In late 1952, my father and I drove to the Tennessee Theatre to experience the city’s first 3D movie, “Bwana Devil,” starring Robert Stack.
The color film promo promised “A Lion in Your Lap - A Lover in Your Arms.” Being a young lad of ten, I was more fearful of the mushy lover than a ferocious lion, reasoning that I had a fighting chance with the wild beast. The simplistic plot involved two vicious lions, randomly dining on a crew of British railway workers in Kenya in 1898.
Upon entering the theatre lobby for the evening viewing, we were each handed a pair of cardboard “glasses,” containing red and blue lenses. After patronizing the refreshment counter, we chose seats about halfway down the center section, having been warned not to sit too close to the screen lest we be in harm’s way. As show time approached, growing tension could be sensed throughout the theatre. When the movie finally commenced, the 3D effect was impressive without being unduly threatening. Suddenly, a variety of missiles were hurled at our faces, chests, and laps from an array of objects, ranging from ravenous lions to crude spears.
Over the next 79 minutes, the audience blinked, ducked, flinched, squirmed, gasped and screamed, occasionally spilling their popcorn and soft drinks.
A few hardy patrons kept their glasses on throughout the entire movie, savoring each exciting scene as it unfolded on the screen. The nervous crowd soon learned that closing their eyes or removing their glasses would immediately neutralize the 3D effect.
This unique film genre was being ushered in to combat the loss of income resulting from the intrusion of television into homes. This less than impressive technology had been around since 1915 with modest acceptance by the public.
The 5000 participating U.S. theatres utilized two projectors to reproduce two images (left eye and right eye) through polarizers onto a screen, where it could be viewed using a pair of glasses with matching filters. The result was the illusion of depth as perceived by our brains.
These movies were not without problems. Projectionists had to continually monitor the picture quality; people occasionally left the theatre experiencing headaches and dizziness. By the conclusion of the film, the cardboard glasses had become very uncomfortable.
Moviegoers soon became weary of lackluster plots and 3D gimmicks, forcing production crews to focus more on the story lines than on special effects. The 3D fad of yesteryear was coming to a finale, delivering only 46 films between late 1952 and early 1955.
I attended several 3D cinemas during this time, most playing at the Majestic Theatre. My favorites were “House of Wax” (1953 in stereo), “The Maze” (1953), “Hondo” (1953 with John Wayne) and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954).
As Dad and I exited the theatre and headed for our car in the direction of Fountain Square, I glanced up at the lights emitting from our slumbering tranquil town in all of its three-dimensional glory … and without the use of projectors, polarized images, or cardboard lenses. I had returned to the real 3D world.
If anyone has additional information about area 3D movies, please let me hear from you.