Looking back at Cinerama format

Starting today, fans of the original three-strip Cinerama format have a rare treat in store: a full week devoted to screenings of four of the only seven films ever made in that process: "How the West Was Won," "This Is Cinerama," "Search for Paradise" and "Windjammer" (made under the rival but compatible Cinemiracle system). In celebration of this event, we present a brief Cinerama time line:

1939: At the World's Fair in New York, inventor Fred Waller (former head of Paramount's trick film department, and the inventor of water skis) introduces the Vitarama, an 11-projector widescreen system that attracted much acclaim, but wasn't yet practical for commercial use.

1950: Waller and soundman Hazard Reeves, after many years of refining the surroundlike motion-picture format that would be known as Cinerama, present their invention (now a more workable three-projector system) to Hollywood producer Lowell Thomas, who promptly commissions a full-length Cinerama feature.

1952: "This Is Cinerama" premieres at New York's Broadway Theater (orchestra seats were a whopping $1.50). At the end of Thomas' dry prologue in the film, he uttered, "And this is Cinerama!" as the curtains drew back to reveal a massive screen, the sound system filled the theater, and the audience was taken, quite literally, on a roller-coaster ride. The film played long runs across the country (two years in New York), as movie houses hurried to install the wall-to-wall curved screen and vast sound and projection system.

1963: Seattle's Cinerama Theater, the only one in the Northwest built especially for the three-projector system, opens in January, showing "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm." The theater featured a 90-foot-long, 30-foot-high screen, made up of 2,000 independently angled louvered strips, as well as a second 68-foot-long screen for conventional screenings of 70mm/35mm features.

1964: "How the West Was Won," the last Cinerama epic, receives eight Oscar nominations and wins three (for sound, editing and screenplay). Sadly, it came as the Cinerama format was being phased out in favor of cheaper, easier single-projector systems.

1999: After a massive renovation spearheaded by new owner Paul Allen, Seattle's Cinerama re-opened its elegantly space-age doors. It is now one of only three theaters in the country equipped to show Cinerama films (the others are in Dayton, Ohio, and Los Angeles).

2003: The "Reel" Cinerama Film Festival unspools, and everything old is new again.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Film Festival preview

The "Reel" Cinerama Film Festival, today-Thursday, Cinerama, 2100 Fourth Ave., Seattle; $15 opening night, $9 general admission, $7 matinee, $6 children 12 and under, festival pass $40 (206-441-3080, www.movietickets.com or in person at the Cinerama box office). See www.cinerama.com for festival schedule.