When the power goes out for any length of time, most people can't even locate candles, let alone drum up entertainment. The TV is silent, the cineplex dark, the stereo useless. It's much like the world of the 19th century, and people are forced to tell stories.
The American Magic Lantern Theater, which will perform Saturday at the history museum at the Western Reserve Historical Society, is reviving an example of such pre-Edison entertainment, using dramatic narration and a kerosene-powered slide projector -- or "magic lantern," as they were known -- to tell stories. But director Terry Borton dismisses the notion that an antique slide projector pales in comparison to modern equivalents.
"It's not your Aunt Milly's slide show," he says of the 90-minute Civil War set he will project and narrate (depicting 20 different characters), along with singer/pianist Nancy Stewart. "People are always flabbergasted that this old slide projector can do so many things. Some of the slides are animated, some of them create special effects. It doesn't look like a movie, but it's not like a slide show, either."
Using all-original, intricately painted plates of glass, Borton has cobbled together a story from several different standard sets sold in the late-1800s. "It depicts the Civil War, beginning with Uncle Tom's Cabin -- which Lincoln said was the book that started the war -- then running through the war in a series of stories and songs." Hits from the era include "Sheridan's Ride" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
"The book was originally a vehement anti-slavery polemic," Borton explains. "And that's the way we tried to present it." Also depicted closer to the way it was are the battle scenes, which employ hollow slides filled with water, to create an effect of blood during the fighting.
"It's quite dramatic," Borton admits. "The artist who did most of [the slides], Joseph Boggs Beale, was in the Civil War. They're full of the minutiae of life in camp and the battles."
Borton was introduced to the whole thing by his father, who used his grandfather's magic lantern to entertain the family. When Borton had his own kids, he inherited the role of showman. Word got out, and now he leads the only professional magic lantern theater in America.
"It has this wonderfully engaging quality," he explains of the show's popularity. "You would think that kids, growing up with a steady diet of MTV and all the whiz-bango, would be very blasé about this, but they're not. They get sucked right in."