A Flash of Soviet Nostalgia, Flickering on 11 Screens

Oct 08, 2014 at 11:35 AM ET

It’s an open secret here in Moscow, and one of the city’s best. Behind the lush greenery of an iconic Soviet-era park in the center of the Russian capital is the USSR’s first and last panoramic movie theater. Modeled after an American cinema in Disneyland, this theater, known as Circular Panorama, was once a major tourist attraction. It was so popular that visitors not only waited in line, but they also had to sign up in advance just to get a seat.

Today, some five decades after the theater opened, there are no lines or sign-up sheets, and all the movies are relics from the past. Customers no longer arrive to see cutting edge technology. Quite the opposite. They come for the Soviet nostalgia, to see something old and decidedly out of date.

The movie theater was built in 1959 at the request of then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The theater’s 360-degree design was seen as a technological wonder at a time when few Russian households even owned a television. Originally, the theater consisted of 22 screens, which created a panoramic effect. But in 1964, the theater underwent reconstruction, which created the same effect with just 11 that were larger in size.

Making panoramic films was an arduous task. It involved using 11 cameras (one corresponding to each screen), and all had to be in line to produce the desired effect.

The theater’s projectors are lit by xenon arc lamps, which are no longer produced. If they break down, they will be difficult and expensive to replace.

In its heyday, this theater could accommodate up to 1,000 viewers at time and offered eight showings a day. Today about a dozen people trickle in for each of the four showings. All films here last 20 minutes. Among the eight offerings: “Endless Springs,” an ethnographic study of Tajiks, Turkmens and other groups living in the Soviet Union.

The theater’s control panellocated upstairs, allows the cinema operator to simultaneously launch the projectors. After the movie starts, the operator uses a mirror to adjust the screens and correct any sloping horizons. Above, a technician checks the film for any damage. If she finds any missing frames, she has about half an hour to fix everything before the next showing.

To make sure the film doesn’t tear, employees keep it inside storage cabinets next to special liquid that slowly evaporates and lubricates the frames. The companies that once produced the liquid have mostly shut down, forcing film technicians to make a home-brewed version of glycerin, acetone and water.

As the technician plays the film, he or she also controls the sound using a phonograph. Watching a movie here truly is a trip backwards in time.