Scent of a Candy Man

Willy Wonka gets the Smell-O-Vision treatment.

By Laura Dannen November 15, 2010 Published in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Met

THE LOOK ON his face is priceless: that mischievous grin as he sneaks a peek in his candy-apple-red goodie bag, pawing the chocolate, lollipops, and assorted trinkets. I’ve never seen my husband this giddy.

Kids and kiddults lined up for blocks outside SIFF Cinema last May to get into the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Smell-O-Vision screening, peppering each other with the same question: What exactly is Smell-O-Vision? No one knew. We had our notions, based on stories of smell-o-scientists who have tried (and mostly failed) to turn movie-going into an olfactory outing. In 1929, a Boston theater put lilac oil in the ventilators for the romance Lilac Time; at the New York City premiere of The Broadway Melody, they sprayed perfume from the ceilings. Hans Laube was a pioneer with his “smell brain,” a system that synced up with the 1960 whodunit Scent of Mystery to release over 30 scents—tobacco, orange, freshly baked bread, wine—through tubes at individual seats. It kind of bombed. People were making too much noise sniffing the air.

Don’t we all want to know what snozzberries smell like?

American film director John Waters nearly got it right with Odorama—scratch-and-sniff cards that accompanied his 1981 film Polyester. But Smell-O-Vision at SIFF, back this month for an encore performance, takes it one step further: turning the classic Gene Wilder Wonka into a multisensory experience. Everyone gets a goody bag and a proverbial slap on the hand. “DON’T OPEN YOUR BAG UNTIL YOU ARE TOLD,” commands a yellow slip of paper, with a sweeter mantra written above: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” Aw. A team of chummy actors dressed in Oompa Loompa knickers directs the audience to open, chew, sniff, and blow at strategic moments in the movie. There’s Dubble Bubble gum for Violet’s infamous blueberry scene, and miniature Hershey’s chocolates (Not Wonka chocolate? The nerve!) to enjoy along the Chocolate River. You’re even encouraged to breathe on your neighbors—check your inhibitions at the door, gang—so the sweet smells waft around. When the sugar kicks in and your teeth start to feel fuzzy, it’s a good time to join the sing-along; they hand out lyrics so you don’t have to mumble your way through “(I’ve Got a) Golden Ticket.”

Just as Grandpa Joe and Charlie start to float to the ceiling, hopped up on fizzy-lifting drink, and you’re blowing bubbles with the best of the nine-year-olds, you start to wonder why Smell-O-Vision failed. Certainly there’s a time and a place for it? Don’t we all want to know what snozzberries smell like, taste like?

Answer: Snozzberries taste like snozzberries, of course.

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