The magic lantern was the grandfather of film

A man with a thick dark beard is sleeping soundly in his bed. So soundly, in fact, that not even the thunderous sound of snoring that comes from his mouth each time he opens it to take a breath can rouse him.

A man with a thick dark beard is sleeping soundly in his bed.

So soundly, in fact, that not even the thunderous sound of snoring that comes from his mouth each time he opens it to take a breath can rouse him.

Suddenly, a small grey mouse scurries up onto his pillow and into his gaping mouth, only to be spewed out with the next snore.

This comical scene dubbed The Rat Swallower is from a magic lantern show.

Behind the projector is Professor Lindsay Lambert, one of the top showmen still practising in Ottawa, Ontario.

The magic lantern, first invented in the mid-1600s and used to entertain audiences in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, is the grandfather of the modern film.

“When you look at a magic lantern show you have to look at it as being the television and the internet of a century ago,” says Lambert.

Like a slide projector, the device focuses light though a slide onto a screen.

Lanternists often used a number of slides layered on top of each other and moved back and forth so that it appears that the image is moving and changing.

The MacBride Museum of Yukon History has a number of magic lantern projectors and slides which were donated to the museum by Bob Bishop.

Bishop, who passed away at age 92 on December 26, 2009, was one of the strongest supporters of the magic lantern device and one of its better known showmen.

“The rays of the magic lantern illuminate the road leading to the land of light and shadow,” wrote Bishop in his book, The Illusionist.

“In these more modern times the public is instantly transported to fantasy via the moving pictures, both in theatres and television. But in an earlier, more simple time, the outside world of fact and fantasy was shown to the towns and villages along the Chautauqua trail by travelling projectionists who carried with them the wonderous magic lantern.”

Bishop’s famous Last Magic Lantern Show, which he toured across western North America and to the Yukon over his 40 years career, was modeled after a show that might have been given by a lanternist in the early 1900s.

“Often he would take his audience on an imaginary tour, showing scenes from the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, then taking them across the prairies and though the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest,” reported the Magic Lantern Gazette in its winter 2009 issue.

“Along the way, the audience would see pictures of Crater Lake, wild rivers of the West, Mt. Hood and cities like Portland, Seattle and Spokane.”

The show used sounds as well as images. Bishop would often be accompanied by a piano or organ, and use whistles, kazoos and tambourines to accentuate the slides.

Bishop donated the slides and projectors to the museum on the condition that they would be used.

“I am not interested in having the materials stored and preserved,” Bishop wrote in a letter dated April 28, 1999. “If they are not used in the manner they were designed for then they remain but glass and there is no magic.”

Bishop’s slides and projectors are currently on display at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History in the Cluttertorium gallery.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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