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All Join In The Chorus
For almost two decades at the turn of the century illustrated songs charmed nickelodeon audiences.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Posing for song slides was considered nice work when one could get it. Production of a set of sixteen 4 x 5 dry-plate negatives was usually accomplished in one day. Most love songs called for a cast of but two models, a “lover” and a “girl,” as they were known in the trade. For a day’s work each received from three to five dollars, and anonymity; the employers wanted no stars, and no high talent fees.
At least one leading lady of song slides discovered that the work offered a reward more precious than the munificent fees. In her memoirs, the late Norma Talmadge, after she had become one of the great stars of silent films, describes the exquisite joy of seeing herself in a song play, life-sized and in full color, at a neighborhood nickelodeon—her very first screen appearance! The Brooklyn high-school girl, only fourteen at the time (1910), had appeared at Scott & Van Altena’s studio in answer to a want ad, “Models wanted for song slides; no experience necessary.” Impressed by her mature beauty, Edward Van Altena—today a spry 85 and still actively engaged in making slides for educational and technical purposes—engaged Miss Talmadge as the “girl” in a song-slide production with the arresting title, Stop, Stop, Stop; Come Over and Love Me Some More . The song had just been written by a young song plugger-composer employed by the music publisher Ted Snyder. His name was Irving Berlin.
How many other stars of silent films made their screen debuts anonymously via song slides is a matter of speculation. Van Altena, the photographer, and his former partner and master colorist, John D. Scott, recall using at least seven models who later achieved fame in films. Among them were Hélène Chadwick, Lillian Walker, Anita Stewart, Priscilla Dean, Mabel Normand, Alice Joyce, and Justine Johnstone.
At that time few observers realized that one particular segment of movie-goers—the recently arrived immigrants from Europe—regarded the nickelodeon as their social club as well as an academy of adult education. Through the “flickers” and song slides these newcomers were introduced not only to American etiquette, styles, and popular music but, more important, to a pleasing and amazingly easy-to-learn course in the English language.
For just five cents those with sufficient fortitude could sit through six or even a dozen consecutive renditions of a song (a complete film show went on every half-hour), and each performance was a visual-education lesson. Eventually, the repeated associations of words and pictures would register on the dullest minds. If it failed to make sense, the language of Tin Pan Alley at least became understandable.
On the old-time vaudeville circuits, popular singers brought the illustrated song to respectable citizens all over the country. Most of these traveling illustrators carried their own projectionists, and for good reason. Even the most proficient of house projectionists, when handling a strange set of slides, might transform a sob into a belly laugh by inadvertently causing a deathbed to appear upside down on the screen.
The foremost illustrator act in vaudeville was the team of Maxwell & Simpson, which gained initial fame with a pathetic “kid” ballad, Only Me. In 1904 they added to their repertoire a newly published song about fire-fighters, The Man with the Ladder and the Hose, which was soon to become their trademark. Joe Maxwell’s fine voice has been preserved on several Edison cylinder records. Simpson, the “lanternist,” left the act about 1906 to become a songslide producer. One of Edison’s most popular recording stars, Ada Jones, was regarded as the best illustrator ever to appear at Huber’s Museum on Fourteenth Street, New York City, a spot where many name slide-singers regularly appeared. In Chicago, song slides were first introduced “with great success” by Joe E. Howard and Ida Emerson, then his wife, following a tryout of the illustrated-song novelty in Milwaukee. The list of singers who used slides is long, including such stars as George Jessel, Eddie Cantor, and the late Al Jolson.
It was in 1911, while vaudeville was still going strong, that the illustrated song started slipping. A creeping paralysis set in when the parlor piano gave way to a couple of mechanical marvels, the player piano and the improved phonograph. As pianos fell into disuse, sheet-music sales fell off sharply. Then came longer and better motion pictures; and most theaters acquired a second projector to eliminate the delay between reels. The illustrated song was no longer required as a filler. Finally one single solitary song—an illustrated song, too—helped bring on the end. When, in 1911, Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band began its triumphal march onto the American music scene via the front door, the sentimental illustrated song crept out the back way.
Berlin’s new song altered popular music. It wasn’t really ragtime, but it was danceable and that, apparently, was just what the public had been waiting for. Tin Pan Alley took up the new rhythm and slide-makers, accustomed to the serenity of the ballad, tried in vain to catch the new spirit. By the end of 1914 song slides were on their way out, to join the spinning wheel and the stereoscope in the national attic.