Peer Into Providence History

A vintage "magic lantern" show for modern audiences


Before the movie camera made modern cinema possible, audiences gathered in darkened rooms to gaze at still images projected onto walls by little machines known as magic lanterns. Consisting, basically, of a light source with a mirror behind it, the magic lantern’s “trick” was that it projected light through a photo slide, and the image on that slide was then enlarged through a lens and displayed on the flat vertical wall surface. The result? It was finally possible for people to see big-screen images of faraway lands, astonishing events and the wonders of nature and science. Crowds right here in Providence were thrilled by these shows, the world’s oceans and mountains suddenly opening up to them.

Today, we count among our cultural delights the blockbuster film, the big-screen plasma TV, the video game and the internet. Unlike our forebears, the likelihood that we will be left slack-jawed in amazement over anything is slim to none. But, a project is underway in Providence that will help viewers venture back to a time before modern media options existed, and encourage us to exercise our imaginations. The project is called The Wonder Show, and it’s the brainchild of Carolyn Gennari, who dreamt up the concept, and Anya Ventura, who’s helping to put many of the pieces together. Yes, the idea is antique, but it’s new... to us.

Gennari, who moved to Providence about a year ago, is an admirer and collector of Victorian optics. Ventura, who is currently working towards her masters degree at Brown, enjoys creative and interpretive presentations of history. With the help of the James N. Arnold collection at the Providence Public Library, which includes 1,250 glass photographic negatives recently catalogued and digitized by the members of the Paul Krot Community Darkroom at AS220, the two conceptualized The Wonder Show.

Gennari and Ventura are tinkering with the traditional format of the magic lantern show, reinterpreting an old technology and presenting it anew. They envision a lively, “non-museum, non-static” performance, complete with a human host/storyteller as well as live musical accompaniment. The show will incorporate elements of magic, too: special collections librarian Jordan Goffin will help Gennari and Ventura raid the John H. Percival Magic Collection (stage name “Mysterious John” or “Rene,” he once performed throughout New England) so that some old-time magician’s wares can be displayed as part of the show.

Here’s where the wonder really unfurls: these historical photos haven’t been revealed to the public in this way since they were put into crates 100 or more years ago. To modern media-hounds, going backwards in history and gazing into the soft light of the magic lantern just might be as epic an experience as when the images amazed the audiences of our great-great-grandparents’ time. Embracing a little of that guileless fascination might make us think about all the magic still left in the world.

Gennari and Ventura are currently putting out a call to all those who would like to get involved in helping them prepare for their May show (date to be announced). If you have an interest in graphic design, theatre and performance, writing and storytelling, photography, archival research or carpentry, please email them.