By Gary Meyer
(Gary Meyer finishes his nostalgic journey through the many ways moviemakers and theater owners have tried to involve audiences beyond the story being told by movies. This week we visit several forms of interactive cinema from low tech to high tech—always creative, and plenty of fun. There are lots of bonuses after the article.
Ride That Movie
Special Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Silent Running, Blade Runner) was involved with IMAX and felt he could improve the process with his own Showscan by projecting at high frame rates. In the early 1980s I got myself invited to his studio and a demonstration. The picture was incredibly crisp, almost three-dimensional without glasses as we watched typical action sequences intended to show off and thrill the viewer. Suddenly the picture began to shudder and it slowly came to a stop. We were in total darkness. A voice in the projection booth announced, “We had a power outage. I am sorry. I have to go behind the screen to the circuit breaker.”
In a few moments a flashlight behind the perforated screen revealed a bit of backstage, and the projectionist was walking to a far wall. He flipped a switch and then came to the screen, pushing his hands and face into the material and causing an impression as he looked at us. He invited us to come forward, and damned if this wasn’t all being projected, but with (un)believable depth. The effect was created by projecting at 60 frames per second—2.5 times the standard speed of movie film. Trumbull has run a series of biometric experiments and found that as the frame rate increased, the viewer’s emotional reaction intensified.
Showscan required movies to be shot in a special system, and it didn’t make it as a theatrical format. But it was successfully adapted to amusement park programs, with a new digital version in the works (1).
Amusement simulator rides turn our seats into personal roller coasters, initially providing a gentle rolling motion and soon accelerating to a violent tossing around of the body to emulate the action on the 3-D screen.
One of the more gentle versions was Marvin Martian in the Third Dimension at the Warner Brothers store in New York, with vibrating seats, 3D, water and wind in your face, plus a poke in the back at a certain moment.
More sophisticated was the Disney parks’ Star Tours, typically well-designed to maximize our experience. Even waiting in line is part of the show, as we become involved in the Star Wars world, animatronic characters entertain, and we are given instructions to prepare for our trip into space. We board, strap in to our motion simulator seats, put on our 3-D glasses and take off, only to find our pilot isn’t very good and barely escapes a crash. Once on our way to outer galaxies, we are battered about in a comet cluster, get caught in the tractor beam of a Starship Destroyer of the Imperial Remnant, destroy TIE fighters during an assault on the Death Star, and then a leap into lightspeed gets us back home to a waiting and oblivious C-3P0. A lot of action was packed into the ride that is now closed and has been replaced by Star Tours—The Adventure Continues, on my list to visit.
Bigger Than Life and In Your Face
Theme parks got into the big screen 3-D act as Disney and Universal grabbed media attention and drew big crowds with new attractions based on popular movies and/or featuring popular celebrities. In 1986, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas collaborated with Michael Jackson on Captain EO for Disneyland.
The 1990s brought what so-called 4-D attractions like Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3D and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience at Disneyland, combining stunning 3-D effects with live animatronic characters and side wall projections, plus smoke, confetti and whatever interactive effects would make the show memorable.
The Universal Studios Tour featured director James Cameron reunited with his cast—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick—for T2 3-D: Battle Across Time , an exciting mix of 3-D and a live action stunt show plus pyrotechnics. The characters interacted between stage and screen. Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies was part 3-D film and part live action with the audience being “attacked” by birds.
The history of cinema has often included live humans interacting with the big screen. Buster Keaton played with the idea in Sherlock Jr., and Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo paid homage to Keaton’s masterwork, where the hero leaps into the movie’s action.
San Francisco Examiner cartoonist Winsor McCay had shared his fertile imagination in full-color Sunday comic strips like “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” “Little Sammy Sneeze,” and “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.” He adapted some of his characters as early animated cartoons. Totally original for the screen was Gertie the Dinosaur. McCay would appear on stage with a whip and lecture about animation. After he introduced “the only dinosaur in captivity” on the screen beside him, a brontosaurus peeked out from a cave. He encouraged her to come forward, threw her an apple and asked her to perform tricks. For the finale he walked off stage and then reappeared in the film, where the animated Gertie picked up the live action McCay and put him on her back.
Before movies and in their early days an audience would be treated to a live variety show with a number of acts including a few segments when singers led the audience in a sing-a-long while ornately illustrated slides with song lyrics were projected behind them.
Late in the silent film era, Dave and Max Fleischer began their first cartoons that led to Betty Boop and Popeye, among other popular series. The short films usually started with the brothers opening an ink bottle to create their cartoon drawings. Koko the Clown and other characters would escape Out of the Inkwell as havoc ensued on screen and sometimes for the live action animators. They decided to try a Song Car-Tune series, where midway through the short the action lent itself to a song. Words would appear on the bottom of the screen while a bouncing ball led the audience (and musical accompanist) through a rousing audience participation experiment. It caught on, and was even more popular when sound came to the movies, often featuring popular performers like Cab Calloway, Ethel Merman, Rudy Vallee, Lillian Roth and the Mills Brothers. The Fleischers used their unlimited imagination to bring not only the cartoon action to surreal life but often the words, which actually morphed into unexpected images, becoming their own characters. And thus was born “follow the bouncing ball.”
When I was growing up, the Uptown Theatre in Napa had a kiddie matinee every Saturday. It usually consisted of two features, a cartoon and a short comedy. Sometimes it would be a marathon “25—Count ’Em—25 Cartoons.” The theater’s booker tried to get the lowest film rental programs and these packages came cheap. A couple of times they were all Screen Songs. Try to get a thousand kids to sing-a-long with 25 twenty-five-year-old songs most of them had never heard of and could not relate to … the chorus was made up of enthusiastically disapproving “boos.”
Seen individually, many of these earlier shorts, especially the pre-Code titles, are mini-masterpieces. The later ones created by the Fleischers’ successors at Famous Studios looked pretty in color, but tended to be mundane. And it was those that we suffered through, giving a bad name to the genre and killing it.
The ultimate in sing, act and play along of course is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After a reasonably successful series of stage productions a movie was made but 20th Century Fox had no faith in it, resulting in a handful of week long bookings. But one young Fox executive, Tim Deegan, convinced the Waverly Theatre in New York to book it for midnight shows. On April Fool’s Day, 1976 it opened but it was a few months before the audience started to talk back, throw things at the screen and eventually come dressed as characters in the movie.
We booked it into the U.C. Theatre in Berkeley in mid 1976 and it immediately caught on with a cast of regulars performing the entire show in front of the screen, encouraging non-stop audience participation. Soon there were all manner of props including a motorcycle, mock elevator and Frankenfurter’s tank. On the first anniversary every seat of the 1600 seat classic theater was filled and the fire inspectors arrived to make sure nobody was sitting in the aisles. Fascinated with the rituals they stayed to watch but were horrified when the audience joined in singing “There’s a Light” and lifted lit matches and lighters. It was always a stunning spectacle but in this 1917 building they were rightfully concerned, threatening to shut us down. We assured them there was not an encore in the film and that we would not allow open flames in the future. They assured us they would return the following week.
We needed to think of a way to get the audience’s attention and sympathetic cooperation. Obviously as fans entered the building we would make announcements. What else would work in the spirit of the good time the audience was having? We created a slide: “The city insists, the fire department demands and we ask: “No matches, lighters or fire breathin’ dragons.” It was an immediate hit with the entire audience reading along giving more dramatic interpretations each week while understanding that flashlights (we handed them out the first few weeks) would be the new “light.”
The U.C. Theatre RHPS was the longest continuously running engagement of any movie in a single theater, lasting 22 years. Many members of the casts including Barely Legal and Indecent Exposure still perform or are mentors for local showings.
In recent years, the sing-a-long idea became a sensation when a reissue of The Sound of Music was a huge hit, with props handed out to the audience and words on the screen for maximum participation. Before that, a group of musical fans in Berkeley approached me about showing Singing in the Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz as sing-a-longs at the UC Theatre. They created slides, and it was a smash success.
Subsequently many theaters have played Grease, West Side Story and most recently The Little Mermaid. The Castro in San Francisco certainly has the most enthusiastic audiences. I am waiting for Fiddler On The Roof to get the treatment.
During the silent film era in Japan there were over 6,000 Benshi artists. They would not only read the intertitles but speak the voices of multiple actors and possibly make animal sound effects. Often these voice actors would write a script that interpreted what they thought the characters were saying, resulting in a rich narrative. And they might add editorial commentary as the movie continued. Both Japanese and Western movies got the full treatment. The Benshi was accompanied by one or more musicians with traditional Japanese instruments. Midori Sawato is an active Benshi who has performed several times at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive.
This tradition occurred elsewhere including Korea, USSR and Italy.
The Show Gets In The Audience
There are accounts of filmed silent-era magicians walking on screen, doing an effect and then stepping off the screen onto the stage. An assistant would walk into the shot of the movie and appear to hand the wizard a handkerchief that he plucked out of the screen before offering his hand to help the actual assistant step onto the stage so they could start their act.
From the 1920s through the early 1970s, there were many spook show performers around the country. The theater booked two low-rent old horror films but the featured attraction was a magic and hypnosis stage show with lots of audience participation. The ads made promises of monsters carrying girl victims back into the movie, or creatures of the night sitting in your lap in the dark. And any other outrageous claims they could get away with.
Francisco asked theaters for higher quality movies to be booked instead of the usual $10 flat rental Bela Lugosi rentals like THE HUMAN MONSTER. And that night he got it. As the classic Tod Browning film DRACULA ended the lights went out. Eerie music filled the theater and a large skeleton appeared in a puff of smoke. The lights came up and the skeleton magically became Francisco who did an hour show that included his Spirit Paintings, a comedy Guillotine, a Substitution Trunk, shooting a real gun at an assistant sandwiched between two plates of glass— the bullet appeared to go through her and then she stepped out unharmed despite bullet holes in the sheets of glass in front and back of where she stood.
There was comedy mentalism from questions patrons had written on pieces of paper before the show and dropped into a bowl. The answers mixed the amazing and corny humor. Opening a sealed envelope Francisco read the audience question “Where did I leave my ring?”
“Around the bathtub” answered the medium.
An astonishing floating table, a complex Spirit Cabinet routine and a running gag with a floating skull followed. The curtains closed and Francisco brought about a dozen people on stage to sit in chairs where he put them under a hypnotic spell resulting in the audience members doing wacky things, not remembering any of it when they were released from his spell.
And then it was time for the grand finale. Often Francisco had included various frightening creatures as part of his act such as Strogoff the living corpse, Rollo the two-headed zombie or the phantom wolfman Zubroff. But late in his career –which is when I saw him– Zemora was the featured creature and reportedly the most effective.
The curtains opened to reveal a coffin. Francisco tipped over the empty casket while explaining that the unhappy restless ghost Zemora must be somewhere in the theater. He warned the audience, “Don’t turn around if you feel cold, clammy hands clutching you or something crawling up your leg.”
He had his lovely assistant step into the coffin, then he thrust a dozen swords through it from every direction, each one accompanied by a more blood-curdling scream. The swords were quickly withdrawn and the cabinet started to violently shake. We could hear a loud and angry growling sound and suddenly the lid burst open.
A boney hand emerged and with a blinding light Zemora appeared for a moment.
All the lights went out and it was total darkness (exit lights were not yet required). Zemora tossed his head out towards the audience where it floated above us disappearing as lightning appeared on the screen, its strobe effect allowing the audience to see monsters roaming the auditorium while bats, skeletons and ghosts flew above our heads. (I later learned the ghosts were cheesecloth painted with luminous paint and suspended from fishing poles.) A voice yelled to watch out for the spiders and insects as the audience was pelted with raw beans and rice. We saw glowing swamp insects above us and then spider webs brushed across our faces.
“Beware the deadly slimy worms crawling everywhere,” was heard loud and clear as cold, moist creatures (wet mop strands) rained on us.
People were screaming their heads off. Couples were hugging each other and wishing it would be over … or not. After what might have been ten minutes it went dark for a moment and then the lights came up. The show as over and it nearly 2:00am.
The ads had promised “someone in the audience will win a dead body” which turned out to be a frozen chicken from the market.
There was another show the next night, and I returned, bringing my own props. I had purchased rubber creature hands, feet and masks from Famous Monsters of Filmland. When the lights went out, I reached into my paper bag, put them on and joined the other monsters terrorizing the audience. What fun!
It took a showman like William Castle to figure out inexpensive ways to interact with audiences in the late 1950s and 1960s. A contract director of B movies for Columbia, Castle felt he could offer an enticement to audiences attending his horror films. Macabre promised a $1,000 life insurance policy if you died of fright during the movie. Hearses were parked out front and nurses stood waiting in the lobby. The 13 Ghosts could only be seen if you looked through the red filter of your “Supernatural Viewer.” Homicidal had a “Fright Break” for those too scared to stay. They could get a refund, but that required signing a certificate stating “I am a bona-fide coward,” and standing in the “Coward’s Corner.” “Shock Sections” in theaters had seat belts to keep the audience in their seats if too scared by I Saw What You Did. As you entered the theater to see Mr. Sardonicus, a special card was handed out. During the movie, the audience was asked to vote if the murderous title character should be sentenced to death or not.
I recreated “Emergo” with a skeleton swooping from behind the curtains and over the heads of patrons for The House on Haunted Hill at the UC and Balboa Theatres. John Waters and I did a tribute to gimmick movies at Telluride, but recreating “Percepto” with shock buzzers in the seats for The Tingler was not possible, so we shook the seats and tossed rubber insects into the audience sitting in total darkness as they screamed to stop the Tingler, rumored to be alive in the theater. Bruce Goldstein at New York’s Film Forum somehow found the original system and installed it for special shows.
A loving homage to Castle’s form of showmanship, Matinee was written by Oakland resident Charlie Haas and directed by Joe Dante. A lot of audience gimmicks are represented in the film.
Others jumped on the bandwagon. Horrors of the Black Museum promised the audience would be hypnotized into feeling the events on the screen, while The Hypnotic Eye offered “Hypnomagic,” where the audience went through a series of hypnosis tests. The film’s consultant performed live experiments between showings at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 required you to take the D-13 test before you could see the movie.
This Picture Smells
Which of our senses have we not discussed?
In 1959, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps as the cinema innovator of Cinerama and Todd-AO, Michael Todd Jr. produced Scent of Mystery in “Smell-O-Vision.” Top notch cinematographer Jack Cardiff directed, but the film was a stinker in more ways than one. Seeing it at the mighty Orpheum on Market Street, I preferred to remember my good times seeing Cinerama there.
An enterprising exhibitor/distributor, Walter Reade clearly anticipated the January 1960 release of Scent of Mystery. In December of 1959 he took a pretty good documentary about China, added scents and released Behind the Great Wall in AromaRama, with smells piped through theaters’ air circulation system. I was 11 and remember how nauseating most of the smells were for both movies.
Variety suggested it was “the battle of the smellies.”
In 1981 John Waters emulated those whiffs in Polyester to better effect, when the audience got their own scratch and sniff card to really appreciate “Odorama,” with the ad line “It’ll Blow Your Nose.” Tab Hunter and Divine led us through ten odors that the card company refused to reprint once they learned what certain smells represented.
No fake smells were present when Les Blank showed his documentary Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers. The El Cerrito-based filmmaker baked garlic in a toaster oven and at appropriate moments walked through the theater wafting the sweet scents towards us.
What about the tastebuds?
Les Blank cooked red beans and rice to serve the audience after selected screenings of Always for Pleasure, and filmed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe at the UC Theatre in Berkeley. Some theaters are now serving food during the movie, but a true celebration of the merging of food and film is on the works.
EatDrinkFilms will host a food and drink film festival throughout the Bay Area in October 2015. The program will be a mixture of new narrative, documentary and short films plus some classics. Expect meals by wonderful chefs inspired by some of the movies. We are trying to figure out which restaurant wants to create a meal for La Grande Bouffe, the most requested classic food movie followed by Babette’s Feast .
Stay tuned for details.
No doubt there are other forms of Immersive Cinema. I have not covered porn experiments in the medium, better left to your imagination.
Going Deeper Into Immersive Cinema Part 3
We have had terrific feedback that readers are enjoying our version of “extras” in this “Going Deeper” section.
Here are the last installment’s goodies. Have fun:
Ride That Movie
Watch the experience:
Watch the movie:
Soarin’ at Epcot Walt Disney World video—the whole video part of the experience: Click to watch an amateur video.
Spooked: A motion simulator ride – the film only – you will have to shake your own seat.
Bigger Than Life and In Your Face
Watch the original film.
Watch the film.
Watch the film.
Watch an excerpt.
Is It Real or Is It the Movies?
Buster Keaton jumps into the movie in Sherlock Jr.
Read about Gertie the Dinosaur and how Winsor McCay interacted with the screen images.
Watch the theatrical version of Gertie the Dinosaur.
Read about Magic Lantern sing-a-longs.
Learn about Screen Songs and Song Car-Tunes.
How the Song Car-Tune was born.
A brief history by Ron Hall.
The later, not so interesting Screen Song series.
Watch a couple of classic “follow-the-bouncing ball” cartoons, some featuring Betty Boop and famous performers.
“Down Among the Sugar Cane” with Lillian Roth.
There are many websites for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the best place to start is:
RHPS still screens with live shows around the world including regular performances at several bay area theaters. Click for a complete list.
Barely Legal, founded in 1995 still accompanies at the Albany, Camera, San Jose, the Phoenix, Petaluma and other locations.
All about The Sound of Music singalong.
Create your own bouncing ball singsongs, karaoke style.
What did a Benshi do?
Video interview with contemporary Benshi Tomoko Komura (in English)
Benshi and band performance (in Japanese).
How to book a Benshi artist today.
Buy the definitive English-language book on Benshi.
The Show Gets In The Audience
Spook Show posters
Spook Show trailers.
Buy the ultimate Spook Show DVD, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party.
Ghostmasters by Mark Walker is the best book on Spook Shows.
Joe Karston, Spook Show producer.
For an interactive live horror show today, visit Thrillpeddlers in San Francisco.
Step Right Up
William Castle gimmick films and several books including Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up and a new book, Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle (excerpt and review here), are available at our Amazon affiliate link.
Official site by his daughter Terry Castle.
John Waters writes about the master showman William Castle in John’s Crackpot.
John Waters talks about Macabre.
John Waters on House on Haunted Hill.
In-depth essay on Castle gimmicks.
Joe Dante and Charlie Haas pay homage to the audience participation gimmicks of William Castle in Matinee.
The complete “fake” trailer for Mant in Atomo Vision with Rumble Rama.
Can you pass the D-13 Test?
Or watch it with commentary by horror expert Mick Garris.
This Picture Smells
Leonard Maltin on Scent of Mystery.
A Wikipedia article has additional interesting info on smelly movies.
Behind the Great Wall of China: Bosley Crowther’s NY Times review does an excellent job of explaining everything one needed to know about “Aromarama.”
Polyester DVDs with Odorama Cards are becoming expensive and rare.
A combo release of Polyester/Desperate Living is reported to include the card.
You can often find the cards on eBay.
Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers is part of the incredible Les Blank Criterion Collection box set, Always for Pleasure.
Gary Meyer co-founded Landmark Theatres in 1975, the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on projects for Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007. Meyer also founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in 2014, with the EatDrinkFilms Festival to tour nationally in 2015.