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Dressed in light: the ancient art of projecting on people.

The use of projection as an integral part of theatre has recently become commonplace as digital lighting techniques have become increasingly advanced and easy to apply. But the marriage between live stage performance and the projected image is not new. It's at least four hundred years old. One somewhat bizarre concept originated in the 1890s and went on to enjoy surprisingly long, widespread, international popularity on the vaudeville, variety and cabaret stage, before finally disappearing in the 1950s.

Pose slides

The Ohio State University's Department of Theatre and University Libraries' Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute hold the Joel E Rubin Collection. This consists of various documents, catalogs, and other ephemera relating to the Universal Electric Stage Lighting Company of New York City. The firm was established in 1896 by Anton T. Kliegl and A. H. Guendel and was based in the old Star Theatre Building (formerly Wallack's) on the corner of Broadway and 13th Street. A year later Johann Kliegl joined his brother, replacing Guendel, and the company became popularly known as Kliegl Bros. The firm was to become the foremost supplier of carbon-arc based stage lighting instruments in the first decade of the twentieth century including a prototype of the famous Klieglight spotlight. These powerful lamps were supplied to many of the burgeoning Hollywood studios. Supposedly the reason why so many movie stars wore dark glasses all day long, both indoors and out, was not for anonymity or as an affectation, but to avoid the blinding migraines which were brought on by spending too much time under these intense lights.

The Joel Rubin Collection includes several boxes of magic lantern slides, including 105 identified pose slides dating from around 1909. These images are hand painted, extremely colorful, and are all of a similar style. The most common feature is a dominant central figure, usually female, in an exotic foreign location or more surreal setting. These figures, without exception, lack one important physical feature: they have no faces. Slides like these were produced by a number of different companies internationally under a variety of names but in the United States were known most commonly as pose plastique slides or simply pose slides. They lack faces because they were designed specifically for projection onto live performers, effectively a form of quick change act. In performance two synchronized projectors were employed to provide continuous transformations.

This type of performance was not peculiar to Kliegl Bros. or the United States, where it was commonly staged in vaudeville. It established itself as an international phenomenon from the early 1900s, and versions were also presented in Britain, throughout Europe, and in Australia, in music hall, cabaret, pantomime, and musical comedy.

It survived, at least in Britain, until the early 1950s.

Ancient lights

The notion of projecting on people for the purpose of amusement is a surprisingly ancient art-form.

In 1608 a Dutch marine engineer and reputedly the inventor of the submarine, Cornelius Drebbel, wrote a letter to a friend describing a particular party trick he had recently devised:

I take my stand in a room and have obviously no one with me. In the first place I make my dress and appearance different before the eyes of all those who are in the room.

Now I am dressed in black velvet, and in a moment, as quick as thought, I am in green velvet, in red velvet, ringing the changes on all the colors in the world in succession ... besides, I change myself into a real tree, with leaves fluttering as if in the breeze, and this without any one's noticing; and not only into a tree, but into anything that I may wish. After that I change myself into the shape of any creature, as I may myself desire, now into a lion, then a bear and then, again, a horse, a cow, a sheep, a calf, a pig and so forth.' (Quoted in Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633) by Gerrit Tierie (Amsterdam: H.J. Paris, 1932).)

Drebbel probably used some form of camera obscura device since current research suggests that the invention of the magic lantern slide projector did not occur until the middle of the seventeenth century. When the magic lantern was finally introduced it was immediately adopted as an instrument of mischief, with traveling showmen and women exhibiting their hand-painted images of phantoms and grotesque characters in the back rooms of wayside inns and the private salons of European princes. The poor quality of the whale-oil illuminant and accompanying unpleasant smell, no doubt added to the ghastly nature of the show. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the images, often shown by hand-held instruments, strayed from the sheet to the garments and faces of the viewers.

However, the pose slide phenomenon began in the early 1890s, largely inspired by the performances of the American actress and serpentine dancer, Loie Fuller. Fuller's extravagant skirt dance performances featured an all-encompassing, swirling mass of white silk. Her arms lengthened by wooden wands, she was able to raise the material high above her head or cause it to flow behind her as she sped across the stage like a galleon in full sail. At first the routine concentrated on the movement of the brilliant white material itself and the billowing patterns she produced. Soon she added color-wheel effects which were thrown onto her by lantern operators situated either in the wings, in the auditorium, or even under the stage, directly beneath a glass plate on which she stood. This huge wide expanse of white material also suggested opportunities for its use as a more formal screen surface, onto which any motif or scene might be thrown. Among the first designs were patriotic American images, such as the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, and even portraits of incumbent presidents, all with the intention of ensuring a standing ovation from an audience of patriotic Americans at the end of her act.

Loie Fuller's routines encouraged numerous imitators, with a flurry of skirts and bright lights hiding any lack of dancing skill. The idea was timely too, since many theatres were fast changing over to electrical lighting systems. And what better advertisement could there be for the theatre's worthwhile investment than the inclusion of this display of brilliant, electrical theatrics.

Kliegl Bros. led the field in this technical revolution. They refurbished venues with the latest equipment as well as devising made-to-order special effects and illuminated marquees, which would eventually turn the old dark thoroughfare of Broadway into the Great White Way. Their entry into the business was to some degree accidental. An early letterhead shows that prior to their foray into the theatre outfitting business the brothers Kliegl, who were tinsmiths by trade, were providing a whole host of services from their home at the Star Theatre, from locksmithing and bell hanging to the supply of "all kinds of door closing apparatus," "speaking tubes and letter boxes," and "electrical signs."

Occupying the same building was a German electrical engineer, J. Carl Mayrhofer, who had already made a name for himself in the theatre world in New York for his innovations in stage lighting. In 1892, Andrew Carnegie witnessed a demonstration of lighting effects in Germany, using carbon-arc lamps. It was staged by Mayrhofer and a fellow electrical engineer, W. Kranz. This was no mere technical demonstration but had been specially devised for the Urania Astronomical Society of Berlin as a piece of theatre, reproducing a solar eclipse over the Havel Lakes. Carnegie was so impressed that he invited the inventors to use their techniques in the form of a protoscience fiction spectacular at his new concert venue, Carnegie Hall. All of the original scenery and special equipment were shipped over from Europe, and the science popularizer Garret P Serviss, author of the science fiction novel Edison's Conquest of Mars, was commissioned to write a new script incorporating lunar landscapes. Scientific American for April 9, 1892, described the show in great detail and heralded it as a "triumph of science and scenic art." It was this event which helped to convince many theatre owners and producers that the future lay with electrical power. Mayrhofer stayed on in New York and established the Mayrhofer Electric Stage Lighting Company with a new partner, W. L. Kilpatrick. In the first few years the firm appears to have been somewhat peripatetic, finally taking up residence at the Star Theatre, where Mayrhofer was able to employ the services of the specialist tinsmiths, Anton and Johann Kliegl.

Despite Mayrhofer's celebrity and prowess as a lighting designer, it seems likely that he was no great shakes as a businessman, and in 1896 the Kliegl brothers bought him out. The earliest catalog-one of many in the Rubin collection-

is a Mayrhofer catalog dated 1895, rubber-stamped "Universal Electric Stage Lighting Company. Successors to the Mayrhofer Stage Lighting Company." This booklet lists various items for both optical and electro-mechanical weather, fountain, and fire effects, alongside the productions for which they were originally created. On the final page, the following appears, almost as a hasty afterthought:

Complete or Partial Outfits for Electric Dance Lumineuse Electric Skirt Dance Rope Dance, etc., etc.

Contracted for.

Commercial opportunities

Numerous newspaper accounts from the turn of the century describing both professional and amateur serpentine-dance performances refer to all manner of images, old and new, which were cast onto white frocks, from the kind of spinning-pattern, mechanical chromotrope effects used by lantern exhibitors in the mid-nineteenth century, to new, simple, specially designed images of flower heads, birds, and butterflies.

Soon the catalogs of established US-based lantern slide suppliers, such as the firm of T. H. McAllister, as well as the manufacturers of the new cinematographic equipment ( in particular the Joseph Menchen Company of Kansas City and New York and the Harbach Company of Philadelphia) began to feature lists of particular images and effects for brand new forms of projection performance. The most startling of these fresh ideas was the cloak act, which employed the black-art techniques of nineteenth century stage illusionists. The pose artist would venture onto a darkened stage, entirely shrouded in a big black cloak. Standing center stage and accompanied by appropriate mysterious music, she would

fling open the cloak at intervals to reveal a bright picture on the white lining. Then she would quickly close it. When she opened it again she revealed a new image, the lantern operator having swiftly changed the slide in the few seconds allowed. The cloak artist usually wore a white leotard or fleshings beneath her cloak. Sometimes the undulations of her own body would form a part of the picture. Alternatively, a demure second lining was displayed in front of the performer concealing the body . One of the foremost exponents of the cloak act was the French variety performer Juliette Lotty, who billed herself as Mademoiselle Lotty. She toured throughout Europe, Australia, and both South and North America at the turn of the nineteenth century and was acknowledged as much for her own figure as the designs cast upon it. As witnessed by a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald and reported on January 27, 1902, it was all done to the music of Wagner's Tannhauser, with a change of image every ten seconds, until Mademoiselle Lotty was finally revealed in all her "naked" glory.

An undated catalog (c. 1907) for Moore, Bond & Co. of Chicago lists over 800 different effects for cloak work and for what would become the pose plastique act. These images are mostly historic costumes (there are 500 of these), as well as designs copied straight from the latest Paris fashion collections.

The popularity of the pose slide act in vaudeville and cabaret was no doubt linked to the popularity of the quick-change or costume change act. The leading protean or quickchange artist of the 1890s was the Italian Leopoldo Fregoli. Fregoli was so fast that rumors spread that there must surely be more than one Fregoli. Interest in the pose act must also have been due to the revival of interest in an even older form of performance, tableaux vivants. Originating in the attitude performances of the famous Emma Hamilton in the 1780s, these displays became more popular in the mid-nineteenth century when they purported to show living representation of great works of classical art. It comes as no surprise perhaps that in a very short space of time the more popular repertoire was to consist primarily of representations of Greek statuary, with young women in the flimsiest of attire preparing for their bath or indulging in more fleshly pursuits akin to the activities which one might have observed on the island of Lesbos. These sleazy displays became common attractions in dime museums and some of the seedier music halls, such as the notorious Coal Hole in London. As a result the art form fell out of favor generally, although it did still survive as a much cleaner Victorian parlor pastime.

In the 1890s tableaux vivants made a public comeback. The new practitioners, in particular Edward Kilanyi, promised less prurient imagery and quicker scene changes, which were achieved with the aid of complex revolving apparatus. However, much of what was portrayed still turned out to be questionable. One show featured a bevy of diaphanously clad nymphs being deluged in real water, anticipating the wet T-shirt competition by at least sixty years.

Soon the term pose plastique artist or pose artist came to be used both with reference to exponents of this original art form and the new projected-image version.

In 1909 Kliegl Bros. offered a special four-page supplement to the main catalog, advertising their extensive range of pose slides. The hand-painted slides offered a full scene for presentation on a large proscenium stage, with its central character fully represented sans face, but also, in some cases sans arms, legs, or even the complete body. In the latter case there would simply be a dedicated area to encompass the full figure of the pose artist in her fleshings perhaps wrapped in flames, bathed in a fountain, or standing "naked" in a half shell, in the manner of Botticelli's demure Venus.

Most of the images in the Rubin collection and other similar pose slide collections are of women, but not all. Sometimes the figures are of male characters. During the Great War in Europe a number of pose slides were produced both in the US and Britain featuring "faceless" soldiers in battle dress. Now they seem rather incongruous, but were no doubt well-received by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. There are also examples of living faces forming a part of inanimate objects. The catalog offers 104 different poses. These are arranged in groupings, not by theme but by position. For example "Position A. Arms folded across chest," "Position B. Both hands above head," and so on. Neither is there any attempt at linking images within groupings. This arrangement seems unhelpful to any artist trying to assemble a themed performance but possibly reflects the company's concern for things mechanical rather than thoughts artistic.

It's difficult to give a satisfactory overview of the subject matter contained in the catalog. But here is a short excerpt which is typical. These are taken from the "Position A" grouping. Note that the descriptions often contain information suggesting other parts of the body to be provided by the poser.

A26 Morning Stroll   Nurse maid wheeling carriage (face only)

A27 Mushrooms        Face appears in the stem of a mushroom

A28 Old Glory        Figure standing behind two American flags
                     (face only)

A29 On duty          Policeman standing on a street corner
                     twirling his club

A30 Pansies          Face appears in the center of a pansy

A31 Prayer to        Figure standing on high terrace
the Gods             praying, before an incense post

A31 Soap Bubbles     Boy making soap bubbles (face appears in
                     a bubble)

A33 Swans            Nude figure standing on a lily leaf, swans in
                     the distance

A34 Take Me Too!     A stork poised on one leg, wings spread,
                     ready for flight with a little passenger on its
                     back and another holding the stork's back

Occasionally images are drawn from the popular plays of the day, such as Wilde's Salome. There are also representations of famous paintings, Grecian statuary, or image from stained glass windows. Religious symbolism is often present, likewise Gothic themes. Some of the most bizarre representations are of the performer as a lighthouse with his or her face replacing the lamp, protruding through a hole in the wallpaper, or providing only a clock face. Within the Kliegl archive a series of six slides show the process of creating the working template for the slide painter. The first shows a photographic image of a woman in a white leotard with successive slides providing proportionate measurements. archive measure three-and-half inches by four inches. This had been the industry standard for lantern slides in the United States and in mainland Europe from the middle of the nineteenth century, following the introduction of the photographic slide. In Britain the format had been and always remained three-and-half inches square.


The impact of the pose slide effect upon the viewer needs to be seen to be appreciated. Back in 1996 I was involved in the making of a television arts program (The Peter Sellers Story, Arena, BBC2). It traced the life of the famous screen actor using mostly film footage which he'd shot himself. Sellers's mother Peg and father Bill had toured with a pose act when Peter was a boy. The actual slides they used were still in existence and owned by Sellers's cousins. I was asked to supply a suitable double lantern to re-create the effect at the Wimbledon Theatre in London as a brief sequence in the film.

A large screen, measuring some twenty feet square, was hung just behind the proscenium arch. The performer dressed in a white leotard and stood on a box covered with white cotton material. This process of raising the figure slightly was to allow for the feet to be seen above the line of footlights, and all images are designed accordingly. The slides were chosen fairly randomly, though commencing with "Venus in the Half Shell" showing the artist's entire body, followed by a series of typical costume changes. The effect was a total surprise. When we look at a picture of any size which features a central figure our eye is drawn to the face of the subject. In this instance, when the face moves, our brain convinces us that the whole picture has movement. Unfortunately the television recording conveys little of the true effect, merely the mechanical process. Dick Ray, who worked on the performance in the '40s and '50s with his father (Sellers's uncle), discussed the act with me and was able to offer further insights. He said it ran for about seven minutes and involved twenty transformations. Musical accompaniment consisted of snatches of national airs and well-known popular classics.

The transforming dissolving or dissolvant view process had been established and popularized in the 1820s. The most fashionable shows in London featured elements of the Grand Tour, such as an image of Vesuvius by day slowly transforming into the same aspect at night in eruption, with the addition of moving smoke. In the 1820s the light source was oil, which meant that the lanterns couldn't be stacked one above the other. Instead they were set side-by-side, with a contraption commonly known as angel's wings set between the lanterns. The wings pivoted on a central rod and could be angled in such a way as to reveal the image from one lantern or the other. A slow twist reversed the situation, producing a slow cross fade. The mechanism could also be adjusted to allow two images to appear at once to introduce a superimposition of,

say, a rainbow, smoke, or a revolving waterwheel on the slide of a rustic mill. With the coming of the Drummond Light or limelight as a radiant and more controllable source of power, it was now possible to stack projectors one on top of the other. This led to the arrival of the kind of handsome Victorian mahogany and brass biunial (two-stage) and triunial (three-stage) machines.

These were arranged in such a way that the upper and lower lamp houses could be tilt-adjusted to cover the same area of the screen.

Generally with dissolving views the image can be shown at any preferred size. This is not so in the case of pose slides since it is based critically on the height of the performer. This enables us to judge when an image has been designed for a twenty foot screen or a smaller screen (say nine or ten feet high). While the Sellers's slides are clearly designed to fill a large stage, the Kliegl slides were produced for a screen surface which must have measured around nine feet high by ten feet wide. At first the choice of size seems surprising given that the firm was used to supplying effects and lighting for use in major venues. It seems likely that this was an attempt to produce a standard-size image to fit not only all theatre stages, but cabaret style venues and for amateur shows. On a large stage it would have looked a little lost, but not if it formed the focused finale to a more energetic dance act.

The pose slide act in the age of cinema

Contrary to popular belief, the magic lantern did not lose its popularity with the advent of cinema. Most of the early nickelodeon theatres offered a mixed program of short film sequences and illustrated lantern songs, with live accompaniment from singers and musicians. In the early years celluloid film was unreliable and sometimes downright dangerous. Each sequence only ran for a few minutes, requiring operators to frequently thread new film onto the machine and patiently rewinnd used footage. So having an old reliable lantern and a mixture of colorful slides was good insurance. The lantern also held a lasting appeal in terms of nostalgia, it had color, and, paradoxically, greater flexibility.

Moreover, in 1913, Kliegl Bros. may have appeared to old-style lanternists as taking a step back into the past. The company had always carried some form of biunial lantern for the pose act and for other kinds of theatrical effects, but in 1913 readers of the new catalog surprisingly saw the re-introduction of the three-tier triunial, stating its particular suitability for pose acts.

During the serpentine and pose slide era some manufacturers developed quite elaborate mechanical special effects such as color wheels and strobe effects which could augment the older projections. One of the most elaborate was the Double Skyopticon--Butterfly Machine developed and sold by Joseph Menchen and appearing in their catalog dated September 1, 1906. This allowed for the introduction of two or more butterflies or birds which could skip around the stage on independent trajectories.

Film was also projected onto performers from at least as early as 1912. During the first ever Royal Variety Performance (originally the Royal Command Performance) at the London Palladium on July 1, 1912, a dancer known as La Pia, danced within projected footage of crashing waves.

In the 1920s the magic lantern was still in constant use with some mainstream presentations offering a combination of themed film clips, lantern images, and elements of live theatre. The most notable were the creation of the American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas, whose production "With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia" was staged at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1919 and later in the same year at the Royal Opera House in London, with a sixty-piece Guards Band and a dancer performing a dance of the seven veils.

Throughout the 1920s and '30s the pose slide act retained its currency as a legitimate variety act. Indeed newspaper accounts confirm that the pose slide act even survived into the 1950s. Its survival seems difficult to understand at a time when cinema had become well established. Dick Ray believes that since filmmakers had still not managed to conquer color

in the early '50s, people were still beguiled by the colorful spectacle which only live theatre could provide. It may also of course have simply been the abiding craziness of the concept that attracted patrons. V

Mervyn Heard is an international magic lantern showman based in the United Kingdom. He performs using original slides and equipment from his own extensive collection and has devised special performance projects for Tate Britain, the Royal Opera House, the Old Vic, national film museums, and less obvious venues worldwide, such as cemeteries, circus tents, and department stores. He is the author of Phantasmagoria-the Secret Life of the Magic Lantern (2006), and a former chair of the Magic Lantern Society (UK).

The slides which form the collection often display various different stylings of the same subject matter. Some are very draftsmanlike; others are not, suggesting a number of different artists at work. Although some slides are quite poorly executed, perhaps we should not conclude that these were typical of the firm's commercial output. It may be that the reason they exist here is because they were not of good enough quality to sell; certainly others are of excellent quality. The slides in the Kliegl

The extant Kliegl collection of pose slides, while possibly unique in terms of the designs of the slides, incorporating such themes as the stage designs of the Moulin Rouge, circus activity, and abstract images, represents only a small range of this kind of material in both public and private collections worldwide.

The Joel E Rubin Collection of pose slides is viewable online through the Ohio State University Knowledge Bank at Here you can also find original artwork comprising pages from a reference book which provided the required pattern for ordered slides. In addition to the online items which specifically refer to pose slides there are a number of other lantern slides to be found within the standing collection which are not pose slides, such as stage effects used in other theatrical productions, a few slide samples from competitors, and a large number of technical slides used as lecture material. There is also part of a rare Spiegel Motion Slide (c. 1912) which incorporates a lenticular system to give the illusion of moving lips and eyes, while a live singer at the side of the screen provided the vocals.

Although the early 1950s is considered to be the demise of the pose slide entertainment, there are still several professional practitioners of dance-projection using original slide material and techniques. The dancers Jody Sperling in the United States and Vicki Lewis-Thumm (Visiona) in Germany are the chief exponents. Videos of the work of both artists are available on the Internet and can be found through Google searches.

A much longer downloadable PDF also entitled Dressed in Light, exploring the ancient art of projection on people on an international scale can be found on the author's site:
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Author:Heard, Mervyn
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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