Great America’s Pictorium Ruined IMAX For Me

I grew up with domes.  Until I was in high school, I understood IMAX to be something projected on a dome which surrounded your view and had no edges.  Then during my Junior year of high school, my science class went to the Great America theme park in Santa Clara, CA.  The Pictorium theater at the park was showing “The Dream is Alive.”  My life was in shambles.  How on earth could this flat screen be IMAX?  I could see the edges!

A few years later, when living in Galveston, IMAX 3D came into my life.  By the time I returned to California, almost a decade later, the Pictorium had already been converted to 3D and the theater was showing “Alien Adventure,” which I found to be the perfect film for a theme park, but it still lacked the immersive factor of a dome.  IMAX operations would cease a year later (2001).  When I returned to the park in 2004 to cover an anime festival, the Pictorium was being used for screenings of anime films, but the IMAX booth had been shut down and a video projection system had been set up in the auditorium on the back row of seats.  By 2005, the building had been shuttered for good.

The Pictorium has an interesting past.  In 1988, the theater was rented by an engineering firm and the projector was disassembled and reverse engineered.  This resulted in 15 perforation/70mm projectors using the IMAX rolling loop (this rental of the Pictorium took place just after IMAX’s patent expired) under the Iwerks and CDC brands in locations such as the Orlando Science Center and Kansas City’s Union Station.

There were originally two Pictoriums, each located at a Great America theme park operated by Marriott.  Santa Clara, near San Jose, opened in 1978, while the Gurnee location, near Chicago, opened a year later.  Through numerous sales, the two parks would go in different directions in terms of design and attractions.  At the time each theater was shut down, Gurnee was a Six Flags park, while Santa Clara was a Paramount Parks operation.

There are those that still think fondly of the Pictorium.  For almost two decades, it was the sole IMAX operation in Northern Calfornia.  Many projectionists moved on to other IMAX operations in the Bay Area, including METREON in San Francisco and The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, which I consider to be true IMAX because it’s a dome.  Those projectionists recall working at the Pictorium to be one of the highlights of their careers.

But something was in Blue Sky phase that might have kept them at Great America and radically changed the operation of the theater.  In 2006, Paramount Parks introduced a new front gate concept for the park called MediaPlex.  It would have been similar to Downtown Disney or Universal CityWalk, but the properties would have been themed after Paramount movies and television shows along with sister Viacom companies such as MTV and Blockbuster.  Had MediaPlex gone forth as envisioned, the park boundaries would have been realigned and the Pictorium would have discontinued as a park attraction, becoming a full-fledged movie venue in this new entertainment district (notice the Mission Impossible banner on the IMAX, a full four years before Fantasia 2000 ushered in the age of Hollywood feature films on the large format screen).

As it is now, Cedar Fair, which purchased the Paramount Park chain a few years back, has just sold Great America to a San Francisco company that develops high end hotels, restaurants, and ski resorts.  The silent partners in the deal are the owners of the 49’ers football team.  It’s expected that the lawsuit filed by Cedar Fair against construction of an NFL stadium in the parking lot will be dropped (the city of Santa Clara actually owns the land and was working on a deal with the team, whose offices and training facilities are next door to the park).  The new owners are contractually obligated to continue running Great America and there has been talk for a number of years that if the stadium is built, an entertainment zone will be constructed to link it with the park.  Whether or not that will include an IMAX operation remains to be seen, but for now the Pictorium remains an empty shell of the theater that ruined my conception of IMAX.

Thanks to Shane of TPR for the great artwork!

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