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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

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
This may not seem like a big deal...

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Herbert Barnett, President of SMPTE: "Proceed With Caution"

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Woodie Bressler, theater owner.

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
These are anaglyph 3D presentations--fun, but not true stereoscope.

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
6/26/1953. Two ads, same day. They can't both be first.

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Ad for the grand opening of The Lakeside Drive-In.

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Ad on the left is from 9/25/53. Ad on the right is from 9/26/1953. Spot the difference.

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.

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Photo from Lansing State Journal, 8/2/1953.

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:

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
"Brother, what torture." Left: Motion Picture Herald, 6/13/1953. Right: Los Angeles Mirror, 7/9/1953.

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:

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
The muddy banks of the Ohio River.

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!

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Photo by the author. Anaglyph glasses REQUIRED, all others look away.

Here’s a current photo of Bressler’s Dayvue, now a print shop, in stunning THREE DIMENSIONS!

Bwana Devil 3D 3-D stereoscopic anaglyph Arch Oboler Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Drive-In
Photo by the author. Send a SASE along with 15 cents for a magic viewer.

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.

(Obligatory plug: see the 3-D Film Archive's restoration of Robot Monster the day before The Columbus Moving Picture Show.)

As far as Woodie Bressler and cinematic advancements are concerned, there is one last chapter to the story. The Dayvue was closed around 1955 and sometime later, Mr. Bressler sold the drive-in. In the 1960s, it appears his main source of income was selling cars, first Oldsmobile then Ford. In 1971, Bressler was the projectionist at Newport, Kentucky’s notorious Cinema X Theater when the police conducted a raid. Woodrow Charles Bressler was arrested for running a film just as fixated on “depth” as Bwana Devil—Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat. The obscenity case against that film would wind its way up to the Supreme Court, and by that time the prosecution was targeting the owners of the theater, Stanley Marks and Harry Mohney, not the humble projectionist.

Previously on “You Had to be There” …


What the Picture Did for Me

Reviews of Hollywood fodder in the grand tradition of the Motion Picture Herald because Midwestern exhibitors > Mordaunt Hall.

Flight Into Nowhere (1938, Columbia Pictures)

Disobeying all orders, Bill Kellogg (Dick Purcell) man’s a prop plane solo on a surveying mission over the jungles of South America. Kellogg runs out of gas and crash lands near a remote village. The locals take him in and soon enough he’s wearing sandals, growing a beard, and kissing a native girl. Meanwhile, Jim Horne (Jack Holt) organizes a search expedition through the land of the headhunters for the undeserving miscreant. If you’re looking for cheap miniatures, shrunken heads, and Jack Holt—the staunchest man to ever live—then this flight is for you. Larry Darmour produced this highly enjoyable and totally juvenile adventure. Not to be confused with 1946’s Flight to Nowhere, also starring Holt.

You May Be Next! (1936, Columbia Pictures)

The Federal Communications Commission, like every other agency of the government, had their hand in Hollywood propaganda. The message jammed into this script is straightforward: don’t interfere with the radio signals, they’re used by first responders and the military. Radio man Neil Bennett (Lloyd Nolan) accidentally jams the police radio which sends him into the clutches of gangster Beau Gardner (Douglass Dumbrille) and his stooges. Ann Sothern plays a nightclub singer who dreams of appearing on The Murgatroyd Radio Hour. There are some comic bits at the ABC Radio Studios—this is several years before the American Broadcasting Corporation formed—which include a man with a goose that he claims has more personality than Joe Penner’s duck and a Stan Laurel impersonator (he’s told his act would never work on the radio). The excellent montage sequences and art direction in combination with fascinating glimpses of early radio technology elevate this routine crime film.

The Strange Case of Dr. Meade (1938, Columbia Pictures)

The titular city doctor (Jack Holt) takes a hunting vacation and accidentally shoots a kid in the backwoods of Kentucky. When Meade takes the wounded kid into town, he discovers a dirt-poor clinic with no electricity run by a quack, Dr. Hazard. Rather than removing the bullet and using high falutin techniques like sterilization, hillbilly Hazard insists on using a mixture of hickory ashes and black pepper on the wound. It’s at this point Meade decides to open his own clinic in this town that makes Dogpatch look like Martha’s Vineyard. For three quarters of the running time, this is an unintentionally hilarious hillbilly drama with the requisite pitchforks, torches, and Charles Middleton supporting role. When the townsfolk start scarfing down typhoid-flavored ice cream at the Harvest Frolic, things get intense. Jack Holt must spring into action to quell the epidemic. Barbara Pepper—better known as Doris Ziffel of Hooterville—plays the daughter of Hazard and one of those infected with typhoid.

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