Before movies talked or even were movies as we know them, audiences gathered around the big screen and watched as exhibitors would project images, slides and hand-animated frames as musicians played instruments and performers dramatically acted out the stories, often encouraging the participation of the audience.
Borton continues this tradition as he travels the country with his antique projector recreating the sort of shows audiences could experience in the 1890s.
“A magic lantern show is what the movies came from over 100 years ago. The magic lantern itself is the projector that the movie projector came from,” Borton said. “Ours is a big brass and mahogany machine. They didn’t have flexible film then, so they were using hand-painted glass slides and those slides would illustrate stories and songs and jokes and comedies, just the way the movies would a few years later.”
While Borton tours the country putting on shows with a variety of content, Saturday’s will specifically be Christmas-themed.
“(The slides) illustrate the story of Scrooge and ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and the Little Match Girl and Christmas carols,” Borton said. “They change about 30 seconds. Some of them are animated and there is a live showman, myself, with live music from a piano underscoring the stories and also solo singing. My colleague, Nancy Stewart, who has a beautiful voice, sings solos like ‘O’ Holy Night,’ but also leads the audience in sing-a-longs.”
Borton’s exhibition may replicate shows from the Victorian era, but the origins of the magic lantern stretch back as far as the 17th century.
“Like a lot of things, its origins are a little vague, but the best indications are that it was invented in 1659 by a Dutch scientist, Christiaan Huygens, who was a very well-known scientist at the time, a friend of Isaac Newton. And he thought of it as a toy, so he sort of hid his role in it for a number of years,” Borton said.
“That was the period of the great growth of the magic lantern. Kerosene came into use in the 1870s, so you could have a small lantern that was easy to work, so you would have children’s lanterns and, in my case, my great-grandfather had a small adult-sized lantern that he used to give shows to kids in the neighborhood,” he said. “Schools had them, churches had them. They were used in politics. By the 1890s, the lantern was just everywhere.”
The audience will also be privy to the real thing. Borton’s magic lantern is no replica. It’s the real thing, albeit modified.
“Lanterns were originally lit with limelight. You know, the expression, ‘In the limelight?’ Limelight was created by bringing oxygen and hydrogen in through pipes in the back and then lighting the gases and putting a piece of limestone over the gases and it would turn incandescent, which produces a brilliant white light,” he said. “It was a very bright light and you could do a show for thousands of people, but it was also very dangerous, so we’ve modified it for electricity. Your fire marshal wouldn’t let us into the theater with a limelight lantern.”
Borton’s first exposure to magic lanterns was courtesy of his grandfather and his family’s yearly gatherings.
“It was a standard part of our Christmas holidays. We’d get out the lantern and it was a big ritual about it, warming up the lenses so they wouldn’t crack and putting a sheet up over the mantle for a screen and using a broom straw to light it. We had a lot of fun with it. My dad was a good storyteller,” he said.
Borton said he aims to try and replicate that sort of experience for his audiences, encouraging participation and interaction.
“We would chant to make the man with the growing nose get bigger and bigger,” he said. “I go for that kind of feel. Obviously, it’s a little different when you’re doing a show for 500 people, but we do try to consciously take an audience back, so they’re not just seeing something as the Victorians would have seen it, but experiencing it as they would have. We often have audiences carrying on in quite an astounding way.”
The Magic Lantern Show will be at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at Liberty Hall in Tyler. For more information or for tickets, call 903-595-1521 or visit www.libertytyler.com.