Illustrated Songs

Illustrated songs were a popular form of entertainment in the nickelodeon theater that featured projected slides accompanied by live music (piano and vocals). The illustrated songs were a key part of the nickelodeon program and are significant in the evolution of early cinema.


Illustrated songs most likely had their origin in the magic lantern slide projector. The magic lantern could project glass slides that contained illustrated songs along with advertisements and public service announcements. Historical evidence shows that the magic lantern predated the existence of film. When film became popular, exhibitors simply projected the film reels from the same magic lantern projector. Some scholars argue that this multimedia capacity of the magic lantern made the nickelodeon the perfect home for a combination of illustrated songs and film.[1] In between films, the audience could be entertained by an illustrated song or two while a film technician changed film reels. However, this does not imply that films were the main attraction and illustrated songs the filler between acts.[2] Evidence in early nickelodeon advertisements suggest that it may have been the other way around. It was not uncommon practice for nickelodeon ad posters to list the illustrated songs as the main attraction with the films as secondary entertainment. [3] However, advertising practices varied in different towns. While one town may have heavily emphasized a popular song or a singer with opera training, a town 40 miles away may have focused on the new film being shown. It cannot be asserted with any certainty whether the illustrated song was the main feature or the film.


While the slide images were projected onscreen, lyrics were sung by a "song illustrator" - a vocalist accompanied by a pianist.[4] The singer may have had opera training or may have been the pianist's wife. It was often the case that the pianist and vocalist were often the same person. The slides served to "illustrate" the lyrics, making them come alive for the audience. A full set of slides for one song consisted of a title slide, fourteen or more narrative slides, and a chorus slide. The title slide, in addition to displaying the name of the song, depicted the cover of the sheet music. Following the title slide, were the narrative slides, which usually numbered fourteen - four for each verse and three for the chorus. The narrative slides that corresponded to lines of the song often used visual puns for comedic effect. The example below is taken from "My Lovin' Melody Man."

Illustrated song slide from "My Loving Melody Man

The slide is humorous when juxtaposed with its accompanying line "Believe me folks, he's certainly some beau, my honey lamb."
Following the narrative slides would be the chorus slide. This contained the words to the chorus. Illustrated songs would culminate with audiences singing along to the chorus at the end of the song. Nickelodeons were more than just an art exhibition venue, they were social centers - places where the neighborhood communities could come together through the power of song and film. What is unique about the chorus slide is that it was also the artistic signature of the slide maker. It was not uncommon for chorus slides to contain information such as the slide maker's address.[5]

A typical nickelodeon performance would last for about twenty minutes and run continuously. A performance would consist of one or two illustrated songs and a few short films, but exhibition practices varied widely from theater to theater.The combination of illustrated songs and moving pictures made the nickelodeon "a unique mix of national mass culture and local popular culture."[6] In a typical nickelodeon performance it was not uncommon to see an Edison film or two. However, most of the films were foreign, particularly French. The illustrated songs on the other hand were more American in tone.[7] This is evident in songs such as "Only a Message from Home Sweet Home" and "She Waits by the Deep Blue Sea."


Most illustrated songs used popular melodies or tunes that were easy to sing along with. Popular tunes of the times included "Those Ragtime Melodies," "My Lovin' Melody Man" and "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" The songs were heavily sentimental, nostalgic, patriotic, or some combination of the three. The stories they told were usually of white upper middle class individuals dealing with the trials and tribulations of war, love, and separation from home. The characters in the song lived in a dream world, completely distinct from the dreary reality of everyday life. The surreal nature of the world that the characters of the songs inhabited was most evident in the slide's various colors.[8] Because the slides were often hand-painted, they were often dominated by heavily saturated colors. The early nickelodeon cinema was a cinema of attractions because each individual slide focused more on the spectacle than furthering a narrative.[9]

But the surreal nature of illustrated songs did not stop there. Breakthroughs and innovations in photography contributed more surreal aspects to the songs. By 1910, song slide makers used multiple negative compilation to combine photographs in new ways, "combining multiple planes and disparate scales, song slides increasingly took on a surreal look."[10]


Despite the popularity of the illustrated song in the early 1900's, by 1913 illustrated songs had ceased productions and had disappeared from many theaters. A common explanation for the disappearance of the illustrated song is the increased censorship practices of 1910, which removed many songs that were deemed "suggestive." The illustrated song also dried up because part of its purpose was to sell sheet music. Nickelodeons would often sell the sheet music from that night's performance at the box office. With the prevalence of the phonograph, the demand for sheet music dropped and so did the demand for illustrated songs. Another reason is the expansion of the film industry. By 1914, moving pictures had a financial and cultural significance much larger than the previous decade.[11]

While the illustrated song may not be remembered much today, it still had a significant impact on the development of film. When film first developed, it was conceived as a photographic art. Contrary to popular belief, scholars like Rick Altman, argue that many "silent" films of the early 1900's were just that - silent with no musical accompaniment. Instead the pianist was there to accompany the illustrated song. It was only through the presenting of the songs and the films together that film became more than photography and evolved into a combination of image and sound. Films began to shoot with accompaniment in mind. One such example was The Merry Widow, which opened in theaters at the same time as its play counterpart.
"In terms of content as well as programming, films like these were produced to take the place of the song slides with which cinema had long shared the bill, thus revealing that, in spite of its growing tendency toward narrative fiction, cinema was at this point still not entirely different from the song slide tradition."[12]
Indeed if it were not for the illustrated song, the evolution of early cinema and sound might have taken a very different path.


Abel, Richard. ed. Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. Routledge: New York. 2005. ISBN 0-415-23440-9
Abel, Richard and Altman, Rick. ed. The Sounds of Early Cinema. Indiana University Press, IN. ISBN 0-253-33988-X
Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. Columbia University Press: New York. 2004. ISBN 0-231-11662-4
Altman, Rick. Sound Theory Sound Practice. 1992. Routledge, Chapman and Hill, Inc. ISBN 0415904560
Gunning, Tom. (1993). "Now You It, Now You Don't": The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions. Velvet Light Trap, 3.

External Links



  1. ^ Altman, Silent Film Sound p. 183
  2. ^ Altman, Silent Film Sound p. 184
  3. ^ Abel, "That Most American of Attractions, the Illustrated Song" p.143
  4. ^ Abel, "That Most American of Attractions, the Illustrated Song" p.143
  5. ^ Altman, Silent Film Sound p. 182b
  6. ^ Abel, "That Most American of Attractions, the Illustrated Song" p.147
  7. ^ Abel, "That Most American of Attractions, the Illustrated Song" p.144
  8. ^ Altman, Silent Film Sound p.182a
  9. ^ Gunning, "'Now You It, Now You Don't':The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions"
  10. ^ "Altman, Silent Film Sound p. 185
  11. ^ "Altman, Silent Film Sound p. 189
  12. ^ Altman, Sound Theory Sound Practice p.115