How the Cinesphere stole the show at Ontario Place

As the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, the Cinesphere has an important place in film history — but when it opened, it was the future of cinema
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on January 21, 2019
Ontario Place cinesphere theatre in Toronto
Opened in 1971, the Cinesphere was the world’s first permanent IMAX cinema. (Ellis Wiley, circa 1970s or 1980s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 9, Item 83)

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At first glance, the Cinesphere was a symbol of envy. If Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for the United States pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67 provided the general exhibition with its visual identity, why couldn’t Eberhard Zeidler’s triodetic dome do the same for Ontario Place? But over the long run, the Cinesphere emerged as more than a monument to intercity rivalry, becoming one of the most popular attractions in the park and offering up visual thrills as the world’s first permanent IMAX cinema.

The Cinesphere was at the heart of the plans for Ontario Place — or, as it was originally known, Ontario Showcase — that were shown to the public in March 1969. Intended to hold 1,000 moviegoers, its six-storey circular screen was twice as big as the one at the McLaughlin Planetarium, then the largest in the city. Its projected programming would include multi-projector films shown at Expo ’67, as well as Tiger Child, an IMAX film produced for the upcoming Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.

In an essay for Canadian Architect after the Cinesphere’s opening in May 1971, Zeidler described the atmosphere he wanted to create inside the dome: “By using an aluminum space frame as a support for a spherical movie screen the audience is totally enclosed and visually suspended within it. There is no tactile contact with the dome. An illusion of dimensionless space is created, freeing the film from the limitation of the picture box and giving unlimited scope to the movie maker.”

During construction, minor adjustments to the Cinesphere’s design shrank its capacity to 800. The system required a 25,000-watt lamp and a water-cooling system to prevent overheating. Park officials decided not to showcase Tiger Child, instead commissioning a series of IMAX and widescreen films depicting the regions of Ontario.

Graham Ferguson’s North of Superior, presented by TIFF at the Cinesphere in 2017

When Ontario Place opened, the visual power of IMAX was demonstrated through Graham Ferguson’s North of Superior. The Toronto Telegram’s Elizabeth Dingman described the effect that the 20-minute travelogue of northern Ontario had on the audience:

“The whole audience seemed to be moving through space in the cockpit of an enormous bush plane flying low over the land north of Lake Superior. Now we were zooming along a river at the bottom of a gully, now skimming the treetops of a steep hill and over its crest to wing above the rough waters of a lake.”

Projectionist Dave Callaghan told the Toronto Star that if viewers wanted to get the full impact of the giant screen and its accompanying 24-channel sound system, they should sit in the seventh row from the front and take in a forest-fire sequence. Some audience members, though, found the experience too disorienting. Dingman said she’d observed at least one elderly woman leaving the cinema.

The public in general, however, had few reservations, and customer surveys showed that the Cinesphere had been the park’s biggest success during its opening week. On day two, lineups lasted up to 90 minutes, and the screening schedule for North of Superior was abandoned so that as many viewers as possible could be accommodated.

The theatre showed films for the next four decades, receiving an upgrade in 2011 to allow IMAX screenings in 3-D. Audiences had little time to enjoy the renovation, though, as the provincial government closed the Cinesphere and most of Ontario Place in February 2012. The fate of the buildings was not initially clear:  the government considered such options as condos and a casino. A report prepared by future Toronto mayor John Tory later that year warned that upgrades to the Cinesphere and other park facilities would up cost up to $100 million. Although Ontario Place remained mothballed, the historical importance of the Cinesphere was recognized in 2014 when the province designated it, as Ontario Place’s website puts it, “a structure of Cultural Heritage Value.”

After being used during 2016’s in/Future festival and the 2017 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (both of which showed North of Superior), the Cinesphere reopened for regular screenings in November 2017 with Dunkirk and Beauty and the Beast. While IMAX is now a regular feature of cinemas across the province, the Cinesphere is one of only 50 worldwide that uses the 4K IMAX laser system, which produces brighter colours.

With plans for Ontario Place once again in limbo as the province considers its options, it remains to be seen whether the Cinesphere will continue to operate and witness its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Sources: the June 1971 edition of Canadian Architect; the March 11, 1969, May 21, 1971, May 24, 1971, and May 26, 1971, editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 21, 1971 and May 24, 1971, editions of the Toronto Telegram; and the March 11, 1969, May 15, 1971, May 20, 1971, and May 24, 1971, editions of the Toronto Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.

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