The Cooper, Theatre of Tomorrow
For our premiere story on this Historic Modern Denver website, we are focusing on Denver architect Richard Crowther. Crowther made enormous contributions to the look of mid-century Denver, even though much of this work is now lost. We will focus on much of Richard Crowther’s biography in future stories, but for this article we take an in-depth look at his iconic masterwork, the futuristic Cooper Cinerama Theater. Formerly located at 960 S. Colorado Blvd. at Tennessee in Glendale.
“THE ULTIMATE IN LUXURY ENTERTAINMENT”
The Cooper Theater was designed specifically to show the curved-screen, three-projector process of CINERAMA. Crowther’s brilliant, form-follows-function design of the theater was so successful, it was copied for The Cooper Cinerama Theater in St. Louis Park, Minneapolis and the Indian Hills Cinerama Theater in Omaha, Nebraska. These three theaters together, were referred to as the “Golden Triangle”.
The 20,000 square foot theater had 814 seats, 150 of these in the balcony, and parking for 350 cars. Cooper’s trademark curtain-wall exterior was made of metal, baked-enamel, insulated, mono-panels painted “Bittersweet Orange.” The exterior of the building was brightly lit from the ground and roof, creating a color display that could be viewed for miles. Some even said it could be seen at night from Lookout Mountain.
“A SYMPHONY IN THE ROUND” – BOXOFFICE MAGAZINE
While Denver was the 10th city to have an operating Cinerama theater, it was the first theater designed specifically for Cinerama. Previously, Cinerama features had been shown in converted or rebuilt theaters. Being roadshow events, Cinerama productions required reserved seating, spectacular curtain openings, 15 minute intermissions, no trailers, cartoons or short subject films, and beautiful Cinerama souvenir program books available for purchase.
Cinerama was not meant to be the neighborhood movie theater, rather a place to enjoy special events once or twice a year as new Cinerama productions became available. When The Cooper was built, only five Cinerama films existed, This is Cinerama (1952), Cinerama Holiday (1955), The Seven Wonders of the World (1956), Search for Paradise (1957) and South Seas Adventure (1958).
“DENVER’S ROADSIDE CINERAMA TEMPLE” – VARIETY, NY
The Cooper was built at 960 S. Colorado Blvd in Glendale. While some claim the theater was built on the location of another Crowther project, the Golden Lantern Restaurant (opened by James and Ruth Henritze in 1956 as a new Henritze’s restaurant), this turns out to be incorrect. Henritze’s Golden Lantern Restaurant was actually located at 1360 S. Colorado, and the restaurant is even advertised in magazines declaring the opening of The Cooper.
The Cooper location was adjacent to Celebrity Lanes, construction of which immediately preceded The Cooper. Groundbreaking for the theater started on May 17, 1960, with the theater opening March 9 (not 19th), 1961. Budgeted at $750,000, the cost went up to $1,000,000 by completion, primarily due to cost of the Cinerama equipment.
For attraction advertising, there were no display frames or changeable letter panels on the building. A panel approximately 8 x 15 feet, was set out where copy could be read easily from cars on South Colorado Blvd.
The 3,000 square foot lobby was fully visible from the exterior entrance plaza via the glass doors and adjoining glazing. Lobby carpeting echoed the buildings shape with circular spots of chartreuse, turquoise, pale orange, and yellow set against a deep blue background. Cleft slate tiles flowed from the entrance out to the plaza and patio. A circular planter and off-white concrete benches anchored the patio planted with austrian pines and tamirix junipers.
Richard Crowther, FAIA, architect of The Cooper
Richard Crowther came from San Diego to Denver in 1948, to work on commercial buildings, signs and Lakeside Amusement Park rides and ticket booths. He also worked for Joslin’s, Baur’s, Fashion Bar, Fontius Shoes, Berry’s Restaurants, White Spot Restaurants, King Soopers, Fox Theaters and many others.
In February 1961, he expanded his architecture firm to include associate architects Jack Kruse and Gary Landis. This firm was credited with the design of The Cooper Theater, The Diplomat Motor Hotel, The Copper Penny Restaurant, Fashion Bar stores and numerous other commercial, business, institutional projects, and a large number of residences.
The map above shows the three potential locations scouted for the The Cooper Theater. The first choice (listed as “Scheme 1”) is at Speer and Valley Highway, just south of the Continental Denver Motel. The second (and final) at 960 S. Colorado Blvd. The third a Colorado Blvd location further south on the west side of the street.
Melvin C. Glatz of Lakewood, administrator of purchasing, construction and real estate for Fox Inter-Mountain Theaters, claimed that The Cooper was based on a white paper he once wrote called “The Theatre of Tomorrow” which was then worked into a design for a Fox Theater in Ft. Collins.
The Mel Glatz white paper has not turned up, but upon reviewing blueprints from Denver Public Library’s Richard Crowther Collection we have turned up a number of interesting items.
Here we see that in this earliest attempt at a Cooper Cinerama design, the round, curtain-wall structure was not yet part of the design.
While this may give the impression that the circular design came later, we did turn up the earlier Crowther plan for an unbuilt theater in Ft. Collins with the same round curtain-wall building.
In this 1957, Ft. Collins Fox Theater design, we see a plan that is very similar to The Cooper Theater, but predating it by years. So it seems that Crowther designed the 1957 round, curtain-wall building, but did not consider it for the earliest designs of The Cooper Cinerama. (We even found an early dome-shaped design.)
In Crowther’s own words (from a Dick Kreck article in the Denver Post from 2003 titled, Cinerama architect alive, well):
“I designed everything but the people,” Crowther recalls. “I know several people who claimed that they designed it, but that’s nonsense. I was the one who came up with the round shape” says Crowther.”
Dick Kreck goes on to describe: “He had The Cooper’s cushioned seats set in a curve so they all faced the screen, built the seats on risers, laid out the bathrooms with partitions instead of doors so patrons could get in and out faster, had air conditioning fall gently from the ceiling to returns under the seating area, even designed the sign and parking lot. His final jewel at The Cooper was the spacious lobby.”
“It wasn’t so awfully big. I had the lobby facing Colorado Boulevard so when traffic was going by they could see the action in the lobby. People go where there are people.” – Richard Crowther
Above, the side-by-side floorplans of Crowther’s 1957 design for the Ft. Collins theater (above) with the 1960 Crowther design for The Cooper Cinerama for comparison (below).
The circular theater was 120 feet in diameter. Its most striking feature was the 146 degree “louvered” movie screen (an example will be shown later in the post). 105 feet wide by 38 feet tall ( only 91′ x 35′ visible) it was not an ordinary screen, but made up of 2,300 verticals strips of perforated tape, angled like slats of a Venetian blind that had been set on end. This was necessary to prevent the light from the left and right sides reflecting on the other side of the deeply curved screen. Louvering the sides of the movie screen prevented “hotspotting” (the left and right sides of the picture being brighter than the middle.)
When not in use, the movie screen was concealed by a 165 feet wide “bittersweet orange” satin curtain. Perforated hardboard by Fiberglass covered the auditorium walls. Suspended acoustic tiles painted blue and black hung from the ceiling and were slotted to facilitate air conditioning. Patrons sat in American Seating’s spring-back loge models with special structural design for platform mounting on a tilt. There were two areas for smoking and concessions on each side of the theater, screened by perforated metallic panels, where one could order an orange-drink that came in a special spill-proof container. No one wanted Cooper theater-goers to spill on the beautifully carpeted floor. (Manager Norman Nielsen would also instruct ushers to “watch the audience for signs of air sickness.”)
The Cooper’s sound system was the first in the world to utilize the transistor instead of the usual vacuum tube, enhancing the Hi-Fi reproduction of Cinerama sound. Sound played to all areas: the auditorium, lounges, foyer, restrooms and exterior service areas.
There were three acoustically-treated projection booths designed to meet Cinerama requirements, but modifiable to meet other types of projection. The auditorium walls were also acoustically treated. The hanging grills (or “screen curtain masking panels” as they are referred to in the plans above) were supposedly part of this treatment, but actually did nothing acoustically. The walls were Formica with an upper border of Curon acoustic tile.
Enough description, let’s take a photo tour, starting here in The Cooper lobby.
In these two photos above, you can compare the difference in the perceived curve-shape of the screen as seen from floor seats or from the balcony.
Construction of The Cooper Cinerama Theater began May 17, 1960. Here are some of the people and companies associated with the construction of The Cooper:
Development directed by Kenneth Anderson, General Manager of the Cooper Foundation and of Cooper Foundation Theatres
Architect: Richard L. Crowther & Associates, office located at 257 Fillmore, Denver
Theater Manager: Norman Neilsen of the Cooper Foundation
Theater Consultant: Melvin C. Glatz
Structural Engineer: Johnson & Voiland
Electrical Engineer: Sol Flax
Mechanical Engineer: Clint Cator
General Contractor: Berglund-Cherne Construction Co.
Superintendent of Construction: Cecil Hart (also superintendent for the St. Louis Cooper and the Omaha Indian Hills theaters)
Construction Foreman: Chester Overdier (also foreman for the St. Louis Cooper and the Omaha Indian Hills theaters)
Concrete: Butler Concrete
What is CINERAMA?
Cinerama was a special, full immersion, surround-sound movie experience. Seeing a Cinerama film at The Cooper was equivalent to visiting a major tourist attraction like Disneyland. Tickets were for reserved seating only, purchased in advance, and likely purchased by tourists prior to visiting Denver. The three-projector roadshow films shown in Denver’s Cooper Theater made full use of everything the Cinerama experience could offer.
Fred Waller, New York, invented Cinerama to have a movie screen large enough, and curved deeply enough, to fill the viewers’ 146 degree peripheral vision. To realize this, three synchronized 35 mm projectors were used, each showing one third of the picture, to form a projection aspect ratio of 2:59:1. The projectors were locked together by motors that automatically kept the three images in sync.
Filming these features required a camera system with three 27 mm lenses set at 48 degrees to each other with a shared shutter mechanism to synchronize exposures. When filming with sound, a special housing unit surrounded the three-camera system to reduce noise. Because the sound was carried on a separate film reel, more of the the 35 mm picture frame could be utilized as there was more room without the usual stereo soundtrack to the side of the frame. The picture frame was also taller, 6 sprocket holes high, as opposed the the normal 4.
“THE GREATEST INNOVATION SINCE SOUND” – NEWSWEEK
A fourth 35 mm reel carried the 7 track magnetic soundtrack which also came with a script or “cue sheet” to direct the theater sound manager when to manually transfer the audio from one sound channel’s speaker to another on the other side of the theater, matching the sound to the motion of the film. The Cinerama process required five speakers behind the screen, two or more speakers on the sides of the audience, and two or more speakers behind the audience.
The drawback to this projection process being the overlapping connecting edges between the three onscreen images could become quite noticeable. Thus, an ingenious piece of technology, a moving device referred to as a Gigolo or Jigolo, was mounted in each projector aperture’s light path to cause vignetting at the two edges where the images joined. They were made of brass and had teeth that moved up and down during projection to reduce noticeable joins where the images merged.
“THE MOVIES’ ANSWER TO TELEVISION” – ROBERT RUARK
The first engagement at The Cooper was the original This is Cinerama film from 1952, which played for 6 months. As you can see in the previously linked video, the film would open up with a “prologue” that ran on a separate, standard 35mm projector. During the prologue, the curtains were only partially open and orange masking was rolled down from the top of the screen in order to “frame” the prologue picture. When the full Cinerama picture hit the screen, the curtains were pulled back and the orange masking was rolled up. The initial screening was an enormous success. As the Denver Post stated in 1962, “The Cooper theater has grossed more than $1 million since it opened in March, 1961, and currently ranks as the top money-maker in ratio-to-seats-to-boxoffice takings in the U.S.”
Governor Steve McNichols led an invitation only, black-tie premiere for The Cooper on March 9th, attended by special guests; Lowell Thomas, CBS newscaster, world traveler and narrator of This Is Cinerama, Nicolas Resini, president of Cinerama, Inc. and B. G. Kranze, vice-president of Cinerama, Inc.
Lowell Thomas, narrator and star of This is Cinerama, was born in Ohio, but spent his childhood working in Cripple Creek gold mines. Later selling newspapers , then going on to graduate from the University of Denver and becoming a Chicago newspaper reporter. He became a radio broadcaster in 1930, did the first television newscast in 1939, and by 1961, at the time of this opening, had a regular radio news series broadcast from a special facility built into his Pawling, NY home.
Filmed in 1961, How the West Was Won played for more than a year at the Cooper and grossed over $1,000,000. Sadly, due to rising costs, this would be the last feature filmed in three-strip Cinerama. The last Cinerama film shown at The Cooper was the three-strip The Best of Cinerama with scenes compiled from previous Cinerama films. The Cinerama name did continued as a brand. 1963’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World was marketed as single-strip 70 mm Cinerama. Other movies showing in single-strip 70 mm included; Battle of The Bulge, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail and Khartoum. The next format was “Super Panavision 70” which could not completely fill the Cooper Cinerama screen. Films using this process included Grand Prix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ice Station Zebra and Krakatoa, East of Java.
Younger Cooper audiences remember the theater as one of the few large screens in town and fondly recall The Cooper as where they first saw special engagements of the films; Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien.
Here is a list of Cinerama films to play in Denver, and how long they played: (Films marked w/ an asterisk were shown at the RKO International Theater, 1537 Welton St. )
Cinerama 3 strip:
This is Cinerama (premiered 3-19-1961) 32 weeks
Seven Wonders of The World (premiered 10-20-1961) 32 weeks
Cinerama Holiday (premiered 6-1-1962) 10 weeks
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (premiered 8-8-1962) 30 weeks
How The West Was Won (premiered 3-7-1963) 85 weeks
The Best in Cinerama (premiered 11-2-1966) 12 weeks
It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (premiered 10-20-1964) 51 weeks
The Hallelujah Trail* (premiered 7-1-1965) 12 weeks
Holiday In Spain* (premiered 9-23-1965) 4 weeks
Mediterranean Holiday* (premiered 10-19-1965) 3 weeks
Circus World (premiered 10-21-1965) 8 weeks
The Greatest Story Ever Told (premiered 12-21-1965) 12-21-1965
Battle of the Bulge* (premiered 12-22-1965) 14 weeks
Russian Adventure (premiered 3-30-1966) 5 weeks
Khartoum (premiered 6-20-1966) 12 weeks
Grand Prix (premiered 1-25-1967) 40 weeks
Custer of the West (premiered 1-25-1968) 11 weeks
2001: A Space Odyssey (premiered 4-10-1968) 42 weeks
Ice Station Zebra (premiered 1-29-1969) 17 weeks
Krakatoa, East of Java (premiered 7-16-1969) 15 weeks
Cooper Foundation Theatres operated movie houses in Colorado Springs, Greeley, Pueblo, Grand Junction and at several locations in Oklahoma and Nebraska. As previously mentioned, copies of The Cooper Cinerama theater were built as The Cooper Cinerama Theater in St. Louis Park, Minneapolis (5755 Wayzata Blvd, torn down 1992) and the Indian Hills Cinerama Theater in Omaha, Nebraska (86th & Dodge, torn down 2001). The orange circular roof design was also used by Cooper Foundation Theatres in the design of Denver-area non-Cinerama theaters, The Cooper 5 (2222 S. Chambers Rd.), The Cooper 6 (8270 W. 80th) and The Cooper 7 (6637 W. Ottawa). In 1975, the original Cooper Theater on S. Colorado Blvd. had an additional theater attached to it, The Cooper Cameo. If we are not mistaken, the two theaters were then referred to as The Cooper Twin. Denver’s Cooper theaters ultimately became part of United Artists theaters in 1989, accompanied by an off-white exterior paint job you see in later photos. The theater was finally torn down in 1994 to make room for a Barnes and Nobles parking lot.
1. The Richard Crowther architectural records collection of the Denver Public Library
2. The personal memories and collections of Cary Loeser and Randy Pryde
3. The Cooper Cinerama film listings posted online by Vince Young & Michael Coate at cinematreasures.org
(Special note from Historic Modern Denver: One of the sources for this article’s images, Randy Pryde, has been working on two Wyoming movie theaters. One is the Casper Cooper, which has this indoor tribute to the Denver Cooper.
The Casper Cooper has just installed reclining seats. He is also working on a Cheyenne theater due to open June 30. (We are not sure if it is going to be called a “Cooper”, but we assume so.) Here are some links with showtimes:
Thanks Randy and Cary!