Cinesphere is back and still north of superior

Back when the earth was still cooling and I was a young lad of 15 I got a job as a bus boy at Ontario Place.

It was at a place called The Blockhouse restaurant. It served chopped beef, stew and giant glass pitchers of beer I’d have to fish later out of the West Island fountain. I made $2.10 an hour and learned all kinds of colourful Greek expressions. I worked like a dog, but it prepared me for a lifetime of working hard for hardly any money but still feeling like I had the best job in the world.

I actually worked there for three summers, watching the CN Tower go up further downtown to the East. The first summer, in 1972, was just the second year of existence for Ontario Place, a lovely theme park at the foot of the CNE grounds plunked right into Lake Ontario in Toronto.

A spiffy new West Entrance

By 2011, when it was shuttered, it had become Ontario Mis-placed. So when I received an invitation to attend the official re-opening of the Cinesphere — the geodesic dome-shaped IMAX theatre on the site — I was happy to accept.

The place still needs a bit of a scrub, or somebody should shampoo, at least, the long, suspended bridge from the West Entrance to the Cinesphere’s doorway. Once inside, however, the theatre — designed by renowned architect Eberhard Zeidler (The Toronto Eaton Centre) — looks much the same. It still has those thin, wall-to-wall rugs running along the sides. In 1972, the stadium seating seemed so steep and adventurous. Now you just wonder why there are no cup holders. The tremendous sound system worked better than ever.

The main feature screened Thursday night was “Dunkirk,” the Christopher Nolan movie that has to be a front runner at Oscar time. That’s my perspective, anyway, especially after seeing it in 70MM on Cinesphere’s giant (and new), 60′ x 80′ screen. You’ll feel like you’re co-piloting a Spitfire, swimming clear of a listing, smoldering destroyer or dodging bombs on a beach in northern France.

Ferguson (left) with nosy cinema patron. Photo: Sandra Puglielli

The audience was also treated to “North of Superior,” the pioneering IMAX featurette that played on the hour the first few years of Ontario Place’s existence. The filmmaker, Graeme Ferguson, was on hand to introduce the film. At 88, his passion for IMAX and Ontario Place remains vibrant.

Revisiting a film I probably saw 50 times in the early ’70s was exhilarating. I’ll never forget that first joyride of feeling like the entire audience was banking like one big airplane as the movie took off with a sweeping, fixed wing ride over unspoiled forests and streams in northern Ontario.

Sporting his Order of Canada pin, Ferguson explained how the movie and the theatre were more or less accidentally made for each other. The province had commissioned the geodesic dome — modeled, as all of Ontario Place was, on successes at Expo ’67 — without knowing what to put in it. At IMAX, then a fledgling and struggling production house, the challenge was trying to find a theatre big enough to showcase all that this newly-invented, large format camera could do.

Ferguson called a friend, Christopher Chapman (a colleague from their Expo days and director of the landmark featurette “A Place to Stand”) and it was Chapman who suggested IMAX and the province might have a mutual interest.

I spoke with Ferguson after the screening and asked a few questions. The film ends with the camera in the middle of a raging forest fire. Ferguson says his crew “waited all summer” for one to break out and finally took the logger’s suggestion that he record a controlled fire. The sequence looks scary, but Ferguson says no one was really at risk as fire crews were prepared and surrounded the site.

I also wondered about the camera placement for the soaring opening sequence. My guess was that it was mounted under the plane. There are a few moments when the point of view seems to skim the tree tops. Ferguson says it was mounted in the nose cone of the airplane — although the pilot flew so close to the ground they had to pick a few pine cones later off the bottom of the aircraft.

My other memory of watching those first few IMAX films at Ontario Place was seeing and hearing Stompin’ Tom Connors pounding out “I’m on a bar hoppin’ spree back in Sioux St. Marie…” in “Catch the Sun,” the follow up IMAX movie to Ferguson’s “North of Superior.” The second film was showcased the year I started mopping up tables at the Blockhouse. Good times.

Even if you’ve already seen “Dunkirk,” you really haven’t seen it until you see it at Cinesphere. Follow this link to more information on screenings. By all means experience Cinesphere whatever they are showing. Forty-six years after it opened, it remains one of the world’s most enveloping movie experiences.

Now, please, somebody — re-open the McLaughlin Planetarium!

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