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Mechanical Illusions

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE showing-up of stage tricks is probably more destructive of stage illusion than revelation of any other " mysteries " behind the curtain. But, as they are necessary to illusion in many cases, a book of this kind would not be complete without some reference to them. Besides, it can work less harm here, because enough has been given in foregoing pages to persuade the reader that lasting effect in the theater is created by more dignified things.

A convenient instance of a necessary " effect " is the rainstorm in George Bernard Shaw's play, " The Devil's Disciple." It is necessary for Dick to put on the parson's coat in order that he may later be mistaken for that saintly gentleman, and sentenced to die in his name. What could be more plausible than to have a rainstorm from which Dick seeks shelter in the parsonage, and is given by the good wife within, a dry coat of her husband's? The rain-storm there is part of the plot.

Effects have so many different applications that it is difficult to classify them. For the moment I can think of no better division than that of the natural elements—land, air, fire, and water. The " land " division has been de-scribed at some length in various references to scenery. Therefore I shall endeavor to make the present divisions, air, fire, and water, tagging on miscellany at the end.

Air immediately suggests the wind machine, a huge slotted cylinder revolved by a hand crank against a sheet of canvas drawn tightly about it, the force of the gale depending upon the rapidity with which it is turned. A more compact wind machine is a modified siren with a megaphone attachment, so that the sound may be directed toward any given part of the stage. Silk-covered discs whirled together in opposite directions, constitute an old method, said to have been invented by Garrick's scene painter, De Loutherbourg. Silk discs whirled by electricity contributed to the storm effect in the Liebler production of " The Garden of Allah."

" The Garden of Allah," when produced at the Century Theater, New York, in 1912, probably used the most elaborate wind effect ever devised. It was the illusion of a sand-storm on the Desert of Sahara. Under the Century Theater stage was installed a series of powerful blowers, with pipes piercing the stage floor at various points and at various angles. The pipes were so arranged that when a stream of sand would be driven by the blowers out of one vent, it would be struck by other streams and so given the necessary spiral motion. The pipes were worked in rotation, too, so that the swirling effect was carried rapidly from place to place all over the stage. A sheet of air from pipes along the curtain line, kept the sand from blowing into the audience. The " sand " itself was really three hundred pounds of a well-known breakfast food. Actual sand was too heavy to manipulate. Cloud effects were played directly on the swirling "sand by a stereopticon.

Moving clouds are usually made by means of a stereopticon with a clockwork attachment. This mechanism turns before the light a gelatin disc upon which the clouds are painted. The stereopticon idea is used for many other light effects, snowstorms, waves, falling flowers, and so forth.

Thunder is usually made by turning a cylinder which has a couple of heavy iron balls rolling about inside. An-other familiar method has been to shake a large sheet of metal suspended in the flies. Lincoln J. Carter, who has invented a great many mechanical effects in the theater, is said to have been one of the first to break away from the old convention of the thunder box and the thunder curtain. He used what is called a bull drum—a steel cylinder about three times the size of the familiar bass drum, with heavy rawhide stretched taut over the ends,. the rawhide being struck with a heavy drumstick.

Modern lightning effects are a far cry from the method in the ancient Greek theater when they used to paint a bolt of lightning on a board, and cast it from overhead on one side, to a box below on the other. A familiar method is to scrape together a piece of carbon and a file that are connected with an electric current. Invention of this method is attributed to Carter. Then there is the " magnesium gun " and "lycopodium pipe," in both of which a highly inflammable powder is blown in jets across an open flame. Lightning is made in modern theaters by an instrument in which an electric spark is jumped between carbons. Duplicate instruments are placed in various parts of the flies, and worked in rotation.


Conflagrations are commonly shown by lighting transparencies and profile strips from the rear, dropping counter-weighted pieces suddenly for collapsing walls, outlining beams and rafters with winking lights, and using torches, stereopticons, and many floods. In Carter's melodrama, " The Heart of Chicago," based on the Chicago holocaust, there was a scene showing blazing ruins. He used profile strips, braziers of lycopodium, and live steam to simulate smoke. About this time came the American agitation against stage fire risks ; and he placed into service strips of silk, colored to represent flames, fastened at bottom, and the loose ends blown upward by electric fans, while most of the remainder of the illusion was created by stereopticons with mechanical attachments. Nowadays they use much silk, more lights, and occasionally a chemical smoke made by releasing an acid into air.

One finds little tongues of silk in stage fireplaces, the light being given by an electric lamp, and the draught by a fan. If papers are to be burned in the grate, a stage hand stands behind with a lighted taper, and accomplishes the necessary point.

A splendid example of a modern stage fire was in " The Daughter of Heaven," produced by the Lieblers at the Century Theater, New York, season of 1912-13. The Chinese Empress, in this play, outside her palace at Nankin, having witnessed the blasting of all her hopes, applies a torch to the funeral pyre upon which her defeated soldiers of Ming fling themselves to death. The pyre is kindled at a dozen places; it springs into flame and soon becomes a roaring furnace.

The pyre was situated over a large trap in the stage. Through this trap from below, a number of pipes led to various parts of the pyre. At the bottom of each pipe was a lighted smoke pot. Great orange silk and feather streamers were blown up through the pyre by a huge bellows, while amber lights played on them gave the illusion of hungry flames. Batteries of electric fans kept confetti whirling to represent sparks. And when the fire was supposedly at its height, with the soldiers throwing themselves on the pyre, a man, dressed in orange, and whirling long plumes of the same color, jumped through the trap to the top of the pyre and increased the illusion.

The logs themselves were made of wire netting of close mesh, so that they could be made to glow within. Bits of tinfoil pasted on them here and there, caught the light and gave the appearance of charred wood, while confetti pasted elsewhere, helped intensify the heart of the " fire."


The readiest instance of water on the stage is, of course, the perforated pipe for rain, connected with a hose to the nearest tap. The water is caught below in a trough and runs thence to a barrel under the stage. It seems to me that the motion picture directors have something to suggest to stage rainmakers. When they want to produce a rainstorm in the open for the cinema, they plan it almost as stage lighting is planned—a general tone, and then local lights to modify that—with a perforated rain pipe first, and then sprays variously placed.

Of course, the faithful stereopticon may be used to pro-duce the illusion of rain, just as it may be used for snow. The " snow-cradle," by the way, is just a long, narrow cloth full of holes, supported on each side by a transverse batten. The sagging portion between, is filled with bits of paper. Then one batten is gently raised and lowered a foot or more, paper working its way through the holes and fluttering down realistically. Snow on clothing—when characters enter from a storm without, for instance—is simulated by the use of wet, coarse salt.

Rainbows are sometimes cast by steropticons; but there is a better instrument available that actually decomposes light into the colors of the spectrum by means of prisms.

Speaking of stereopticons calls to mind the extensive use of the motion picture machine for various effects—sometimes frankly and sometimes in clever combination with something else. It is exceedingly effective for show-in moving fish on a gauze before a scene that represents the bed of the ocean, for example; or for breakers on the seashore, with pretty girls thrusting their heads and arms through holes in the screen to look as though they are in the surf.

Real water, in a tank, rarely looks real on the stage, although there are times when other compensations make up for its use. In the American production of " Kismet," by Harrison Grey Fiske and Klaw and Erlanger, there was a tank representing the harem bath, in which Ha j j, the beggar, drowns the Wazir Mansur. For this sort of tank, which occupies but a small portion of the scene, the stage floor is lifted in sections to reveal the water, and replaced when necessary, the tank remaining in place throughout the engagement. For transportation, this kind of tank may be shipped in parts. The Little Theater of Philadelphia, has a built-in tank by means of which the entire stage may be flooded with water; it was used in a regatta scene in the opening production.


The notable stage tank of America is that at the New York Hippodrome. This tank occupies the space of the entire apron. It is permanent, constructed of steel and concrete. When the tank is to be used, the stage floor is de-pressed out of sight into the water, and raised again when necessary. There really are two tanks; water is pumped from one into the other as required. The stage tank is partially emptied as the floor is lowered into it to prevent ,splash, and then filled again. Of course, when the floor emerges, it is dripping wet, and has to be covered with an enormous tarpaulin.

The opening attraction at the Hippodrome showed per-sons diving into this tank not to appear again while the scene was open to view, while others made their first entrances by rising from the water. This was accomplished by Frederic F. Thompson, a young American engineer, who designed the stage, by an adaptation of the diving-bell. It was a sort of inverted, elongated wash boiler raised on four standards to somewhat more than the height of a person's head. Divers simply came up underneath so that their heads were in the air space. This device was used in " Kismet " for the drowning of the Wazir.

A few seasons ago, the novelty of having persons arise from under diving bells beneath the water of the Hippodrome tank, began to lose its freshness. R. H. Burnside, who was then the stage director, looked about for some-thing new. Why not reverse the process and have persons go down into the water instead of coming up—not dive down, but march down? He tried it and found that the players could go only to a certain depth when they began to float.

" We tried fitting them with weighted diving shoes," he told me, " but these looked clumsy and were discarded. Then all at once I found the solution. But it is a secret, because we may want to use it exclusively again ; but we had a genuine sensation that season, when a veritable host marched down into the water and completely disappeared." I did not press Mr. Burnside to explain, but I strongly suspect that the simple device was just a handrail, or, for a fantastic notion, magnetic shoes.

In 1915 the Hippodrome tank was put to a new use. It was frozen over for performances of the ice ballet, imported from Berlin. Some 16,000 feet of ammonia piping were installed in the tank at a cost of about $24,000. Of course it prevented other use of the tank, but its end fully justified the investment. The idea was not new. It had been done by Florenz Ziegfeld a couple of years previously at the New York Theater for an edition of his " Follies; " but it was a decided innovation in a house where the water tank had long been a feature.

In planning a play one time, I conceived what I thought was a new way to create the illusion of water on the stage. I would use a bluish-green oilcloth on the floor, well glazed for purposes of reflection; and for movement of waves I would use flood lights, fitted with appropriate mediums, in the wings. L0 and behold ! In ransacking some old files, I found that the perennial Lincoln J. Carter had been before me—that the scheme had long been in general use. He had employed it first, it seems, in showing a view of Niagara Falls from the Suspension Bridge. Incidentally, he used live steam to represent mist. In his next venture, " The Tornado," he had two ships colliding on this same kind of green oilcloth, with debris flying into the air (from a re-leased trap on the stage) and breaking of heavy timbers (in the wings). The spray was coarse salt, also flung into the air by traps.

Waterfalls and ripples are contrived almost invariably with lights projected by stereopticons, either from the front, or through transparencies from behind. Occasionally, real water is used for brooks and pools.

Swish of waves, including action of the surf, may be made by rubbing two sandpaper blocks together, or by rocking a rectangular box, or a cylinder loosely filled with peas or broken seashells.


Among minor effects are large bells—church bells, train bells, and so on. These are generally long metal tubes hung by cords from some convenient piece of scenery, and struck with a mallet. It is scarcely worth while to describe many of the minor effects, such as cocoanut shells slapped on a board for the galloping horse, the steamboat whistle, and so forth, because the public is rather well aware of their nature.

Offstage automobiles are usually imitated by the theater vacuum sweeper, supplemented by a couple of revolver shots for backfires. This is how they did it in Edgar Selwyn's farce, " Nearly Married." In " The Dictator," by the late Richard Harding Davis, a motorboat was imitated with an actual motorboat engine. In " June Madness," by Henry Kitchell Webster, the aeroplane motor was simulated at first by a motorcycle. Automobile horns are provided in several sizes, blown successively according to the distance at which the machine is supposed to be.

Stage moons have long been contrived of a box containing a light with a transparency on the side nearest the audience, pulled jerkily upward as the moon is supposed to rise. They also are projected, in combination with a moving cloud effect, by the stereopticon. Lincoln J. Carter made his moon-box a cornucopia, silvered on the inside, with a powerful white light in the small end, and raised steadily into place by clockwork. But the tendency nowadays is not to show the moon at all—merely its rays. Stars are projected by stereopticons upon the cyclorama or back drop, and, by special device, may be made to twinkle.

Battles scenes are generally rather simple affairs. The mine explosion in the trenches of " Under Fire," is merely a slight shift of set pieces. Troops passing beyond a tall hedge, may be just a lot of gun-barrels on an endless chain, gleaming above it. Bombs are usually boxes with glass fronts upon which the bursting shells are painted, lighted from within when necessary, the noise being made else-where. Racing scenes, with horses on treadmills and moving panoramas at back, are very old stuff.

I may touch only the " high spots " of stage illusion in a single chapter; but I cannot conscientiously pass over the famous " River of Souls " in Belasco's production of " The Darling of the Gods." The noted producer spent $6,000 on elaborate mechanism to show the souls of Yo San and her lover floating through the thousand years, and at the last moment he remained unsatisfied. Then a stage hand chanced to pass across the stage between the gauze drops. As he did so, he cast twenty shadows. It was the big idea. Discarding all his expensive machinery, Belasco had eight girls walk across the stage as the stage hand had done. From their shadows, they looked like no less than one hundred and fifty persons. And all it cost was $200.


In " The Fast Mail," which Lincoln J. Carter wrote about 1893, there occurred one of the earliest American " scientific " attempts to show a train of cars speeding across the stage. The train was merely a strip of canvas, about three hundred feet long, unwound from a drum on one side of the stage and wound upon another in the opposite wings. The engine chimney was a smoke pot, and the headlight a magnesium affair attached to the canvas. Wire brushes beaten on iron drums, and a piece of tubing struck with a mallet, provided the noise, including the clang of the bell. In a subsequent production, Carter used a more elaborate train, working on the same principle, but with engine wheels moving properly, and showing a dummy brakeman on top of one of the cars, waving a lantern.

In " The Heart of Chicago " Carter had an engine that came out of the distance directly toward the audience until stopped by the fall of the curtain. It was built like an accordion, pressed flat against the back wall until the effect of the headlight had become nearly full size. This was the patent effect used a few seasons ago in " The Honeymoon Express," produced at the New York Winter Garden. In " Bedford's Hope " Carter showed a race between a train and an automobile. Both were stationary save that their wheels turned furiously. But the scenery moved. There were a series of panoramas, those in the foreground moving very rapidly, those in the middle more slowly, and th0se in the background scarcely at all.

During 1913, " The Whip," a celebrated Drury Lane melodrama, was brought to America. In it is a marvelously real train wreck. A race horse is seen being put into a box car at a station. The train starts, covers considerable territory, and then enters a tunnel. In the tunnel the villain, who hopes to ruin the horse's chances in a race, disconnects the box car from the train. It comes to a stop just outside the tunnel on the other side. The horse is rescued, but barely in time, for another train runs into the box car and smashes it to kindling.

Herbert Mather, chief mechanician at Drury Lane, was largely responsible for the success of this spectacle. Part of his equipment was a " puffing machine," of his own invention, that made the " choo-choo " of the engine and puffed live steam across the stage. As in the Carter plan, the train remains stationary, while wheels of the engine and coaches are in swift motion, and a moving panorama shows the passing country. A tin trough, placed alongside the outer rail, contains a row of lamps flashed alternately at intervals, to give the effect of train lights reflected on the rails. In the wreck scene, stage hands back of the cars merely shake the scenery well, pull down some removable sections of the box car, topple the engine over on its side, while its wheels spin in the air, and steam and red lights envelop the scene.

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