The Cinerama



2100 4th Avenue
Est. 1962-63

The source of ​content for this page is from the Seattle Landmark Nomination researched and prepared by Mimi Sheridan.  The building was not designated.

History of Cinerama

Cinerama is the trademarked name for one of Hollywood’s early attempts to combat the threat of television by increasing the quality of the theater experience. Cinerama succeeded in providing something that television could not — wide screen movies with rich sound to engulf the theatergoer. It was initially developed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where Frederick Waller, a motion picture engineer, demonstrated an eleven-camera system called Vitarama. During World War II, Waller successfully developed a five-camera flight simulator for use in training airplane gunners. He later adapted this for theater use and teamed up with a sound engineer who designed a seven-channel stereophonic sound system. The Cinerama process involved filming movies with three 35mm cameras synchronized at slightly different angles and then projecting the films through three lenses onto a massive, curved screen. The screen was uniquely designed with louvered vertical strips less than an inch wide, angled to face the audience. Proper projection required that the three film strips be shown on three projectors in three separate booths along the rear of the theater.

Waller found the existing movie studios were not interested in the process, so he and several partners founded the Cinerama Corporation and produced their own films. Most Cinerama movies were travelogue adventures, as their dramatic, even dangerous, shots took good advantage of the process’s thrilling ability to put the viewer into the action. Since the complex projection needs required extensive renovation to existing theaters, in the mid-1950s, the Cinerama Corporation began constructing and leasing theaters specifically to show their films. They planned to have 500 Cinerama houses worldwide. The Seattle Cinerama Theatre is notable as one of only two remaining Super Cinerama theaters in the world, and one of only three theaters capable of showing the original Cinerama thee-strip films.

Cinerama proved to be very expensive, both to produce films and to show them properly. The company struggled with quality as well as cost. Because of these cost and quality issues, numerous other wide-screen approaches debuted between 1952 and 1959. Some were similar processes under different proprietary names including Cinemascope, VistaVision, Superscope, Techniscope-Super 35, and Thrillarama.

The Building

The Seattle Cinerama Theater was designed in 1962 by an Atlanta firm, Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild & Paschal, with local architect Raymond H. Peck.  The construction cost for the theater, including the specialized projection and sound equipment was estimated at $1,000,000.

The new theater was a Super Cinerama with a curved screen 96 feet wide and 32 feet high composed of 2,000 inch-wide vertically louvered strips.  It was the first downtown movie theater built in 29 years, and a luxurious movie palace with 826 plush rocker seats. Its space age decor was meant to build on the Century 21 theme of the 1962 World’s Fair.

The Cinerama Theater is a simple flat-roofed building that clearly conveys its use with its tall windowless volume and prominent reader board. The 19,800 square foot building is of concrete and steel construction with light gray/buff brick veneer above the storefront level. The austère upper volume is contrasted by the street level’s extensive glazing and colorful tile. The marquee, approximately six feet wide, extends along the entire south façade, widening to eight feet around the southwest corner and along half of the west facade. Two large vertical blade signs with the word “Cinerama” are at the southwest and southeast corners.

In February 1998 Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen purchased the theater with the intention to renovate it. BOORA Architects of Portland undertook a major renovation of both the technical and cosmetic aspects of the building, and the renovated theater re-opened on April 22, 1999.The work included completely refurbishing the two major spaces – the lobby and auditorium – and adding state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment. The curved screen was restored for the rare viewings of Cinerama films, with a second 68-foot screen in front for regular films. The preservation of the Cinerama was hailed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as “one of the greatest success stories in the whole checkered history of movie preservation in America.”

The Architects

Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild and Paschal (later known as FABRAP) was formed in 1958 as one of Atlanta’s earliest progressive architectural firms. FABRAP focused on the functionalism emphasized in the modern movement and produced several modernist residential designs that were widely noted in Georgia. In the mid- 1960s they undertook their first signature work, the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, completed in 1965. They later designed other sports facilities, including Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, various university buildings, and Atlanta headquarters of Coca- Cola and Southern Bell.  In 1984, FABRAP joined the Rosser engineering firm to form Rosser Fabrap International, since 1993 it has been known as Rosser International.

In 1959-62 FABRAP designed at least six Cinerama theaters. The first was a remodel of an Atlanta theater (the Atlanta/Tower Theater) for the Cinerama format soon followed by Cinerama theaters in St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans and San Antonio.

Raymond Holmes Peck was the local architect who supervised  construction and acted  as the major project representative during the project. Peck’s major work was done with John Stuart Detlie between 1957 and 1960. This brief partnership culminated in the design of a new building on Capitol Hill for Temple de Hirsch Sinai (with B. Marcus Priteca, 1959-60), which received an AIA Honor Award in 1962.

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