Magic-Lantern Shows - Yesterday and Today

Imagine yourself back in the Victorian period, say in 1895, just before the birth of the movies.  Suppose you wanted to go out for an impromptu evening’s entertainment.  What would you do?



The chances are you’d go to a magic-lantern show, or, as we Americans often called them, a “stereopticon show.”  Magic lantern shows were the combination of projected images, live narration, and live music that the movies came from.  They were incredibly popular 100 years ago, and today, one American theater company is bringing them back to audiences around the world.


magic lantern show

1890s Magic Lantern Show - Victorian magic-lantern shows often drew large audiences.  Travel shows, like this one, were among the most popular.

Typical Magic-Lantern Shows in the 1890s:

In 1895 there were between 30,000 and 60,000 lantern showmen in the United States, giving between 75,000 and 150,000 performances a year. That means there would have been several shows a week in your county.

magic lantern slide

What were these shows like?  Most were the equivalent of our modern “Nova” or the “Discovery Channel” – illustrated lectures on subjects of popular interest like Travel, Science, and Art, using photographic lantern slides to create interest and excitement.  In addition to this “moral entertainment” as the Victorians called it, there were shows that emphasized stories, songs, and comedy — the kind of shows that would soon lead to the movies.

Whatever their format, magic-lantern shows were not usually the top entertainment in major theaters.  Magic-lantern shows were a secondary, “drop in anytime” level of entertainment, functioning much as our cinemas do today.  The shows were generally held in meeting halls and churches, and were not usually advertised in the papers, but were treated as a news item, often with extensive descriptions before the shows, and reviews afterwards.  Prices were nominal, which helped make attendance high.  It was not unusual for a show in a small city to attract an audience of five hundred to a thousand.



magic lantern showMagic-Lantern Shows Today:

Today, nobody re-creates the travel lectures of 100 years ago, but The American Magic-Lantern Theater (AMLT) delights modern audiences with magic-lantern shows that mix Victorian stories, songs, and comedy.  AMLT has been touring nationally and internationally for fifteen years, from Lincoln Center in New York to festivals in Singapore and Taiwan.


magic lantern show

Halloween Slide, The Raven - Death stalks Poe’s protagonist in this lantern slide of “The Raven.”  The image was painted by Joseph Boggs Beale, America’s first great screen artist.

Most of the Theater’s 10 different shows have a holiday theme:

- The Victorian Halloween Show features Poe’s “The Raven,” songs like “The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out” and animated comedy of goblins cavorting on screen.

- The Victorian Christmas Show features period favorites like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and “The Night Before Christmas,” spectacular carols like “O Holy Night,” and the animated antics of Christmas toys.

- Other shows include New Years, Victorian Valentine’s, Spring (or Summer), Sea (or Lake or River), Civil War, and Bible.  There’s also an American History Show for schools, and a show created especially for very young children.


Secrets of Magic-Lantern Success:

Terry Borton, AMLT’s showman, says that their magic-lantern shows appeal to modern audiences because they are in fact “cinema before film.” 


Magic-Lantern Showman

Magic-Lantern Showman Terry Borton, the showman for The American Magic-Lantern Theater, with a “bi-unial,” or two-lens magic lantern.


“The stories are illustrated with slides that change about every 30 seconds and the art work is truly extraordinary.  Most of the slides we use were created by Joseph Boggs Beale, who, in the 20 years before the invention of the movies in 1985, almost single-handedly created American screen entertainment.  When projected, Beale’s slides fill a modern movie screen with full-color images that are about 4 times as sharp as a modern film. Beale was very consciously using most of the techniques that we today consider ‘the art of the cinema,’ — dissolves, fades, superimpositions, cross-editing, different forms of lighting, different camera angles.  The result is an exciting and ‘cinematic’ interpretation of many of the great stories and songs of the Victorian period.”

Borton’s own narration of the stories is in the Victorian style—dramatic, sometimes even “melodramatic.” Piano underscoring helps heighten the effect.  The pianist is also an accomplished singer who provides solo interpretations of unfamiliar songs, and leads the audience in sing-alongs of old favorites like “Deck the Halls,” and “America the Beautiful.”


Magic-Lantern Slide

Ratcatcher slide - “The Ratcatcher” was popular (though controversial) with Victorians, and is remains popular today.  The slide uses two moving plates of glass to create animation.

A major part of the fun of magic-lantern shows—100 years ago and today—comes from the animated comedy.  This is created with slides that use moving pieces of glass to create the animation.  The all-time  favorite is “The Ratcatcher,” which AMLT works into almost every show.  On screen the audiences sees a bearded man asleep on a bed.  As the narrator encourages the audience to make snoring noises, the man’s jaw moves up and down to their grunts and snorks.  Then a rat appears on the bedclothes.  The audience gasps; the man snores on contentedly.  Suddenly, when the man’s mouth is wide open, the rat makes a dash across the bed and dives down the man’s throat.  The audience erupts with laughter.


Venues and Responses:

AMLT’s shows are presented in theaters, museums, living history centers, festivals, schools and universities.  “There are some venues,” says Borton, “like Genesee Country Village in near Rochester, New York, or the Kimball Theater in Williamsburg, Virginia, where we perform every year.  Most of our shows are in the Northeast and Mid West because of the high number of Victorian theaters, museums and living history sites.  But we travel everywhere.  This coming December, for instance, we’ll be spending a week touring Utah.”

Audience, both young and old, seem to love magic-lantern shows, which is why AMLT has so much repeat business.  Critics are impressed too.  The Family Adventure Guide to Connecticut says they are, “One of the nation’s most remarkable theater productions.  You’ll be enthralled, enchanted, and totally engaged.”  And National Public Radio says, “It’s an incredible experience. . . . If they come to your town, don’t miss them.  They’re a living national treasure.”


For more information on the history of the magic lantern, and the repertoire and schedule of The American Magic Lantern Theater, visit  Terry Borton, AMLT’s showman, is working on a book called Cinema Before Film: Victorian Magic-Lantern Shows and America’s First Great Screen Artist, Joseph Boggs Beale.  Portions of the book are available on AMLT’s web site.