Bwana Devil on the Banks of the Ohio (You Had to Be There)
What: Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil in spectacular Natural Vision 3D
When: Tuesday, July 14, 1953, commencing sometime around sunset at 9:03 PM under a Waxing Crescent Moon
Where: River-View Drive-In, Mary Ingles Highway (Route 8) in Dayton, Kentucky—on the banks of the Ohio River, across from Cincinnati
How: Two interlocked projectors with boosted light output and polarized filters, a screen coated with reflective aluminum paint, and cardboard polarized glasses for each of the attendees
Nobody said showing 3D films at a drive-in was going to be easy. In fact, the whole point of the headline speech at the March 1953 National Drive-In Theatre Convention in Milwaukee was to frame outdoor 3D films as a quixotic venture. Herbert Barnett, president of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, laced his talk with some humor but the serious intent was summed up in the title of the speech: “Proceed With Caution.” Barnett outlined the inherent difficulties of any stereoscopic projection and at each step emphasized the added difficulty of this technology at a drive-in. Regular indoor theaters—“hardtops” as esteemed critic Joe Bob Briggs calls them—struggle mightily compensating for the reduced illumination caused by the polarization filters used in stereoscopic projection. Drive-ins have an even more difficult fight, having to compete against the natural ambient light of an outdoor space. “I shall have failed in my mission here if you leave with anything but a desire to proceed with caution,” Barnett said ominously. In other words, if you’re outdoors, you’ve got no business stepping into the third dimension.
Audiences were hungry for this new experience and the industry was even hungrier to boost lagging sales. Film history books are clear on one thing: 1953 was the year of the 3D gold rush. Everybody is familiar with the photograph of the massive audience, all dressed to the nines, donning those alien-looking polarized viewers. That crowd is at the Hollywood premiere of Bwana Devil in November of ’52. As soon as word got out that United Artists had a hit on their hands, all the studios rushed into 3D productions. Faced with the question of how much time and expense to invest into adapting their theater to play these 3D spectacles, theater owners had to make a hard decision. The livelihood of the middle-class exhibitor and the studio execs were on the line; television was keeping an increasing number of eyeballs at home. As the Motion Picture Herald pointed out, just as Barnett was giving his speech warning drive-in owners of the perils of stereoscopic exhibition, a forward-thinking ozoner in Chicago was spooling up Bwana Devil, the first feature length color 3D film. Other than the 3D novelty, Bwana Devil was a standard issue B-movie—an action film with Robert Stack and Barbara Britton. The hardtops were taking a flyer on this movie from the Lights Out guy and whatever else might be in the studio pipelines. For the thousands of drive-in operators across the country who were told to “proceed with caution,” this was a long shot.
If you wanted a chance at some of that Bwana cash, you had to think quickly.
With a distinct lack of caution, Woodrow Charles Bressler had his River-View Drive-In equipped for Bwana Devil less than three months after The National Drive-In Theatre Convention. Although only 38 years old, “Woodie” Bressler was already the owner-operator of two theaters in Northern Kentucky—the River-View and, just three miles west, the beautiful Streamline Moderne-style Dayvue Theater. When the Dayvue opened in 1941, it was constructed with the first “crying room” in Northern Kentucky—a place for mothers to take their upset children away from the annoyed crowd. With the River-View, Woodie upped the ante for innovations. It wasn’t just the first 3D drive-in in Northern Kentucky, it was also the first one in the entire Southwest Ohio region. This was big news.
Just to be clear, there were at least a couple red/cyan anaglyph 3D films being promoted at drive-ins in 1953—namely, the Joe Besser short A Day in the Country (collecting dust since 1941!) and the mildly spicy Side Streets of Hollywood. This is much less daring, and significantly less visually impressive, than polarized 3D. I’m using “3D” as shorthand for a truly stereoscopic (dual projector/polarized) film exhibition. This process requires both film projectors to be running at the same time, with each unit projecting the exact corresponding left/right frame simultaneously. When it works, it’s awe-inspiring. When it doesn’t…pass the Anacin.
On July 11, 1953, Cincinnati Enquirer printed an article stating River-View was one of five 3D-equipped drive-ins in the country, but this is hyperbolic to put it mildly. In Southern California alone, there were at least 11 drive-ins showing 3D at the time of publication. It is true though that outdoor 3D was a great source of pride for the theater owner, something boldly highlighted in newspaper ads. On June 26, 1953, the Sunset Drive-In printed an ad announcing, “KINGSTON and THE TOWN OF ULSTER IS THE FIRST CITY and TOWN in N.Y.S. TO PRESENT 3D in a DRIVE-IN THEATRE.” However, mere inches above that ad was the 9W Drive-In stating, “LEAVE IT TO A WALTER READE THEATRE TO BE FIRST IN NEW YORK STATE TO PRESENT 3D AT A DRIVE-IN.” The true first place winner is whoever starts the show earliest.
Runner-ups in this race included the Park Drive-In in Petersburg, Virginia. In July ’53, they were the first in their immediate area to show “…A FULL-LENGTH Feature 3-Dimension Picture at NO ADVANCE IN PRICES.” The Lakeside Drive-In in Kansas made a splash with an August ’53 grand opening featuring House of Wax in 3D. “SEE the FIRST SHOWING in this Area of Breath-taking 3-D in a Drive-In Theatre,” it was announced.
Victoria, Texas’ Twin Ranch Drive-In took out the most prudent, humble, and technical ad. The layman’s explanation of how the projection works is remarkably clear. The heads up about the intermission is both considerate and commercial (it’s a perfect time to pick up a snack). What stands out the most is the soft language: “…we will attempt the showing for the first time of a 3-D picture in our Twin Ranch Drive-In Theater.” Fingers crossed.
Canada is outside the scope of this discussion but it’s interesting to note that the St. Albert Drive-In in Edmonton announced their September ’53 showing of Fort Ti as the “First Successful Showing of 3D in a Drive-in Theatre in Canada.” The following day’s ad revised the statement to the “First Successful Showing of 3D in a Drive-in Theatre in Western Canada.” Further research will be needed to sort that out.
The race was on for these pioneering drive-in exhibitors to squeeze every lumen out of their projectors, to make their screens extra bright and reflective, and to instruct staff to charge the public an extra 15 cents for a pair of glasses so they could actually see the film properly. Pray the customers didn’t arrive in cars with tinted windshields.
There’s no readily available print review of River-View’s screening of Bwana Devil. Presumably, it was good enough because Woodie Bressler continued booking stereoscopic films on the banks of the Ohio: Man in the Dark, Fort Ti, House of Wax, Inferno, It Came from Outer Space, Hondo, and The Mad Magician. The River-View also showed Cease Fire and Those Redheads from Seattle, but there was no indication that they were in 3D. Maybe it was discouraging attendance at that point. Then 3D just evaporated, not only at River-View but all over the country. Hollywood released just one 3D feature in 1955, Revenge of the Creature, but that wasn’t even booked at River-View. All that hard work and it was just a fad.
A pair of contemporaneous letters give insight to the variety of experiences people had with 3D at the drive-in:
So, that’s the end of the story as far as 3D at River-View Drive-In is concerned. To know how it went, you simply had to be there on a clear night when a 3D film was booked in the 1953 and 1954 drive-in seasons.
The River-View was demolished and that sacred ground where Bwana Devil leapt from the screen on a muggy Summer night in 1953 laid dormant for decades. I’ve superimposed an old aerial shot of the theater onto the current Google maps view:
Don’t go to Mary Ingles Highway to dig for artifacts of the bygone theater. Development is currently underway for yet another generic “mixed-use” apartment complex. Put on your magical red/cyan 3D viewers to see the fenced-off construction!
Here’s a current photo of Bressler’s Dayvue, now a print shop, in stunning THREE DIMENSIONS!
The good news for fans of stereoscopic films is that the miracle workers at 3-D Film Archive will soon bring Bwana Devil to 3D Blu-ray. Begin preparing, cautiously or otherwise, for your very own outdoor screening.