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A brief history of theater odors

August 18, 2011

The idea of enhancing the film-going experience with scent goes back more than 50 years. In 1959, a movie called "Behind the Great Wall," a China travelogue, featured "AromaRama," with odors pumped into a theater in New York; among the smells were grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches and horses.

Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Bosley Crowther opined that the odors were "mostly elusive, oppressive or perfunctory and banal."

"During a hurried tour of Hong Kong, there emerges a sort of spicy smell," he said. "A tarrish or oily odor comes with a scene on the water-front. A light fragrance somewhat suggesting wet straw emerges in the scenes of the cormorant fishing, and the sequence of the tiger hunt is accompanied by an odor that struck this viewer as that of banana oil. Several times there's a smell of smoke or incense, and the scenes of the parade with the flowers are rendered almost distressing by a vaporized squirt of cheap perfume."

A competing system, Smell-O-Vision, debuted in 1960 with the B-movie "Scent of Mystery."

Smells at the movies made a brief comeback in 1981 with John Waters' comedy "Polyester." His scratch-and-stiff card gimmick, similar to Rodriguez's "Aroma-Scope" was called "Odorama." It featured the scents of flowers, pizza, glue, gas, grass, and feces. It was advertised with the slogan, "It'll blow your nose!"

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