Our two massive (obsolete) carbon arc projectors dominated the room, but there was also an accumulation of detritus (some items dating back to the start of the theater in 1929) strewn about: boxes of raggedy trailers of indeterminate age, gels for carbon arc spotlights in a grimy corner, parts of long-gone cannibalized projectors in heaps on a shelf. Out beyond the booth, on the cat-walk that led around the inside of the dome, was a junkyard of dead TVs, the watching of which flagrantly violated the projectionist’s union contract.
That was an issue we were having with Gabe, the ancient hairy gnome of a projectionist we’d inherited from the previous theater operator. But that afternoon, never mind; it was the old file cabinet with rusted drawers that claimed my attention. I jerked open a dusty drawer, feeling around inside till my index finger encountered something sharp. Glass, bound with some kind of cloth tape. I held the object to the light, and a night scene instantly bloomed into focus: the moon hung over a lake, with silhouettes of trees in the foreground. The sky was purple, the moon gold. The scene — hand painted? — was suspended between two cracked panes of glass.
Don’t know if you remember this line from a Rogers and Hammerstein song. The musical is Oklahoma. A nineteenth-century cowboy has just returned from the nearest big city, excited by all the high-tech glamor he’s encountered: flush toilets, seven-story buildings. He declares:
Everything's like a dream in Kansas City
It's better than a magic lantern show.
Imagine a world before movies.
Ever wonder why horses in paintings prior to the eighteen seventies gallop with all four feet extended and off the ground? It looks wrong, but before Eadward Muybridge, father of stop-motion photography, showed what the human eye can’t see, who knew how a horse galloped? That would be The Race Horse (1878), arguably the first motion picture ever shown. Not too long after, in 1895, the Lumieres brothers were said to have created panic in a theater full of people with simple footage (fifty seconds) of a train arriving in a station, (L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat)
Whether this story is true or apocryphal, people back then weren’t used to “moving pictures,” at least not true photographic ones. But the idea that projected images could move was not entirely foreign to them, thanks to the conjured magic of a lantern show. Who hadn’t seen one? Probably created by Christiaan Huygens as early as 1650, this early projector could be used to show primitive animation, achieved by various types of mechanical slides.
By the time actual cinema arrived, clever showmen had already covered the map on both sides of the Atlantic with narrated slide shows, the most sophisticated of which were animated in some mechanical way, like a two-dimensional puppet performance. The hand-painted image of a man with an axe “chops” the tree limb. A little girl skips rope, actually jumping, thanks to a hand crank on the side of the slide.
The magic lantern slide I found in a file drawer had been, even as long ago as 1929, a left-over of another age. By the time the St. George Theatre and other movie palaces rose in all their glamor, slides like the one I found were decorative effects, to be projected on a scrim between shows, but seventy-five years before, they’d been the whole show, whether still or animated.
How did those traveling showmen (30,000 in the U.S. by 1895) manage to project anything before there was electricity? “Limelight,” a kind of pre-electric stage lighting, was used in theaters and music halls. It made for an intense illumination from a flame of oxygen mixed with hydrogen, then directed at a cylinder of quicklime heated to 4,662 °F before melting. Yikes! Sounds dangerous and it was, if you consider how many theater fires there were in the 19th century. At home, people used anything they could find to illuminate their amateur magic lantern shows: whale oil, candles. A later modification, the sciopticon, was outfitted for the burning of paraffin, “...a double flat wick illuminant...the heights of the wicks...controlled in order to get the maximum light intensity for the images.” It’s as if all these early projectionists were practicing up for what would be invented next.
There were moving pictures then, before there were movies!
1. Ever see the Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander?
2. Whatever you do, don’t miss this selected short from a museum in Australia, Lanterna Magica. It’s well worth waiting to skip the ad.
3. The Oxford English Dictionary “Word of the Day” on Friday was “sciopticon,” hence the idea for this post...
‘A portable magic lantern designed for displaying photographs.’
Pronunciation: Brit. /sʌɪˈɒptᵻkɒn/, U.S. /saɪˈɑptəˌkɑn/
Etymology:< scio- comb. form+ optic adj.+ -on, after ancient Greek neuter nouns ending in -ον (see -on suffix1), probably as alteration of scioptic n.
A portable magic lantern designed for displaying photographs.
1870 Documents Assembly State of N.Y. XIII. 892 The Sciopticon. Mr. L. J. Marcy of Philadelphia has given this appropriate name to an improved portable magic lantern... The sciopticon, well supplied with photographic pictures of remarkable organic structures, beautiful scenery and specimens of line architecture, will be prized in many a family as an unfailing scource [sic] of amusement and instruction.
1871 L. J. Marcy (title) The sciopticon manual: explaining Marcy's new magic lantern and light, including magic lantern optics, experiments, photographing and coloring slides, etc.
1883 Eng. Mech. 6 Apr. 104
Of the oil-lanterns it will be supposed that I prefer the sciopticon.
1885 C. G. W. Lock Workshop Receipts 4th Ser. 401/2
To make an enlargement on a 12 by 10 opal, using a sciopticon burning paraffin.
1901 Course of Study 1 425/1
The sciopticon, or ‘magic lantern’, working drawings of which are given herewith, is designed in such a manner that it can be constructed in the manual training room or carpenter-shop.
1957 New Yorker 13 July 20/3
We made..stage-lighting apparatus and effects of every description..—gallery reflectors..and sciopticons (these produced such stage effects as snow, rainbows, rain, lightning, waterfalls).
1982 L. L. Marker & F. J. Marker Ingmar Bergman iii. 114
The bold attempt by Emil Grandinson to use sciopticon projections in the first production of To Damascus I(1900) had been too far ahead of its time.
2012 H. Schmidgen in N. Anderson & M. R. Dietrich Educated Eye iv. 108
The kymographic registration of the animal's circulation took place on a glass plate that, while the experiment was taking place, moved horizontally through a sciopticon.