Cinerama hero John Harvey dies

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Mike Gebert
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Cinerama hero John Harvey dies

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Mon May 07, 2018 12:49 pm

Cinerama, the original widescreen process that spawned so many others, had creators in the 1950s, and then it had a rescuer in the 1980s and 1990s: John Harvey, who passed away last Thursday. He tracked down the few remaining prints, he built the incredibly complex Cinerama setup in his home and held showings there, him running all three projectors in sync, and he then showed true Cinerama, for the first time in decades, at the New Neon Theater in Dayton, Ohio. Larry Smith, then the manager of the New Neon and now at LOC in Culpeper, VA, wrote this on Facebook about John, incorporating parts of a "This is Your Life"-style tribute for him given in 2010:

John Harvey.

John Harvey (10/13/1936 – 5/3/2018) passed away in his sleep but made thousands of people happy during his 81 years.

John “Cinerama” Harvey was a retired projectionist (for 60+ years) who had a unique cinema history. From the carbon arc days of 1950’s drive-ins to sharing a 2-man booth duties in classic big city grand cinema palaces (4,000+ seats), to installing state of the art cinema equipment in modern multiplexes, to classic film festivals (presenting variable speed early silent film with live musical accompaniment) and outdoor public screenings in parks, or on the sides of buildings using 70mm equipment projecting out of the backs of trucks. And especially his first love Cinerama…

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is John Harvey… and John Harvey, this is your life.

(John had suffered a series of strokes so this biography/interview was rewritten by a friend of his for a lifetime achievement presentation at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, England in 2010.)

My name is Larry Smith and I am lucky enough to have been a friend of Mr. Harvey’s for over 40 years. John Siegfried Harvey was born Oct 13, 1936 in Dayton, Ohio. John tells me the earliest film he remembers seeing was a Hal Roach, Our Gang comedy short. Question: Is it true you used to go door to door doing imitations of Al Jolson after seeing THE JOLSON STORY (1946)? (John answers: Yes, six songs for a dime!)

John’s older brother Charlie worked as a flashlight boy directing cars to empty spaces at the Miami Cruise, Drive-In, but instead of what was on the screen John was fascinated by the light coming out of the projection booth porthole. Which led to his learning the craft from a seasoned projectionist, Al Hill, just like the boy in his favorite movie, Cinerama Paradiso. And his father's interest in newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas led to his seeing This Is Cinerama at the Capitol Theatre in Cincinnati in 1954 when John was just 16 years old. His first job as a projectionist was at the downtown cinema the Park Theater. Later, John’s mentor Al Hill helped get him into the projectionist union.

During the 1950’s John was a full time union projectionist that handled duel-projector 3-D (1953’s Natural Vision 3D), the first stereo sound system installations, most wide screen processes (VistaVision, CinemaScope, etc.) and 70mm.

John first projected Cinerama at the Dabel theater in Dayton, Ohio in 1963 and if he wasn’t operating the Abel projector he was monitoring the Sound unit. It took 5 technicians, three projectionist on the 3 projectors (all interlocked), one projectionist on the sound playback unit and the fifth man at the front center of the auditorium monitoring the image alignment and sound speaker balance.

In the 1970s John got to meet his hero Lowell Thomas backstage after Thomas gave on of his famous travelogue lectures with a slide & moving image show. John later gave Lowell a demonstration of his own Wonderama process, an invention John based on true, Fred Waller (Cinerama’s inventor) principles using a deeply curved, screen made of hundreds of narrow ribbons but only a single camera, a single projector.

But it was a 3-panel trailer for How The West Was Won that John saved from the end of the Dabel run that changed everything.

John used to tell me it was as if the film was calling out to him. And since he knew of no one else that was doing anything to bring Cinerama back, he decided to start modifying three Simplex projectors for the six-perf, (instead of the common 4 perf) pull-down. Eventually recreating the whole Cinerama projection system in his basement.

I remember when I first met you back in 1984. You lived in a single story, brick ranch house with some modifications to the first floor... you had removed 2 bedrooms, part of the living room, part of the kitchen and raised the ceilings and reinforced the floor to install three projection booths and a curtained screen. I was one of the lucky few who saw THIS IS CINERAMA & HOW THE WEST WAS WON in your living room cinema. John introduced the movies, ran all the equipment himself, rewound each print and inspected every foot of film between every showing. He even severed real movie theater popcorn made in his own popcorn machine, he even had napkins custom made with the Cinerama logo on them and bought pizza at intermission for his audiences of 12-18 people! John how big was that living room screen? (John answers: 25’ wide by 10’ tall.)

LARRY: I remember you told me that you used your vacation time to travel to meet other Cinerama films buffs like Gunther Young of Cinerama Inc. and Willem Boumeester of IMAX, eventually traveling to meet the inventor’s widow Mrs. Fred Waller & Cinerama Technical Chief Wentworth Fling. I love the story of Mrs. Waller telling you that no one had been in her husband’s workroom since he died. And then, she handed you the keys! Later in 1993 you came to England for the first time to work with Willem installing Cinerama at the Pictureville Museum in Bradford England where Cinerama shows every month ever since!

LARRY: Back in the early 1990s, you went from being just a good friend to helping me make major improvements and modifications at the New Neon Movies cinema where I was manager. We first installed two-projector 3D including a giant 30’ diagonal silver-screen that was automated to flip up or down from the ceiling on hinges as needed. Later you installed a 70mm projector literally overnight so we could play the restored director’s cut of LAWARENCE OF ARABIA in 70mm. Even with all that success, in 1996 the landlord wanted to split the auditorium into two smaller theaters. But we had a dream, if we built it…. They might come. So we started a letter writing campaign to convince the powers that be, that the public would come to see Cinerama if we could simply alter the building. We got over 1,400 letter from 30 different states & 11 different countries!

So for one month after closing each night my dad Edward Smith, several Neon employees, a handful of dedicated volunteers, John Harvey and I took out 1/4 of the ceiling, 88 out of 300 seats to install a floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall, 146 degree curved screen made out of over 1100 ribbons. John what was that like? (It was one heck of a lot of work!)

LARRY: So after 4 weeks of working around the clock while the theater was still open every day, never losing a single screening, we converted our little art theater into John Harvey’s larger living room and the only Cinerama theater in the United States in 30 years…

I remember we got the OK to run Cinerama on weekends for 2 months. But we sold out those shows so quickly we added two more months.

Around this time we got a 8 minute VHS demo tape in the mail from a guy who wanted make a documentary to tell our story and the story of Cinerama. What was his name John? (David Strohmaier) He made that documentary and it’s called, “The Cinerama Adventure” and it all started with footage he shot at New Neon Movies. In the beginning, people actually used to FedEx checks to us overnight for tickets; we got calls from newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, all to talk with John Harvey, or as actress Debbie Reynolds called him, the Cinerama Man. I took over the introductions to allow John to focus on the multitude of details before every performance. I used a slide show as a visual aid to better explain the uniqueness of this amazing process and to share with the public the rich history of Cinerama. But after every showing John walked down to the front of the audience and answered the questions from people who came from over 45 states, 30 different countries. John how did you find the energy to do that after running the whole show by yourself? That’s something I love to do, explain Cinerama. Nothing compared to the glowing comments from those came and saw it for themselves.

LARRY: Among the celebrities who came were Joe Dante the director of Gremlins and Quentin Tarantino who actually stayed the weekend so he could see every inch of all the Cinerama films that were playable.

Our 2 month run went on for well over 3 1/2 years but it finally ended there (in late September of 2012, the Cinerama Dome in LA plans on playing all 7 Cinerama titles). A year later the Neon's owners twined the auditorium and John's equipment went into storage. Briefly his IB-Technicolor prints of This Is Cinerama & How The West Were Won were loaned out and played at the newly renovated Seattle Cinerama theater as part of the Seattle film festival. Eventually John you developed some health problems, John would you please share with us a little of what happened to you? I had a series of strokes.

LARRY: I know you did not have health insurance and your home, property, equipment and films all had to be sold to pay medical bills. But you made lots of friends and fans along the way.

In closing, were glad that filmmaker David Strohmaier came along and documented Cinerama's birth, its technology-changing history and brief death. (His film Cinerama Adventure is an extra on the Blu-Ray version of How The West Was Won) But if it were not for true Cinerama fans and the noble work of film preservationist done around the world to keep the lamps burning and Cinerama on screen... then folks like John Harvey would not have been able to share this love of Cinerama with the thousands of old and new friends. Thank you one and all.

So to connect it all, John Harvey first built 2 Cinerama theaters in his home, helped others install it in the Bradford museum. He installed and ran every showing at the New Neon Movies in Dayton, assisted in the Seattle installation and the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. Basically, John has been a part of every Cinerama theater in the world in the last 30 years. So thank you John Harvey.

John Harvey lived the last 15 years of his life at Pinnacle Point Nursing Home just outside Dayton, Ohio where he got letters and phone calls from people wanting to talk about the glory days of film. Not digital, but reel film.

John Harvey is sadly gone but his work to preserve the movies he loved lives on. This is not…

The End.

Here are some links Larry provided to other tributes: ... ma_20.html" target="_blank" target="_blank" target="_blank" target="_blank ... me-180636/" target="_blank" target="_blank
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir

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Re: Cinerama hero John Harvey dies

Unread post by oldposterho » Mon May 07, 2018 6:34 pm

I've been a several home 35mm theaters but having a Cinerama setup would be incredible...

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Re: Cinerama hero John Harvey dies

Unread post by BixB » Wed May 09, 2018 10:06 am

Saddened to hear this. We attended several screenings of HOW THE WEST WAS WON when it played at the Neon Movies in Dayton. Seeing this was an Epiphany for my daughter. Afterwards she was determined to be a film preservationist and successfully became one. After college she was accepted into the Jeffery Selznick School of Film Preservation in Rochester. Was awarded a fellowship which sent her to Amsterdam to restore a silent film and then sent to Italy to present it at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and finally employment at the LoC's Nitrate Division. All this from a single screening of a film. Thanks, John. We all owe you a debt.
Joe Busam

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