Oscar at the Lighthouse: Academy shines East Coast beacon for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


On Nov. 15, 2010, the totally redone and fully upgraded Academy Theater opened at vision-advocacy center Lighthouse International in midtown Manhattan with an exclusive screening of an equally well-restored eight-time Oscar nominee. Telling the story of the legendary Ziegfeld performer Fanny Brice, adapted from the 1964 Broadway musical smash, Sony Pictures’ archival 35mm print of Funny Girl had the perfect showbiz pedigree and New York flavor to boot. Not to mention that Liza Minnelli and Arlene Dahl were among the stars attending the grand re-opening.

Just about a year earlier, Lighthouse and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) had signed a ten-year extension for the use of the 1994 auditorium that not only allowed moving forward with the extensive remodel (enabled by a generous grant from Lighthouse board member Charles S. Cohen and his wife Clo), but also assured the continuation of an already established seven-year relationship.

“We’re very pleased to be able to provide our East Coast members with a well-located, top-notch facility for our Academy screenings, industry tributes, Student Academy Awards, monthly ‘Monday Nights with Oscar’ program and many other events,” Bud Rosenthal, chairman of the Academy’s New York Events Committee, noted at the time. “We’re also proud to continue our association with Lighthouse International, which does such wonderful work in the field of vision loss.”

By the time Barbra Streisand belted out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the Dolby/QSC/JBL/M&K sound system (for exact specifications, please refer to our technology sidebar), all the “People” in the 220-seat auditorium were clearly pleased with the result of the eight-month overhaul. “It was so gratifying,” acknowledges theatre designer Theo Kalomirakis. “I received personal compliments from the movie stars in attendance. Everybody ooh’d and aah’d because that kind of theatre doesn’t happen any more. Liza Minnelli said, ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ And she knows about old theatres because she grew up with them. I was very, very pleased to be part of this endeavor.”

Although Kalomirakis is best-known around the world for his classically inspired and lavishly appointed private screening rooms and home theatres (www.tktheaters.com), he has taken on the occasional commission for a public auditorium as well. One was the SilverScreen Theater at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, where he had previously worked with Lighthouse benefactor Cohen. “Charles is an innovator and not your typical developer,” Kalomirakis notes about his reasons for doing the Academy Theater with him. “He’ll spend the money needed to make it all special. I knew that if Charles was getting involved, he would do it first-class, very creative and without sparing any necessary expenses. I jumped at the opportunity because you don’t get these kinds of calls very often.”

Similarly, Gregg Paliotta and his company, who were charged with the technical overhaul of sight and sound, had worked with the Academy before. Digital Media Systems did the 2002 projection installation at the Lighthouse, for instance, and has been providing all the audiovisual equipment used during the official Oscar telecast dinner and annual viewing party for Academy members in New York City.

“We offer two types of services,” Paliotta elaborates upon his work for the motion picture industry. “One is strictly engineering, where we are hired by Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Universal, etc. to be their eyes and ears in New York City and on the East Coast for technical matters.” That includes quality control at commercial multiplexes and any screen “where it is desired that everything is perfectly projected and sounds the way it should.”

By way of example, he notes that Digital Media Systems handled all East Coast special screenings of Avatar. “We are projection and sound consultants for premieres where we bring in our own equipment” to build a theatre from scratch for special events. “Our second role is to facilitate installations,” he adds, citing screening rooms for Warner Bros. and Paramount as well as museums and other specialty locations. “But, again, these locations feature a core of cinema projection, not just your general a/v equipment,” he differentiates. “We just installed two screens at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, with digital and both 35 and 70mm.”

Even with those 15-plus years of expertise, how did Paliotta fit all the new equipment into the Academy’s 35mm changeover booth? “We knocked out a wall over the center exit way next to the booth,” he explains. “Cut in half, it actually created a shelf which made a perfect location for the Christie digital projector.” In its programming, the Academy will continue to use both 35mm and digital projection, Paliotta foresees. “It’s pretty much an even split, but is definitely moving more and more to digital”—especially in member screenings of new release titles for their consideration. “This being the Academy, there will always be film there,” he believes.

Showing for the very first time is digital 3D. The primary technical reason for using a Dolby 3D system “was to ensure that the white screen could be used for all events,” but the fact that the system sits inside the projector made it an equally good fit for such tight quarters. “It is a fairly unique system with the color wheel located inside the projector,” Paliotta finds, “electronically moving in and out of place with the touch of a button.” There was never a consideration of using two screens, which would have been required with any “silver” coated screens that polarized systems require. The auditorium, after all, is used for other events as well.

“The micro-perforated MDI screen rolls up with a traditional cinema side-masking system,” he continues. Doesn’t that put a wrinkle into the Best Picture or, worse, onto the face of the Best Actress nominee? It’s all about tension, Paliotta replies. “The MDI screen has the roll at the bottom, which puts a lot of weight and tension on the screen material. It also has those silver aircraft-type cables that go up into it, so it’s a fairly well-tensioned screen. I put a lot of cinema screens in multi-purpose environments and the MDI really has a good success rate. The whole goal of the renovation between Theo, myself and the Academy was that the set-up looks permanent when the screen is down, the masking is set and the curtain is closed. And we definitely achieved that.”

Kalomirakis continues, “We wanted to bring in the glamour and the expectation of something magic coming to the screen when the curtain parts. It is important for me to have a curtain, because without it you get what you have at the multiplex: You walk into the auditorium and the most important focal point—the area where the movie will play—is a blank, boring, empty, white expanse. There was no self-respecting theatre in the past that would not have a curtain.” Even with pre-show entertainment playing these days, “the magic of the curtain is gone,” he insists. “When the curtain rises, the magic happens. That’s the kind of ritual that we lost in our age of industrialization and commercialism, where making profit from what is shown on the screen takes precedent over the ceremony and the magic that used to be the moviegoing experience.”

The choice of material was determined by the overall design. “We wanted the curtain to be as atonally grey as everything else within the room. Originally we used a more silver metallic fabric, but it didn’t work well. So we replaced it with a more traditional, dark grey velvet and it looks good.”

About choosing that look, he says, “Charles and I thought about whether to give it more of an ornate, old-time design or to do it in more contemporary fashion.” They opted for the latter “because if you were to try and make it more movie-palace-like, it would have been a little Las Vegas-y, perhaps. Although I have been trained in the old movie palaces, to me it is a great challenge to create the same kind of excitement that they generated by using a more Spartan architectural language, a more contemporary look.”

Since the existing auditorium was “past its prime” and “never that good to begin with,” it “had seen better days,” Kalomirakis reviews. “We literally took it all down and redesigned it from scratch. What you see now is a completely new theatre. It’s not a renovation, but all-new construction with the old box the only thing that remained in place.”

Forsaking two or three rows of the original seating for more comfort and legroom, “we took the space and brought it up to a very three-dimensional architectural level,” he continues. “So we don’t have what you typically see in contemporary theatres—stretch fabric on the walls that hide the speakers, with a few columns left and right that break the monotony of the fabric. Instead, we created angular extensions in the wall and put a lot of emphasis into the lighting… We worked with Joe Kaplan, one of the best lighting designers in the world [www.kgmlighting.com], and created a computer-controlled LED system that can change the color in the room at will—in any sequence, in any combination and in any frequency we want.” To further accentuate lighting as architecture, Kalomirakis went with shades of grey and black for the basis of the room and used no other colors in the actual materials. “The idea is to have the color play a starring role in the architectural design.”

The same featured-player status is given to the iconic master of the house. “The whole room was designed with Oscar in mind. We wanted the statues to flank the screen, so I created a curved wall behind them that hugs the display, with spotlights above it.”

In the immortal words of S. Charles Lee, “the show starts on the sidewalk.” But at the Academy Theater, the marquee is actually inside the building. “Without the marquee, it’s like a face without an eyebrow,” he says of its placement in the lower-level lobby. “A theatre without a marquee doesn’t excite you. The marquee announces that something special is happening inside once you cross it.” The lobby as well was redone “to bring in excitement and pizzazz where there were none before,” Kalomirakis states. “We tried to make the lobby inviting, contemporary and exciting,” including new bathrooms and a sleek bar area in the process.

Don’t expect drinks to be allowed inside the auditorium, however. “People involved with construction told us you cannot put carpeting under the seats, because people would want to bring their drinks in. Charles and I put our foot down,” he insists. “For me, having carpet under the seats was very symbolic as a connection to the old movie palaces. Furthermore, this was putting our backs to the cheapness of the multiplexes that use linoleum flooring and carpet the corridors and aisles only. We fought for the carpet, and because we don’t want it to be messed up, we don’t allow people to bring food and drinks with them.”

Getting the best possible sound in was not much of a fight, Paliotta assures. “What we were trying to do, working closely with the Academy, was to mirror the sound system that they have in Beverly Hills.” (For more information about the Goldwyn Theater, see our 2009 profile.) Except that “the Lighthouse is a different room because it is a live performance venue as well” that requires flexibility in the set-ups. “The JBL three-way-screen speakers actually roll in and out,” he notes. “We expanded on the bi-amplified system that we had installed back in 2002, by adding additional amplification, wiring and an advanced digital crossover network.”

Whether in sound and projection or design and style, Paliotta concludes, “It was our goal to provide the Academy with the highest quality…for their New York members and the room to serve as a primary high-level screening facility. The Academy and Lighthouse worked pretty diligently to make sure they would have the best.”

The Academy Theater is available for rental to outside groups, organizations and film festivals (www.lighthouse.org/conference-center). Proceeds benefit Lighthouse International’s mission to fight vision loss through prevention, treatment and empowerment.

Tech Specs

35mm Film Projection includes:

Century 35mm film projectors with Strong Ultra 80 lamphouses
MDI Matte White mini-perf screen—25’-5” W x 10’-8” H (7.6 x 3.1 m)
Dolby Digital SRD 5.1 and Dolby Digital EX 6.1 sound

Cinema Audio System includes:
JBL 5732 screen arrays with JBL 4642A Subwoofers and M&K SW 150 Surround Speakers
QSC DCA amplifiers and BSS London digital crossover processing
23,000W total sound power
Dolby True HD, DTS Master Audio, Dolby Digital Plus playback—all with OPPO Blu-ray

Digital Cinema:

Christie CP2000 Series 2K DLP Cinema digital cinema projector, featuring the Christie Xenolite lamp
Dolby Digital 3D
Dolby Cinema Server (DCP) playback storage Dolby DSS 200
Blu-ray playback or DVD up-converted 1080P playback; HD-CAM SR, D5, HD CAM, DV CAM and DIGI-BETA playback upon special request (Christie IPM 2K to process a variety of alternative content such as computer graphics, standard definition video and HDTV)

Other Features:

Assisted-listening headset system by Ultra Stereo Labs
Live descriptive listening for selected features by Williams Sound
Seating capacity: 220 seats by Irwin Seating
Silver house curtain and sheer title curtain by Howard Freedman of G17
LED lighting by Color Kinetics