I saw the first CinemaScope movie The Robe, which was billed as “3-D without glasses” at the Loew’s Pitkin. It was three-dimensional in the sense that it had the usual monocular depth cues, but it wasn’t stereoscopic. At that time the public, the press, and the marketing people used the term “3-D” to denote stereoscopic movies. CinemaScope had a wider picture that could involve peripheral vision and for sure required a different kind of composition. It was a simplified version of Cinerama which required three projectors which were out of the question for normal cinemas. I was dumbstruck by the panorama and splendor of The Robe; I loved seeing Richard Burton and Jean Simmons striding off through the clouds to the Christian heaven created by Jewish business men. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I know it has a plodding pace and shots whose long duration is exacerbated by their proscenium arch composition. At that time the industry believed that rapid cutting or close ups in the Scope format just could not work and would be disorienting. It’s the kind of caution advocated today for 3-D cinematography and post. Long or medium shots and little or no panning were the order of the day, but forward camera motion was acceptable since it mimicked the roller coaster section of This is of Cinerama.
The Loew’s Pitkin was a few streets north of Sutter Avenue. (Sutter and Pitkin run parallel in that part of Brooklyn but I learned to my dismay, one day getting driven to JFK and looking out the limo window at just the right moment, that they meet somewhere near the Queens’ boarder.) Sutter Avenue was our main thoroughfare and that’s where my mother did most of her shopping. As a boy I remember going with her to Mendel’s Market where she would have arguments with Mendel, who was wearing a dried-blood spattered smock, over the cut of meat or how much fat he was leaving in the hamburgers. I remember him begging her: “Please, Missus. Please, Missus.” Mendel wore a yarmulke, had red hair, and wore payis. A certain amount of fat in meat makes it takes good – that is, if you’re into meat. My mom was anti-fat, but pro-meat. In Mendel’s meat market they also had fish – live fish. My mother picked out the one she liked and they pulled it out of the tank to its doom. There was chicken to be had in a realm ruled by a portly lady named Fannie who looked like the Red Queen. She plucked chickens in a stained white apron cursing as she pulled out each feather. This carnal scene was down the street from the Sutter Theatre and far more dramatic, filled with conflict and sudden death, than anything on the silver screen.
I made a terrible mistake in researching this writing; I went online to Google Maps – and I tried to find the Loew’s Pitkin and the Sutter. I believe the Sutter has been replaced by some kind of a gospel organization, and the building that housed the Loew’s Pitkin is obviously there but no longer a minor movie palace. It started as a vaudeville theater but it is shuttered and desolate. What’s more disconcerting is that the streets I wandered in my childhood are the streets of a ragged downtrodden neighborhood. What had been a thriving part of Brooklyn in my youth now looks like it’s on its last legs, with little to recommend it. When I tried to find the Sutter Theatre I Googled to the corner of Rutland and Sutter and 98th Street (they all sort of come together), and under the IRT elevated tracks I saw the second story windows of what had been our favorite Chinese restaurant. From the window I could almost reach out and touch subway cars rushing by as the noodles in my bowl of egg drop jumped around from the vibration.
In the summer the El tracks caught fire from the Brooklyn heat and the sparks that splattered from the steel wheels screeching against the rails. What people would say to explain the fires was: “The third rail is on fire.” But it was the sparks that were igniting the wooden ties. I liked to watch the firemen spraying their hoses up at the tracks dousing the smoldering ties.
Loew’s Pitkin and the Sutter are gone; but the thrill of the movies remains and I was riveted by 3-D and CinemaScope. At that time there was a 3-D renaissance in print and snapshots too; People were taking 3-D 35mm Kodachrome stills and viewing them in stereoscopes. The photos intrigued me and looking at them plunged me into a world of hyper reality. The View-Master had been going strong for many years with scenic postcard-like shots of the Grand Canyon and the like, and 3-D comic books came on the scene – anaglyph comic books with red and blue or red and green glasses. I stared at 3-D comic books past fatigue and I drew my own using red and green pencils. Of course I had no idea that this would become my life’s work, but the dreams of childhood are abandoned only at the peril of a life squandered.
When my mother took me to see This Is Cinerama, I had no idea of what I was in for. When the film started, there was Lowell Thomas in black-and-white on the usual boxy aspect ratio small screen reverentially intoning words extolling the wonderful process of Cinerama. The other day I took my boys to the Egyptian Theatre to see a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, and the Lowell Thomas character is a portrait of a fatuous sensationalist reporter. They gave the character a pseudonym, I guess to avoid a lawsuit. Lowell Thomas helped make T. E. Lawrence famous, at least in the United States. As a boy I listened to Lowell Thomas’s news program on CBS. I remember that he broadcasted a series of programs from Tibet, because exploration was his shtick. And there was Lowell with his sonorous droning telling us about the wonders of Cinerama before the glory burst forth. (He was an investor in the process.)
The curtains pulled back and the screen expanded to what seemed to me to be the width of the known universe, and there we were, flying through the Grand Canyon and shooting across the Everglades in a power boat. And to show off the magnetic stereophonic sound, there was a trip to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in sepia (not enough light for color film?). I couldn’t keep my eyes off the two places where the three projected images joined. Sometimes the join was hidden, and sometimes it was glaringly obvious, but it was an additional source of fascination, a way of peeking behind the curtain at the inner workings of the marvel. Later I was inspired to use my Kodak Duoflex II camera, a twin-lens reflex that used 120 film, to shoot triptychs of scenes in the Catskills on vacation.
It was in the Catskills, and also in classrooms, that I became acquainted with 16mm; that’s the way films were shown outside of the cinemas. In the Catskills, when I was a camper or when I went to resorts with my parents, a man would show up one day with 16mm equipment and he’d project on, say, a 10-foot screen, and it thus it was movie night. My father had a friend named Irving Schklair who lived near Pitkin Avenue, and Irving was the only person I knew who owned a movie projector – a clattering 16mm sound movie projector. When we went to his apartment we always saw the same movie, because he only had one print. It was a documentary about the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows Park. The fair was heavy into predicating the future, which on the eve of America’s entry into The Second World War, might have seemed bleak, but not in Flush Meadows. It was going to be a world of tin man robot servants, flying cars, freeways that snaked around towers, vision phones, and television sets awaiting each and every member of Mencken’s Booboisie.