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Home Entertainment: Old Style, New Standard

When Scott Jones decided he wanted to watch movies in his turn-of-the-century English manor near Indianapolis, he called noted home theater architect Theo Kalomirakis. “Top yourself!” demanded Jones, 41 and a film fan since childhood. “Do something you’ve never done before.” Given creative carte blanche and the 2,200-square-foot concrete shell that Jones’ construction team had already built, Kalomirakis was happy to oblige. The result—what Jones calls his Digital Palace—is a blend of technology and romantic decor that plucks moviegoers away from reality and immerses them in the make-believe setting of an ornate movie house from the 1920s. Jones says that he and kalomirakis “would sit down at the conference table and talk for hours and then go down to the theater and talk more about every little nuance” of the theater’s design. “I do have a good imagination, so I invent these things in my head and I go make them reality.” Jones, who created the modern voicemail system that billions of people use every day, is the president and CEO of Escient Technologies, a technology management company. Jones had as much personal involvement with the theater as he did with the rest of his 27,000-square-foot house, which also features a 28-foot mahogany spiral slide that whisks fun-loving guests between the upper and lower levels. There’s also an indoor treehouse playroom for his three sons. And, of course, there’s his ultimate source of pride: the home theater so elaborate that a neighbor who was about to build his own home theater gave up in despair after he saw Jones’ plans.

You can hardly blame the man for throwing in the towel. Jones and Kalomirakis created a home theater extravaganza. A lighted mahogany and glass marquee above the entrance announces The Digital Palace, which has its own old-fashioned ticket booth. Beyond the black granite floor of the entry is a lobby with a domed gold-leaf ceiling, a candy stand, and a cozy bar. Atmospheric old movie stills, original posters, and intricate, gilded sconces decorate the lobby walls. Vestibules lead to the men’s and women’s bathrooms. “You have to be slowly induced into that kind of dream world by going from space to space,” says Kalomirakis, who considers Jones a patron of the arts for giving him a “big, blank envelope” to work with.

A short staircase ascends to a five-seat wrought iron balcony that overlooks 15 more seats in the main theater area below. Each seat is a multiplex rocker upholstered in the same burgundy Schumacher velvet as the fringe-trimmed theater curtains. Irwin, a company that has designed and manufactured professional movie and auditorium seating for almost 100 years, made the chairs. Kalomirakis chose this particular seat because its diminutive scale, as compared to that of most custom theater chairs, enhances the size of other elements in the theater.

Still, the seats are plenty big enough for the 6-foot-5-inch-tall Jones. “I’ve had a lot of basketball players and football players in there and they seem to like it,” says Jones, who invites guests over to watch sporting events in high-definition TV. “There’s plenty of space between the rows.”

Once seated, guests naturally look at the screen first, and then they look up. Jones’ 18-foot-high, coffered ceiling has stenciling and ornate, painted relief moldings, evoking the ceilings of the grand old movie palaces. The walls are upholstered in Scalamandré brocade in earth tones with some burgundies and greens. Inside the theater, a satin finish reduces reflections on the mahogany trim; outside, a polished finish enlivens the foyer.

One of the greatest challenges for the Escient engineers who worked on the project was creating an easy-to-operate system for the wide range of applications Jones wanted, including DVD, VCR, satellite, HDTV, analog, and digital sources. The solution was a 10.4-inch, graphics-based AMX touchscreen to control everything in the theater. If he wants to watch a DVD, he touches an icon and the curtain opens, the lights dim, and the equipment turns on. If he hasn’t decided what to watch, his own company’s PowerPlay DVD manager lets him scan DVD jackets onscreen as if he’s browsing a store shelf. Then, when he clicks on the chosen disc, it loads automatically and begins playing on the 16-by-9-foot screen.

“All the people who know what they’re doing advised me not to make a screen that big,” says Jones. They warned him that existing projection systems weren’t bright enough to light the screen, and that all the lines would show during television broadcasts. Luckily for Jones, Runco’s VX3 single-lens projec-tor became available before the theater was finished, as did the Snell & Wilcox interpolator (a device that takes a video source and removes the lines by scaling its picture to the correct frequency for the projector).

What really excites Jones, though, is the sound from the Finnish Genelec 1036A speakers. His bragging right is well deserved: His speakers were the first three of this particular model brought to the United States. Credit for the powerful sound also goes to the acoustic consultant who examined the room when it was still a mere shell and advised on construction methods to provide bass traps in the floor, sound-conducive fabric treatments, and methods for preventing theater sound from intruding on the rest of the house.

“Sometimes I’ll even wait for a movie to come out on DVD and see it in my theater rather than go to the big theater. Frankly, the sound’s better in mine,” says Jones, who takes pleasure in showing sci-fi movies, especially Star Wars and Lost in Space, for their sound effects.

During a scene in The Fifth Element in which Milla Jovovich breaks out of a glass box and growls like an animal, the sound was so realistic that a guest’s dog panicked and disgraced itself on the carpet. David Moore, Jones’ estate manager, says the sound “can rumble your chest if you’re watching the right section of a movie.”

The wealth of technology Jones amassed led him to reevaluate the limits of his theater. Maybe his Dig-ital Palace could be more than just a movie theater where his boys could put on shows and play video games on the giant screen. He had each seat wired for laptop computer access, and now he uses the room for company and board meetings, teleconferencing, and PowerPoint presentations. He even brings students in from a class he teaches at Indiana University.

Oddly enough, considering the swift pace of the high tech world, Jones has not felt the need to update the components in his theater since it was completed in 1999.

There is, however, one piece of equipment he hankers for. “I’m still in search of the aesthetically right popcorn maker for the lobby.” 

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