With GATSBY coming out in 3-D on Friday, it seemed appropriate to spend today discussing my experiences with the movie going sensation of the 1970s: Sensurround. Sensurround was meant to take you there. More than 3-D, it was heralded as the sound system that would make you not only see the movie but make you FEEL you were in the movie.
Sensurround was the exclusive property of Universal Pictures and it seemed entirely appropriate for the system to make its huge, rumbling debut with the disaster epic EARTHQUAKE (1974). Pretty much forgotten now, this loud thud of a movie (directed by PEYTON PLACE’s Mark Robson) depicted the utter destruction of Los Angeles and featured an all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston. (The only cast member I really remember now is a then unknown Victoria Principal in a really tight t-shirt).
Advance word on the movie was mixed but the Sensurround stories were downright scary. We’d heard tales of people being hit by sound waves so strong that they got knocked right out of their seats. Warnings were posted as you went into the theater. Wow!
It was with much trepidation that I trooped in with my dad to see EARTHQUAKE at the twin screen Plaza East Theater in Charleston WV. As we entered, we saw the first 2 rows of seats had been removed to make way for two humongous horizontal speakers that filled the area between the new front row and the screen. Several of the corner seats in the back had also been removed to make way for two large vertical speakers. We took our seats in the middle of the theater (not too close, not too far) and gripped the arms tightly as the lights went down.
What was EARTHQUAKE like in Sensurround? Well, frankly, it was a normal sounding movie. Until the earthquake hit. Then suddenly the big speakers kicked in. The movie got very loud and the speakers sent out a deafening constant roaring rumble. I wasn’t hit by any sound waves. I didn’t even feel my shirt or clothes shaking. Just a really loud constant roar. Earthquakes tend to last a few minutes but this just went on and on for way too long. It was actually a relief when the quake ended and the regular soundtrack kicked back in.
We didn’t realize how loud Sensurround was until the next week when we returned to see the other movie at the Plaza East, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER. On schedule, a half-hour in, Sensurround kicked in next door and the noise level spilled over into our theater. Some viewers grew irritated but I thought it was funny. Mostly because it kicked in during the scene where Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) and Cato (Bruce Kwouk) were fighting and destroying their apartment. Sensurround seemed oddly appropriate. And I swear at one moment on the screen Peter Sellers looked around confused as if he could hear the roar too.
A friend I met years later in film school told me that when he saw EARTHQUAKE, there was actually dust and plaster floating through the air. He was impressed at how realistic it all was. Until the movie stopped and the manager announced they were cancelling the show because the building was shaking too much.
EARTHQUAKE became the high water mark for Sensurround. The next film to use it, MIDWAY (1976), employed much smaller speakers and barely caused a ripple despite the poster claims that we would “feel we were in combat.”
Universal planned to use it on a big budget remake of KING KONG (imagine Kong roaring in Sensurround) but the project got cancelled when Paramount started their own KONG with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange (in her film debut).
By the time Sensurround was used for the underrated thriller ROLLERCOASTER (1977) the speakers were so small that it made little difference. It just seemed like a normal movie. The movie version of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978) became Sensurround’s last hurrah.
In the end Sensurround struck me (no pun intended) as just a gimmick like 3-D, Cinerama, Imax, Smell-O-Vision, or Illusion-O that missed the point of movies. The best way of making the audience feel they are in the movie is to create stories and characters that make us feel like we are up there living and dying with them. I’ll take that over a big rake of speakers any day.
Why this Song of the Day?
Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Leon Redbone
I saw him sing this song on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in the 1970s & it blew me away. I loved his voice then and I still love it now.