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Keeping the Magic Lanterns Lit

Author John Cech
Air Date 10/5/2005

Keeping the Magic Lanterns Lit Transcript

Before any of our modern media — movies, television, videos or DVDs — the Magic Lantern show was the most dazzling, multi-sensory public entertainment around. In America in the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, thousands of amateur and professional showmen created spectacular evenings of dramatic readings and songs, travel lectures and stories. You could hear poems like “Evangeline” and “Hiawatha” and “The Raven,” sing along with “Yankee Doodle” and “Froggie Would a Wooing Go,” or listen to tales like the one about a child named “Little Britches,” who is rescued by the New Year’s Angel from a terrible snowstorm. Or, if your tastes were more serious-minded and educational, you might hear accounts of journeys to exotic places like Yosemite or the Orient.

Best of all, these recitations, many of which were performed with music and sound effects, were always accompanied by the pictures that miraculously appeared from the elaborate, polished wood and metal projectors, the “magic lanterns” that these beloved entertainers brought with them. The images themselves came from small, 3-inch-square glass, hand-painted colored slides. They were framed in wood so that they could be quickly inserted into the projector and then pulled out, without singeing the performer’s finger tips. The skilled magic lantern artist could do dissolves and fades, jump-cuts and special effects. He could make snow fall or ignite the Northern Lights, or make a little sprite jump rope up on the screen for all to see. And a hundred years ago, you, too, could buy complete Magic Lantern kits from Sears to amaze and delight your family and friends like these much-admired and emulated masters.

This incredible experience is still being performed by the American Magic Lantern Theater based in East Haddam, Connecticut. It’s the labor of love of Terry Borton — who has also been the editor-in-chief of another American institution, the children’s newspaper, Weekly Reader. Mr. Borton is a fourth generation Magic Lantern showman, and with his small company of performers, he still tours these shows around the country. He does them the old-fashioned way — with the original slides, music and scripts; and with all of the original magic, which still works. The Theater’s website — — will give you more information about their programs, and if they come to your town, don’t miss them. They’re a living, national treasure.

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