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Slide show — East Wenatchee man collects old-time movie relics
By Rick Steigmeyer
World staff writer
Posted March 26, 2008
Bob Skell of East Wenatchee has been collecting lantern slides and magic lantern projectors for more than 30 years. He's collected about 12,000 of the glass slides, he estimates. Many were used in movie houses to advertise products and movies while projector operators changed out the reels between movies, while others date back to the turn of the 20th century. (World photo/Kathryn Stevens)
EAST WENATCHEE — Are husbands necessary? Now there's a question many wives ask themselves over and over. It's also the title of a 1942 comedy film starring Ray Milland and Betty Field. "Why Trust Your Husband?" is another movie along the same lines. It was a 1921 silent comedy starring Eileen Percy and Harry Myees.
East Wenatchee resident Bob Skell doesn't really have a fascination with the weaknesses of men in marriage. But he enjoys the rich humor to be found in the coming attractions of old movies that were made into lantern slides during the early days of moviedom. He's collected about 200 of the coming attraction slides that were shown in movie theaters from the early 1900s to the early 1950s. The antique slides are actually hand-painted pictures on pieces of glass, roughly 3-by-4 inches in size, that were projected one at a time on theater screens while movie projectionists were changing reels of the main attraction.
Many of the early silent films have amusing titles that have to do with the woes of marriage, among them, "The Matrimaniac," "The Man Who Married His Own Wife," "Her First Elopement," "Golden Rule Kate" and "The Mating of Marcella."
Other titles have since become classics and are more familiar: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "La Boheme" and "His Girl Friday."
The coming attraction slides were a unique art form, said Skell, 79. In most cases, they are black and white film stills that were transferred to paper, painted, and then made into a glass positive. In some cases the slide itself was hand colored, which was the method used before the advent of color photography.
"They were distributed by the film companies to be shown along with advertisements between movies as coming attractions," said Skell.
Moviegoers got their money's worth in the early to mid-1900s. That was the time of double features, cartoons and a newsreel. Live acts and music were often part of the show. Lantern slides usually filled the spaces when projectors had to be loaded with the next film reel. Before motion pictures became widespread, around 1910, lantern slides were the main attraction rather than a medium for coming attractions. The slides were popular in nickelodeons, the first tiny theaters that cropped up in every town at the turn of the 20th century.
The coming attraction slides make up a small portion of Skell's collection of nearly 12,000 slides, many of them rare. He's been collecting lantern slides for more than 35 years. One room of his house is filled with old wooden file cabinets filled with the slides, many of them hand-painted on glass and dating back to the 1800s. A high shelf that surrounds the room holds dozens of magic lantern projectors. Skell, who retired in 2000 from Apple Valley Computers, an East Wenatchee store he owned and operated for 20 years, said collecting slides is just one of many hobbies.
Magic lanterns were the first projectors. They've been around since the 1650s. The earliest projectors used candles or kerosene as light sources. More sophisticated units used oxygen- and hydrogen-fueled limestone or carbon arcs that could be extremely bright. Many early magic lantern owners would travel around and show their slides to audiences who were awestruck by the forerunner of cinema. Some of the slides were early attempts at animation. Skell has several slides that used images on multiple layers of glass and other tricks to create the illusion of movement. He has one slide that has moveable prisms inside that can be cranked while in the projector to create kaleidoscopic images.
Some artists became famous for their hand-painted slides. Joseph Boggs Beale was the most famous of those who worked at the craft in America in the late 1800s, using stunning artwork and series of slides to create a story. He created more than 1,600 lantern slides in his lifetime. Skell believes he has the second-largest collection of Beale slides in the country, numbering in the hundreds, including several complete series of Bible stories and one series on the first Christmas.
Skell said he combs antique shops and looks for collections for sale in antique trade magazines and, more recently, on the Internet. He got hooked on collecting the gear about 30 years ago when he found a magic lantern projector at an antique show in Spokane. The slides threw him back to his own childhood in the 1930s in Waco, Texas, where he would spend hours in tiny theaters that would charge a nickel during the Great Depression.
"It keeps me out of the beer joints," he said with a laugh about his love of collecting. A lot of the slides he gets are in poor condition, so he spends many hours cleaning them and restoring them. Skell said he likes to stay busy and always has more hobbies and projects going than he can keep up with, but he's always searching for more lantern slides.
He recently spent a couple of weeks archiving his collection of coming attraction slides and transferring them to computer discs. He scanned each of the slides and stored them digitally on his computer with information about each movie they advertised, including director, studio, actors and actresses, genre and date of release.
He has several of them on display on his table using a very modern type of magic lantern, a large digital photo frame he recently bought. The slides change automatically on the 15-inch LCD screen every few seconds, accompanied by music.
"I'm still trying to figure out how to stop it and look at one slide for a while longer," he said.
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151
Talk about the work of collecting, restoring and preserving our film heritage here.