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Magic Lantern Shows for the Holidays

Written by Joe Ulrich, Arts & Culture Desk and witf Host | Dec 15, 2015 9:27 AM

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Mark Sullivan, Artistic Director and Showman for the Magic Lantern Theater at The Amish Experience, performs 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

In a dimly lit theater in the town of Bird-in-Hand, there's a man standing behind a strange-looking projector on a table made of polished wood and golden tubes. He's narrating a story while his hands reach around the front of the device and insert slides into it.

"A magic lantern is a 19th century form of entertainment. Before there were movies there was the magic lantern," says Mark Sullivan, the artistic director for the Magic Lantern Theater and showman for the Magic Lantern Theater Show at The Amish Experience.

"The magic lantern projects gorgeous hand-painted images onto a big screen coupled with storytelling as well as music," Mark explains. "That's pretty much a magic lantern show."

The Magic Lantern that Mark is using is sitting atop a table, and it's essentially an ornate box about 3 feet tall. Three golden tubes extend from the front. The technology that powers this device has changed over time.

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The Magic Lantern at the Magic Lantern Theater.

"Currently we're using 250 watt audio visual light bulbs," Mark says. "Back then, for this lantern, they used a pumping of hydrogen and oxygen gasses into the lantern focused onto an exact point...Then they would light a fire from that. They'd heat lime stone. When limestone is heated tremendously it becomes very incandescent and makes a very bright light. We've all heard the phrase 'step into the limelight' or 'come into the limelight', that's where it comes from, from the magic lantern."

Next to him is a wooden box filled with the animated slides, each one encased in a wooden frame. Mark grabs one and starts into 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Each slide displays a circular image in the screen. By manipulating the lantern, Mark can perform different types of transitions between slides. There are even some special effect slides that provide types of animation.

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Slides for the magic lantern.

"I have the ability to dissolve or switch between those three pictures with all three lanterns and make it a moving kind of story. We do have some animated slides that go back to the Victorian era. They painted images on glass and the glass would be anchored in such a way that you could manipulate the glass and you can make someone's jaw go up and down...There's a kaleidoscope effect that you crank a handle and it's all hand-cut, hand-painted glass on these screens."

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A magic lantern slide.

The magic lantern's invention came around 1657, but it's hayday was the early 1800's through early 1900's.

"They were so popular that all the major department stores sold magic lanterns for children, very small ones, that would run on kerosene lanterns. And they would sell 100,000 of those a year. And there's record of magic lantern shows being done for over 7,000 people at a sitting."

Through the end of the year the Magic Lantern Theater will be occupied with the telling of Christmas stories and poems as well as some sing-along caroling.

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A toy magic lantern.

"I come out and do a Christmas trivia contest with folks. Then I do the show itself and I have time for a question and answer period afterwards. All told it's about an hour and twenty minute show and it's a lot of fun."

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