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The storytelling magic of lanterns

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In today’s vibrant world of technology, where so much of our daily lives are bombarded with moving images on screens, it’s difficult to imagine a time when an audience travelled a distance by foot or horse to be captivated by still images projected onto a plain white sheet pinned to a wall.

 Imagine sitting on hard seats in a draughty hall, waiting patiently for the wonderful world of optical projection to begin. A sense of anticipation amongst the audience would grow as the candles were blown out and darkness slowly enveloped the room. Suddenly the lamp would be ignited and through the wizardry of the magic lantern and accompanying slides (some instructive, many amusing, and all highly entertaining), the spectator would be transported into a world beyond their knowing.

In the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection are several magic lanterns (laterna magica), the earliest model of which is a Gegrandet, made in Germany, 1866. Nestled in a purpose-built wooden box, it is accompanied by a series of glass lantern slides on which are hand-painted scenes, encased within beautifully constructed mahogany frames.

 Instructions for use are on the underside of the box lid. The manufacturers advise that the magic lantern be placed on a table with the lens facing a “smooth white sheet at a distance of 3 – 5 feet” (91- 152 centimetres). The lamp was filled with petroleum and the wick cut evenly so that the flame could be adjusted to as large as possible without ‘smooting’ (producing large concentrations of dust). The lamp was then carefully transferred into the lantern and the focusing tube adjusted until the picture was focused on the screen. If smooting occurred and the flame came in contact with the dust, an explosion or fire could be triggered adding even greater excitement to the evening.

 The magic lantern was operated by a concave mirror positioned behind a light source, which directed the light through a small rectangular sheet of glass with an image (known as a lantern slide) and then onto a lens positioned at the front of the apparatus. Because the single lens inverted an image projected through it, slides had to be inserted upside down in the slot provided, to ensure that the projected image was correctly oriented. The lens was adjusted to change the size and focus of the image on the screen.

 As early as 1861, local Te Matau-a-Māui / Hawke’s Bay shops advertised the sale of magic lanterns and accompanying slides. The slides were sold in themed boxed sets of varying number and came with a script describing the contents. There were slides to entertain everyone. For children there were fairy or folk tales as well as hand-painted cartoon-like humourous slides which could have some form of rudimentary movement. For adult, slides covered information about places around the world particularly the ‘Holy Land and China’ and for the more discerning there were, scientific, astronomical and botanical slides.

 Magic lantern shows became a pivotal part of any entertainment, particularly the celebration of an important occasion. At Pōrangahau on New Year’s Day, 1878, Dr Tennent and his wife held a children’s festival. The Hawke’s Bay Herald described the event beginning with the youngsters, who in excited anticipation, gathered from 2 pm onward. “Merriment ran high” as the entertainment began with a sumptuous feast of cakes, sandwiches and other delicacies which the children quickly devoured. This was followed by a “general stampede” as each child rushed to get a ticket which corresponded to a gift hanging from the Christmas tree. Next on the itinerary was a series of races which were contested in a “spirited manner”’ by everyone, especially the “little girls and young ladies” who presented “a pretty spectacle”.

 In the evening Dr Tennent put on a “splendid” magic lantern show for both children and adults, the contents of which evoked ‘peals of laughter’ – this was closely followed by a spectacular display of fireworks. In a bush community no entertainment was considered complete without a dance, so at midnight the floor was emptied and with the aid of a piano, dancing was kept up until “the candles went out, which catastrophe took place about 3am”.

 Many magic lantern shows were performed to fundraise for a specific cause - often a school, church or sports club fund. At Woodville on 24 January 1880, the Waipawa Mail described a show arranged by Reverend Samuel Williams, proceeds of which went to the local school. The occasion drew a large audience and immediately the “first view was thrown on the screen” the youngsters excitedly drummed a tattoo on the floor with their feet. The subsequent sharp movement shook the lantern, causing the block of lime (used to produce a very bright flame) to break. It took Mr C Winkleman, the projectionist, about ten minutes to “skilfully manipulate the lantern”, afterwards which, the performance went on without a hitch.

 The success of any magic lantern exhibit, depended on the showmanship of the speaker who, if accomplished, would embellish the evening with comedic, descriptive and informative anecdotes. Inextricably intertwined within a magic lantern performance were musical interludes by local amateurs, particularly pianoforte performances and singing, along with recitations of well-known poetry and plays. Some exhibitions were themed as on 14 April 1887, at the Waipukurau Town Hall when panoramic displays of Scotland or in Sir Walter Scott’s words, the “land of brown heath and shaggy wood” were shown, followed by a rendition of the song The Bonnie Hills of Scotland which was performed in “capital style”.

 Although now seemingly simple in nature, magic lantern shows, assisted by the musical and vocal talent of a community, brought people together and gave a reprieve from the arduous and serious toil of daily life in often isolated areas. There was indeed wizardry in a magic lantern show.

Published in the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper on 13 May 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke's Bay.

Image: Magic lantern, 81/135

22 May 2023

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