This past weekend, Carolyn and I made the trek to visit some members of the American Magic Lantern Society. Their house sits on a cliff overlooking a river, and together we ate dinner on the porch as the evening train rumbled by below. Bordering their house was a Christan campground established in 1887 where the pert triangles of tents (“white and embellished with red braid trim,” according the local historical society) were eventually replaced by sun-battered Victorian cottages. The afternoon’s heat had worn off, and on the porch we were able to talk all things magic lantern.
We learned valuable practical advice on the lanternist’s art, the technical wisdom that can only be uncovered through trial and error and the scouring of period publications. We sought advice on how best to position the light bulb in the magic lantern so the slides don’t overheat, and how to retouch the color on hand-tinted slides. We learned how the lanternist maneuvers slides in and out of the projector to facilitate seamless transitions, and noted the type of red light he uses to illuminate his showman’s script. These are all elements of the craft we hope to perfect. I could have spent hours learning more, but it was getting late and we still had to drive home to Providence — but not before we were treated to a small show.
With a majestic mahogany biunial projector (it has two lenses to allow for elegant fades and dissolves), we saw a sampling of a Halloween-themed performance. With the dual lenses, the lantern could perform different tricks of the eye, early forms of animation like a skeleton knocking out a jig. I tried to imagine how Victorian audiences might have felt watching these images appear on the wall, summoned to life by the resounding voice of the showman. Even with only an audience of two, the lantern was able to cast his magic, and the strike of the gong (yes, there was a gong!) signaled our entry into another world of enchantment beyond the small cottage in the woods.