For almost two decades at the turn of the century illustrated songs charmed nickelodeon audiences.
It is nearly a half-century now since there occurred one of the swifter but less regrettable casualties of American culture—the passing of a form of professional entertainment known as the illustrated song. A strange phenomenon native to music halls, dime museums, vaudeville, and the early, early silent movies, the song play, as it was billed in places with pretensions, enjoyed a brief but unforgettable craze during the first dozen years of this century. Today only a few collections of the colored lantern slides that illustrated the songs survive. Yet in 1910, at the peak of the craze, practically every one of the nation’s 10,000 movie houses, from the lowly nickelodeons to the plush ten-cent cinema palaces, featured “latest illustrated songs,” and employed at least one “illustrator,” the distinctive billing accorded to singers who worked with slides.
To members of the music-publishing industry whose patronage accounted for nearly 100 per cent of song-slide production, these “graphics” represented a successful novelty plug for their new songs. To operators of nickelodeons, the illustrated song was a cheap filler, but one ideally suited for that often interminably long “one moment please while the operator changes reels.” To the millions of romantically inclined housewives and lovelorn youth addicted to the nickelodeon habit, however, the illustrated song was their trip to Dreamland.
From twelve to sixteen hand-colored, glass photo slides were usually required to illustrate a song, one for each line of lyric. Two additional slides completed a set: one a reproduction of the sheet-music cover; the other containing nothing but the printed words of the chorus over which appeared in bold-faced type, “All Join In The Chorus.” In this slide, the least glamorous of the lot, reposed the music publisher’s hidden persuader.
The illustrator, having completed his customary solo with picture slides, usually two verses and two choruses, would then signal for the primed chorus-slide to be flashed on the screen, and face up to what was often a thankless and discouraging part of his job—that of leading the community song fest. If by using every trick in his bag he managed to coax an audible minority to join him in as many as three choruses, it was pretty certain that after the show a good number of the audience would be humming, singing, or whistling the tune all the way to their nearest friendly music dealer. Or so the publishers hoped.
Although march songs and comic novelties were successfully illustrated, the ballad, because it unfolded a story, was generally considered best suited for song slides. Whatever its sentiment—sweet or sad—imaginative slide-makers crammed into their 3½ x 4 inch colored transparencies every conceivable angle of syrupy romance or tender pathos. In short, the illustrated song was the purest essence of corn, but corn with an irresistible sales appeal. Properly illustrated, a new ballad stood a fair chance of becoming a success within a few short weeks after the distribution of slides—a fraction of the time required, in those days before radio, to exploit a number in other ways.
When old-timers in the music business talk about the good old days of the illustrated song, you can be certain that they are referring to the music-hall or pre-nickelodeon period. They are not talking about the “bouncing ball’ era of movie-house group-singing that came in the 1920s and has no connection with song slides. In the beginning song slides, for which publishers paid four to five dollars a set, were practically forced on famous singers on a loan basis. By 1908, however, distribution of slides had been turned over to film and slide exchanges, at rental rates ranging from fifty cents to a dollar. Small nickelodeon operators whose clientele wasn’t too discriminating could, for a small additional fee, obtain cylinder or disc phonograph records to accompany slides. This earliest form of low-fidelity canned music blared out from giant metal horns, often mounted in pairs, with sufficient volume to be heard in the last row of a 199-seat house. (In certain localities 200 seats or more automatically put the operator in a high license bracket.) The nation’s three leading slide-makers, Scott & Van Altena and DeWitt C. Wheeler, both of New York City, and Chicago Transparency Company, Chicago, required a minimum order of fifty sets to start production on illustrations for a new song.
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.