In the tiny town of Greendale, you’ll find one of the unique movie theaters in the world Greendale Cinema. You’d think it was just another luxury theater with curved screens, reclining seats, and a popcorn bar. But as soon as your movie plays on that big screen right before you. You’ll realize this is no ordinary cinema.
“The theater has a ceiling so high that when you’re sitting, you can’t even see it,” said Cathey Peters, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has visited the theater since she was five years old. “You feel like you’re getting into your movie.”
The Greendale Cinema is just that: a real cinema. Unlike most theaters, this one is not owned by a private company. The University of Wisconsin-Madison owns it, and it is open to the public.
The theater isn’t just a place to see movies. It’s also a place where you can learn as much about film as you can before you go.
It was built in 1977 but was not opened to the public until 1978. It’s was added through additions in 1989 and 2004. It is the world’s largest single-screen cinema, with over 1,000 seats.
Known as the World’s Largest Screen, it is the giant curved screen in the world. Featuring 32 thousand square feet of screen. It’s not just big – it’s HUGE!
But although this may be one of the largest venues ever built, it has a humble origin. “This was all a massive experiment in economics,” said Jim Nelson, an archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries who spent 31 years working on The Greendale Cinema.
“No one had ever built a theater like this before, and they wanted to see it. If they could make something like this work,” explained Nelson. But creating the world’s giant screen was just the beginning.
“Once they design and build the screen, they had to build 32 thousand square feet of the curved surface in an air-conditioned room,” Nelson said. “It was a pretty tricky thing.
Building the Screen
The problem with building such a large curved surface was that they had to build it while keeping the temperature constant at 60 degrees. To make things easier, Nelson described the “Cinema Film Curves” used by the builders:
“They’d draw these curves on paper, and then you’d build three inches of foam over that. Then you’d snap these metal strips outside the foam,” said Nelson. “I’ve taken those strips off quite a few times because they were worn out.
“The metal strips look like skinny picket fences, and they’d go all the way around, and then you’d spray them orange,” he explained. “And then once the orange peel sprayed, you’d put another two layers of sheet metal on top of that.”
But getting a curved surface to stay curved posed another problem. “They found out pretty quickly that if they just built [the screen] up like an airplane hangar or a square box and left it open at the corners, it would sag.
What’s Behind the Curtain?
While the screen may seem like black fabric, it isn’t. It’s a fine mesh screen that lets light through. Even though you can see through it, the screen is solid.
“There are 16 thousand pounds of lifting wires running all the way around in a framework built into the ceiling,” explained Nelson. He notes that to ensure everything stays right where it is supposed to, they have to paint those wires and their support structure once every five years.
“But they don’t paint the screen,” Nelson said. “They have to wash that. And it takes two weeks to do an excellent job washing – so no one ever wants to do that.”
According to Nelson, the mesh is supposed to let 25% of the light through, but he believes it lets in less than 15%. That’s actually how a movie screen is supposed to work, but it doesn’t always work like that.
“What makes movies look good in contrast,” explained Nelson. “If you go to a theater that’s not air-conditioner and they’ve got the screen too bright, it’ll wash out the whole picture.”
So to make sure that the screen is washed correctly, they spray it down with a hose – once every two years. They do it by starting at one end of the screen, spraying until they reach the middle, then backtracking and moving over to the other end – an operation that takes about four hours.
Creating the Seats
Once The Cinema Film Frames were built, it was time to figure out how people would sit in the theater. “It was a big problem,” Nelson said. “You couldn’t build the seats into curves and make them work.”
“So what you do is you build them as seats set on a slope, and then you put a post about eight feet off the floor in front of it,” Nelson explained. “After that, you lower two rows of seats. Then, you position the post extremely high, and two people hold both rows.
After that, he continued, “all you have to do is have two guys on either side of that pole, which is eight feet off the ground, pull those seats down until they’re sitting at a slope. They are thus unable to see in front unless they stand up. And then there’s this curving ledge. It’s like a little bench.
Click your way through the theater.
To get the best experience in a theater, viewers should sit as close to the screen as possible. But that’s not always easy. “If you have a big screen, people are gonna sit further back,” Nelson explained. “We tried to build in this idea of ‘Let’s make people sit closer.’”
“It turns out that nobody likes to sit either close to or far from the screen, and they found out very quickly that it was a bad fit,” explained Nelson. “It just didn’t work.
“The solution they came up with is that all the seats go to the back of the theater. Then there are a bunch of them on each side, but only a few seats go all the way to the front,” he continues. “It gives this fun effect where you fit in with that curve.
Unlike other theaters, the center of The Greendale Cinema built from a dome. “If you look at the center of the building, there’s a huge arch that goes up and connects to the two side walls,” said Nelson. “And then there are some curved surfaces under it.”
“But here’s how you can tell it’s a dome,” he explained. “There are those two side walls, which we’ll call the ‘straight walls.’ In between them, there are three different arches. The first one is a little higher, the second one is a little lower, and the third one is just as tall as the first two.
Bringing the Curves to Life
While the dome looks curve, it isn’t curve. It’s a perfectly straight surface with small curve features around the edges. “It just looks like two big bricks were glue together,” Nelson say. “But there are no big holes in it at all.”
According to Nelson, there was only one real problem getting the dome to stay in place – gravity.
The Big Reveal
On May 6, 2005, Greendale Cinema officially opened. This theater has ten screens and only shows new releases. The auditorium’s seating capacity range from 290 seats to 69 seats. According to the Greendale Cinema website, the theater is located in Greendale, Indiana.
“It has all these amazing curves, standing on this very firm foundation,” Nelson said. “It’s overbuilt, in a way.”