Living in Stereo

by Matthew Duersten

Reprinted from - LA Weekly September 5-11-03

SOMEWHERE IN A DESERT cemetery near Tempe, Arizona, stands the world's first stereoscopic headstone. Depicting side-by-side cartoons of the late Tony Alderson that pop to three-dimensional life when viewed through binocular freevision, it marks the final resting place of a former president of the Stereo Club of Southern California (SCSC), a group of amateur stereo photographers and enthusiasts founded during the Atomic Age. Going to meetings of the SCSC means hearing a piano roll of obituaries -- Charlie Piper, George Skelley, Earl Colgan, Paul Wing and Alderson in the last two years -- which may be why this gang of obsessives meets monthly in the downstairs auditorium of the Wilshire United Methodist Church.

Once a year they break out for their annual awards banquet at Taix restaurant in Silver Lake, as they did last week. To an outsider, the members of the SCSC could be stock players in a Christopher Guest faux documentary. Wearing name tags on cords, they discuss the new Tim Burton -Johnny Depp remake of Willy wonka - and lament that it's not 3-D. (Ditto Pirates of the Caribbean.) While standing among them in Taix's Bordeaux Banquet Room, it becomes immediately apparent that whatever environment these people wander into they immediately remake it. "That would be great in stereo," says one to another, nodding toward the picnic mural on the banquet-room wall. "We've been having our banquet here for years," says Oliver, a white-haired gentleman with 10 Fraternal Order pins on his blazer who remembers meeting Harold Lloyd, Art Linkletter and Edgar Bergen at SCSC meetings in the '60s. "I've watched the waiters here grow up and grow gray."

2003 was a pretty good year for 3-D -- there was James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss and Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D (number one on the film's opening weekend) -- but it's the 10-day World 3-D Expo at the Egyptian Theater (September 12 to 21) that provides the evening its real juice. Billed as "the largest 3-D tribute show ever mounted anywhere in history" the Expo will feature a number of rarities that have tonight's attendees excited, especially Gog, an oddball 1954 film about a rebellious space robot or something. SCSC members will be there, showing stereo slides in the Egyptian's Steven Spielberg Theater, and otherwise, they say with barely containable anticipation, popping vitamins, drinking rivers of coffee and seriously compromising their cash liquidity on screenings and collectibles.

A kid with clean-cut black hair and wireframed glasses rises to the podium, fumbles with a few knobs and speaks of "the night five years ago tonight when I saw my first stereo slide show. I didn't know what stereo photography was. I didn't even know what a ViewMaster was! A friend of mine invited me here on a whim, and lo and behold, I'm now president of the club." Philip Steinman adds that he met his young fiancee -- off to the side recording the speech with a silver digital whatsit -- while taking a 3-D picture of her at last year's L.A. marathon. (Claps and cheers.) Everyone in the room seems to be an ex-club president; no one swears or drinks too much or tells off-color jokes. So warm and corny is the tone, it might be 1955 again. A man in a fuzzy pig hat with flappable wings swears in the new officers, who recite the SCSC oath as a swaying, grinning mass: "I ... state your name..." - they repeat this literally- "... do solemnly affirm ... that I will cooperate ... to the best of my ability... in the efforts to further ... the art, science and enjoyment of stereo photography ... amen."

Then someone hands out polarizing glasses in a slotted box -- not the cheesy red green paper (or "anaglyph') glasses of matinee fame but sort of like the kind you'd get from the eye doctor. (A corporate guy in a suit brings a box of his own, sleek and Italian-looking in individual envelopes.) As the lights snap out, a roomful of Roy Orbisons exclaim hosannas over the clack of changing slide images: rock summits in Yosemite; a Gulfstream stabbing the sky; Daliesque silhouettes over the skinlike folds of a sand dune; two dogs watching Lassie on TV, heads tilted; a 1946 A-bomb test at the Bikini atoll in the South Pacific; a Spanish basilica; Forrest J. Ackerman's collection of sci-fi -horror-movie memorabilia; gothic shots of winged-angel statues and bogs in moonlight; the junk sculpture outside of MOCA; a flock of airborne gulls who appear to be tearing right through the Bordeaux Room; a frieze of water cascading past a cat's tongue and, it seems, over the first two rows.

A photo comes up that doesn't have the desired effect. The shouts follow like a fire drill: "Pseudo-stereo! Pseudo-stereo!!" Everyone suddenly yanks off their glasses and puts them back on upside down, righting the wrong of mixed-up slides. The Stereo Club of Southern California is back in sync.

It is a beautiful thing to see, especially in 3-D.