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The COVID-19-hastened demise of ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres and its crown jewel — the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard — sent film lovers into a tailspin of despair. And for good reason: The beloved structure is a monument to movie history, a masterpiece of ’60s modernist architecture and, six decades on, was still one of the best places to catch a state-of-the-art feature on a giant screen.
The Dome was inspired by the work of futurist architect R. Buckminster Fuller, best known for his geodesic structures. Building on his theories, Cinerama Inc., which in the 1950s had perfected a three-projector system to envelop audiences in wraparound picture, unveiled specs in February 1963 for a new chain of domed theaters. Construction costs were projected at half that of similarly sized, traditional theaters. The idea was for 600 of the structures to open around the country. By April, Pacific Theatres announced it would build the first near the corner of Sunset and Vine.
Standing 75 feet high and made out of 316 hexagonal panels, the design was by French architect Pierre Cabrol of Welton Becket & Associates, the firm behind the Capitol Records Building. (Cabrol had worked alongside Fuller at M.I.T.) The groundbreaking was in July — Spencer Tracy and Buddy Hackett attended — which gave construction crews only 16 weeks to finish in time for the Nov. 4 premiere of Stanley Kramer’s comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which featured Tracy, Hackett, Ethel Merman and a slew of other stars playing a group of bumbling motorists on the hunt for $350,000 buried under “a big W” at Santa Rosita State Park. The theater was not finished in time for the premiere, but the show went on.
Recalled the late Carl Reiner in his memoir, “We had to avoid tripping over workmen who were on their knees, trimming and stapling plush, red carpeting into the floor. As we were ushered to our seats, we saw another raft of workmen tacking carpeting to the floor of the stage below the Cinemascope screen.”
Mad World was not true three-camera Cinerama; it was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and required a single projector to fill the 86-foot curved screen, then the world’s largest. The Dome, one of only a handful of Cinerama theaters ever built, became a historic landmark in 1998, protecting it from demolition.
This story first appeared in the April 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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