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Frenzy Feature

Flashes From the Past

Relighting the Magic Lantern, Screen Gem of the Victorian Age

Film Fest Frenzy 2000

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Terry Borton made a quixotic decision back in 1992. He gave up a lucrative position in the publishing world to plunge full time into a unique and esoteric art form. An art form that nobody--well, practically nobody--had ever heard of. Eight years ago Borton became a professional magic lanternist, founder of the American Magic Lantern Theater. And Borton will be bringing his little-known lantern to Baltimore this month, to practice his magic art in conjunction with the Maryland Film Festival."There is one big problem in promoting magic-lantern shows," Borton says with a chuckle over the phone from his home in Connecticut. "People don't have a clue what they are."

A hundred or so years ago that situation was radically different. Today Borton may well be the only magic-lanternist-for-hire in country, but in the 1890s there would have been thousands. The magic lantern was the entertainment juggernaut of the Victorian Era, a familiar presence in theaters, schools, churches, even homes.

Essentially, the magic lantern was a forerunner to the movie projector. Instead of unreeling spools of film, they employ mostly hand-painted glass slides that an operator inserts between a light source and a lens (not unlike a modern slide projector). The more sophisticated double- and even triple-lens magic lanterns allow for overlapping projections and unique visual effects. Some of the glass slides also have moveable components, providing for animated images. Showmen toured the land with these contraptions and boxes of slides, putting on melodramatic shows, holiday shows, patriotic shows, and scary shows. Churches used them to bring Bible stories to life. Sheet-music publishers used them at concerns to plug their wares--a fusion of music and image that makes magic lanterns a forerunner to MTV as well.

"Magic lanterns were everywhere--widely used in all sorts of different formats," Borton says. "Kids had toy lanterns, which must have been as widely distributed in middle-class homes back then as video games are today."

The machines actually date back to the 1650s, when crude, candle-powered lanterns appeared, it is generally believed, in Holland. "The first lanterns didn't provide much light, so you couldn't have a show for more than a few people," Borton says. "The early shows were usually done for an aristocrat's family, who would all gather around a little picture projected on the wall."

Later the lanterns were designed to use limelight, a volatile mixture of gases (usually oxygen and hydrogen) that was ignited to heat a piece of limestone until it become incandescent. (Yes, this early illumination process is the origin of the modern-day use of the word "limelight.") "It produced a brilliant white light--just as bright as any modern projector bulb," Borton says. It also produced a lot of burned down theaters--as igniting hydrogen was a problematic and risky undertaking.

By the late 19th century, electric light bulbs powered the lanterns (the method Borton uses today). But this reliable light source arrived just in time for the lantern's great undoing: the invention of cinema. Primitive films began to appear in the mid-1890s; after 1903's landmark The Great Train Robbery ushered in the era of narrative film, Borton says, public interest in magic lanterns began to wane in favor of the new medium.

"By 1908 there was an explosion of nickelodeons and inexpensive movie theaters, and the lantern as an entertainment medium just collapsed," he says. "Probably 99 percent of the lanterns were trashed."

Those that survived were often owned by families, which is how Borton got the bug. He's actually a fourth-generation lanternist, who grew up watching his father perform magic-lantern shows to entertain the family. (Borton still has a 1869 kerosene-powered lantern his great grandfather used.)

Borton's interest in magic lanterns got a boost in the early 1980s when he acquired a large number of vintage glass slides from an elderly collector. They were all painted by Joseph Boggs Beale, the country's most famous magic-lantern slide artist. (Today old slides, at least good ones, are increasingly hard to find, and Borton doesn't know of anyone who makes new ones.) He also acquired a circa-1890s, brass-and-mahogany, English-made dual-lens lantern. He polished his act on an amateur basis for several years; since turning pro he has performed in hundreds of theaters, schools, and performing-arts venues across the country.

"I like the feeling of doing something unique and special--bringing a lost art to life again," he says.

In Baltimore, Borton will be putting on two different shows in conjunction with the Maryland Film . At the Maryland Historical Society on April 29 he'll be doing a "fast-paced, raucous melodrama" called Miss Kitty's Road to Ruin, which tells the tale of a young kitten seduced by Sailor Tom. Borton accompanies the changing slide projections (about one every 30 seconds) with a jaunty, showman-esque narration. There will also be music, courtesy of professional pianist/vocalist Jacqueline Alvarez, who tours with him. On April 30 Borton will perform a magic-lantern lecture/demonstration at the Charles Theatre that includes slides from his popular Halloween show, chosen for Baltimore because it includes an Edgar Allan Poe tale.

An important part of the magic-lantern experience--and one that sets it apart from the movies--is audience participation. Viewers are called on to clap, sing, stomp their feet, and provide sound effects, such as snoring or sneezing.

"There will be all sorts of general carrying on," Borton says. "We'll also have a horn and tambourine we'll pass out into the audience."

Perhaps it's the magic lantern show's festival atmosphere that gives it a unique niche in the modern entertainment world. The lantern's images--beautifully painted though they may be--seem quaint beside the visual tricks turned out in by the likes of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic outfit. But Borton boasts that his lively throwback shows rarely fail to please.

"With kids it's really fascinating," Borton says. "You'd think that, having been inundated with all these modern zip-zap images, they'd be jaded, and could never appreciate this kinder, gentler world. But in fact they do. They get right into it."

The American Magic Lantern Theater will appear at the Maryland Historical Society April 29 at 1, 2, and 3 p.m. and at the Charles Theatre April 30 at 10 a.m. For more information call the Maryland Film Festival office at (410) 752-8083 or check out the fest's Web site,

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2010 Maryland Film Festival Schedule

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More from Brennen Jensen

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