Through an old glass brightly

The Maryland Film Festival includes a magic lantern show, thus illuminating the precursor to the modern motion-picture industry.

April 30, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to the Sun

The theater is dark, the audience mesmerized by brightly colored pictures projected onto a large screen. A mother is hugging her baby, and you're so close you can practically smell the infant's talcum-powdered skin. Desert-dwelling Arab warriors are attacked by a lion. Look at the teeth on that animal! Children ride through a wintry village on a sled, and you can almost feel a few flakes work their way beneath their coat cuffs and begin to melt.

When such images are experienced today, chances are that the audience is sitting in a movie theater. But your great-grandparents enjoyed a similar type of entertainment, long before the first strip of celluloid was fed into the first projector.

It was called a magic lantern show. It was a precursor to the modern motion-picture industry, and it dates to the 17th century. You'll have a chance to experience one of these shows today, when Terry Borton presents his "American Magic Lantern Theater" -- complete with slides, narration, music and an audience participation segment -- at the Maryland Historical Society as part of the Maryland Film Festival. The society's presentation includes "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."

Magic lantern shows delighted Victorian audiences, but the slide shows were out of vogue by the 1920s.

"Churches, schools, fraternal lodges and many homes once had magic lanterns," says Borton, 60, during a telephone interview from his home in East Haddam, Conn. "My great-grandfather in Philadelphia had a magic lantern. He gave neighborhood shows and was very good at it."

The lantern that he used -- an 1869 model illuminated by kerosene -- remains in Borton's family. "With my great-grandfather's magic lantern, I gave shows for my kids when they were young," he said.

"In the 1970s, a local historical society asked me to do a show. That audience asked me all these questions about it, and I didn't know anything, which was acutely embarrassing. So I started digging."

Borton's interest in magic lanterns became so intense that seven years ago he gave up a nice publishing job as editor-in-chief of the children's periodical Weekly Reader. Now he's writing a book on Joseph Boggs Beale, whom he describes as "the foremost illustrator for the magic lantern," and touring the country with 10 different magic lantern shows. Each show typically has 150 slides in it.

Old-time high tech

Magic lantern shows might seem old-fashioned, but they are much more sophisticated than modern viewers might suspect.

For instance, Borton says, the preparation of a magic lantern slide sequence is similar to the storyboard process through which a film is planned frame by frame.

"There were things done with the magic lantern -- like sequences of pictures, dissolves, pans and special effects -- before movies came along," he says, adding that early moviemakers "sort of forgot, or ignored, what the magic lantern had to teach and rediscovered it somewhat later."

Another example: Magic lan-terns with double or triple lenses were adept at cross-cutting. But filmmakers didn't discover this technique until the 1910s, when famed director D.W. Griffith cut back and forth between parallel story lines.

But while magic lanterns could achieve complicated effects, the idea behind them is simplicity itself.

"A magic lantern is like a slide projector," Borton says. Its major components are a light source, a lens and hand-painted glass slides.

Lantern shows originated in the 17th century, when pictures lighted by candles threw images short distances away on a wall. These early shows could be observed by only a handful of people at one time.

Subsequent improvements included finding brighter light sources that produced sharper images capable of being shown to larger audiences.

In the 19th century, one such light source was limelight. An ignited mixture of oxygen and hydrogen heated up a chunk of limestone, which glowed very brightly.

There was one minor catch -- the combination was highly flammable, which helps explain the many 19th-century accounts of theater fires.

As a result, kerosene became a common source of illumination in the post-Civil War period. It was often used for the small, so-called toy lanterns that Borton says were "specifically developed to engage the imaginations of children."

A Victorian family would sit in the parlor of their house, with the father operating the magic lantern and his children gathered at his feet, to watch colorful slides that illustrated fairy tales and offered exotic views of foreign lands.

But for shows in theaters that catered to large audiences, more elaborate and powerful magic lanterns were used, such as the double-lens model from the 1880s that Borton will use in today's show.

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