In repsonse to our recent coverage of 3D movies, one TG Daily reader wrote in about seeing a movie in SenSurround way back when.
SenSurround, in some ways, may have been the precursor to THX – right as theater sound technology was going through radical changes. Remember, we didn’t even have Dolby Stereo in theaters until the late ’70’s, but all that changed thanks to Star Wars.
SenSurround was the innovation of the late Jennings Lang, a Hollywood producer who knew the power of showmanship.
He was the first to call a film an “event” back in 1974 for Earthquake, which like many disaster films of the day featured an all star cast including Charlton Heston, Walter Matthau, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, and more.
“My dad was one of the last true showmen,” says his son, Rocky Lang. “He realized that movies had to be bigger and more event oriented. He was always trying to find a way to make the movie going experience bigger and better.”
Legend has it the idea for Earthquake came to Lang when he was in a theater watching a movie, and out of nowhere a real life earthquake happened.
What if he made a movie about a major earthquake hitting Los Angeles, and was able to somehow shake the hell out of the audience as well? By setting up a series of speakers in the theater, and running a soundtrack with very low tones, it could be done (there were cues on the soundtrack when the special speakers were to be triggered).
SenSurround cost $2,000 per theater to set up, and it didn’t require rebuilding the entire sound system like it would with future innovations like THX.
Reports vary as to how well SenSurround worked, but it proved very effective during one screening on the Universal lot. In the adjacent theater watching another movie was a group from Nicaragua, who had recently endured a devastating earthquake in their homeland. Once the room showing Earthquake started rumbling, everyone in the screening room next door panicked and fled the theater.
Earthquake premiered at the Mann Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Rocky remembers big speakers being loaded off of trucks, like roadies carrying them for a rock concert, that would help shake the theater.
“Inside the theater I looked up and they netted the entire arc of the ceiling,” Lang continues. “They didn’t know if the theater shaking would bring anything down!”
Earthquake was a big hit for Universal, making nearly $80 million dollars at the peak of the disaster film craze. SenSurround was used in three more movies, Midway, Rollercoaster, and the big-screen version of the original Battlestar Galactica, before it was discontinued in the late ’70’s.