April 16, 2018

The Dome on Sunset Boulevard That Makes A Spectacle Out of Cinema

The first time I went to the Cinerama Dome, it wasn't to see a movie (despite the fact that it is, by virtue of its name, a cinema).

I wasn't even living in LA yet, but I'd flown out to LA—begrudgingly—to attend a conference called The L.A. Office Roadshow, tasked with creating brand partnerships for the kids' music property I was representing at the time.

I attended once or twice to shake hands and hand out business cards—and then, in 2007, I stood in front of that giant screen (32' X 86', curved at an angle of 126 degrees) and gave my own presentation.

At the time, it was just a conference center under a weird, retrofuturistic dome. But I didn't know anything about Cinerama back then, when "widescreen" had come to mean nothing more than letter-boxing on home video.

I didn't know anything about Mid-Century Modernism back then, either—or why the geodesic dome shape was as groundbreaking in 1963 when it was built under the direction of Welton Becket (in less than five months) as it is today, when it's still the only theater of its kind in the world.

Since that time, I've moved to LA and smartened up a bit. I've learned to notice—and appreciate—the modernist designs that surround me pretty much wherever I go. And I've seen a handful of movies—finally—at "The Dome," including most recently the 40th anniversary screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Of course there's nowhere better to see a movie in a theater than in Los Angeles—particularly in Hollywood. At movie theaters like The Dome (and its connected Arclight Theatres), El Capitan, the Chinese, and the Egyptian, you often get to experience the films through lobby displays of costumes, scale models, props, and other paraphernalia and ephemera related to whatever is being screened.

But regardless of what's being shown on the screen, that honeycomb-patterned dome is always the main attraction for me—whether it's while seeing a new release like Gone Girl or Marley or a repertory screening of the film that first opened the theatre, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (though it was shot in Ultra Panavision 70MM so as to reduce the number of lenses required from three to one and be projected in a single strip).

At the time, movies had to compete with television. Audiences had to be convinced why they should go out for entertainment when they could just stay home—so, Cinerama emerged of the same movement that gave rise to Smell-O-Vision, Illusion-O, Percepto seat buzzers (as with William Castle's The Tingler), 3D and 4D, and even IMAX.

The immersive experience of the giant, wrap-around Cinerama projection style doesn't feel as dated as its mid-20th century contemporaries, though—maybe because escapism never really goes out of style.

And no matter how big your big-screen TV is at home, you can't fully escape—even for just a couple of hours—if you're sitting on your own couch.

Modern-day restaurants, retailers, and of course a parking structure have been built up around the Cinerama Dome—but fortunately, they haven't consumed it entirely. And because the structural dome is such an oddity along Sunset Boulevard, refusing to be dwarfed by the CNN tower that sprung up two blocks down in 1968 or even the big Walgreens that's been selling sushi across the street since 2002, it makes for a great advertising platform for the latest release starring Shrek, Spiderman, or the Minions.

And that may be the thing that saves it in the long run.

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Photo Essay: Under a Desert Dome
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