My first impression of this movie was, “Why are these people all up in arms about saving an ugly ‘60’s nightmare of a theater from demolition?” And also, “Don’t these protestors have something else to do?” After all, it’s not like we’re talking about losing New York’s Penn Station or anything. Sure, the Indian Hills Theater has a nice big screen and Cinerama technology, but so what? There are lots of big screens. And what the hell is Cinerama? But, then they tell me exactly what Cinerama is and ten minutes into this documentary, I was hooked.
Cinerama, as the filmmakers explain, was an attempt to reclaim the audiences lost in the early 1950’s due in large part to the advent of television. The idea was that no one would want to stay at home and watch a 9” television screen with a small tinny speaker when there was a 35 feet high and 105 feet wide screen and amazing stereo sound at your local Cinerama theater. Completing the package is a curved screen to add depth and take advantage of our periphery vision, three projectors to display this huge image, and baffles and other techniques to engender equally good sound in every seat in the house. The interview with Richard Crowther, the original architect of the Indian Hills Theater, particularly gets across the features of Cinerama technology. Apparently, the effect is not flawless and difficult to operate properly, but amazing none the less. Here in lies the problem. I have to say “apparently” because only a handful of Cinerama theaters still exist. Most have been torn down or replaced by the multiplexes we are familiar with today. So no, there are not lots of big screens anymore. Just lots of significantly smaller ones in big buildings. Guess I was wrong about that earlier.
Okay, now I know why the people featured in this movie decided to come together and try to save this theater. Though this isn’t Penn Station, it is of great historical significance to both the city of Omaha, the home of this theater, and also to film history. It is hard not to take the activists’ side as they form a group entitled, “The Indian Hills Theater Preservation Society” and take on Methodist Hospital, the owner of the theater. Methodist, however, has designs to tear down the theater and make the property into a parking lot for their school of nursing. Along the way, the fight does become quite heated. Even some of Hollywood’s biggest names get involved in the struggle.
But, are any of the activists’ actions legal? Can’t an owner of property do whatever he or she wants to do to it? No, not exactly. Historic preservation has long been recognized as an important factor in these matters. This is not just an aesthetic pleasure, it is of financial significance also. Once you destroy the history of an area, you are destroying the core of that area as well and essentially shooting yourself in the foot. To begin with, tourism decreases. For example, you could level many of the cathedrals in Florence and replace them with offices, but then who would want to go to Florence anymore? Urban flight then ensues, and this means lost taxes and revenue for the city. You get the picture. Quite simply, history matters and the loss of it affects everyone. In this way, the preservations society’s actions are not only legal, but practical.
Unfortunately, the public will have to wait to see this movie. As of the writing of this review, this film’s premiere was cancelled. The filmmakers’ web site explains that a legal action on the part of one of the members of the Indian Hills Theater Preservation Society has blocked this showing. I have to admit to being confused here. At all times during this film, the members of this group behaved in an appropriate and respectful manner. I cannot see what any of the participants has to be ashamed of or of any legal entanglements which might be brought against him or her for his or her actions. Of course, much happens behind the scenes and we don’t have the whole story of this matter here by any stretch of the imagination. However, this is a fine documentary and I hope that someday someone other than the filmmakers, their family, friends, and me will get to see it.