Mervyn Heard

Dressed in Light

Before cinema the magic lantern show provided a very different form of on-screen entertainment and education in public halls and private drawing rooms, with the aid of photographic or hand-painted glass slides. And one might imagine that with the arrival of the new medium of film in the 1890s the magic lantern was soon abandoned. But that was not the case. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century continued to provide alternative, surprising and sometimes bizarre forms of visual amusement and delight, such as the strange phenomenon of projecting on people.

Loie Fuller, the American dancer and star of the Moulin Rouge originally inspired the idea of having lantern operators project images of national flags, famous politicians, spinning patterns and abstract designs onto her voluminous twirling white frock, back in the 1890s. Although originally seen as a gimmick, the concept continued to excite audiences until, by 1912, several prominent manufacturers of stage effects were advertising a variety of images, diversely described as ‘pose slides’, ‘cloak slides’ ‘dressing slides’, and ‘wallpaper slides’ for dancers and other artistes.

Whilst La Loie’s skirt dances continued to be popular, some performers began to explore alternative and more teasing modes of display. Walking out in the darkness in black cloaks, onto stages draped in black velvet cloaks the performer would be, at first, invisible. Slowly her face alone would become illuminated and finally, with the sudden opening of her cloak, a dramatic image would appear and as swiftly disappear as the cloak was drawn together; to be replaced almost immediately by a new motif. Colourful designs of butterflies or flags proved very popular since, with a simple movement of the cloak, they could be made to flutter realistically. Gothic images were also popular, such as witches or spiders, as well as patriotic portraits and even displays of famous battleships.

But the most popular development was the ‘pose slide’. Here a bright scene was thrown onto a large white screen spanning the entire stage. Most commonly the scene would be of an exotic foreign location such as Paris, Bali, or the Russian Steppes. Central to the scene there would be a human figure – usually a young woman suitably costumed and complete save for one important feature – her face. When the entire image was thrown upon a living pose artist in a white leotard or ‘nude’ fleshings she would assume the character but provide her own moving facial expressions. Using two lanterns and through the simple process of cross-fading, the audience and performer would be transported in a flash to some equally beguiling destination. Sometimes these would be an other-worldly surreal undersea or celestial location. Although the face was the main feature, occasionally the full figure of the pose artist would be revealed portraying Venus or Salome.

These acts proved popular from the 1890s right through until the 1950s. In the USA, throughout Europe and in parts of Australia they were included as speciality acts in music halls, vaudeville houses, cabaret venues and circus tents. Celebrated practitioners included the parents of the actor Peter Sellers, the magicienne Adelaide Hermann and the flamboyant and eccentric Earl of Yarmouth.

In the 1920s the subject matter became more risque, mirroring the delights of the Moulin Rouge. Pola Nery was a German performer who posed and sang while standing amid both illustrative and photographic representations of dancers.

One of the largest collections of extant commercial ‘pose slide’ material is now to be found in the Thompson Library at the University of Ohio. These slides were produced by the Kliegl Bros. / Universal Stage Lighting Co. who had premises on Broadway. But there are many other smaller collections to be found in international film museums and in private archives in the USA, Canada and throughout Europe.

Here are just a few examples for your viewing pleasure. For much more on the magic lantern and its general  history and to learn more about the work of ‘Professor’ Heard and his Peerless Magic Lantern Shows for modern audiences go to www.mervynheard.com . You can also email me here: mervynheard@gmail.com.

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