Have magic lantern, will travel
by Dale Short
Jun 20, 2013 | 582 views | 0 0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dale Short
Dale Short
Way back in the days of yore, there was a high-tech (for the time) craze known as Magic Lanterns. Long before the days of electricity, it was the great-granddaddy of today's slide projectors, using a lamp flame and a bunch of special mirrors and lenses to show a photographic image on a wall.

The most popular demonstration pictures that were shipped with the device showed the devil and a range of demons. Not surprisingly these became a standby of magic shows and, one would imagine, the occasional high-brimstone nighttime church sermon.

Back in the days of semi-yore (say, the heyday of President Ronald Reagan) there was a high-tech craze known as Multi-Image Production. With the advent of electricity, fast projectors, and four-track audio tape machines with one track reserved for silent computer commands to the projector interface, it was now possible to dissolve from one slide to another so fast that it was a passable imitation of video — with a voice-and-music accompaniment that made it a popular way for advertisers to present their message to big groups.

For a period of years, now largely lost to memory, this was the unlikely way I made my living.

Note to younger readers, asking the reasonable question "Why not just use video, instead?": Well, high-definition video and video projectors were still in the developers' labs at that point.

Try projecting a video program to the size of an average theater screen, back then, and the picture and audio quality was so poor that it looked and sounded like...well, the devil.

To the rescue came a hardy bunch of individuals known as multi-image producers, ferrying our loads of projectors, slide trays, four-track tape recorders, amplifiers, speakers and enough extension cords to reach at least Mars, to conventions and trade shows throughout the countryside.

The biggest show I ever did was six projectors, but it was not uncommon for companies with the budget of, say, Ford Motors to entertain their sales force with a 24-projector show in a convention hall complete with fireworks, dancers, and (I'm not making this up) a special breakaway projection screen through which burst a new pickup truck as the show's climax.

Needless to say, the mechanical and technical challenges presented by such an enterprise (also known as, "What one detail can possibly go wrong?") made an episode of "Mission Impossible" look like easy pickings by comparison.

The most elaborate show I ever did was a two-parter, for a company's annual convention at a hotel in Atlanta. Part One was a usual feel-good pep talk about how neat the company was and how bright the future looked (the future would actually be a history-making economic Recession, but that's a story for another day).

The real challenge was Part Two. My production company (actually just myself and a newly hired assistant) would shoot color slides and record audio during that Friday's convention sessions, then magically convert them overnight into an extravaganza that the attendees would watch at the closing lunchtime event on Saturday before heading home.

(Nope, I don't recall what I was thinking when I pitched this idea to the company. But unlikely as it seems now, hallucinogens were not involved.)

Which was how the young and inimitable Steve Wood and I spent a Friday night in an Atlanta hotel room we turned into a darkroom, processing roll after roll of Ektachrome film in a bathtub, blow-drying and mounting each frame and setting the result to music for the next day's show. The only two details that I remember are (a) the volume of strong coffee and Half-and-Half we required for the process was a good bit greater than the jugs of darkroom chemicals involved, and (b) Steve and I were still on speaking terms when dawn broke over the Atlanta skyline — the latter of which I attribute solely to Steve's boundless patience and good nature, at which I marvel to this day.

(At some point in the pre-dawn chaos we shook hands on a deal never to do a project so insane again, but still.)

I remember that the Saturday show got a standing ovation from the employees, and after that the memory goes fuzzy. We obviously loaded all the gear back into our U-Haul, stoked up on coffee, and headed home to Birmingham.

I do recall passing a freeway exit near the Alabama/Georgia line and thinking how miraculous a cheap motel room and 24 hours sleep would be, but I can't remember if we succumbed to the temptation or kept to the long homeward haul.

Fast-forward to the Great Recession(s), high-def video, digital projectors, and as Wikipedia now puts it, multi-image becoming "essentially obsolete."

I give thanks daily for the HD video-editing software on my desktop, and the reasonably-priced projector that weighs no more than a lunchbox.

By contrast, it occurs to me that the only tool we didn't have in our loaded road-show U-Haul back then was a lantern. But there was magic in the pile, for sure.

Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.