Omnimax Theatre opens, 1996

April 18, 1996

Omnimax Director Dennis Medjo stands in the new theater at the DECC on April 17, 1996. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

OMNIMAX IS HERE

THE DREAM LIFTS OFF / IT’S DULUTH’S GREAT NEW TOURISM HOPE

By Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer

After 13 months and about $9 million, the Duluth Omnimax Theatre lifts off tonight with an appearance by astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson and “The Dream is Alive,” a cinematic ode to America’s space shuttle program.

The theater — the 24th of its kind in the country — is the latest addition to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, one that DECC operators hope will draw around a quarter-million visitors a year.

If the Omnimax meets those projections, the theater will become one of Duluth’s best-attended attractions, surpassing Glensheen, the Depot and the Lake Superior Zoo in terms of popularity.

DECC officials have hosted a few advance screenings of “The Dream is Alive” including a Tuesday night shindig for employees of the convention center and their families. These dress rehearsals indicate that the Omnimax is a functional and comfortable addition to Duluth’s stable of venues.

The lobby — with blue carpeting, bright-white walls, ash woodwork and oreboat red railings and exposed duct work — strikes the semi-formal chord of an upscale “legitimate” theater or a spartan academic auditorium. Yet, there are plenty of movie-house and tourist-friendly touches.

The exterior of the Duluth Omnimax Theatre, as seen in March 1997. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)

For the run of “The Dream is Alive,” for instance, the gift shop stocks a variety of “Mommy-can-I-have” items such as inflatable space shuttles, NASA totebags and freeze-dried “action snacks.”
Back in the lobby, there’s a well-appointed snack bar, offering standard movie-theater fare at the standard — which is to say, grossly inflated — movie-theater prices: $2.99 for nachos, $1.69 for a small soda.

Since you’ll pay a premium for these snacks, Omnimax officials decided to let patrons bring those goodies into the theater itself — and even equipped the seat-arms with cup holders.

If you’ve never walked into one of these dome-style venues, you may experience a touch of vertigo. You enter at the bottom of the theater; soft lighting and synthesizer-heavy background music increase the feeling that you’ve entered another world.

The purple-and-blue seats are set in a permanent diagonal Barcalounger position, focusing your gaze upward at the white, dome-shaped screen that stretches 72 feet in diameter. This angle, ideal for viewing the IMAX movies, makes it difficult to use the theater for other sorts of meetings or presentations, as DECC officials have said they’d consider doing.

People prepare to leave the Omnimax Theatre in Duluth after a showing of “Walking on the Moon” on Dec. 8, 2006. The six people pictured were the audience for the 6 p.m. show. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)

The seats are 20 or 21 inches wide, depending on where you’re sitting, but those handy cup holders make them feel a bit narrow.

For best viewing, try for the seats higher up and toward the middle of the rows.

The “rake” — or angle of the rows — is very steep, so you’ll want to be careful when, say, crossing or uncrossing your legs so that you don’t give the person in front of you a kick in the head.

No matter where you sit, though, the movie completely fills your field of vision. Combined with a 10,000-watt speaker system that seems to rumble at you from all directions, your stomach may be convinced that you’re in motion, even though your head knows you’re sitting still.

“The Dream is Alive,” a valentine to NASA’s space shuttle program made before the 1986 explosion of the Challenger, was filmed in part by astronauts on the shuttle Discovery. The film, an oldie by IMAX standards, is scheduled to run about 10 weeks. It will be replaced by “Special Effects,” a first-run feature that will premiere in Duluth and at a half-dozen other IMAX theaters.

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The Duluth Omnimax Theatre was joined at the DECC by the Duluth 10 – a “normal” movie theater next door – in December 2004. After years of low attendance, the Duluth Omnimax closed in March of this year; the future of the theatre building remains undecided; the DECC board is weighing options.

Here are a few more photos from when the Omnimax Theatre was built:

An explosive charge broke ground at the future site of the Omnimax Theatre, in what was then a DECC parking lot, on March 16, 1995. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Construction of the Omnimax Theatre is on schedule in this view from Aug. 30, 1995.  Ironworkers placed an evergreen tree on top of the building when the highest beam was put in place. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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DECC Executive Director Dan Russell explains the features of the Omnimax Theatre being constructed next to the DECC on Aug. 29, 1995. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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2 thoughts on “Omnimax Theatre opens, 1996

  1. Years ago, the Trib had a “caption this photo feature” One that I particularly remember was a pic of a man with a gigantic turnip or something……the winning caption was: “Here’s a big, new plant for Duluth”. In reference to a new industrial plant.

    This is another “pie in the sky” tourist trap that didn’t work out. Remember the Saturn plant, the Cortez motor home company, any one of Jeno’s schemes……the aquarium. Ad infinitum.

  2. The OMNIMAX was a really cool place when it first opened. I saw tons of movies there in the first 5 years or so, then maybe an occasional movie for a few years after that. But I’d say it’s been about 5 years since I’ve been there last. I think for a lot of people, myself included, the novelty of the place just kind of wore off. After seeing a few dozen films there, it just wasn’t that spectacular or unusual anymore. Plus, I think it was a lot more costly than a “normal” movie theater.

    The theater is only 15 years old, and I believe it’s still in pretty good shape, so hopefully the DECC can find a good use for it, rather than just having it sit there empty.

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