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One Man Is Bringing Magic Lantern Shows Back from the Dead

In a small Amish town, 'Professor Firefly' is reviving a lost art that once occupied the space of movies and TV.

by Seung Lee
Oct 31 2016, 5:59pm

Mark Sullivan aka "Professor Phineas T. Firefly," the magic lantern show performer at the Plain & Fancy Theater in Bird-In-Hand, PA. Image: Mark Sullivan/Plain and & Fancy Theater

Before Hollywood and motion pictures, magic lantern shows were the prime entertainment medium of late 19th century America. Thousands of magic lantern show troupes traveled to perform shows using moving images and visual effects on glass slides behind brightly lit lantern lights. Churches and theaters across the country were regularly packed for these shows, hosting an audience as large as 7,000 people.

But by the 1930s, the magic lantern show was pushed to extinction by motion cinemas. Lanterns were relegated to show advertisements before the start of movies, but soon lost that minor role as well. Magic lantern shows remained a fringe hobby for the next 80 years, but one man is re-igniting the lost art in a full-scale theaters.

In the tiny Amish town of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, an hour-and-a-half's drive from Philadelphia, Mark Sullivan performs magic lantern shows at The Plain & Fancy Farm Theater. It is considered to be the only full-time magic lantern theater in the world. Sullivan, as the sole magic lantern showman in the theater (his full-time job), counts himself as one of thirty magic lantern showmen currently existing in the world—a fraction of 30,000 showmen in 1895.

"They would project the image behind kerosene lamps and people thought they were talking to their dead relatives."

The technologically selective Amish don't have a particular historical tie in magic lantern shows, especially considering the associations magic lantern shows had to supernatural practices in the 19th century. Invented in Europe in the 17th century, the lanterns crossed the Atlantic to America in the early 19th century at first for seances. "They would project the image behind kerosene lamps and people thought they were talking to their dead relatives," Sullivan told Motherboard. "It gained popularity from that point on."

European lantern showmen took the spookiness of seances to another level around the same time with a type of theater called phantasmagoria. A primitive precursor to today's horror movies, Parisian lantern showmen projected moving images of skeletons, demons, and even the dead spirit of Louis XVI to scare audiences into shivers and tears.

Sullivan hasn't performed any phantasmagoria shows in his theater so far and doesn't plan any time soon. Instead, Sullivan performs various shows re-telling Biblical stories or the history of the United States from Plymouth Rock to the Civil War, in line with the popular demands of magic lantern shows of the 19th century.

The medium was so popular that it was adopted for non-entertainment purposes. Medical schools taught educational lectures about sinus cavities, and the Seventh Day Adventist Christians performed shows to proselytize people to joining their church, according to Sullivan.

Now approaching holiday season, Sullivan has a couple of Dickensian Christmas tales in the works. For his re-enactment of Dickens' "The Christmas Goblins", Sullivan purchased authentic glass slides from England with hand-drawn goblins and angels around photographs that were used in the 19th century, creating a Roger Rabbit-esque aesthetic where reality coexists with the fiction.

During his shows, Sullivan does all the work once delegated between four to six people in a19th-century troupe. Instead of a live music band, he plays music programmed and queued into his computer. Donning a Victorian suit and top hat, Sullivan—who goes by Professor Phineas T. Firefly on stage—narrates the story as he maneuvers one wood-encased glass slides after another.

Sullivan owns several lanterns but for his shows, he uses a three-tiered, free lense camera from 1890, which he calls "the Cadillac of magic lanterns." With the camera, Sullivan is able to slide three layers of images of top of each other, allowing moving effects and classic cinematographic techniques like dissolving. ( Sullivan primarily uses two layers in his camera, as three is too much for one operator to handle while telling a story.)

The cameras are lit with an electric light bulb, but in 1890 they were lit by limelight. Hydrogen and oxygen gases were pumped into the lantern containing limestone; the limestone would melt and emit very bright incandescent light. The light sources for magic lantern shows evolved into brighter sources throughout the 19th century, from candles, kerosene, limelight to carbon arc rods.

While a stickler for historical accuracy, Sullivan says using 19th century light sources are just too dangerous. "I don't want to blow up," Sullivan says. And he does not have to look too far to justify his fear: in 1908 in nearby Boyertown, Pennsylvania, a knocked over kerosene lamp during an intermission of a magic lantern show started a fire and killed 171 people in the opera house.

But Sullivan holds nothing back for dramatic effects in shows. In his 80-minute show on American history, two brothers from Baltimore fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War die together in Gettysburg. Using a special tank slide, Sullivan drops red food coloring inside the slide to reflect what looks like blood being spilled on the battlefield as the brothers lay dead.

"This is technology and entertainment which has been forgotten," Sullivan says. "Every single person has no clue how any of this is done. It's funny, I have grown men come up to me all the time saying they had no desire to come to this show. But they thought it was a great show by the end."

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