Bernson's Corner: Magic Lamps - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Bernson's Corner: Magic Lamps


Louisville, KY (WDRB)  -- We've become so used to movies, television and video games that it's hard to imagine American culture without them.

 In Bernson's Corner -- An Indiana couple, keeping alive one unique form of early mass media. What it lacks in technology, it makes up for in nostalgia. 

For the generation before the movies, the height of entertainment was... the magic lantern.  They were devices that projected colorful images hand-painted onto glass slides.  And for the Victorian era audience, this was... theater! 

David Francis and his wife Joss Marsh of Bloomington, Indiana are among the foremost collectors of magic lanterns in the world.  

"Every group of any sort had a magic lantern.  Large numbers of people had them in their homes," Francis explains.  "Children had special ones for themselves.  Nowadays, it's hard to realize how common the magic lantern was." 

The earliest lantern they have is very simple and doesn't have a light or lens any more.  Francis estimates that it dates back to the 1790's or 1800. 

How the lanterns work is that the slides would be illuminated from behind by gas, intensely burning lime -- which, by the way, is the origin of the term limelight.  And yes, it was dangerous. 

"You can imagine this was a profession in which lots of people burnt their fingers, or got blown up," speculates Marsh. 

Lantern shows featured exotic locales, comic pictures -- images with patriotic or religious themes -- dissolving from one scene to another, as the movies would later learn to do.   Author Charles Dickens is said to have been inspired by narrated magic lantern shows. 

In fact, Marsh says Gabriel Grubb, the surly sexton, is the prototype for Scrooge. The character makes his way to the graveyard where he's going to dig a grave on Christmas Eve. 

It might be hard to imagine in our 3-D Avatar culture, but back in the day -- the 19th century -- it was bits of wood and glass and paint that transported people into another world." 

Marsh says, "it is something that people don't see today, particularly younger people.  They've never seen anything like it.  When they come into the room and see the lantern, you've got them captured, basically." 

Antique magic lanterns don't inspire audiences of millions any more, as they did 150 years ago.  But to a very few, this all-but-lost art is still -- magic. 

"Film and TV have gone way beyond that," Marsh says.  "But somehow, coming back and seeing these elements together still gives people a thrill today." 

From Bloomington Indiana -- Barry Bernson, Fox41 News.

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