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Hollywood history lesson, in four-track stereo

The cinematheque celebrates the unheralded history of magnetic sound with a weeklong series of screenings.

November 29, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

When Americans were staying home in droves to watch a newfangled device called television in the late '40s and early '50s, the feature film world went into a panic trying to figure out ways to lure audiences back into the theaters. Hollywood soon discovered that a sure-fire way to get people out of their houses was to make the movies bigger and louder.

In 1952, moviegoers were treated to the big-screen-experience travelogue "This Is Cinerama." The following year, 20th Century Fox introduced the 35-millimeter wide-screen process CinemaScope and four-track magnetic stereo sound with its religious epic, "The Robe."

When "The Robe" was released, says Dennis Bartok, program manager of the American Cinematheque, audiences were enraptured with the big screen image and "hearing sound like they had never heard before. It really must have been eye-opening and ear-opening. It is something we take for granted, especially now when you have THX sound systems and digital sound systems. This was actually a big marketing tool for the studios."

It is rare to see and hear a four-track magnetic stereo CinemaScope print these days. "The sound striping on the film itself was kind of fragile," Bartok says. "It tended to wear out and get damaged really quickly. If the print wasn't handled carefully, it would get damaged." Making matters worse, "the magnetic strip over time would oxidize and that process would hasten the deterioration of the film print itself."

But the real death knell of four-track magnetic stereo was the 1977 release of "Star Wars" in optical stereo sound. Two of the last films released in four-track were "Scarface" and "Yentl" in 1983. "With 'Star Wars,' theater owners started to change over to Dolby optical," Bartok says. "It was much easier and the prints lasted longer."

The American Cinematheque is celebrating the unique, rich sound of four-track magnetic stereo with its weeklong festival, "Dimensions in Sound: A Celebration of 4-Track Magnetic Stereo in Film!"

The festival opens tonight with an original four-track Technicolor print of the 1959 production of the Gershwin opera "Porgy & Bess," starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. Brock Peters, who is featured in the film, Hope Preminger, the widow of the film's director, Otto Preminger, and his brother, Ingo Preminger, are to appear.

Other films in the festival include the musicals "Thoroughly Modern Millie" -- co-star Carol Channing is scheduled to attend -- and "Sweet Charity" on Saturday, Brian DePalma's "Scarface" (Dec. 6) and one of cinema's legendary turkeys, "The Conqueror" (Dec. 7), with John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

Four-track magnetic stereo involved "striping four separate tracks of magnetic sound onto the 35-millimeter print, which were read by magnetic sound heads on [the] projectors themselves," Bartok says. "The four tracks represented right, left, center and surround sound."

"You would get pops and clicks and noise if it wasn't set up right," says Jeff Joseph of Sabucat Films, a footage archive company that is presenting the festival with the cinematheque. But if it was set up right, the end result was better than today's Dolby digital. "It is like the musicians are playing for you," Joseph says. "There is a purity of the sound that modern recording and playback doesn't usually get."

Trying to find four-track magnetic stereo prints for the festival was a challenge.

"What happened is that we start off with three lists," Joseph says, "a list of what we'd like to run and a list of what we can clear the rights to and a list of what prints are available. The three lists don't coincide that much. As time goes on, the coincidence is less and less. They are either faded Eastman color prints or 'vinegar syndrome' prints [the odor means they are disintegrating] or they have been beaten to death. You are down to this section of prints that have good color and that are in good shape and don't smell. This is probably the last festival we'll do like this."

The majority of prints come from private collectors. "You have to know these people and get them to cooperate, because there is no money in this," Joseph says. "Then you hope it is in good shape. I would say 90% are in good shape. 'The Conqueror' print is almost brand new. Even though it is from 1956, it almost never got played. It was a bomb and the print is a virtual mint. It's in four-track stereo, Technicolor, and it's Victor Young's last score to boot."

The print of "Porgy" is probably the only surviving copy, Joseph says.

"They had a print at the Long Beach Widescreen Festival a few years ago, but that has gone to vinegar and was destroyed. This is a private print. This is going to be the last screening of it. I don't think the owner is ever going to let it out again. He knows the cinematheque is going to take good care of it."

The festival, Joseph says, will also feature four-track odds and ends including four-track stereo trailers and a production short on "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Tantalizingly, Joseph adds, "There will be little surprises before each show."



What: "Dimensions in Sound: A Celebration of 4-Track Magnetic Stereo in Film!"

Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Today-Dec. 8

Price: $8; $6 for cinematheque members

Contact: (323) 466-FILM,


The schedule

Today: "Porgy & Bess" at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday: "Journey to the Center of the Earth" at 4 p.m.; "Thoroughly Modern Millie" at 7:30 p.m., then "Sweet Charity"

Dec. 6: "Scarface" at 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 7: "Paint Your Wagon" at 5 p.m.; "The Conqueror" and the short "Survival City" at 9

Dec. 8: "4-Track Stereo and CinemaScope Demonstration Film" at 2:30 p.m. (tickets are free); "Pepe" at 5 p.m.

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