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May 29, 1998

Allen to start Cinerama rehabilitation

  • It's one of four such theaters in the world
    Journal staff reporter

    A night at the movies used to be a major event. Glamorous old theaters made the movie stars of the 50s and 60s seem larger than life when they locked lips on a two-story screen.

    Today's 18-screen cineplexes just aren't quite as spectacular.

    Paul Allen wants to turn the clock back on at least one of those old cinematic gems. On Monday Allen's management company, Vulcan Northwest Inc., will kick off a multimillion-dollar project to restore and renovate Seattle's historic Cinerama Theatre.

    Vulcan purchased the theater for $3.75 million in March through Entertainment Properties Inc. with the intention of preserving an important piece of Seattle's cinematic history.

    Starting Monday, the 13,000-square-foot theater at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Lenora Street will undergo extensive renovation to return it to its original grandeur and install the latest in cinema technology.

    "The Seattle Cinerama Theatre is about to be reborn with the motion picture format for which it was originally built," said John Harvey, charter member of the Cinerama International Preservation Society.

    The Cinerama originally opened in Seattle in 1963 as one of 160 Cinerama Theatres in the world. Today only four, including Seattle's, remain in operation. Cinerama films, such as "How the West Was Won," were produced from 1952 to 1963 to fit the theaters' specially designed curved-screen and three-projector system, a revolutionary technology at the time.

    Shortly after it opened, the theater replaced its Cinerama screen with a standard 70 mm screen. Allen plans to initially reopen the Cinerama with its 70mm format, but he is considering ways to retrofit the old Cinerama capabilities at a later date.

    "Millions of people who never had the opportunity to experience the original Cinerama process, as well as the millions that thought they would never see it again, may now get that chance to be launched into the world of entertainment that only the magic of Cinerama brings forth," Allen said in a statement released yesterday.

    Bayley Construction of Seattle, the project's general contractor, will begin by removing the theater's 817 seats. They will be fully refurbished in red mohair. State-of-the-art sound and projection systems will be installed. Bayley will upgrade the restrooms, including doubling the size of the women's restroom.

    The lobby will be lowered two feet to make the entrances wheelchair accessible. Other upgrades include the addition of an elevator and additional seating for disabled patrons.

    Cinema consultant Ray Doig of Los Angeles is assisting Vulcan in the renovation. Doig is currently soliciting bids from theater contractors for the ongoing operation of Cinerama.

    The project was designed by BOORA Architects of Portland, which has extensive experience with theaters and performing arts centers. BOORA recently completed a renovation of Portland's Paramount Theater.

    BOORA's senior designer Mark VanderZanden said the restoration will refurbish virtually every part of theater, from the exterior to the auditorium.

    It will be a combination of the old and new," said VanderZanden. "We'll have the best pieces of vintage World's Fair-era design and a lot of high-tech features, too."