The Pacific Cinerama Dome, the world’s first concrete geodesic dome, has been a fixture on Sunset Boulevard since it first opened on November, 7 1963 when it famously premiered the star-studded ensemble film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Last week, the Decuiron Corporation announced that in the wake of lost revenues they suffered from keeping the doors closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, they would not be reopening any of the theaters the company owns in the United States. This means that all 16 of their Pacific Theaters and ArcLight Cinemas locations throughout Los Angeles, including the iconic Cinerama Dome, will remain dark.
This news wasn’t all that surprising, though. Only two weeks earlier, on April 5, a Twitter user with the handle of @kabsters posted a photo they took of an eviction notice served to ArcLight Culver City. Immediately the rumors started flying around the internet, with many cinephiles asking, “But what does this mean for The Dome?”
That’s a very good question.
The Cinerama Dome: A Brief History
When the Pacific Cinerama Dome was built in 1963 by the aforementioned Decurion, it was the world’s first concrete geodesic dome and the first large-capacity theater to be built in Los Angeles in more than 30 years.
The 70-foot-tall Dome was designed by Welton Becket and Associates, an architectural firm responsible for many other striking structures throughout the Los Angeles area, such as the Pasadena Bullock’s, the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and the Capitol Records Building.
One of The Dome’s defining design features is its golf ball-like appearance. This unique look is the result of 316 hexagonal and pentagonal concrete panels bolted together using a technique developed by futurist architect Buckminster Fuller. Each one of these panels is around 12 feet across and weighs upwards of 7,500 pounds.
Another key aspect of The Dome’s design is evident in the Cinerama portion of its name. The concept was to create a venue that would highlight films optimized for the recently developed single-camera 70mm Cinerama process.
William R. Foreman, founder of Pacific Theaters (and grandfather of current chairman Christopher Forman), promised the theater would open in time for the November 7 premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the first movie filmed in Ultra Panavision.
Foreman kept this promise, and after only sixteen weeks of near-constant construction, the film opened on time and played on the theater’s giant, curved screen for 66 weeks.
A few other dome theaters were built after the Cinerama Dome. However, all but one, the Century 21 in San Jose, have been demolished. Although it’s a San Jose city landmark, the Century 21 no longer operates as a theater. It remains vacant, squatting across the street from the Winchester Mystery House and adjacent to a freshly built Silicon Valley office park.
That makes the Cinerama Dome truly a one-of-a-kind venue.
The Cinerama Dome’s Landmark Status
The news about the closure of Pacific Theaters and the ArcLight Cinemas was a huge blow to the Los Angeles movie-loving community. Going to the theater to see a film is very much a hallmark of the Los Angeles experience, and for true film aficionados, there’s not much that can top taking in a picture at The Dome. So there’s a lot of love for the place.
Back in 1998, Pacific Theaters had plans to remodel The Dome into a multiplex cinema and shopping mall. This idea called for the gutting The Dome’s interior, laying in stadium seating, removing the theater’s trademark 86-foot-wide screen, and changing the lobby into a restaurant.
The public outrage to these planned changes, led by the Los Angeles Conservancy, was so massive that Pacific Theaters agreed to leave The Dome alone. But now that Pacific’s parent company has announced its permanent closure, the fate of the Cinerama Dome is once again in question.
Deadline reported that ArcLight is “highest-grossing movie theaters in the nation.” Certainly this means another theater chain would snap it up? Perhaps, but that decision might depend upon any new owner’s desire to remodel the historic theater.
In the wake of the 1998 preservation movement, the Cinerama Dome was granted Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark status, becoming Landmark number 659 (listed as Pacific’s Cinerama Dome Theatre and Marquee) in 1998.
This classification offers the structure some decent protection. It can be very hard to demolish or even change a structure with Landmark status into something other than it already is — like a food court, shopping center, or trendy condominiums.
But making such changes is not impossible. If a developer wants to make changes to or demolish a designated Landmark, the plans are put through an extensive public review process. Even if approved, the Office of Historic Resources can delay any action for up to a year. And depending on how things go, the Department of the Interior could possibly get involved.
Additionally, The Dome’s design makes it challenging to make structural modifications. Restaurants, for instance, need to vent fumes, and all those interlocking hexagonal panels work together to provide structural integrity. Taking a few out for venting would quite possibly render the structure unstable. It’s a feature that helped to derail the first plan to turn the lobby into a restaurant back in 1998.
So what’s going to happen?
Your guess is as good as mine. Los Angeles has been redevelopment-friendly lately, though that’s now stalled out a bit due to living through through a global pandemic and the federal investigation into a certain member of the City Council.
With all that in mind, it’s likely the Cinerama Dome will remain standing for a good while. Whether it’ll be screening films or its doors will remain closed is more difficult question to answer.
Much like in 1998, there’s much public outcry to preserve the Cinerama Dome. There’s even a Change.org petition to save it that, as of this writing, is closing in on 25,000 signatures. The efficacy of online petitions is questionable at best, but if you’re concerned about the fate of the Cinerama Dome, add your name to the list.
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