Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 2

When Rockefeller and Luce bailed on Cinerama in July 1950, those other East Coast investors decided to take a pass as well, and Cinerama Corp. was dissolved in August. After buying out Rockefeller and Luce for a song, Hazard Reeves doubled down -- he quite a bit more than doubled, in fact. In September he formed a new corporation, Cinerama Inc., in which Reeves Soundcraft was the principal stockholder, and set about tackling the challenges of moving Cinerama forward. The demonstration screenings at the converted tennis court continued. There were nibbles from independent producer Hal B. Wallis and a consortium of theater owners, but nothing came of them.

In the autumn of 1950 Cinerama got two big bites. Buz Reeves invited Lowell Thomas out to Oyster Bay to have a look; Thomas invited his business manager Frank M. Smith to come along, and Smith in turn invited another of his clients, theatrical producer Michael Todd.

It's hard to explain Lowell Thomas to people who don't remember him; even the Library of Congress was at a loss when it came time to classify his memoirs (they finally filed them under "biographies of subjects who don't fit into any other category"). Born in 1892, he graduated from high school in 1910 and by 1912 (if we can believe Wikipedia) he had three bachelor's degrees, plus an M.A. from the University of Denver. He worked as a reporter for the Chicago Journal, where he specialized in travel articles, which he expanded into lectures accompanied by motion pictures, thus pioneering (indeed, virtually inventing) the concept of travelogue movies. As a correspondent in the World War I Middle East, he became world-famous for his coverage of the campaigns of T.E. Lawrence; subsequent lectures in New York and London spread the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. In 1930 he began 46 years of daily radio news broadcasts, first on NBC and later CBS, that made his resonant baritone one of the most familiar voices in America. His famous greeting ("Good evening, everybody.") and sign-off ("So long until tomorrow.") became the titles of his two volumes of autobiography. He wrote over 50 books in all, most of them chronicling his incessant world travels (the Society of American Travel Writers has an award named after him). When he became the voice of Fox Movietone News in the 1930s, it was he who lent stature to the newsreel, not the other way around. By 1950 he was one of the most respected men in American media.

Mike Todd (born Avrom Goldbogen in 1909) was also one of a kind, but a lot easier to classify. He was a flamboyant, dynamic showman cast in the mold of P.T. Barnum, mixing the high-rolling pretensions of a Florenz Ziegfeld or Billy Rose with the bumptious chutzpah of a Texas oil wildcatter. "A producer is a guy who puts on shows he likes," he once said. "A showman is a guy who puts on shows he thinks the public likes. I like to think I'm a showman." Among the shows with which he sought to please the public were Cole Porter's Something for the Boys with Ethel Merman; The Hot Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan in swingtime with an African American cast headed by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, which opened on Broadway then transferred to the 1939 New York World's Fair; The G.I. Hamlet with Maurice Evans; and Michael Todd's Peep Show, a burlesque revue starring stripper Lilly "The Cat Girl" Christine -- which, to Todd's delight, was threatened with closure by censors in Philadelphia. Todd was adept at sweet-talking talent into his shows and even more adept at getting other men to foot the bill. He swung from fortune to bankruptcy and back with the regularity of a pendulum in a planetarium. As his son Mike Jr. remembered, when Todd saw Waller's demonstration of Cinerama, he turned to an underling and gushed, "This is the greatest thing since penicillin! We've gotta get control of it!" (In fact, he never did -- but I'll get to that in its time.)

Lowell Thomas and Michael Todd had little in common beyond an instinct for showmanship and a flair for self-promotion, but they shared an avid enthusiasm for what they saw out in Oyster Bay. They also shared a business manager, Frank Smith, and that was enough for Smith to set up Thomas-Todd Productions Inc., licensed by Cinerama Inc. to produce and exhibit Cinerama movies. Thomas and Smith put up most of the money; Todd got stock in the corporation but, not surprisingly, didn't put up any of his own money -- his main contribution was to be his talent as a showman. In a parallel development, Cinerama Inc. had its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in January 1951.

Also in early 1951 Thomas-Todd, or so the story goes, approached
documentary master Robert Flaherty to direct the first Cinerama
picture. Flaherty reportedly agreed, but he died in July '51 as
shooting was about to begin, leaving behind no notes or
records to indicate what, if anything, he intended to do
with Fred Waller's process. This put Thomas and Todd
back at square one.

Anyhow, that's how the story goes. Thomas Erffmeyer, in his
history of Cinerama, says that "after weeks of indecision,"
Thomas and Todd decided to take a crew to Europe and
film a variety of festivals and tourist events going on there
that summer. But that doesn't entirely make sense. Thomas,
Todd and a crew of 11 set sail on July 25, only two days
after Flaherty died. So either they threw the expedition
together with dizzying swiftness, or they had been
planning it all along, regardless of what Flaherty
wanted to do. (On the other hand, it's possible that
Flaherty was never involved in the project at all.)

In Europe Todd and his son Mike Jr. filmed a number of sights and events: a gondola cruise through the canals of Venice, a bullfight in Madrid, the gathering of the clans of Scotland in Edinburgh, a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir in the gardens of Schonbrunn Palace. In a major coup, Todd Sr. even talked his way into the La Scala Opera in Milan, where no movie cameras had ever been allowed, to shoot a full-dress performance of the Act I finale to Verdi's Aida. Back in the States, they filmed a flyover of Niagra Falls and did a Technicolor re-shoot of Waller's black-and-white rollercoaster demonstration reel. 

When all this footage was edited together in late 1951, it became clear
that there wasn't enough to make a full feature picture, so Thomas
invited his friend Merian C. Cooper to come aboard. Cooper had known
Fred Waller in the early days at Paramount, and he'd been following the
industry buzz about Waller's experiments out on Long Island.
Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz even suggests that Cooper
may have approached Thomas before Thomas approached
him: "He was convinced the picture business was in a rut and
needed a good shaking up -- and Cinerama was
just the ticket." 

In any case, there was an ulterior motive in enlisting Cooper: Mike
Todd's presence was becoming increasingly problematic. His
domineering bull-in-a-china-shop style was beginning to grate on
people. More important, perhaps, Todd's presence spooked Wall
Street. Thomas-Todd Productions wasn't publicly held, but
Cinerama Inc. was, and Todd's well-known profligacy with other
people's money made investors wary. Then again, there were some
ominous attempts by creditors from Todd's numerous bankruptcies
to recoup their losses from one of the Cinerama companies. There
seemed nothing for it but to squeeze Todd out. By March 1952 it
was announced he'd be taking a "leave" from Thomas-Todd
Productions and Cinerama, and in August Thomas-Todd was
dissolved, replaced by Cinerama Productions Corporation, with
Lowell Thomas as chairman of the board.

Mike Todd's 14 months on the scene left their mark, however, and not just for his storming the gates at La Scala; nearly the entire first half of what would become This Is Cinerama was supervised either by him or by Mike Jr. In the few years left to him (he died in a plane crash in March 1958), Todd would have his own story about his departure from Cinerama, a sort of you-can't-quit-me-I'm-fired version. He said his associates at Thomas-Todd and Cinerama Inc. were too conservative and wary of taking chances: "We can't stay on that roller-coaster and in the canals of Venice forever. Somebody has to say 'I love you' some day." He also thought he could do better than Cinerama's three-frame picture, and he wasted little time enlisting the services of the American Optical Company to develop the 70mm Todd-AO process, the only one of Cinerama's many progeny that ever really challenged its supremacy.

But that was still in the unseeable future. Now, with Todd safely out of the way, Thomas and Cooper secured an additional $600,000 to complete their picture. To counteract the largely static footage in all those European sections, Cooper had the Cinerama camera in fairly constant motion for the two long sequences that would make up the second half. First was a colorful aquacade at Florida's Cypress Gardens (coincidentally, much of the show consisted of strapping young men and nubile bathing beauties cavorting on Fred Waller's other invention, water skis).

For the grand finale, Cooper hired stunt flyer Paul Mantz to pilot a modified B-25 bomber across the country for a bird's-eye view of the natural and man-made wonders of America, set to the tune of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "America the Beautiful". Cooper also took on the task of determining what would go into the feature, and in what order -- where others wanted to save the rollercoaster for the climax of the picture, Cooper insisted on hitting 'em hard right out of the gate. Preparations for the premiere proceeded feverishly right up to the last minute -- Mantz's "amber waves of grain" shots weren't ready for the projectors until just twelve hours before showtime.

And, as we've seen, the result was a triumph beyond the dreams of everyone involved. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, in an unprecedented front-page review, called it "an historic event in the history of motion pictures." Cinerama, as it was called before This Is was added to the title, became overnight the hottest ticket on Broadway. Everyone in the picture business recognized it at once as a game-changer -- much more so, in fact, than they had The Jazz Singer in 1927.

The question on everyone's lips in the weeks that followed was the same one that Fred Waller, Lowell Thomas, Buz Reeves and their investors were asking themselves: What's next for Cinerama?

To be continued...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 1

If there were such thing as a Dictionary of Stereotypical Characters, the entry for "eccentric inventor" would have a picture of Fred Waller. In the 1920s and '30s, Waller's day job was at Paramount's East Coast studios in Astoria, Long Island, where he worked as a photographic jack of all trades. In one capacity or another he worked on, among other pictures, Male and Female (1921) for Cecil B. DeMille, and That Royle Girl ('25) and The Sorrows of Satan ('26) for D. W. Griffith. In the '30s he produced and directed a series of innovative and visually striking jazz-flavored shorts featuring the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

Meanwhile, on his own time, he tinkered and puttered. He invented a container for keeping food dry in humid climates, a remote-recording wind direction-and-velocity indicator, an adjustable sail batten for sailboats, and a still camera that could take a 360-degree panoramic picture. (Also, as I mentioned before, water skis, which he marketed as Dolphin Awkwa-Skees.) Through it all he continued his obsession with finding a way to photograph the full range of human vision, pursuing his idea that peripheral vision was as important to depth perception as binocular vision. He used to walk around his home wearing a baseball cap with toothpicks stuck in the brim, testing how far back he could place the toothpicks and still see them, mulling over the kind of screen he would need for what he had in mind.

In 1938, architect Ralph Walker came to Waller with a unique photography challenge connected with an exhibit Walker was designing for the petroleum industry for the upcoming New York World's Fair. Walker envisioned a spherical room with a battery of projectors casting a constant stream of moving pictures, an idea that dovetailed neatly with what Waller had been turning over in his own head. With Walker's firm, Waller formed the Vitarama Corporation, and by early 1939 he had a working model of eleven 16mm projectors showing a patchwork image on a concave quarter-dome screen suspended over the heads of the audience.

In the end Walker's clients, the representatives of the petroleum industry, decided not to use Waller's Vitarama, opting for something simpler, more conventional -- and, not incidentally, cheaper to produce and exhibit. Waller adapted the Vitarama idea for another exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, a huge mosaic slide show of still images for the Eastman Kodak exhibit. More important, the idea of the concave screen had solved Waller's dilemma over how to project his multi-part images to envelop an audience.

Waller and Walker obtained the backing of Laurance Rockefeller, scion of one of the world's wealthiest families, to continue developing the Vitarama process, and an experimental lab was set up in the old Rockefeller carriage stables in Manhattan, where a number of invited guests saw demonstrations of the cumbersome process. The outbreak of World War II in Europe effectively back-burnered any plans to exhibit Vitarama theatrically, but one of those invited guests, a friend of Waller's, was an admiral in the U.S. Navy specializing in ballistics, and he approached Waller with the idea of using Vitarama in training aerial gunners -- looking forward to the time (which virtually everyone knew was coming) when the U.S. would be drawn into the war. 

With a massive influx of military money (Waller later estimated
it at over $5 million), the Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer was
born. It simplified the Vitarama design, using five 35mm
projectors to display the same size image as the eleven
16mm ones, and it enabled Waller to work out the technical
challenges involved in both the process itself and the
manufacture of the equipment. Eventually 75 trainers,
each occupying an area of some 27,000 cubic feet, were
set up all over the U.S., in Hawaii, and in England,
where over a million men were trained; the Air Force
estimated that more than 250,000 casualties were
averted thanks to this training.

After the war Waller returned to developing Vitarama
for theatrical use. The Cinerama Corporation (it's not
clear exactly where the idea for the name came from)
was formed in 1947, with the backing of Laurance
Rockefeller, publisher Henry Luce of Time Inc., and
other venture capitalists who were prominent in East
Coast circles. 

Also coming aboard at this time was Hazard E. "Buz" Reeves, one of the most brilliant and inventive men in the history of sound recording. Reeves had seen Vitarama as early as 1940, and was excited at the prospect of developing a sound system to go with it. Reeves and his company, Reeves Soundcraft, pioneered the use of magnetic recording for movies, a method more versatile than the standard practice of optical sound recording.

As Waller simplified the Vitarama/Cinerama process from five projectors to three, and from the quarter-dome screen to a wide curved rectangle (like the inner surface of a slightly flattened cylinder), Reeves developed a sound system to match: five huge loudspeakers behind the screen, each with its own discrete track, and a sixth track dispersed as needed to speakers placed at the rear and sides of the auditorium. (A seventh track, a composite of the other six, was intended only as an emergency backup and seldom used in practice.) Naturally, seven separate magnetic soundtracks required far more space than a standard optical soundtrack, so the sound was recorded on its own strip of 35mm film and run on a separate "projector" synchronized with the three image projectors just as they were synchronized with one another.

Standard 35mm sound film runs at a rate of 24 frames per second, 90 feet per minute. Cinerama ran at 26 frames per second, with each frame half-again as high, which worked out to 146.3 feet per minute. The soundtrack(s) ran at the same speed, or 29.25 inches per second, nearly twice the rate of broadcast-quality tape machines of the day. This allowed Reeves's microphones to record a far wider dynamic range, 30 to 15,000 cycles per second (cps), as compared to the standard 125 to 7,000 cps of the day. Reeves and Waller could thus record and reproduce sound with a range and fidelity that, while commonplace enough to us in this digital age, were simply astounding to ears of the late 1940s. 

Also in 1947, Waller moved his base of operations to an unused indoor tennis court on an estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where he and Reeves set up an experimental lab and the first Cinerama screening room. By the spring of 1949, they had the entire process -- camera, projectors, screen, sound system, and demonstration reels -- ready to show to further prospective investors. Through the rest of the year, they invited a parade of movie industry figures -- theater executives, studio heads, producers, writers, technicians -- out to Oyster Bay to see what they had. 

The results and reactions were gratifying -- up to a point. As Buz Reeves later remembered, there was "a terrifying inertia to their enthusiasm". It was too cumbersome, too expensive, too complicated, too impractical, yadda yadda yadda. Everybody thanked Waller and Reeves for the show, but passed on the idea of doing anything with it (or about it) themselves. 

In May 1950 a demonstration screening for the press attracted little attention and less publicity. Laurance Rockefeller and Henry Luce decided Cinerama was going nowhere, so they withdrew, selling their interest in the process to Reeves for a paltry $1,500. The Cinerama Corporation was dissolved (though Vitarama Corp. continued to hold all the relevant patents). But Waller and Reeves didn't lose heart; Reeves was literally putting his money where his microphones were. And indeed, all was not lost; Cinerama's twin angels were just around the corner. 

To be continued...

(PLEASE NOTE: For much of the information in this and following posts, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Thomas E. Erffmeyer, who wrote a history of Cinerama as his Ph.D. dissertation in Radio, Television and Film at Northwestern University [June 1985].)

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