Support Local Journalism, Join the SA Current Press Club.

Culture The oldest picture show 

The Magic Lantern museum is the world’s only repository of the earliest projectors

I’m not sure what I was looking up on the internet when I found it. With a name like a Disney theme-park ride, the Magic Lantern Castle Museum is the only one of its kind in the world and, according to the website, resides right here in San Antonio. I was fascinated: Why hadn’t I heard of this museum? And what the heck is a “magic lantern” anyway? I just had to pick up the phone and make an appointment.

Collector and aficionado Jack Judson shows off some of his vast collection of antique Magic Lanterns at his Magic Lantern Castle Museum. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Driving north on Austin Highway, I mused over the mighty wind of change that has blown through the odd thoroughfare. Sure it’s cleaner, safer, and more “big-box” profitable, but it’s not the same uniquely rag-tag strip of commercial misfits it was just a couple of years ago. One big exception, however, is the unmarked, gray, concrete castle that waves its red flags at Wal-Mart from across the street, enclosed behind a modern moat — the security fence. That’s where

I turned my car’s nose, thrilled to be infiltrating the secret.

I was prepared for almost anything when I arrived, except what I saw. Jack Judson, the museum’s sole proprietor and director, opened the door and ushered me into his castle. A former Shakey’s pizzeria, the building had been a bar called The Knave (thus the crenellations) before Judson bought itin 1991 to house his vast collection of magic lanterns, which now contains more than 75,000 objects, ephemera, and archival texts.

A magic lantern is a pre-cinema image projector. While a camera obscura, to which magic lanterns are often compared, captures images (hence our modern term “camera”), magic lanterns cast them. Originally made from an oil lamp set behind a small pane of painted glass, they are forerunners of slide and movie projectors. According to Judson, magic lanterns are first mentioned in 1641 in the Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, or The Great Art of Light and Shadow, published in Rome by a polymath and German Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher. Meanwhile, in Holland, Christian Huygens wrote a letter that included a drawing of a magic lantern. Who actually invented the device remains unclear.

Thirty years later, the first published image of a lantern shows it casting an image against a wall. The scene? A person burning in hell. Magic lanterns were useful storytelling devices and were often taken into dark crypts to effectively project “supernatural” images of religious scenes, devils and all, onto cave walls. As Judson tells it, though, magic lanterns languished as curiosities until the 18th century, when French entrepreneuers popularized slide-image-based traveling shows. Bronze sculptures in the museum’s cases show men strapped to hurdy-gurdies and magic lanterns, walking one-man bands. Judson points out the only complete set of slides from the 1700s in this country, with nine of 33 currently on view. Each little pane of glass carries an image, generally a romantic scene with ships, royal processions, and folk characters.

We’ve hardly made a dent in the large open room of cases and displays, but I’m just as interested in Judson as a collector as I am in his esoteric collection. As a teenager he was into photography, a hobby he practiced while in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to San Antonio, where his family has lived since 1824. Judson is a proud descendant of John W. Smith, the last messenger out of the Alamo, and has Smith’s cane on display. Even more interesting to me, he is a distant cousin of Robert L.B. Tobin, whose world-class collection of theater arts and books is housed just blocks down the street at the McNay Art Museum. Like his late cousin, Judson seems to live for his passion.

In 1986, while visiting London, Judson attended a street fair and bought what was purportedly a magic lantern. Back in San Antonio he tried to research the object but found that the libraries here had next to no information on the subject. This set in motion two and three-month-long research trips to Europe. Judson has developed connections with scholars, dealers, and photographic societies throughout the world, so he is confident in saying that his is the only museum devoted to the subject. He also knows how to rebuild and repair the vintage apparatuses and insists that everything on view is in working order.

Visiting scholars of cultural and scientific studies have come to work at Judson’s museum, and he has had a residency of sorts for years, even before Artpace made them a popular local dream. He tosses his thumb in the direction of an apartment in the back. Rather than keeping public hours, the museum is primarily a research institution for scholars, because Judson, like those old traveling lantern shows, is a one-man band.

The museum’s copious documentation tells a detailed story. After photography was invented in 1839, the process of putting emulsion on glass and creating a black-and-white slide became commonplace. Before then, lantern slides were all hand-painted. Images from the Victorian Age include Civil War scenes, comets, Christmas scenes, landscapes, and Last Suppers. With the turn of the century, however, visual culture changed dramatically.

Like the circus, by the 1890s magic-lantern shows were still an itinerant form of entertainment and performances drew crowds eager to see illuminated images often showcasing far-off places — travelogues of Japan, for example — and any topic under the sun as long as there were pictures dancing in the dark. While today slide shows are associated with family vacations relived in dens, art-history lectures, and even PowerPoint business presentations, it was breathtaking entertainment for our great-grandparents.

Magic Lantern Museum

By appointment only

1419 Austin Highway

When short films began making the rounds in the late 1890s, they were only seconds in length. “One Moment Please” could be cast on the screen while the projectionist changed film reels. Magic lanterns were also used to project advertisements and coming attractions just as today simple images before the trailers remind us to silence our cell phones and buy popcorn. My favorite is a slide showing a vintage car with its cloth top down and a couple straight out of E. M. Forster running to put it up. The image’s text warns film-goers, “It is raining and your car is getting wet.” During the nickelodeon age, storefronts featured sing-alongs where for 5 cents you could read the lyrics written on changing slides and belt out a tune, not unlike karaoke; entertaining, sure, but many immigrants actually taught themselves English this way.

The pre-television clamor to see projected images seems intense. Judson says he started the museum so that people could see just how full of images the world really was before film and television culture. He shows me the earliest form of moving image: slides with a flexible character image. He points out one from the 1700s with an articulated snake that could slither on screen. According to Judson, this is the only true moving picture because film is really just a series of images. It is persistence of vision, a phenomenon whereby our eyes retain an image for a fraction of a second after we’ve seen it, that creates the sensation of a moving picture when stills run by at a fast clip.

It is an odd example of selective memory that “magic lantern” has slipped so quickly out of our lexicon when it fundamentally impacted culture for almost 300 years. One entire wall of the museum is lined with a heavy wooden case containing nothing but children’s lanterns produced from the mid-1800s to the 1930s — not so very long ago. The lanterns’ shapes are playful and the slides feature cartoons and other sweet themes. Cards and posters show a slightly older child acting as a showman for other children for whom the magic is wondrous. These are the forerunners of Disney and Pixar DVDs stocking today’s cupboards for easy entertainment.

For technical junkies and history buffs alike, a visit to Judson’s museum will be euphoria. He can show you the only cineograph and stereopticon hybrid in the world, a real chunk of “limelight” (calcium oxide) used for illumination, and tell you how the Aztec and Majestic theaters in San Antonio used to be atmospheric theaters while showing you their former lanterns. Newspaper clippings show presidential election results cast on New York buildings, like the Harper’s Weekly from November 17, 1888, which published, “Harrison carries the state by 12,000” on a sail in Madison Square. Art lovers can learn how murals were enlarged to scale with these devices and backdrops were projected in ballets and musicals.

So I may never have looked inside the Seven Oaks Resort on Austin Highway before it was torn down, but at least I’ve lifted the curtain on the castle. Oh, and did I mention Judson is the President of the Austin Highway Revitalization Project? That’s right, while he welcomes blandly packaged progress to encroach on his castle, he also maintains one of the quirkiest, most “don’t judge a book by its cover” buildings on the strip.

By Catherine Walworth

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.

Read the Digital Print Issue

July 28, 2021

View more issues


Join SA Current Newsletters

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2021 San Antonio Current

Website powered by Foundation