Hollywood's iconic Cinerama Dome, survivor of 1990s redevelopment, is crushed by COVID

Not Curtains Yet

Hollywood's iconic Cinerama Dome, survivor of 1990s redevelopment, is crushed by COVID

The Welton Becket & Associates-designed Cinerama Dome at ArcLight Hollywood pictured in 2013. (UpdateNerd/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Yesterday, the Los Angeles-based Decurion Corporation, parent company of Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinemas, announced that both would permanently shutter following a year-long closure due to the COVID-19 crisis. “This was not the outcome anyone wanted, but despite a huge effort that exhausted all potential options, the company does not have a viable way forward,” Decurion explained in a statement relaying the “difficult and sad” news. Deadline was the first to break the shock announcement, which comes at a time when other movie theaters and theater chains across L.A. are plotting their post-lockdown comebacks if they haven’t already reopened in recent weeks at limited capacity.

As the operator of roughly 300 movie screens spread across 16 theaters, 74-year-old Pacific Theatres and its upscale younger sibling, ArcLight Cinemas, possessed a sizable real estate footprint across Southern California. (There are also a small handful of ArcLight locations outside of California.) For L.A.-area moviegoers, the sudden loss of so a large number of screens is no doubt significant, but in terms of shockwaves produced by yesterday’s news, none have reverberated quite as hard as the permanent closure of ArcLight Cinemas’ flagship location, ArcLight Hollywood, and its Cinerama Dome.

Arguably the defining midcentury movie palace of Los Angeles, the Cinerama Dome, which debuted in 1963 on Sunset Boulevard, is one of Hollywood’s most enduring and instantly recognizable architectural landmarks.  The theater, designated as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, is topped by a geodesic dome comprised of 316 interlocking concrete panels; the structure is believed to be the first and only one of its kind in the world.

In 1998, the same year that the Cinerama Dome secured city landmark status, the Los Angeles Conservancy, joined by a grassroots faction of Dome devotees, led the charge in halting a proposed modernization project that would have seen Pacific Theatres demolish several key features of the iconic venue including its lobby and contoured screen to make for a new cinema/shopping mall complex. The staving off of significant alternations at the Cinerama Dome has been described as a “major victory” for the Conservancy and its Modern Committee.

black and white photo of a concrete geodesic dome
The Cinerama Dome is clad in 316 hexagonal and pentagonal prefabricated concrete panels. (magicredshoes/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Few things symbolize Los Angeles better than a movie theatre, but there is not a single theatre in the city that can compare to the Cinerama Dome as an icon of modern architecture,” writes the Conservancy, referring to the building as a “highly visible Sunset Boulevard landmark on the outside and an incomparable cinematic environment on the inside.”

(Following the news of the permanent closure of all ArcLight Cinemas locations, including ArtLight Hollywood complex and its Cinerama Dome, the Conservancy announced that it is “monitoring the situation and will press for the re-opening of this Mid-Century landmark entertainment venue.”)

The Cinemara Dome was, naturally, directly influenced by the geodesic dome designs first popularized by Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s. While often directly credited to prolific L.A. architect Welton Becket, the theater was the creation of a French architect named Pierre Cabrol who was employed by Becket’s firm eponymous firm and studied under Fuller was a graduate student at MIT. (The Beverly Hilton Hotel, Capitol Records Building, and Santa Monica Civic Auditorium are among the many L.A. landmarks executed by Becket & Associates). Cinerama, the company behind a relatively newfangled three-projector screening technology, and William R. Forman, founder of Pacific Theatres, sought to give this avant-garde architecture a Tinseltown twist by constructing a geodesic dome-topped Cinerama theater in the heart of Hollywood. Cinerama planned was to build hundreds of other geodesic dome-topped widescreen movie venues across the country; though other Cinerama theaters were constructed before and after Pacific Theatres’ Cinerama Dome, the last opening in 1970 in Tukwilla, Washington, no others featured concrete geodesic domes.

When the Cinerama Dome and its curved, 86-foot-wide screen debuted following a breakneck 16-week construction period for the premiere of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it was the first new major movie theater to be built in Hollywood in more than three decades. The Fuller-influenced theater was an instant hit, and Kramer’s movie, a single-lens Cinerama production, didn’t fare too badly, either, enjoying a 66-week run.

cinerama dome at night
The iconic marquee of the Cinerama Dome. (Courtney “Coco” Mault/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

During the following decades, the Cinerama Dome thrived and served as the backdrop for numerous star-studded premieres and special screenings. It has also made countless on-screen cameos, most recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. (Curiously, no movies were shown using Cinerama’s original patented three-projector screening process until 2002 even though the theater was designed for it).

During the 1990s and the early aughts, other Cinerama-designed theaters—easily identifiable thanks to their circular shapes that accommodated the massive curved screens—across the country were demolished to make way for modern multiplexes and other redevelopment projects. Cinerama theaters razed during this period included the original three Richard L. Crowther-designed Cinerama venues: Denver’s Cooper Theater (demolished in 1994), a second Cooper Theater in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, (demolished in 1992); and the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha (demolished in 2001). Cinerama, as mentioned, emerged from this period unscathed.

Only three surviving theaters are believed to be capable of screening films with the original three-projector Cinerama technology: the Cinerama Dome, the Pictureville Cinema at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, and the Paul Allen-owned Seattle Cinerama. Like its Hollywood counterpart, the Seattle Cinerama (née the Martin Cinerama) also opened in 1963. It was closed indefinitely in May 2020 due to the pandemic while in middle of what was the latest in a series of major renovations that first kicked off in the late 1990s.

spiderman on a geodesic roof
The Cinerama Dome was often gussied up to promote the blockbusters playing on its colossal screen. (Yo Shi/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Following the L.A. Conservancy-led effort to spare the Cinerama Dome from partial demolition and major alterations in 1998, the theater was closed for two years for renovations and upgrades including a new screen and a specifically designed, state-of-the-art acoustic system. In 2002, it reopened as part of the newly built 15-screen ArcLight Hollywood multiplex, which, pre-COVID, was one of the highest-grossing movie theaters in the United States. In essence, Pacific Theatres, in lieu of tearing up and redeveloping the theater itself, developed around it, giving way to the ArcLight Hollywood.

In the less than 24 hours since the shuttering of all Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinemas locations, a petition to save the Cinerama Dome has already garnered north of 2,000 signatures. And to be clear, the property may not need “saving” in the immediate future. Thanks to its Historic-Cultural Monument status, any future plans to demolish or dramatically alter the theater would be subject to substantial delay although the designation does not offer complete protection from the wrecking ball.  “… It merely buys time in order to create opportunities for preservation solutions to emerge,” as the L.A. Conservancy puts it.

With its lifelong steward Pacific Theatres now out of the picture, what the Cinerama Dome needs in the immediate future is the right new owner.

Although suggestions, some rooted in gallows humor and some not so far-fetched, have been made with regard to who might ultimately acquire the landmark building (along with the beloved multiplex that it’s been part of for nearly two decades), there is little doubt that preservationists, local moviegoers, and the greater Hollywood community will see to it that Sunset Boulevard’s 75-foot-tall dimpled golf ball sticks around for at least another 57 years.