An Interview with Restoration Guru David Strohmaier
Without Widescreen restoration guru and colleague-in-smell David Strohmaier, Scent of Mystery (in revised Holiday in Spain form) would still be buried deep inside a vault.
I started by asking Dave why he is so passionate about Cinerama?
When I was a kid I saw a Cinerama for the first time. I’d only gone to my small local movie theatre, it had maybe 900 seats at the most – which is kind of big nowadays. But in those days that was a small theatre. I’d see regular movies a lot, my parents would take me and stuff. Then they took me to a big city and we saw a Cinerama show. That sort of blew everybody’s mind. My sister still talks about it years later so it even affected a ‘civilian’ – as opposed to a movie nut like me.
The film was Seven Wonders of the World, interestingly one of the films that I later restored. My mother died two years ago. One of the last times I visited her, I took a Blu-Ray player and I ran Seven Wonders of the World, which she took me to as a kid- that was such a big event back in 1958 or whenever it was- And she said “I can’t believe that my son saved that movie after all these years.”
How did your restoration of Holiday in Spain (a version of Scent of Mystery) come about?
Well it was one of the titles that Cinerama INC inherited over the years from a company called Cinemiracle. They bought Windjammer and Holiday in Spain sort of came along with it. We had a couple of other 70mm titles in this Cinerama library but Holiday in Spain was one we were always curious about. It had been sitting in the vault, languishing for years. We ran the 70mm faded print at the Cinerama Dome and everybody goes, “Well it’s not THAT bad!” (laughs). It tells a story: beginning, middle and end and all that.
For the restoration, we had to scan two faded 70mm prints and we also scanned the negative, where we thought it was useful and had decent colour. There were some scenes in the negative that were absolutely crystal clear: brilliant blue sky, green grass, the whole bit. And then you’d have to cut to another angle because the negative was damaged and the next cut would have to come from this very faded pink print and you’d have to build the color back in it. Then you had to even it all out to make it smooth. So it’s cobbled together from elements to come up with one complete film. When you do that kind of a process restoration-wise you have to make it for normal audiences not for film restoration guys. At some points you have to deteriorate the color to make it match the other colors that you have to build into it so that it seems to have a smoother flow for the eye to see, for the public to see. So that was probably the challenge of Holiday in Spain – not making it look as if it was coming from 50 different sources.
I would go to the guys at Crest Digital (no longer in business) and say, “When you have down time and you don’t have a big customer coming in having big things done, would you do us a favour? This movie will no longer be preserved unless you can give us a break money-wise.” And they’d say “Come in at 3.00 in the morning on Saturday.” and I’d say “Okay!” (laughs). And they’d do it for 29 cents an hour or something.
If this was a studio restoration and they threw all kinds of money into it, they would take a different approach. An archivist would be striving for that perfect colour. Most archivists and Studios don’t have to deal with the faded prints like we do because there is no other source. The closest thing you can equate it to is the A Star is Born restoration years ago, in the 80s which I was actually involved in a little bit. They had to use stills because the negative was missing. So that was kind of cobbled together but historically it was as accurate as you can get with the materials they had. It was a similar story with Holiday in Spain, it was as accurate as we could get with the materials we had. We just had to come up with a final product that was usable.
How long did it take to restore and remaster Holiday in Spain?
I’d say – it wasn’t as terribly long as you would think- it was probably about six months. We actually went back after the DVD came out. Three months later we got rid of the flicker.
Your work restoring all the Cinerama, and now classic 70mm and 35mm films has been a labour of love undertaken over many years.
Yeah, I guess it is. There’s a lot of age discrimination in the movie business and I’m now 70 of all things (laughs). I was not getting the work I would normally get and the people I would normally work for -the directors and producers- were also not getting work so therefore it trickles down. So I was finding little things to do that were interesting for me. One of them was to do that documentary on Cinerama and the history of it.
Then as that evolved into restorations it was like whoa… “Could you restore This is Cinerama?” “Okay.” And they gave me the money and we made that happen and the next one and the next one and the next one. That documentary created all this. It created the whole restoration thing. In fact, I’m doing one now for a major Studio that I can’t talk about… It’s all done here at the house, on Ebell St. Soon it will be done up in Idaho.
Next I asked Dave how he got involved in putting the smell back into Scent of Mystery.
Well that was all due to you! You can fill in the paragraph there (laughs).
Okay, but from your perspective what happened?
Oh, aside from the call from the crazy Australian? (laughs). I guess it was when I Skyped with you and Brian Jamieson (Holiday in Spain Blu-Ray distributer) for your enquiry about doing something. Then we met with Saskia (Scent producer, Institute for Art and Olfaction) and she was saying it was all do-able. I’m kinda looking at Brian (laughter), if it’s “do-able” we figured… you know, we can’t put any money into it and you guys started putting money into it, so we’ll do whatever we can.
I have to say I’m not altogether grateful to you for this, it’s taken over my life in a way which is very not-financial… A lot of fun but also a lot of angst (laughs like a crazy Australian).
In the documentary you say “Anyone who does Smell-O-Vision! needs to have their head examined!”- you’re not a great believer in scented movies are you?
No I think it’s fine- I’m always interested in experimental things. It was one of those innovations that was ahead of its time. They thought it was the right time and it wasn’t. People just didn’t want anything more complicated. Cinerama itself was too complicated, although it lasted 14 years.
Our first screening was in Bradford for the Widescreen Weekend Festival you have been part of for many years. How was that experience for you?
The crowd that you had there were going to accept practically anything you do because it’s different. They go there every year to see classic Widescreen movies and they love it when I run something like Ice Station Zebra which we ran last year which people hadn’t seen on a curved screen for 30 years or more. So anything you do different is going to attract them, so you almost have a built in acceptance. You almost can’t go wrong. I always remember when Saskia held up those numbers everybody laughed (laughs).
Yeah we went through a few incarnations didn’t we and I remember the smell of Antonio’s perfume on the fans was completely overwhelming (both laugh).
The (Cinerama) Dome worked because of audience participation, they’re involved with the story in a way and have a responsibility to do something, even if they screw up, that’s kind of okay. You almost can’t go wrong. If you were to commercially put this around to 12 theatres at the same time and people were expecting it to work perfectly every time that’s a different story. People would complain, which is what Todd had to deal with.
True. You can’t really control smell, and it’s so personal. The way we’re scenting the doco and A Tale of Old Whiff is very much about the experience and audience participation.
What scents do you remember from our scented reboot at the Cinerama Dome?
Most people will say the garlic because that was the most powerful, but what I remember is grass, garlic and I think coffee…
…and cognac for a scent joke when Peter Lorre was enjoying a “coffee, very strong”?
Yeah, that’s what I remember. But again, I’m always behind the scenes doing stuff too so I don’t get the full audience thing.
Do you think seeing the film with smell added something?
Oh yeah I think it did, although remember I was running the spotlight – I didn’t want to trust anyone to run the spotlight! So when you’re working you don’t really get to experience it that much. You can see that it’s working, from the audience reaction.
To clarify, your spotlight was following actors who were part of the smell distribution?
Right, which is your other added thing: apart from the audience being involved with spraying a certain amount of the smells, these people are walking around the theatre, who just appeared as if out of the screen, in the same costume as the actors on screen… What do you call it? Some kind of ‘Performance art’?
I do remember in the early days you were very keen to “do a William Castle” with a Diana Dors look-a-like in a bikini- I was never keen on that concept (laughs).
It was going to be “Miss Smell-O-Vision.” Cinerama used to do this – they had a girl, not in a bikini but formal and there would be a “Miss Cinerama” or Miss Seven Wonders or something like that. So we thought play that up and then the William Castle thing: people would fall over because of the smells and then the ambulance would come and drag them out as the audience is applauding and everything (laughs).
Yes, you are the king of the pitch (laughing). My next question is how did you convince Turner Classic Movies to take the risk to let us smell up the Cinerama Dome?
Every once-in-a-while they do something crazy. Either a 3D or now they’re on this nitrate thing because it has a different look to it… Cinerama was a different thing for them so when we ran other titles, including How the West Was Won, that was something different. They can show how versatile they are for classic movies.
You also roped in Boston Light and Sound.
Yes, Chapin Cutler pitched in with the huge silent fans. I had a history with him back in 2002, when they premiered my documentary for the opening night of the Telluride Film Festival. We actually brought the Cinerama projectors out so that after the documentary was over, it burst into real Cinerama. Chapin said “you have fulfilled one of my life’s dreams.” So whenever I need help Chapin will come running because he knows we’ll be doing something really neat.
Did you get some good feedback?
Oh sure, yeah. In fact, Chapin wanted one of those Smell-O-Vision! signs we made, which were like the Lucasfilm’s sign you used to see outside the front of theatres that would say: “THX The Audience Is Listening … whatever”. I think he’s proud to have our sign hanging behind his desk in Boston.
And Leonard Maltin was there: one of my film school day heroes, so to have him there as the host was pretty magical.
Yeah, well he’s kind of like our Cinerama spokesman for TCM. So every year when we do something he’s usually the guy who introduces it.
The other thing that was very moving for me was to have Beverly Bentley come to Hollywood as special guest and be part of the celebrations.
Yes, we thought that was important. You and I were going to put our forces together and get her to LA so she could have that event in her life and when I told TCM, they volunteered to pay for that.
I really feel like if nothing else happens with this project, it’s brought a lot of people together and has been a good experience for us all. That’s important to me. It’s a good feeling.
It’s an international effort too. John (Foley) from England, you from Australia and Saskia, Neal, Antonio. If you add them all up there’s five different countries going on.
Tell me a bit more about your life in film.
I was a kid that watched movies and did not necessarily like sports. To this day I still don’t watch football, basketball or baseball. I don’t know how to play football, basketball or baseball. I could never get into sports other than a little bit in high school because I was in Marching Band and you’d root for your team and that was about it. I never could get into this passion for sport where people riot at the end of games – just wait a minute you know? Maybe if you see a bad movie you can riot, I don’t know. In sport you’re just vicarious, you’re not the quarterback. Isn’t there something more valuable you can do with your time?
How did that lead you to film?
Well I’d play catch with my dad and I’d always drop the ball so I just shied away from all sports. So movies were the thing. I worked at the local movie theatre as a projectionist all through high school years. I became a disc jockey at the local radio station. I was just in show business somehow. Then I went to the University of Iowa and studied film and got straight ‘A’s when I was getting ‘D’s and ‘C’s in High school. I go into college and I’m getting straight ‘A’s- how does that happen?
My first job was at Warner Brothers. This is 1972 and I wrote about a 100 letters and they called me up on the phone and said “Come on out to California and we’ll put you in the mailroom and we’ll start your career.” It’s how I wrote the letter I guess.
I guess that’s the philosophy of our team- just put yourself out there. Kind of like when I reached out to you and you got back to me! And I’m jumping around my living room because THE Dave Strohmaier said Yes!
You were overly impressed with me I guess …you shouldn’t have been (laughs). I wouldn’t call mine a big career but I worked on some big films, some famous movies like All the President’s Men, a surfing movie called Big Wednesday, a basketball movie called One on One. I worked on Exorcist 2 and 3. Most of these were helping out with the edit, stuff like that. Then I eventually went to MGM to work on a television series called How the West Was Won (which is strange because that was one of the Cinerama movie restorations I consulted on) and then Movies of the Week for Disney. I worked on a lot of the Epcot films that are still playing, including Canada: Far and Wide in Circle- Vision.
What are you working on now?
We are just about to finish a film for the Louis de Rochemont estate which is sort of a lost film that hasn’t been seen in 60 something years. It’s 35mm, black and white, No widescreen at all. It’s called The Whistle at Eaton Falls. I think it’s a fake town but it’s supposedly in New Hampshire and it stars Lloyd Bridges and Earnest Borgnine, in his first role I believe. And Dorothy Gish, Ann Francis – this is 1951. It was shot in nitrate film. We restored it as a pro bono thing and I got a friend from Canada who was interested to finance it in cooperation with Library of Congress.
So I’ve done all kinds of different stuff, including restoration now. I suppose you could say I’m a ‘Jack of all trades and a master of none’?
I prefer to think of us multi-taskers as ‘Renaissance princes’ (laughs)
That would work yeah.
Finally, I asked Dave if he thought that cinema with scent has a future?
I would think so, unless streaming just takes over the world and theatres die. It depends on an entrepreneur who’s going to pull it off. And the right film to do it with somehow. Of course you’ve always got to be conscious of the fit-out of the theatre and all that stuff but if it were to take off, you would have to preserve it somehow by making sure every movie is appropriate for it so that it really adds to the experience.
It works if smell is not just part of the scenery, it’s part of the plot. Like they tried to do with Scent of Mystery. It all goes back to Mike Todd Snr. and the 1939 World Fair when he smelled Hans Laubes’ first experiments. They thought about doing it for Around the World in 80 Days from what I’ve heard. Then the next film was Scent of Mystery so they decided to do it there instead of Don Quixote. Scent of Mystery is sort of a Don Quixote story anyway…
You can obviously do a much more intricate detective story that has two or three smells so critical that they are involved in solving it. Then it becomes a place for audience participation. You could have a couple of red herring smells… (laughs). Trick ‘em into thinking Oh, that’s the clue to solve the crime or whatever. But it would have to be done so carefully and planned out. And you’d have to have an entrepreneur like Mike Todd, to come around with and try and do something that would create the demand.