Gimmicks for movies were hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s. From 3-D to Smell-O-Vision, Cinerama to Cinemascope, producers tried anything they could to be different to attract audiences. Producers would provide actors to theaters to pose as doctors or nurses in case audience members became ill during a showing of their film. Or sometimes each patron would have to sign a waver that the theater was not responsible for any mental or physical damage incurred during a showing of a particular movie.
As the 1970’s came to play, gimmicks became obsolete at indoor theaters. It wasn’t until 1974 that Universal pictures created what is, to date, the last major film gimmick. It was called Sensurround and it would last for only a few years and would be created for only four movies.
Sensurround was basically large speakers that, at various points in the movie, would emit rumbling sounds to emulate whatever action was on the screen. The Sensurround speakers were subwoofers about the size of refrigerators that were generally placed at the front on either side of the screen and in the back corners of each theater. Some theaters, particularly the large movie palaces, would have as many as ten speakers located throughout the theater. When the rumbling began you (the audience) could feel as well as hear it.
Sensurround made its debut with the 1974 disaster movie “Earthquake” and it became a major “event” film and was a smash at the box office. The film’s Sensurround came into play a few times early in the film every time a “trembler” was felt but the Sensurround really kicked in when the major earthquake hits. The speakers rumbled on for several minutes and added a terrific effect to the film. The creators of Sensurround were awarded a special Academy Award for its creation.
There were problems with Sensurround that became evident early on. Many of the theaters that showed “Earthquake” were either twin or triple screen multiplexes or the decades old movie palaces which were deteriorating and on their way out. Each movie palace had to close a few days before the opening of “Earthquake” to test the sound system to see if the theaters were still structurally sound. Most theaters passed the test but some, including Hollywood’s Mann’s Chinese Theater, discovered structural damage after the tests and had to string a safety net the entire length of the theater to protect its patrons. No injuries were ever reported. Several cities, including Chicago and New York, had safety department heads trying to prevent the playing of the film in its older downtown theaters for fear of permanent structural damage.
The problem with playing Sensurround in theaters with more then one screen was the fact that the rumbling would disrupt the movie(s) playing in the other auditoriums. Many theater owners requested that “Earthquake” only play their theater when The Who’s “Tommy” was also playing because they could turn up the soundtrack on the rock opera thus attempting to not disrupt that audience. Unfortunately many theater owners were stuck playing “quieter” films like “The Godfather, Part Two” and were inundated with complaints and refund requests. To many theater owners it wasn’t worth the hassle to play the film, especially since Universal was charging a flat $500 per week rental fee for the speakers.
Despite the problems Sensurround was here to stay for the time being. The next film to feature this was the 1976 war movie “Midway,” which featured an all-star cast including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson and Robert Wagner. Oddly, the Sensurround process was used every time the engines of a plane were heard on screen. The process seemed more of a distraction this time but it didn’t prevent “Midway” from being a hit. This time, however, certain theaters that weren’t equipped to install the Sensurround speakers were allowed to play the film with normal sound and it appeared to make no difference.
In 1977 Sensurround came back for the summer thriller “Rollercoaster,” about a madman who sabotages amusement park rollercoasters and the civil inspector trying to stop him. George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms and Henry Fonda starred in this mildly entertaining thriller that was a mild success at the box office but was caught up in a summer that had two blockbusters in “Star Wars” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” The Sensurround (heard every time a rollercoaster rumbled by) was almost as effective as it was in “Earthquake” but problems arose as most theaters playing the film were multiplexes and owners had to, again, deal with complaints from patrons of other movies in the building.
Sensurround made its final appearance in 1979 with the release of “Battlestar Galactica,” which was a mildly popular television show at the time. Producers took two episodes of the show (including the enormously popular premiere) and edited it together for a movie. Sensurround was added to try and persuade viewers whom had most likely already seen it on television to come to theaters. Sensurround was, oddly enough, used whenever the spaceships engines were heard in deep space (No explanation is given as to why sound is heard in deep space). The film was not a success, to no one’s surprise.
What happened to Sensurround? By 1979 almost all of the classic movie palaces were closing. Those that remained open were losing money and could not afford the weekly rental fees Universal charged just to have the speakers installed. And many of them were more then 40 or 50 years old and there was too much worry about the structure remaining intact. Smaller one-screen theaters, or “mom and pop” theaters, were not equipped to play movies in Sensurround. Multiplexes had become the rage and owners were not willing to disrupt as many as 5 other auditoriums for one movie.
It is highly unlikely we will hear from Sensurround again. Multiplexes now range anywhere from 14-30 screens and most of these theaters are so small they couldn’t play a Sensurround sound movie anyway.
Universal is ready and willing should the need ever arise for a Sensurround sound movie again. They reported to Premiere magazine a few years ago that all of the speakers are alive and well and sitting in a warehouse on the Universal lot in case they are called into action again.
Personally I am looking forward to seeing a horror movie with a nurse stationed in the lobby.