Los Angeles panorama theater offers quick trip to the Arctic with old art form

[We too often overlook the long history of attempts to use technology to transport and engage us (i.e., evoke (tele)presence). This is from the Long Beach Press-Telegram. –Matthew]

Velaslavasay Panorama and its Theater Director Sara Velas

[Image: The Velaslavasay Panorama is a little known theater in Los Angeles celebrating its 15th Anniversary. The 360 panorama landscape incorporates sound and light for shows like those popular in the days before film. Theater director Sara Velas stands in the circular venue. Photo by Robert Casillas / Daily Breeze]

Los Angeles panorama theater offers quick trip to the Arctic with old art form

By Richard Guzman, Press-Telegram
Posted: July 1, 2015; Updated July 2, 2015

It was hot and sunny on a recent Friday afternoon, but inside a century-old Los Angeles theater, in a dimly lit room at the top of a narrow winding stairway, it felt like a different world.

The tranquil sound of crashing waves, trickling water, wind and cracking ice engulfed the room. As the dim lighting slowly became brighter, a rich blue ocean and white frozen landscape became visible all around.

This is the frozen Arctic, or at least as close as you’re going to get to it from this little-known theater that showcases panorama, a form of entertainment dating back to the late 18th century that could be considered a precursor to the silver screen or even an early form of virtual reality.

“When I found out about this entertainment called the panorama, what I really liked about it is it made going to see a painting like going to see entertainment,” said Sara Velas, an artist who owns Velaslavasay Panorama, which marks its 10th anniversary this year inside the 100-year-old Union Theater.

Panorama is an old form of art and entertainment that features a 360-degree painting that encircles the viewer to create the illusion of continuous space. In its heyday during the 19th century, before motion pictures, people would visit panoramas to see large-scale paintings that ranged from landscapes to cities or historical events.

Often times the panoramas included sculptural elements as well as narration, music and lighting to add to the illusion that the viewer was in the middle of a different place, time or event.

“They were a lot larger than the panoramas we have here. Imagine something that is 350 feet in circumference showing a Civil War battle scene,” Velas said.

In addition to depicting battle scenes, panoramas also served as substitute travel experiences, so when people couldn’t afford to travel to Rome, for example, they could visit a panorama depicting the city, Velas noted.

At Velaslavasay, which she named by combining her name and her mother’s maiden name, the featured panorama is called “Effulgence of the North.” It depicts the Arctic with a 360-degree image of the ocean, snow and ice-covered mountains painted by Velas. Sculptures of snow-covered landscapes are at the foreground of the painting to give it a more realistic feel.

“It’s multisensory. There’s sound, there’s visual, but it’s all very subtle. This is not entertainment that hits you over the head, yet it resonates,” said Daniel Paul, a longtime Velaslavasay visitor.

Paul was sitting with Velas and a group of other friends and longtime customers in the theater’s garden, another attraction at the venue where people can stroll under a vine tunnel or sit by fountains.

“It’s an oasis here. It’s a very, very special little island,” he added.

There is also a working theater space where Velas holds other forms of entertainment, like silent movie screenings, lectures, and folk and traditional concerts.

“It’s a very Los Angeles kind of place. It draws things from all over and there is this sort of nostalgia for bygone times,” said Jason Zevin, another long-time Velaslavasay visitor. “But something about the particular combination of things also seems like it could only happen here and now.”

But the art of the panorama is the driving force behind the venue.

Velas’ interest in panoramas goes back to her days as an art student at Washington University in St. Louis. She was researching the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and became aware of the panorama paintings that entertained people there.

She later went on a tour of Europe to see panoramas that remained from the 19th century.

“They would be at world fairs but many cities also had dedicated panorama rotundas throughout Europe and the United States,” she said.

Fascinated by the art form, she decided to open one of her own when she returned to Los Angeles.

Velas is working on a new panorama to debut next year.

“It’ll be somewhere very far from the Arctic, but we haven’t yet made the exact subject public. We’re also curious to see what people would like to see in a panorama,” she said.

For now, however, even on a hot summer day, people can take a quick trip to the Arctic.


When: Noon-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday.
Where: 1122 W. 24th St., Los Angeles.
Tickets: Suggested donation is $4-$6.
Information: 213-746-2166, www.panoramaonview.org.


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