“It is my great pleasure to be able to publish the following article, courtesy of its author Mikael Barnard. It was first published in the Projected Picture Trust’s Rewind magazine over two editions in 2014. Elsewhere on my site you will find references and some short articles I’ve written about mobile cinema, but this is by far the most comprehensive version which you will find.”
Mobile cinema is nothing new. From the earliest days of film history itinerant showmen set up their modern interpretations of the Pythagorian cave at local fairgrounds. Entrepreneurs such as Randall Williams thrilled huge crowds by showing footage of the audience that had been taken mere hours before, using the medium as a kind of giant, time-delayed cinematic mirror. Leo Kamm took this to the next level in the 1910s showing popular feature films from a dedicated mobile cinema van; this would be driven up to the entrance of a marquee and the sides of the van would be raised to reveal two Kamm projectors facing a screen at the far end of the tent. In the mid-1930s various railway companies got in on the act, introducing cinema coaches to entertain passengers on long distance journeys. The Army Kinema Corporation produced their own version of the ‘Kamm van’ using Gaumont British equipment to entertain the troops during the Second World War. Perhaps most famous are the Ministry of Information cinema vans of the late 1960s, using modified Bedford vans inside which the audience would sit, a true mobile cinema indeed.
Impressive as many of these attempts were, they are all dwarfed to the scale of David when compared to the Goliath proportions of Itinerama, the mobile travelling incarnation of Cinerama. The story begins in 1954 when Nicholas Resini “Had tried to interest the United States Information Agency in mounting a travelling Cinerama theatre on a retired aircraft carrier. USIA was game, and even President Eisenhower liked the idea, but Congress nipped it in the bud.” (Lane, 2012). In May 1960, Resini became head of the Cinerama Corporation and was determined to bring his notion of a portable Cinerama installation to fruition. Permanent Cinerama theatres were, by their very nature, expensive both to install and to run. Resini was determined to bring Cinerama to as wide an audience as possible and to this end the mobile version was intended to reach audiences in towns large enough to support a mobile exhibit of the type but not necessarily of sufficient size to justify a permanent installation. To this end a trading company, Spectacles & Programmes, was formed. For reasons that are unclear it seems Cinerama did not invest in the system directly despite Resini’s personal interest, the trading company instead being financed by an assortment of private interests (including French radio company Europe no.1 (Boxoffice, 1961) and the Maurice Dollfus Group (Carrin, 2012 in Wolthuis, 2012)). The company operated under license from the Cinerama Corporation, a license which granted exclusive rights to exhibit Cinerama films in this manner throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.
It appears the first aspect of Itinerama to be worked on was the tent itself which was manufactured by the Bessonneau Company of Angers (Carrin, 2012 in Wolthuis, 2012).
“The inflatable theatre is the result of five years of experimentation, [Itinerama Executive Vice President Maurice] Dollfus said. Made of Nitrolac, a tough, fireproof and airtight plastic material, the Itinerama theatre is blown up by air. The plastic hemisphere, when collapsed, can be packed into one large trailer truck and when inflated by air pumps becomes a structure measuring 210 feet long, 144 feet wide, 62 feet high.” (Boxoffice, 1961)
As well as agreeing closely with the dimensions given above, additional details for the tent and the installation as a whole are provided by Camera magazine (1962):
“The whole structure is self-supporting, without poles or inside columns, and is erected by inflating the plastic envelope. This process takes about ten minutes and is carried out by eight motor-driven pumps. The Itinerama tent seats an audience of up to 3,000 and contains a 110 foot (33 m) wide curved screen. A single booth at the rear of the tent houses the three Cinerama projectors, while an all-round speaker system provides stereophonic sound effects. […]Transportation of the tent, air pumps, screen, projectors, sound equipment and seating requires 47 lorries”
Numerous sources confirm the provision for an audience of 3,000 and The American Stock Exchange Investor (1962) additionally informs us that the entire tent could be inflated “in just eight minutes”. Film User (1963), seemingly referring to this incarnation of Itinerama, note the requirement for a staff of one hundred and twenty to erect the entire installation.
Dollfus himself reported (slightly conflicting) information to Boxoffice magazine:
“The balloon theatres will have rest rooms, ticket booths, generators and full kitchen and housing accommodations for the 50-man crew. [Dolfuss] said the fire-proof theatre could be completely inflated in 14 minutes and the entire setting-up operation could be accomplished in four and a half hours and dismantled in three hours […]The structural principle is based upon the maintaining of a slightly higher air pressure inside than that surrounding the outside of the structure. The pumps work continuously to maintain the necessary margin of pressure and, incidentally, provide for the circulation of fresh air within the theatre.” (Boxoffice, 1961)
Itinerama debuted in Mantes-la-Jolie, France on Monday September 4th 1961.
“Itinerama will purchase from Cinerama at cost the projectors, screens, translator sound systems, technical aid and Cinerama films. Cinerama will share 50 per cent in the profits after operating expenses and taxes.” (Boxoffice, 1961)
Dollfus had high expectations for the profitability of Itinerama. The initial proposal was to have three separate travelling Itinerama installations throughout Europe operating approximately ten months per year. With an average ticket price of $1.25 and a projected audience of two million per year, per installation, profits from screenings alone were estimated in the region of seven and a half million dollars per year. Plans were afoot to expand throughout Europe (options having been taken for exhibition in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Spain) and then in 1962 into America. (Boxoffice, 1961).
Contemporary reports indicate that Itinerama was extremely well received in France. As Lane (2012) puts it:
“Anyone who wasn’t working or in school would flock to the field where Cinerama was setting up to watch the battery of huge fans, each the size of a Volkswagen, blowing up the big blue tent. Local dignitaries turned out to walk the red carpet at every screening. Even Abel Gance showed up one night to see this successor to “Polyvision” from his 1927 Napoleon.”
The debut Itinerama programme began at 17:00 first with a ball, then a radio show and finally the film itself (presumably ‘This is Cinerama’). After its debut show Itinerama moved first towards Beauvais, then Compiègne, Reims, Strasbourg and an assortment of other locations (Carrin, 2012 in Wolthuis, 2012). Unfortunately, one of the major benefits to this incarnation of Itinerama also proved to be its downfall. The inflatable tent itself was in theory a superb idea, with no internal structure to mar the view of the screen for any spectator. However, the devil is always in the detail and after less than six weeks operation disaster struck at Lunéville on Tuesday October 17th:
“The anchoring system […] was inadequate to a building of its size. One night in France a terrible storm struck. It huffed and it puffed and it blew the house down; the collapsing screen wiped out the first ten rows of seats. A genuine catastrophe was averted only because nobody was in the tent at the time.” (Lane, 2012)
The damage was extensive enough to put the installation beyond economic repair, much investment was lost and the trading company folded.
However, this was not the end of Itinerama. Nicholas Resini was still convinced of the viability of the system, after all the error lay in execution rather than concept, so he ordered a redesign of the tent and sought new investment. Success was found in the UK in 1963 in the form of Betram Mills Circus Ltd who invested “Just over £50,000 in Itinerama, a private company formed to show the wide-screen Cinerama films in mobile theatres throughout the UK, the Commonwealth, Eire and South Africa.” (The Statist, 1963). This time the canvas tent was constructed around a framework of steel and aluminium struts which were driven into the ground (Light Metals and Metal Industry, 1964 – a great deal of technical detail concerning the materials and methods used in construction is given in this source but much of it is quite dry and this author has a word count to consider). Thus, under the helm of managing director Sam Eckman Jnr., and with exclusive rights to give mobile screenings of Cinerama films in the countries mentioned above (as well as, according to Film User (1963), the Cinemiracle feature “Windjammer”), a new incarnation of Itinerama was born.
“Itinerama mk.2” debuted at Richmond Athletic Ground on April 24th 1964 (incidentally this author began writing this article on April 24th 2014, happy fiftieth anniversary Itinerama!) The debut film was, of course, “This is Cinerama”. The screen size is confirmed by both The Commercial Motor (1964) and The Film Daily (1965) as being one hundred and three feet wide by thirty seven feet high. Wolthuis et al., (2014), who give the screen width as one hundred and five feet, note that the screen was of a standard type (rather than the special louvred screen associated with Cinerama), this was larger than the one installed at The Casino, London (making it “The largest Cinerama screen in Britain and the second largest in the world” (Films and Filming, 1963) and apparently giving a better image). Keith Swadkins, President of the International Cinerama Society, informed this author that the projection equipment itself came from The Casino, which would make sense as this was just at the time they’d have been gearing up for single strip 70mm “Super Cinerama”.
The tent itself could be inflated in around three hours. The diameter of the tent is variously given as being one hundred and twenty eight feet in diameter (Light Metals and Metal Industry, 1964 and confirmed by The Commercial Motor, 1964 – unsurprising given they were both published by the same company) or one hundred and twenty five feet. (London Gazette, 1969) The height is not stated in any of the sources available for this article but we know the screen height was thirty seven feet so it was certainly taller than that. Most sources give seating capacity as between one thousand, two hundred and one thousand, five hundred with two sources (The Commercial Motor, 1964 and The Film Daily, 1965) giving a precise figure of one thousand, two hundred and sixteen folding aluminium seats which, according to Films and Filming (1963), were larger than standard size.
“The projection box was positioned outside the tent on a large steel framework. It had the 3 Cinerama projectors and one sound machine in the same very small booth and with mirrors, projected onto the screen like Cinemiracle.” (Wolthuis et al., 2014)
Light Metals and Metal Industry (1963) confirms the tent, as with the previous example, was centrally heated and that a curtain was installed some six inches forward of the curved screen.
As before, a fleet of vehicles were required to transport the installation between locations. Films and Filming (1963) lists the amount of vehicles required as being thirty eight whilst The Commercial Motor (1964) makes mention of “A convoy of 42 vehicles – Bedford lorries, Land-Rovers, Crane Fruehauf trailers and Bluebird Caravelle caravans.” Possibly the number of vehicles required increased between 1963 and 1964. In addition to plain haulage, photographs show a dedicated box office trailer and a dedicated trailer housing the projection equipment which acted as ‘the box’. The London Gazette (1969) also mentions “a specially made toilet trailer”!
Later in 1964 Itinerama moved from Richmond Athletic Ground to a new location in Brighton and Hove and from there a tour was planned of the south of England, Itinerama finding its way to Southsea Common and as far south as Plymouth. Later the convoy moved north, contemporary posters indicating screenings at Devonshire Street, Sheffield. By January 1967 Itinerama was screening at Woodhouse Moor, Leeds before finally making its way to Walsall where the last Itinerama screening (“Seven Wonders of the World”) was given on April 11th 1967. This also marked the last official three-strip Cinerama presentation in Britain until 1993 at the Pictureville Cinema, Bradford.
Film Daily (1965) reports that Itinerama met with such strong success that a second mobile theatre was ordered. Whether this was actually constructed or not is unclear. However, the end was nigh for Itinerama. As it stood, Itinerama was geared to showing three strip Cinerama films. Once these had been exhibited to their commercial limit on the Itinerama circuit it would have been necessary to re-equip for single strip. Presumably this was considered uneconomical and in any case it is possible that the project as a whole had run its course. In 1969 a brief note appeared in The Estates Gazette:
“The Itinerama Mobile Theatre is to be offered for sale by auction on May 29 at Normanton, Leicestershire, near Bottlesford, by Harvey & Wheeler (Ebury Street, S.W.1) […] After three years’ touring the company was forced to close down owing to the lack of new films for the process that was being operated.
It is thought that the mobile theatre with a tent […] together with the seating, lorries, caravans [and the erstwhile toilet trailer] could provide an opportunity for a council or promoter to obtain a mobile entertainment centre for concerts, exhibitions or conferences.”
What happened to the Itinerama tent after the auction is rather unclear. It was certainly purchased though not by Bertram Mills Circus Ltd since that company closed down entirely in 1967. Lataille (2014) informed us that the tent was still in use as a mobile theatre (if not cinema) in 1991. Further enquiries traced the source of this information to Keith Swadkins, who confirmed to this author that it was cited by ex-Itinerama projectionist Chris Usher in Edinburgh in 1991, although he could not recall the show in question. The current whereabouts of the tent is unknown.
Itinerama Ltd itself was listed in 7th April 1972 edition of The London Gazette as having been placed into liquidation on 4th April 1972 (liquidator: William Stanley Wise Fone, F.C.A.) by its members.
American Stock Exchange Investor. (1962). “Itinerama”. American Stock Exchange Investor, 6-7, pp.14. New York: American Stock Exchange.
Boxoffice. (1961). “Cinerama in a ‘Balloon’ Will Tour U.S. in 1962” [online]. California: The Kinotech Blog. http://kinotechnologies.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/a-preview-of-imaxs-portable-theater-by-looking-back/. [Accessed: 24.04.2014].
Camera. (1962). “Giant Travelling Cinerama”. Camera, 41, pp.51. Munich: C.J. Butcher.
Film User. (1963). “Itinerama”. Film User, 17, pp.78. Unknown: Current Affairs.
Films and Filming. (1963). “Itinerama”. Films and Filming, 10, pp.37. London: Hansom Books.
Lane, J.L. (2012). “Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 6” [online]. California: Jim Lane. http://jimlanescinedrome.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/ups-and-downs-of-rollercoaster-part-6.html. [Accessed: 24.04.2014].
Light Metal and Metal Industry. (1964). “Itinerama”. Light Metals and Metal Industry, 27, pp.31. London: Temple Press Ltd.
The Commercial Motor. (1964). “Cinerama on Wheels”. The Commercial Motor, 119, pp.194. London: Temple Press Ltd.
The Estates Gazette. (1969). “Mobile Theatre for Auction”. The Estates Gazette, 210, pp.884.
The Film Daily. (1965). “Cinerama Showing More Revitalization”. The Film Daily, 127, pp.18. New York: Wid’s Film and Film Folks, Inc.
The London Gazette. (1972). “Itinerama Ltd” [online]. The London Gazette, 7th April 1972, pp.4229. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/45639/page/4229. [Accessed: 22.06.2014).
The Statist. (1963). “Bertram Mills Circus”. The Statist: A Journal of Practical Finance and Trade, 179, pp.128. Unknown.
Wolthuis, J.C.M. (ed) (2012). The Cinerama Story. Arnhem: International 70mm Publishers.
Wolthuis, J.C.M. et al. (2014). Widescreen History. Arnhem: International 70mm Publishers.