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Magic Lantern
Where it ALL Began

The magic lantern -- the first projector -- has been around since around the 1650s. Soon after its invention it became a showman's instrument. By the end of the 17th century, wandering lanternists were putting on small-scale shows in inns and castles, using a lantern lit with a feeble candle. These shows featured a wide variety of tales including spirits, goblins and devils -- hence the name the "magic lantern."

The first magic lanterns used candle light. Through the years every type and variation imaginable as the magic lanterns improved.

By the end of the nineteenth century, magic-lanterns were everywhere -- in homes, churches, schools, large-scale halls and theaters, and as a regular part of public entertainment.

Lanterns came in a variety of sizes and shapes, from toy lanterns for children, to those used in large halls -- huge brass-and-mahogany, double-lens machines utilizing slides and lit with "limelight."

The limelight was created when oxygen and hydrogen were squirted on a piece of limestone which turned incandescent once the gases were lit, and produced a light as powerful as that in a modern movie projector. The lantern projected hand-colored slides on a full-sized screen.

As the images were projected in a theatrical magic-lantern show, a live showman and musician provided the "soundtrack," and the audience joined in creating sound effects, playing horns and tambourines, and clapping, cheering, and booing. The images changed about every 30 seconds giving the showman a chance to tell his tale.

In America, the foremost magic-lantern artist was Joseph Boggs Beale (1841-1926), who produced over 1600 images for the lantern. Beale created wonderful stories on glass slides, the most popular being stories like The Night Before Christmas, A Christmas Carol and even illustrated carols like O Holy Night, and animated Christmas cartoons.

The genius of Beale's slides is partly in the way each slide advances the story plot, providing a new, dramatic, "action image." But supporting this central image are also details in the picture which reinforce lines from the story. As the showman dramatizes the action, the eye of the viewer moves within the picture, picking up details as they are mentioned, becoming like a latter-day movie camera, zooming in here, panning there, building texture toward the next dramatic moment.

The magic lantern became so wide spread that it became quite common in homes across the country. Notice this advertisment from the 1908 Sears Catalog selling a complete magic lantern kit including tickets and flyers from $4.98 to $6.85

But for all Beale's skill, he could not compete with the movies. With the advent of "motion" pictures and inexpensive movie "nickelodeon" theaters, the magic-lantern quickly declined as an entertainment medium and took on a different roll for theater owners. Instead of being the main attraction, the magic lantern became the filler BETWEEN the films.

Each time a film ended, the show would stop while the projectionist changed reels. Some theatres would provide sing-a-longs between reels, accompanied by illustrated song slides flashed on the screen by the Magic Lantern. Usually the son or daughter of the theater owner would lead the singing. Jack Warner, later the head of Warner Brothers, led the singing in his family's Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh.

At some theaters, they used the Magic Lantern to show a slide of coming attractions, show times or local advertising.

Even though, film trailers became more popular and the use of the Magic Lantern declined drastically, it was still used until the 1950's. Recently, nostalgic Magic Lantern clubs have been making a come back.

 

 

 


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