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Smell-O-Vision: Who Remembers It? History Of The April Fools' Prank We Can't Forget

Entertainment | April 1, 2020

Circa 1959: American film producer Mike Todd Jr (left), Swiss inventor Hans Laube, and the 'Smell-O-Vision' machine, which produced smells in synchronization with action in a film. It was used for the 1960 film 'The Scent of Mystery.' (Photo by Hulton Arc

Smell-O-Vision was a way to add smell to television -- so said the BBC in a 1965 April Fool's Day report. The broadcaster pranked television audiences in England by claiming that they’d perfected Smell-O-Vision -- and as ridiculous as this sounds there’s actually precedent for visuals and smells bombarding viewers at the same time. Like 3-D and Percepto! before it, Smell-O-Vision was a short lived concept that never took off in theaters or at home, and it remains one of the strangest theatrical concepts that’s ever been dreamed up.

Before Smell-O-Vision theaters took matters into their own hands

source: cabinet magazine

In the early 20th century independent theater owners did whatever they could to turn a profit, while you might think that two for one tickets or an increase in marketing would make for a bigger box office, many proprietors tried off the wall schemes to wow audiences. In 1906 Samuel Roxy Rothafel of the Family Theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania, wafted the scent of rose oil throughout the audience during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl Game. In the 1920s a large amount of perfume was used during a showing of The Broadway Melody and either it was a hit or parallel thinking struck at theaters across the country as theater owners attempted to give off the odors that were being displayed on screen. As fun as that sounds, the smell delivery system wasn’t great and more often than not the scents were muddled by the time they got to the audience.

Producers thought scent was the unexplored dimension

source: IMDB

For a few years filmmakers thought that they needed to work smell into their pictures. We're not talking about directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks but producers who wanted to give their films some extra oomph. At least three producers worked on the idea independently with two of them giving up on the concept. Walt Disney thought about using it in Fantasia but he abandoned the concept because it was too expensive. Hans Laube created “Scent-O-Vision,” a system that connected pipes to individual seats in theater that would hit the audience with a smell in the same way that the film’s score is synced to the movie. At the same time Charles Weiss was touting AromaRama as the next great process for making movies smell. Weiss’ idea was to pump scents through the air conditioning vents of theaters. 

The Battle of the Smellies

source: cake

When Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama went head to head with one another in the theater there were no real winners. AromaRama was first to the theater with Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue film released on December 2, 1959. The movie took audiences through China and dazzled them with scents of the Far East. By most accounts Behind the Great Wall was a success with many reviewers applauding the scent of an orange when the fruit was cut onscreen. Even though the system was successful it was never used widely.

Smell-O-Vision had a less rapturous time at the theater. When Scent of a Mystery, starring Denholm Elliott, Peter Lorre, Diana Dors and Elizabeth Taylor, was released in 1960 it was a dud. The smell delivery system didn’t work as intended: it released odors with a loud hiss at incorrect times. Depending on your place in the theater the odors were too strong or too faint. The film performed so poorly that it was re-titled Holiday in Spain and re-released with no odors, although this added what The Daily Telegraph called “a baffling, almost surreal quality” to the picture. 

BBC TV brought back Smell-O-Vision for one night only

source: pinterest

Or at least they said that’s what they were doing. On April Fool’s Day 1965 BBC TV interviewed a man that they claimed was a London University professor who’d managed to create “Smellovision,” an olfactory technology that allowed television viewers to smell scents from programs that they were watching. He insisted that no additional work needed to be done to the TV sets of Britain, and all viewers had to do was take a whiff. He chopped onions and brewed coffee to show off his creation, the prank worked so well that many viewers called in to say that they could smell the scents through their television.

John Waters brought smells back to theaters in the 1980s

source: KPBS

John Waters is the high king of camp and when he released Polyester in 1981 he included an “Odorama” card that came with ten distinct smells. Throughout the film viewers are meant to scratch a corresponding number to what they see on screen and take a whiff. In some instances they’re treated to the smell of a rose or even a slice of pizza, but in the worst case scenario they get a nose full of skunk or dirty shoes. In 2004 Waters said that he was delighted that he made audiences “pay to smell sh*t.” There have been a few more films that have followed in the footsteps of Smell-O-Vision, but this is cinematic technology that’s never likely to make a comeback. 

Tags: April Fools Day | Pranks | Remember This?... | Technology

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.