Smell-O-Vision vs. Aromarama

Posted on April 13, 2010

“One of the more curious fad gimmicks of the period was Smell-O-Vision, a process initiated in 1960 by Mike Todd, Jr., son of the famed showman. Mike Todd, Sr. had entertained the world with his massive production of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), but sadly, perished in a plane crash in 1958. Todd, Jr. invested his inheritance in the development of Smell-O- Vision, a process in which evocative smells were pumped to the cinema audience through pipes leading to individual seats in the auditorium. Bottles of scent were held on a rotating drum and the process was triggered by a signal on the film itself.

Only one film, SCENT OF A MYSTERY, was made in Smell-O-Vision and was far from a milestone in movie history. Mike Todd, Jr. lost his entire investment and left the film business. As an added audience incentive, Eddie Fisher, best friend of Mike Todd, Sr. and, at the time, the husband of Todd’s widow, Elizabeth Taylor, sang the memorable theme song from SCENT OF A MYSTERY. Filmmaker, John Waters, paid homage to Smell-O-Vision with his 1980 film, POLYESTER. Waters created the process of Odorama and, rather than pumping in scents, used individual audience ‘Scratch and Sniff’ cards.”

Now here’s a format war worth fighting for.  This is sure to take off, invest now while the getting’s good.

A significant footnote in the history of Smell-O-Vision is a copycat technique called AromaRama that was rushed out at the last second to cash in on the impending “smellomania.” In December, 1959, two months before the opening of Scent of Mystery, a travelogue of China called Behind the Great Wall made its premier in New York City. It featured 31 odors and a slogan: “You must breathe it to believe it!”

Like Smell-O-Vision, AromaRama used a “scent track” to trigger the film’s odors. But there was a crucial difference: AromaRama spread its odors through the theater’s air conditioning system with Freon gas used to diffuse the smells. Unfortunately, it didn’t diffuse all that well—pungent aromas often hung malodorously in the air in a less-than-pleasing way. “A beautiful old pine grove in Peking smells rather like a subway rest room on disinfectant day,” wrote Time.

I wonder if we’ll look back on modern cinematic novelties with the same nostalgia.  We may find the current 3D fad just as dated as the Todd family’s “scent sensation”.  Where does novelty cross into being a valid new format?  It seems to me that it rests on the artist’s themselves being complacent to the process, marketing schemes cooked up by executives have an unmistakable smell to them.  Will filmmakers accept live performance as an element of their work?  It would have to be handled more gracefully than pumping whiffs of coffee into the air-conditioning.  But hell, we’re way ahead of the curve on this one.  Check out our technology…. 

Really, there’s no competition.

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