the Houston premiere. Albert Reynolds, believing that the process still had enough potential, decided to push on, and was responsible for all the subsequent engagements, but within a year, Thrillarama was dead. The process that could be installed in a theater in seventeen hours was dead in Houston after seven days, and never played for more than two weeks anywhere else.
In 1958 Interstate Theaters resumed ownership of the theater package it sold in 1955, the business arrangement having gone sour. Dowland Russell resumed the position he’d held prior to the Thrillarama fiasco. Ironically, this group of drive-in theaters was sold again, this time to Stanley Warner, who had previously held executive rights to Cinerama film production until 1958.
In the same newspaper, and on the same page where the announcement of Thrillarama’s early closing first appeared, a Cinerama advertisement – for the Melba, in Dallas – announced, in bold type: “Imitations Come And Go, But There Is Only One Cinerama – And Only Cinerama Puts You In The Picture!”
Copyright © 2002-2005, John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 13 November, 2005
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