The IMAX of the 1800s
The theater is dark and the show—titled Effulgence of the North—is starting. We open onto a wide shot of the Arctic: craggy icebergs and massive, snow-covered glaciers rising from the ocean under pale moonlight. The cold wind howls, and when it dies down, you hear the distinct trickle of melting ice. Like the latest 3-D IMAX movie, Effulgence is immersive, entertaining, and hyper-vivid: You feel like you can reach out and touch the frozen landscape. But here inside this old movie theater a short cab ride from Hollywood, what audiences experience is the IMAX of the 1800s.
The Velaslavasay Panorama, as it’s called, is one of the only modern exhibition halls in America for panoramas, the
360-degree landscape paintings that were popular beginning in the late-1700s. Originally installed in specially built rotundas and designed to appear as realistic as possible, panoramas transported audiences who didn’t yet know the ease of air travel or the Technicolor potential of the moving image to the ruins of Rome or the bloody battlefields of the Civil War—as with Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux’s 1883 painting The Battle of Gettysburg, which was so popular after it debuted in Chicago that bootleg copies were made to show in other American cities.
“It’s impossible to imagine what it was like for a mind of the 1890s to be experiencing these things versus our own minds,” says Sara Velas, 39, who took over the theater in 2004.
Like panorama exhibitors of yore, Velas pulls every trick to elicit rapture from our screen-fried, VR-enhanced brains. That means making visitors first pass through a dark room and climb a set of stairs to a space that holds the painting, a process that offers “a chance to readjust your senses,” says Velas. She has also hidden the painting’s edges and added three-dimensional features and lighting effects to create what she calls the “in-between feeling of reality and facade” that makes panoramas so strangely captivating.
coulddefinitelyreadheA Southern California native who studied fine art and painting, Velas opened her first fully 360-degree panorama in a little stucco hut on Hollywood Boulevard in 2000. She painted the scene herself—an imagining of what Los Angeles looked like 200 years ago titled The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes—and asked for a $2 donation, handing out tickets to bemused tourists.
“If they were hesitant about giving the money, I didn’t care,” says Velas, who is now the president of the International Panorama Council and recently traveled to Hungary to preside over its annual conference. “But they had to take the ticket—that was important to me. This was entertainment.”
The suggested donation has since risen to $6 at the Velaslavasay, which will soon install a new panorama depicting the Chinese city of Shenyang in the era between 1900 and 1930. But that’s still cheaper than a plane ticket, or even a night at the movies.