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Friday, April 9, 2010

April 10, 1953: Vincent Price Ushers in the 3-D Craze in Times Square

With the success of James Cameron’s Avatarand at least seventy 3-D films in the pipeline for release in the next few years – we may be entering a golden age of 3-D cinema. (And with ticket prices on Manhattan reaching $19.50 per person, cinemas are seeing the technology as their savior.)

But we’ve been here before and the last “golden age” of 3-D film may serve as a cautionary tale.

Fifty-seven years ago tomorrow, on April 10, 1953, the Avatar of its generation – a horror film called House of Wax – premiered at the Paramount Theater in Times Square. The film boosted the career of Vincent Price, who would later go on to be known as the “King of Horror,” but who was known for a brief moment in the early 1950s as the “King of 3-D.”

The technology to create 3-D films has existed since the birth of the medium in the late 19th century and there was a brief flirtation with making commercial 3-D films in the 1920s. However, the high costs of showing 3-D films, combined with the onset of the Depression, quashed the emerging technology. However, during the postwar television boom, Hollywood saw its revenues falling. This resulted in a wave of films marketed as “big screen” experiences and 3-D was resurrected as part of Hollywood’s arsenal for getting audiences back into the theater. The first 3-D film of this wave, released in 1952, was Bwana Devil, starring Robert Stack, and set in Africa (though clearly shot in the L.A. foothills).

However, what brought 3-D to the forefront was House of Wax, released the same weekend as Columbia pictures entry into the 3-D market, Man in the Dark. Considered one of the great horror films of its era, House of Wax not only took great advantage of the 3-D technology, but was also shown with stereoscopic sound – a rarity at the time. Thus, audiences at the Paramount would have been treated to both a feast for their eyes and ears.

Soon, Hollywood had dozens of 3-D films in production. In just the next 18 months, Price would star in Son of Sinbad, Dangerous Mission, and The Mad Magician. Other notable 3-D films released in 1953 and 1954 included It Came from Outer Space and the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate. By 1954, however, the shortcomings of the technology were becoming apparent. It was difficult for theaters to install and maintain the dual-projection equipment; audiences often complained about the red/blue glasses they were forced to wear (and the ensuing headache); and – Kiss Me, Kate notwithstanding – the quality of the films quickly plummeted with many just being gimmicky releases designed to cash in on the 3-D craze. By 1955, just two years after House of Wax’s opening, 3-D movies were for all intents dead and the idea would not be revived until the current wave of films.

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The Paramount Theater still stands on Times Square, a magnificent reminder of that area’s former glory as a home to cinemas as well as Broadway houses. The Hard Rock currently occupies what was once the theater space.

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If you happen to have a pair of red/blue 3-D glasses on a shelf somewhere, pull them out for this clip from House of Wax.

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Read more about Times Square as an entertainment mecca in

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