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I’VE BEEN ENJOYING The Cinema in Flux, Lenny Lipton’s 795-page celebration of everything from magic lanterns to digital projection. Tidbits here are about itinerant lanternists, some scaring the bejesus out of folks, another performing with Mozart’s help, yet another prestaging one of my favorite Broadway musicals.

The Cinema in Flux: The Evolution of Motion Picture Technology from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Age, by Lenny Lipton, Springer, 2021.

The Savoyards. Readers may recall natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens’ deploring magic lantern’s use as frivolous popular entertainment in what was known as la lanterne de la peur (lantern of fear). And sure enough, Lipton describes “Roaming storytellers, peddlers, and performers from Savoy, Piedmont, and Auvergne became magic lantern showmen known as Savoyards.”

Savoyards, Lipton says, told “stories that appealed to people, often satirical commentaries about the lives of the nobility or events of the day. By 1730 a tradition had been established in which solo performers or family groups of Savoyards, equipped with a wooden cabinet magic lantern with its crinkle-top chimney, had become the itinerant lanternists of the continent and its primary exponents.”

An engraving by Giocvanni Volpato (1738–1803), after a painting by Francesco Maggiotto, circa 1770. This and other images from The Cinema in Flux.

Lipton notes, “The Savoyards were considered to be dashing and romantic figures… and those who remained with the fields and the farms or streets of the city admired the courage of these entertaining rogues who lived a life of uncertainty, danger, and instability, so different from their own…. The Savoyard children livened up performances with percussion instruments, dancing and aerobatics.”

The Phantasagoria. Sure enough, though, about la lantern de la peur. Lipton notes, “The versatile magic lantern served to enhance a theatrical spectacle, a performance art of spirts and goblins that persisted for about a century…. The best known of these was the phantasmagoria, a word that has worked its way into the language to denote a dreamlike terrifying experience.”

These spook shows, Lipton cites, were “originally produced by the German Johann Georg Schröpfer (1730–1774). Schröpfer was an illusionist and mountebank who used the lantern to project images of ghosts and spirits during the 1760s. Christlieb Benedict Funk, a professor at Leipzig University, described Schröpfer’s performances this way: ‘The dead appeared projected into columns of smoke. The effect was heightened by sounds of thunder and eerie voices provided by hidden assistants. Schröpfer literally stupefied the participants by giving them adulterated drinks and by burning narcotic incense after first making them fast for twenty-four hours.’ ” 

“Except for the fasting,” Lipton observes, “this sounds like backstage at a Grateful Dead concert in 1970.” 

A phantasmagoria performance. 

An Iron Curtain and Mozart. Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763-1837) was a Belgian physicist who became interested in magic lanterns, and adopted the stage name Robertson with a beguiling schtick: to debunk fakers and spiritualists of the lanternist genre

Lipton cites Robertson’s “plea for enlightenment… to lift a cover off the iron curtain which has for so long obscured the truth.” Lipton notes that this “may be the first use of the phrase later made famous by Winston Churchill,” albeit in an utterly different context. 

Lipton describes, “Robertson’s elaborate shows took place in eerie settings like that of an abandoned Capuchin Monastery, where it had a long run. The performances included costumed actors moving through the audience, projection on walls and smoke, plus aural techniques such as ventriloquism and music by the ethereal glass harmonica (for which Mozart, in 1791, had composed a haunting Adagio and Rondo).”

Prestaging Sondheim. “Magic lantern technology, as a creative force,” Lipton says, “was rekindled by the Clavilux light-organs of a latter-day lanternist … the American visual artist and musician, Thomas Wilfred, né Richard Edgar Løvstrøm, who created a temporally plastic medium of light and color analogous to that of sound and music.”

Thomas Wilfred playing his Clavilux.

Lipton observes, “The first in the Clavilux series was shown in 1922; Wilfred calling the art of his moving color images lumina, but the term has come to be used to describe the electrical, mechanical, and optimal devices he constructed that project hours-long cycles of continuously changing fluid shapes.”

Act II’s Chromolune #7.  Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is one of my favorite Broadway musicals, at least in part because of its having a character named Dot. Act I describes her complex relationship with artist George Seurat. In Act II, George and Dot’s great-grandson, also an artist, contends with producing modern art: his light machine called Chromolume #7. 

Huygens, the Savoyards, Schröpfer, Robertson, and Wilfred would recognize the device. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022

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