The audiences at Carnegie Hall in 1892 had a unique experience. They were taken on a trip to the moon. It was all done through special effects, of course. But since this was several years before the Lumiere brothers screened the first motion pictures, the effects all had to be done live, on stage.
Click all images to enlarge — they are much bigger than you can see on this page!
The show, titled "Urania" after the goddess of astronomy, had been created by the Urania Astronomical Society of Berlin. It had already been a hit in Germany three years earlier. The special effects had been devised by W. Kranz and J. Carl Mayrhofer. The managers of Carnegie Hall, knowing a good idea when they saw one, procured all the scenery and special equipment and hauled it to New York. The script was rewritten by Garrett P. Serviss, who as a science popularizer was the Carl Sagan of his day. He is best known today, however, for being the author of "Edison's Conquest of Mars."
After an introduction, the audience was treated to the spectacle of a solar eclipse over Havel Lakes, near Berlin. They saw the sun rise, its disk slowly covered by the moon, the moment of totality and the appearance of the corona and then the return to a normal summer sky.
This was achieved by having the foreground scenery painted on a transparent screen. The areas to remain opaque were painted black on the reverse side, leaving sky and water translucent. Two projectors—-one for the crescent sun and one for the corona—-were used to recreate the eclipse. A third projector reproduced the effect of moving waves in the lake. Specially controlled stage lights gave the effect of changing colors in the landscape as the earth passed through the lunar shadow.
The audience was then treated to a view of the moon seen from a distance of just 5000 miles. This was accomplished through the use of a three-foot plaster model set against a black backdrop. The phases of the moon were created by slides in special projectors.
Zooming in, the audience saw close-up views of the lunar landscape, such as Mounts Aristarchus and Herodotus, and Cape Laplace, as they might appear from a height of just 2 1/2 miles. The models were lit by four powerful arc lights that contrasted the "earthly landscapes, softened and harmonized by the presence of air and life, with those of the moon, which, under a sky of eternal blackness, glitter in a jeweled panoply of death, for the moon is a dead world."
Audiences saw the lunar landscapes lit by earthlight before witnessing a sunrise on the moon. After having already seen a solar eclipse they are now treated to one as seen from the moon—-this time with the earth passing in front of the sun...one of the most technically complex effects in the entire show.
A return to earth revealed our planet from space at different distances. A sunset in the Indian Ocean and a moonrise over the opening scene completed the presentation.
"These splendid scenes," gushed Scientific American, "are a triumph of science and scenic art."
I haven't the slightest doubt about that!