Cinepanorama in the Land of the Soviets
Text and photos Boris Sorokoumov
Wide, sunny alleys, tall fountains, bronze statues of workers and collective farmers armed with the implements of labor, a rocket launcher at the ready, passenger jets marked with the letters СССР. We’re at the favorite recreation spot of Soviet citizens, the Exhibition of the Accomplishments of the People’s Economy. Known in Russian as VDNKh (pronounced ve-de-en-kha), short for Vystavka Dostizhenii Narodnogo Khozyaistva), you can’t get any closer to the heart of multinational pride, socialist bliss, and unadulterated belief in the inexorably bright future ahead.
Tucked away near the southern entrance to VDNKh, you’ll find a little-noticed puck-shaped structure made of stone and glass. The sign outside reads “360-Degree Film Panorama.”
Inside the round hall, your head spins: On 11 screens surrounding the viewer on all sides, the mountains around Lake Baikal suddenly appear, only to be replaced by the urban landscape of Moscow, then the geysers of Kamchatka followed by the lush greenery of Sukhumi and Buryat folk dances.
There is something odd and off-putting in the scenes – people are wearing strange clothing, the spotless streets are devoid of bright advertising billboards, and the roads are dotted with unfamiliar makes of cars.
It takes a few moments until the explanation occurs to you. The dusky hues, uneven color, and scratchy images. The officious voiceover emanating from who-knows-where. And then you realize: You are watching the Soviet Union.
The idea of a full-surround movie screen was hardly original: In the United States, architect Ralph Walker and engineer Fred Waller first demonstrated their 11-projector “Vitarama” system at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. In 1955, Walt Disney built the “Circarama” at Disneyland, and in June 1958, the Disney Circarama film America the Beautiful was shown at the World’s Fair in Brussels. It is likely that this is where Khrushchev got the inspiration to build his own Soviet film panorama system.
At the time, the desire to “catch up to and overtake America” in every possible indicator of the national economy was convulsing official Soviet society. So, naturally, the Soviet version of the Circarama would be better than the American one, by God(less)! Sure enough, in a mere three months, Soviet engineers, under Khrushchev’s personal guidance, designed and built their Motherland a full-surround film panorama viewing system.
It had 22 screens (twice the number as the American version), which were placed in two rows. There was an equal number of PKP-5 film projectors, which could automatically regulate the contrast and adjust the placement of each image on the screen to fit the dimensions of the viewing hall and ensure a perfect match between the seams of screens. A special nine-channel soundtrack was recorded on separate tapes that were played by a phonograph in the theater’s control room and projected through the theater’s nine speakers (seven behind the screen, one in the floor, and one on the ceiling).
Filming in the new format required 11 cameras, which were mounted in a circle on a single platform such that the angles between them even at 32°43’. This piece of equipment could be used to film a full 360° from a car, plane, or helicopter and, later on, even underwater.
The new movie attraction opened together with the newly renamed and expanded VDNKh and coincided with the June 1959 plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The first viewers were the plenum participants, who saw director Vasily Katanyan’s film The Road of Spring. The krugorama (a direct Russian translation of Disney’s Circorama) was a resounding success!
Six years later the filming and projecting equipment was fitted with attachments so that a single full-surround image could be projected onto both rows of screens to produce a unified picture. Such a reconfiguration allowed the reduction of projectors by half, helping to reduce staff and make the production of the movies and operation of the theater significantly cheaper.
The krugorama was a hit among audiences. For a long time, the 300-person theater had 17 showings a day with nary an empty seat. Because the krugorama was oft en included as a destination on tours of the city, the theater sometimes found itself double- or triple-booked. If, for example, a group of high-level visitors was in town and there were no tickets left , the theater might have to accommodate up to 1000 viewers in a single showing. In short, a visit to the krugorama became a must for foreign delegations and other notable guests of the capital, and even Khrushchev loved to visit his baby himself.
“He came three or four times during my shift,” said Lyudmila Vanyuchkova, the longest-serving member of the cinepanorama staff . “Showings for Khrushchev required additional attention from the film technicians. We always kept a special high-quality print of the film for government officials. Khrushchev was very proud of VDNKh and always boasted to visitors from overseas about his cinepanorama. When high-ranking government officials stopped coming to see a particular film we’d use their copy to show to foreigners.”
Vanyuchkova has worked at the full-surround cinepanorama since its opening in 1959. “While studying at the film technicians’ school on the Arbat, I apprenticed here for two months and really liked it. So after I graduated, I stayed on to work here. Each day we had 11 film technicians on duty at the full-surround cinepanorama plus a person in the control booth and two engineers – one main and one relief. It was great here, a lot of fun… The staff here had high salaries relative to other movie theater workers: a technician got 72 rubles (as opposed to the usual 42.50), and an engineer got 125 rubles (instead of 75),” Vanyuchkova recalled.
The full-surround cinepanorama is a prime example of late 1960s Soviet technology. The amplifiers are big boxes with a profusion of incandescent bulbs inside. The movie projectors are equipped with experimental xenon bulbs, which were unheard of at the time.
Eventually, some of the loudspeakers were removed: the one under the floor got wet in wintertime from the audience’s snowy shoes, while the ceiling one was too difficult to access for repairs.
Nowadays the attraction is run entirely by women – three film technicians. They sell the tickets, clean up and maintain the building, and make minor repairs to the equipment.
Despite the difficulties, the full-surround cinepanorama provides passable image and sound quality and brings visitors to the recreation complex, today called VVTs (pronounced ve-ve-tse), the All-Russian Exhibition Center. The theater staff say they often see the familiar faces of repeat visitors, and those who wander in by chance enjoy the show and often stay afterward to ask questions. The dozens of repertory films from the 1970s and 80s plunge the viewer into the socialist past like nothing else can.
Over the course of its existence, the full-surround cinepanorama closed only once, at the end of the 1980s, to soundproof the control room and to replace the plastic covering in the foyer, after a number of deaths in a fire at the Rossiya Hotel were linked to toxins released from a similar plastic covering there. Apart from that short closure, the theater has functioned continuously for nearly 50 years.
Today, the theater is the only one of its kind in the world. If you go, you’ll really feel like you’re “back in USSR.”