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Friday, February 10, 2006

Obituary: Richard J. Stumpf, co-inventor of Sensurround and Universal Studios engineering exec

Richard J. Stumpf died on February 2nd, and his funeral is tomorrow. I haven't seen an obit published anywhere other than this site.

Stumpf started his career in TV engineering at NBC and RCA, contributed to NASA's Project Mercury, and worked for 29 years at Universal Studios. He was on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Sci-Tech Awards Committee for 23 years. He won two Oscars for technical contributions... and he also gave the world Sensurround.

Here's a little snippet on Sensurround from my book-in-progress:

    Universal engineers W.O. Watson and Richard K. Stumpf came up with the idea to use low-frequency sound to accentuate a seven-minute sequence in the 1974 disaster movie “Earthquake,” in which Los Angeles is destroyed.

    Installing Sensurround wasn’t a simple task – nor was it cheap. Theaters paid a $500 weekly rental fee to Universal for the equipment, which included ten large subwoofer speakers placed around the theater and a 1600-watt amplifier. When triggered by a special code on the film’s optical soundtrack during the quake scenes, the subwoofers kicked into action, generating a sub-audible tone that could be felt as a vibration, but not heard.

    During testing of the Sensurround system at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, the Sensurround system caused the plaster ceiling to crack. A large net had to be set up to catch any pieces of falling plaster that might be dislodged during the earthquake sequences.

    Rumor has it that in some theaters where “Earthquake” (screenplay by Mario Puzo) was playing next door to “The Godfather Part II” (based on Puzo’s novel), audience members complained about the noise and vibrations disrupting their enjoyment of the more dialogue-driven film.

    For the run of “Earthquake,” Sensurround was installed in about 60 theaters; by 1976, when “Midway” opened, 300 theaters had been outfitted. That film was a World War II movie starring Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston (who’d also appeared in “Earthquake”), opened in 1976. “Earthquake” was the third-highest grossing movie of 1974, and by the end of its run it had brought in $79 million at the box office. (It also won an Academy Award for Best Sound, and Sensurround received a special technical award.)

    When innovations originated from the studios, as Sensurround did, they had powerful backing. “Sensurround is as big a star as there is in the movie business today,” Universal president Sidney Sheinberg declared in 1977. Despite the boosterism, only three other films were released in Sensurround, likely because of the cost to exhibitors, the fading novelty, and the disturbances to other auditoriums: “Midway,” “Rollercoaster,” and “Battlestar Galactica,” the last in 1978.

Some links related to Sensurround and "Earthquake":




(In the photo are Richard J. Stumpf at left and W.O. Watson, co-inventor of Sensurround, at right.)


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