Indian Hills Theater

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The Indian Hills Theater in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, was built in 1962 as a movie theater showcasing films in the Cinerama wide-screen format. The theater's screen was the largest of its type in the United States. Despite the protests of local citizens, Hollywood legends, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the theater was demolished in 2001 by Nebraska Methodist Health System for a parking lot.

Physical description[edit]

1962 appearance[edit]

Design and construction[edit]

The theater was built for Swanson Enterprises of Omaha at a cost of one million dollars by A. Borchman Sons Company. The theater was leased to the Cooper Foundation of Lincoln, Nebraska, for exhibition of films in the Cinerama format.

The theater was designed by architect Richard L. Crowther of Denver, Colorado, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Mr. Crowther is considered one of America's leading architects specializing in environmentally responsible design, passive-solar and natural-energy heating and cooling. Mr. Crowther has authored numerous books, including Sun-Earth: Sustainable Design, 1983, reprinted 1994, and Affordable Passive Solar Homes, SciTech, 1984. The original blueprints for the theater are in the Denver Public Library Special Collections Department.

Mr. Crowther designed each element of the theater to enhance the Cinerama experience. The circular design took advantage of the discovery that patrons, if left to their own devices, would seat themselves in an oval pattern. The exterior circular shape served as a constant reminder to passing motorists that this was a Cinerama theater. The design included a cylindrical shape and a flat roof.

The base of the building exterior consisted of black Roman brick. The upper portion of the exterior was clad in insulated Monopanels which were a burnt-orange color called Swedish red. The interior auditorium was circular in shape and seated 810, with 662 on the main floor and 148 on the balcony. The auditorium was wheelchair-accessible and there were spaces designed for wheelchair-using patrons. The cushioned seats were purple and individually numbered. The main floor sloped from the rear of the auditorium to the screen. The carpet was purple with light pastel circular designs. A motor-driven floor-to-ceiling curtain would open to reveal the screen. The curved screen was 35 feet, 3 inches (10.75 m) high and 110 feet (34  m) wide, with a 146-degree curve - just short of a half-circle. The screen extended from the floor to the ceiling and was the largest indoor movie screen in the United States. The screen consisted of 2500 strips of one-inch, perforated tape called louvers. There were twenty speakers in five mountings evenly spaced behind the screen, four speakers on each side of the theater and eight speakers in the rear. The speakers were "Voice of the Theater" models manufactured by Altec Lansing Co.

On each side of the auditorium there was a circular lounge for service of refreshments which contained curved padded benches. Above the lounge areas were curved floor-to-ceiling architectural baffles with a circular motif. Behind each baffle was a large cylindrical speaker cluster with a circular light fixture attached to the bottom. The three projection booths required for Cinerama were located on the main floor of the auditorium with one in the center and the other two evenly spaced between the center and side walls. There were two symmetrical doorless entrances from the lobby to the auditorium. Offset walls were placed at the rear of the theater which blocked light from entering the theater. Access to the balcony was through two free-floating staircases with wide semi-circular panels located on either side of the concession stand. The concession stand was located on the lobby wall adjoining the projection booths. The bathrooms were designed with doorless entrances and staggered walls for privacy. The flat roof of the lobby continued to the east to form a covered porte-cochere drive for arrival and departure of patrons. The box office was located to the left of the entrance and contained a numbered ticket box holding reserved-seat tickets for each show. A separate set of doors located across from the lobby exited onto a patio for use of patrons prior to the show and during intermission. The patio contained circular stone benches around an iron circular natural gas torch fixture.

Subsequent modifications to the theater[edit]

In 1978, a smaller rectangular shaped theater called the Cameo was built to the east of the main theater. The covered entrance was reduced to a smaller covered entrance for non-vehicular traffic. The concession stand was moved to a wall east of the auditorium. In 1987, two additional smaller rectangular theaters were built to the west of the main theater. In 2000 the theater lessee, Carmike Cinemas, spent several hundred thousand dollars installing in the main auditorium a Sony Dynamic Digital Sound system, new seats, a new solid curved screen, and new curtains.

In July 2001, the Cameo and the two smaller theaters were demolished. In August 2001 the main auditorium was demolished. With the exception of the above modifications, on the date the theater closed the main auditorium had the same general appearance and improvements as it did when it opened.

Functional description[edit]

In 1962, a night at the Indian Hills Theater was like a night at the opera. A patron would call in advance to purchase reserved seats, referred to in the trade as a "hard ticket sell." Upon arrival at the theater the patrons would drive up to the entrance where a doorman would open the door to the lobby. Reserved seat tickets would be picked up at the box office and a tuxedo-attired usher would walk the patron into the auditorium and point out the seats with a flashlight. The concession stands offered only an orange drink in a specially shaped container and imported candies. Refreshments were not permitted in the seats. Patrons entering the theater would hear the film musical score from the speakers behind the screen. As the lights dimmed the curtains would reveal the massive curved screen. The projected image would nearly fill the viewer's field of vision. The multi-channel sound, combined with the screen image, created a three-dimensional experience. At intermission, patrons would gather at the side lounges of the auditorium, the lobby, or the patio.

From Cinerama to 70 mm[edit]

The final Cinerama film to be shown at the Indian Hills was "How the West Was Won" which played for forty two weeks until it closed in March 1964. Thereafter the theater played regular first-run films through a single projector in the 70 mm or 35 mm format. In 1968 "2001: A Space Odyssey" was presented in the 70 mm format and billed as Cinerama.

Architectural and historical significance[edit]

Cinerama was a panoramic screen format invented by Fred Waller. It followed Waller's earlier eleven-camera, eleven-projector "Vitarama" process, first presented in 1939 at the New York World's Fair, which proved too unwieldy for widespread commercial deployment. Cinerama featured a three-camera, three-projector process that projected three film images side by side on a deep curved screen to recreate a lifelike image. The curved screen was designed to take advantage of the effect of peripheral images in the viewer's eye and create the feeling that the viewer was in the picture. A state-of-the-art, multi-track stereo sound system heightened the sense of realism. Prior to the first Cinerama production, movies were projected on a nearly-square flat screen and the sound was one-channel monophonic. As a result of Cinerama the film industry adopted the single-projector wide-screen format and stereophonic sound as the norm. At the peak of Cinerama's popularity, there were over 200 theaters in the world capable of projecting Cinerama films. Most of these were existing theaters adapted to use the Cinerama process. Ten theaters, however, were built specifically for Cinerama films. The Martin Corporation built such theaters in New Orleans, Seattle, and St. Louis. Others were located in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Cuba, and Japan. Of the ten theaters designed for Cinerama, three near-identical "Super-Cineramas" were built in Denver (Cooper Theater) (1961), Minneapolis (Cooper Theater) (1961), and Omaha (Indian Hills Theater) (1962). Only three (3) theaters remain that are configured to show Cinerama. These theaters are located in Seattle (Martin Cinerama Theater), Los Angeles (Cinerama Dome), and Bradford, England (National Media Museum). Only the theater in England has regular showings of Cinerama films.

A series of popular Cinerama films were produced in the 1950s and early 1960s. Due to the prohibitive cost of the Cinerama production process, the epic "How the West Was Won" was the last film shot using the Cinerama process, although later motion pictures (2001, A Space Odyssey, for example) that could take advantage of the wide screen, were marketed as "Cinerama" films.

The Indian Hills Theater was the movie palace of its day. As the final "Super-Cinerama" theater, it contained refinements to the design which resulted in the finest Cinerama theater ever built. It was designed with a modern functional style. The design reflected the "form follows function" philosophy of architecture. The unique circular design served to enhance every aspect of the Cinerama experience. The curved screen was the largest ever installed in a Cinerama theater. The only other two (2) "Super-Cinerama" theaters were demolished. One located in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, was demolished to make way for a restaurant and office complex. The other, located in Denver, Colorado, was demolished and replaced with a chain bookstore. The Indian Hills theater showed its last Cinerama film in March, 1964. The theater closed on September 28, 2000.

According to David Strohmaier, a Los Angeles filmmaker and producer of a documentary film called "Cinerama Adventure," the Indian Hills Theater was unique. It was unique because of the circular design and extraordinarily large screen. The Indian Hills Theater embodied the culmination of Cinerama design and technology.

National Register of Historic Places criteria[edit]

Recommendations for the National Register of Historic Places are made by the state historical society of the state in which a property is located. In the summer of 2001, the Nebraska State Historical Society issued a letter indicating that the Indian Hills Theater was of such architectural and historical importance to the history of cinema on a national basis that it would qualify for listing in the National Register. The letter indicated that the theater met National Register Criteria "A" in that the "Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history" and Criteria "C" in that the "Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction."

Preservation fight and demolition[edit]

Theater closes[edit]

On September 28, 2000, the theater closed as a result of the national bankruptcy of Carmike Cinemas. The final film presented was Turn It Up. After the final show a number of fans of the theater walked up to the front of the auditorium, touched the screen and discussed the future of the theater.

Nebraska Methodist Health Systems, Inc.[edit]

In April 2001 it was announced that the theater and an adjacent office building had been sold to a local health care provider, Nebraska Methodist Health Systems, Inc. Nebraska Methodist is one of the largest health care providers in Nebraska and in Omaha operates Methodist Hospital, numerous clinics and the Nebraska Methodist College nursing college. The nursing college was located adjacent to the theater property.

The local newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, in an editorial dated August 23, 2001, endorsed Nebraska Methodist's claim that it needed additional parking for the adjacent nursing college as one of the major justifications for demolishing the theater. The local newspaper did not report that, at the time it acquired the theater, Nebraska Methodist had already privately committed to moving the nursing college to a new site (the Josie Harper Campus) four blocks away across a busy street which would make nursing student parking at the theater property impractical. The nursing college has since moved to the Nebraska Methodist College Josie Harper Campus.

Ed Reitan and the American Society of Cinematographers[edit]

Shortly after the announcement that the theater had been sold, Nebraska Methodist was contacted by Ed Reitan, a Los Angeles developer of air traffic control systems and winner of a 1989 technical Emmy Award for his restoration of the earliest television color videotapes. Mr. Reitan had been raised in Omaha and maintained a second home there. Mr. Reitan reported in a posting at In70mm.com that "Pleas from myself in direct meetings with NMHS to at least save and use the central Cinerama theater for their own auditorium were ignored." Communications from the American Society of Cinematographers were similarly ignored by Nebraska Methodist.

Indian Hills Investment Group[edit]

In the spring of 2001 a group of three (3) Cinerama enthusiasts, referred to informally as the "Indian Hills Investment Group," approached Nebraska Methodist regarding the possibility of leasing the theater with the intent of reopening with regular commercial films and periodic Cinerama showings. The Investment Group consisted of Larry Karstens of Omaha, Matt Lutthans of Everett, WA, a school teacher formerly involved in the preservation of the Seattle Martin Cinerama Theater, and Rich Vincent of Denver, the former manager of the Denver Cooper Cinerama. The intentions of the Investment Group were well-publicized in the local newspaper. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to meet with the new owner, the Investment Group was informed that a meeting would be held on June 20, 2001. Mr. Karstens has stated that, prior to the meeting, he was confident that a deal could be reached to reopen the theater.

June 20, 2001, meeting and press conference[edit]

On the morning of June 20, 2001, a meeting was held at the theater between Mr. Karstens, Mr. Lutthans, legal representation, and Stephen Long, Nebraska Methodist CEO, and several of his employees. Mr. Long indicated that the theater would be demolished for a parking lot. Mr. Karstens and Mr. Lutthans were informed that contents of the theatre would be made available for potential reuse. Mr. Karstens and Mr. Lutthans were requested to be present for a press conference scheduled for later that day in front of the theater. At the press conference, covered by local television and radio, the Nebraska Methodist CEO announced, with Mr. Lutthans and Mr. Karstens standing in the background, that "we both jointly concluded that probably it just didn't make a lot of sense to plow a bunch of money into [the theater]" and that the theater would be razed by the end of the summer. Ed Reitan reported hearing Mr. Karstens state in the news conference that "We are in full agreement with Methodist that, as sad as it is for us, it's the right decision." Mr. Karstens has since stated that he did not mean that his group was in favor of demolition, but that the "sinking of large sums of money" was the right decision.

Mr. Reitan stated at the time in a posting at In70mm.com that "Incredibly, Larry Karstens and Matt Lutthans, who that same day had expected to negotiate a lease from Methodist to resume film exhibition, appeared with NMHS at that press conference and made statements in support of the Methodist action. This may have terminally damaged any other hopes to save the Indian Hills. After they could not get their lease of the Indian Hills, they expressed no other need or approach for preservation and expressed their agreement with the Methodist action. Methodist nicely had the whole package wrapped up in one short day, with the assistance and blessing of Karstens and Lutthans!" Unknown to Mr. Reitan at the time, Mr. Karstens and Mr. Lutthans were discussing the approach to be used at the press conference with legal advisors both in Omaha and Los Angeles (including talks with Robert Nudelman of Hollywood Heritage) immediately following the morning meeting with Mr. Long, and while there was some severe arguing during those discussions, the final, agreed upon approach to the press conference was to not make waves at that particular time.

On June 22, 2001, Mr. Long issued a statement in his employee newsletter "Newstime". Mr. Long stated that "Methodist Health System has offered to donate the theatre furnishings left behind, including the screen, projectors, curtains and most of the seats, to a group (the Investment Group) who wished to operate the Indian Hills building as a movie theater. The group is also welcome to any architecturally significant items." In the June 29, 2001, issue of "Newstime" Mr. Long stated that the news conference had been "well-represented by the local media" and followed "a meeting between MHS officials and a national cinerama interest group, who jointly concluded that shared use of the building was not economically viable." The "national cinerama interest group" was in reference to Mr. Karstens, Mr. Rich, and Mr. Lutthans. Mr. Long further stated that "The (national cinerama interest group/Investment Group) publicly supported our decision through participation in the press release and press conference." Karstens, Rich, and Lutthans, have all stated since that their appearance at the conference was not meant as any sort of endorsement of the views put forth by Methodist, although it arguably came across that way.

Indian Hills Theater Preservation Society[edit]

On one level, the announcement of the theater's demise with a Cinerama enthusiast appearing to support the decision on camera shocked many fans of the theater and resulted in the grass-roots formation of the Indian Hills Theater Preservation Society. Behind the scenes, Mr. Karstens had been aware of the members of the Preservation Society for some time, and had been talking with them during the weeks leading up to the Long meeting, and all agreed to let things play out and see what developed with the initial meeting with Long. When that meeting did not go well, Karstens was immediately in touch with Bruce Crawford (see below) and with Preservation Society members, although his work was largely behind the scenes with one or two members at a time, so as to give their efforts a fresh and different face. The Society had the goal of persuading Nebraska Methodist to preserve the theater. Leaders of the Society were Steve Dawes, Ron A. Hunter, Tom Hunter, Frank Merwald and Susie Rose. The Society was assisted by letters of support to the local newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, from such Hollywood legends as Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, Robert Wise, Richard D. Zanuck and Ray Bradbury. The Hollywood letter-writing was largely due to the work of Bruce A. Crawford, a friend of the Society and Omaha film event impresario. Film historian Leonard Maltin appeared in a public-service commercial aired on local television and radio in support of the Society. The National Trust for Historic Preservation sent an attorney to Omaha to support the Society. The CEO of Nebraska Methodist, Stephen Long, refused to discuss any alternative to immediate demolition.

Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission[edit]

On August 8, 2001, a hearing was held before the Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission to determine whether the Indian Hills Theater was of such architectural and historical importance that it should be designated an Omaha Landmark. Such a designation, upon confirmation by the Omaha City Council, would have protected the theater from demolition. Presentations were made by the Indian Hills Theater Preservation Society and attorneys for Nebraska Methodist. Filmmaker and Cinerama historian David Strohmaier stated, in video testimony, that the Indian Hills was "the finest venue for wide-screen films in the world." The Commission voted unanimously to recommend to the Omaha City Council that the theater be designated a "Landmark of the City of Omaha."

Demolition and disposal of contents[edit]

On August 20, 2001, Nebraska Methodist demolished the theater before the Omaha City Council could vote on the landmark recommendation. Mr. Lutthans commented, in a posting at In70mm.com, that "When the wrecking ball hit, I literally cried, it was such a disappointment. That was the finest theatre I had ever seen in my life, and the last of its kind, and everybody involved put in so much work, and now the space is a beautifully paved, empty parking lot. Just sickening."

Nebraska Methodist subsequently gave Mr. Karstens some of the contents of the theater, including Sony SDDS digital sound equipment and speakers, projection equipment, seats and movie screens. In the end, Mr. Karstens received one piece of signage and one seat as sentimental souvenirs. All else was donated completely free of charge to various theatre/arts groups in the area, including the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center . One movie screen was damaged by Nebraska Methodist during removal and was unusable. The projector for the main theater was never removed and was destroyed during demolition when the balcony was dropped on it. Mr. Karstens requested numerous architecturally significant items from Nebraska Methodist but did not receive any with the sole exception of the huge cursive outdoor neon sign. The sign was severely damaged with most of the neon broken. The sign was apparently removed from the building by Nebraska Methodist workers with hacksaws and simply dropped to the entrance roof 15 feet below. Mr. Karstens did not keep the heavily damaged sign.

In the media[edit]

The theatre later featured in filmmaker Jim Fields documentary Preserve Me A Seat, on the grass-root failures and successes of activists working to preserve historic movie theaters in Boston, Chicago, Omaha and Salt Lake City.[1]

The theater is featured in a book titled "Cinema Treasures, a New Look at Classic Movie Theaters" by Ross Melnick and Andrea Fuchs, MBI Publishing.

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°15′45″N 96°02′49″W / 41.26250°N 96.04694°W / 41.26250; -96.04694