A Tour of the West: Circarama 1955 and American Motors

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“An advanced motion picture development, Circarama, consisting of a continuous image focused on a 360-degree screen, will be introduced at Disneyland Park on July 17 by American Motors Corporation, producer of Hudson, Nash and Rambler automobiles and Kelvinator appliances.”
—Disney press release from June 27,1955.

In 1960, Disney Legend Ub Iwerks was honored with the Herbert T. Kalmus Gold Medal from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for his outstanding contributions to the technology in equipment and processes for the making of color-motion pictures. These achievements included creating the double headed optical printer, the color correction masking process, the xerographic process for animation and the 360 degree Circarama system.

Circarama! Like so many early Imagineering achievements for the Disneyland theme park, this was another innovative experience that has been taken for granted and poorly documented over the years.

My brothers and I never saw the original film, A Tour of the West, that ran from 1955 to roughly the beginning of 1960 in the building at the entrance of Tomorrowland, just to the left of the infamous clock that could tell the time around the world.

We did get a chance to enjoy a later production, America the Beautiful (sponsored by AT&T), that seems better documented and, more importantly, we got to enjoy the post show where we could pick up phones and listen to Mickey Mouse or Goofy talk to us briefly on a prerecorded track. Of course, our favorite experience was to cram into a small booth and on a speaker phone (an incredibly new experience for us that fascinated us completely at the time) be able to phone a relative and all of us talk at the same time to share our excitement at being at Disneyland. Strangely, I don’t remember much about the film itself other than trying to spin around and see as many of the screens as possible and that mom and dad didn’t like standing up for so long in one place.

How did the original idea for Circarama develop and what was that first film, A Tour of the West like? That’s the purpose of today’s column, to once again spotlight an early Disneyland attraction and share some never-before-revealed behind-the-scenes secrets.

As Iwerks remembered it, one afternoon, while working on the Disney live-action film Westward Ho, the Wagons, he paused in a hallway of the Disney Studios in Burbank to talk a little with Walt Disney about some of the challenges adapting some of the films to the Cinemascope process.

Supposedly, Walt encouraged Iwerks to give some thought to developing a new format for the presentation of movies that would involve a series of screens that completely surrounded the audience a full 360 degrees.

As Disney Legend Roger Broggie remembered it, Walt, after seeing the new theater process of Cinerama at the Hollywood Pantages theater, where three large screens were in synchronization to present a motion picture like How the West Was Won or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, called Broggie and special effects expert Eustace Lycett to his office and wondered: Since three screens could be put together, would it be possible to extend it so that there would be screens surrounding the entire audience.

The result of Walt’s speculation was the creation of the first Circarama theater that was one of the few Disneyland attractions working properly for guests on Opening Day, July 17, 1955.

In 1901, at the World’s Fair in Paris, one of the earliest versions of the 360-degree film debuted. However, this Disney process was so unique that Walt and Iwerks shared a patent on Circarama that was filed on the one-year anniversary of Disneyland and was granted four years later on June 28, 1960. Thanks to the research of Hans Perk (who constantly surprises and delights me with the Disney paper treasures he shares on his blog) those patent papers can be viewed at this link.

It was called “Circarama” not only as an allusion to “Cinerama” (that supposedly later resulted in the process being renamed “Circle-Vision” in 1967 because the two words were too similar), but also because the film was sponsored by American Motors, who was not only using the Disney Studios to produce animated television commercials for its product but was also sponsoring the Disneyland television show and the attraction. In fact, the original sign outside the attraction had the word “Circarama” in large dark black letters except for the word “car” which was in red.

American Motors Corporation (AMC) was an American automobile company formed on January 14, 1954 by the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company.

To show you how casual correct nomenclature was at early Disneyland, contemporary paper documentation of the time, like newspaper stories, internal publications, maps and guides, etc. variously list the name of the attraction as “American Motors Circarama Exhibit,” “American Motors Exhibit,” “American Motors presents Circarama,” and just “Circarama.”

No matter what it was officially called, it was evident that this was the American Motors show for Disneyland. Sponsorship from Richfield, Kaiser Aluminum, Monsanto and others provided funds for Tomorrowland, which was built only six months before the park opened. Without money from that lessee (as participants were known in those early days), Tomorrowland wouldn’t have been built at all since Walt had spent all his money and more on the rest of the park.

“This combination of photographic skills and entertainment talents promises an unusual spectacle for visitors to Disneyland. We’re happy to have a part to play in making Circarama possible. As it represents added pleasure and value for the public, sponsorship of the Circarama is another forward step in our program to make American Motors mean more for Americans,” said George Romney the then-president of the company in the official June 27, 1955 press release.

On the floor inside the attraction were prominently displayed five AMC automobiles, as well as Kelvinator appliances. These appliances included the futuristic FOODARAMA (“the last word in foodkeeping”) that could hold 166 pounds of meat in its freezer, had a Breakfast Bar for eggs and bacon and 2 pitchers of juices, Cheese and Butter Chests, an aluminum foil dispenser, and even an unrefrigerated bin for bananas!

How was this unique movie experience filmed?

Eleven 16mm Cine Kodak Special cameras with 200 feet of pre-threaded film magazines were mounted on a circular platform covering 360 degrees of arc. The drive shafts of all the cameras were linked mechanically by means of a single sprocket chain.

The tachometer permitted precise control of the shooting speed of a full range of adjustments from eight  to 24 frames per second. The driving power was supplied by batteries and a push-button control inside the car to start, stop and control the cameras. So basically, the push button controls for the camera were on the dashboard.

This unique camera set-up was strapped to the top of an American Motors Rambler to record a travelogue down the new Los Angeles freeways to Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon and even Las Vegas.

Disney Legend Peter Ellenshaw was the art director for the project and I got a chance to talk to him briefly in the Spring of 1997 about his involvement in the original show:

“It was a travelogue in the round of Southern California and the West,” Ellenshaw remembered. “They mounted 11cameras on a circular platform atop a station wagon. I was the art director. My greatest problem is I would find this lovely composition, just beautiful, but the cameras behind this vista would show all this trash and junk. It was horrible. I had nothing to do with the mechanical side of the process. That was all Iwerks. On Wilshire Boulevard we ran the cameras at half speed so when it was run at normal speed it seemed like we were demons going at tremendous speeds and somehow amazingly stopping just in the nick of time. That’s the scene that most people remember. That film lasted until around 1959 and then they replaced it.”

The filming was plagued with challenges from the very beginning. On the way to Utah’s Monument Valley, an unexpected bump sent the whole camera system lurching forward. Finding good, smooth roads in the desert was next to impossible. Pictorially, it was a challenge, as well, when in front of the crew was a magnificent mesa or butte but along the side or behind were electric power lines or billboards or similar visual disturbances.

There was a press preview at the end of June that was favorably reviewed in the Los Angeles Times that stated, in part: “Spectators located on a so-called island in the center of the stage where Circarama was shown at the Disney plant were able to look out in every direction and observe views of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Las Vegas, Balboa Bay, and even the heavily traveled streets of Los Angeles. As one observer said, this new dimension makes it impossible for the spectator to escape the cowboys and Indians, no matter which way he looks.”

The original design for the Tomorrowland theater was for a central gondola from which 12 images would be shown on as many screens surrounding the audience. With a working area only forty feet in diameter, extremely wide angle short focal length projection lenses would have been required which would probably have resulted in image distortion. A “doughnut” type of arrangement with an odd number of screens resulted in the 360 degrees of arc being serviced perfectly.

What was the experience like for A Tour of the West? Here’s what Disneyland guests saw in 1955.

Throughout a 12-hour day, there were three approximately twelve-minute showings per hour, separated by eight minute intermissions during which the audience was loaded in and out of the theater. The film, of course, was shown in commercial Kodachrome.

The audience stood in an asphalt paved circular area 40 feet in diameter with the eight foot high screens elevated about eight feet off the floor. There were no “lean” rails in those early days. As mentioned, there were AMC cars and Kelvinator appliances around the outside of the perimeter.

The circular screen was divided by 6-inch wide vertical black strips into 11 8-by-11 foot sections onto which the continuous surrounding motion picture image was thrown by 11 Eastman 16mm Model 25 projectors with self-loading take-up reels, which required no rewinding in perfect synchronization.

Those projectors were equipped with a variable focus 15mm lens. Attendants were not needed to operate the projectors, merely to replace burnt out bulbs in automatic lamp changer, as well as torn film reels. The projection operation, as well as sound recording, was synchronized by Selsyn motor controls. The projectors were located between the black 6-inch wide strips dividing the 11 screen sections.

The black separating panels added to the illusion of continuity between adjoining sections of the picture, because they eliminated the disturbing jiggle between adjacent screen sections on the Cinerama three-screen image, as well as making it seem you were in a car and looking out through the windows.

In addition, it was discovered that this early system had “blind spots.” A person or landmark could suddenly disappear into one of these blind spots only to magically reappear on the adjacent screen. The strip of black between each screen helped solve that problem.

Since the projectors were about 12 feet apart, it was impossible to link them together mechanically as was done with the Cinerama system. Instead, the projectors were equipped with slotted-rotor synchronous drive motors that kept time with each other on the basis of the alternating cycles of the AC electricity that drove them. To compensate for voltage fluctuations, which might tend to slow down or speed up one or another of the projectors and also to synchronize the projectors with a four track sound reproducer, a Selsyn motor control unit was superimposed on the projector installation.

It automatically slowed down or sped up the out-of-phase motor’s speed until perfect synchronism was achieved. All of that was accomplished in a matter of less than two seconds without causing the out of phase image to “bounce.”

If the film should break in any of the projectors, the projector was instantly stopped and a warning light went on at the master control panel to alert the attendant that he had to replace the broken reel with one of the stand-by prints. That screen would be black until a replacement reel was installed.

Whenever a bulb burned out, an automatic bulb-changing mechanism on the projector swung the burnt out bulb out of position and replaced it with a fresh one, so that the picture goes on again in less than two seconds. As with a broken strip of film, a warning light is flashed to the master control panel alerting the attendant to put a fresh bulb in the stand by socket.

The sound was recorded on four magnetic channels and was fed into a bank of four 6-inch speakers mounted beneath each projector. As a result, the theater could be flooded with sound from all the speakers or distributed in a directional pattern in just one section. Both formats were utilized during the screening.

The Ralke Company of Los Angeles was responsible for the installation and maintenance of the Ciracarama unit and the Urbran Engineering Company of Hollywood perfected the synchronization of the projectors and sound system. Kinevox Inc. of Hollywood engineered the audio portion of the  resentation. Disney Legend Bill Anderson (credited as “William H. Anderson”) was given credit for supervising the entire film.

As the show opens, a narrator explained the projection medium and introduces the line of Kelvinator appliances.

“In a few moments you will see the most unique motion picture presentation ever developed. You will be completely surrounded by the picture that you see. We hope that you will enjoy… Circarama.”

Full-color slides of these modern AMC/Kelvinator marvels were projected in quick succession on each of the 11 screens and done in a way so the audience follows the progression of images until all the screens were filled and the audience had been conditioned to expect something on every screen.

Then the screens went black and a title appeared on one of the “forward” screens proclaiming “A Tour of the West.” From there the show began with all 11 screens filled with a continuous images of scenery observed from an automobile cruising through Beverly Hills onto Wilshire Boulevard and then on to the Los Angeles freeway system in route to the colorful Grand Canyon and Monument Valley sections of the Southwest. It also included a slow tour of a fabulous Las Vegas gambling resort.

In the beginning of the movie, the audience had a tendency to look just straight ahead at the forward motion but, as the ride continued, people became accustomed to being in a “car” and started to look out the side and rear windows as interesting roadside objects passed by, an illusion reinforced as I mentioned by those black strips which seemed like the window separations in a car.

Probably the most memorable segment in the film was the “race” down Wilshire Boulevard.

The car was driven at 15- to 20-miles per hour. When they did the high-speed chase on Wilshire Boulevard, they achieved the high-speed effect with an old Hollywood trick of slowing the speed the film traveled through the camera meaning that fewer frames were shot, so when it was played back at normal speed, it looked like the car was racing. Basically, they shot at about eight frames a second and then projected the final film at 24 frames a second.

“The effect was astonishing,” Ellenshaw said. “Suddenly we were hot rodders, racing down Wilshire at a hundred miles per hours, jumping out at green lights, and crashing to a stop only inches from the cars in front.”

During the whizzing down Wilshire, a police car with siren wailing is in full pursuit. The camera car weaves in and out of traffic, swinging to the right and then to the left, alternately slowing down and speeding up, avoiding accidents by split-second maneuvers. It really was a virtual thrill ride for guests of the mid-Fifties and one they still talked about when they left the theater. The wail of the police siren was added in post production to the sound track to reinforce the illusion of danger.

The scene shifts to the desert wilderness and the feeling of not just watching this beautiful tableau but actually being in it.

To insure that audiences would scan all the screens, Disney employed some subtle audience manipulation. In the Las Vegas scenes which are set at poolside at one of the resorts, the camera films two charming young ladies in delightfully form-fitting swimsuits. With the cameras fixed forward, the bathing beauties walk separately with poise and confidence along paths on either side of the circle of cameras, meeting each other again at the rear screen. So, yes, much if not all of the male audience frantically tried to follow the action around the screen.

So in a little more than 11 minutes, Disneyland guests got to journey through the West beginning on Sunset Boulevard in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, then a high speed trip down Wilshire Boulevard and then along the Los Angeles Freeways to Monument Valley, Ariz. The adventure continued through Newport Harbor in California (with the cameras mounted on a speedboat instead of the car) and then off to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

From a 1955 issue of Popular Photography magazine came the following review of the innovative Disneyland movie system: “Has Circarama a future? It doesn’t seem likely as a story-telling entertainment medium. On the other hand, it has infinite possibilities in the form in which it made its appearance at Disneyland—as a travelogue device, to subject an audience to an unusual visual and emotional experience and to sell a product or institution. Conceivably, a system might be devised in which the audience is suspended in the center of a sphere and visual images are screened all around, above and below.”

In 1958, Walt created a brand new Circarama film for the Brussels World’s Fair, America the Beautiful. The new film showcased the entire United States. In June of 1960 the new film debuted at Disneyland sponsored by Bell Telephone.

In 1967, the film process changed with the opening of the New Tomorrowland and there was a 35mm print that was enlarged from the film of nine (rather than 11) 16mm cameras. A few Bicentennial scenes were added in 1975 and the film ran until January 1984. Other films including Wonders of China and American Journeys were shown in the theater until 1996. Then, “America the Beautiful” returned for the final year (July 1996-September 1997) when the theater was closed for good.

A Tour of the West”was long forgotten in all of this rush for newness, but perhaps this little tribute will bring back some memories or at least record some for future researchers. The film was not just another example of innovation at early Disneyland, but if it still exists today is probably a wonderful time capsule of what Los Angeles and Las Vegas looked like more than half a century ago.