Decades before the Lumière brothers projected their first film in Paris, artists and inventors the world over were tinkering with technologies meant to captivate audiences through cinematic storytelling. These days, those pre-cinema machines are the subject of passionate collecting, and few collections come near the quality (and quantity) of the one created by Richard Balzer.
Until his death three years ago, Balzer, a Boston-based organizational consultant, spent more than 40 years accumulating pre-cinema objects, among them magic lanterns, projection devices from the 17th century first used in the scientific field and later adopted for popular entertainment, and early peep show boxes through which viewers could gaze on detailed images accompanied by a showman’s narration; he kept them in a carriage house–cum–private museum behind his home in Brookline, a Boston suburb. Now, the more than 9,000 objects in his holdings are headed to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Items from the collection will be on display when the Renzo Piano–designed building on Wilshire Boulevard opens next spring.
Acquiring the collection is a huge development for the museum, said Academy Museum curator Jessica Niebel, who ranks it among the best of its kind worldwide and spent three years in the effort to procure it. Niebel sees it as crucial to the institution’s ability to show the “evolution of visual storytelling.” The museum’s mission is to tell a holistic story of cinema, and the Balzer collection will play a critical role in illuminating the medium’s beginnings.
The acquisition process began when Niebel visited Patricia Bellinger, Balzer’s widow, to see the collection. In the carriage house, Niebel saw meticulous displays organized by object type so as to clearly convey their purpose. One of them was a parlor amusement popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in which people viewed perspectival etchings called vues d’optique through a magnifying device that gave them depth. Here, they were backlit in a cabinet, suggesting illusionistic “night views” of the scenes portrayed.
“I immediately understood how important it was for him to not just own these objects but to share them and to demonstrate how they worked, and to show off the wonder they once created, and they still do,” Niebel said of her visit, adding that the inviting setup, which featured framed paintings and prints on the walls, “brought the whole thing to life.”
Singling out objects from among the thousands in the collection is a daunting proposition. For Niebel, a 1737 engraving by Edmé Bouchardon depicting a woman lanternist holds a certain historical intrigue, since traveling magic lantern performers in the 18th century were typically men. The curator also has a special appreciation for two rarities in the collection: a bull’s-eye magic lantern that is among the earliest objects of its kind, and still has all its original parts; and two sets of glass slides for a projecting praxinoscope, a 19th-century device whose invention marked “an important step in the technical development” of cinema, Niebel said. Balzer did not possess a projecting praxinoscope, very few of which have survived, and Niebel believes he must have been searching for one for years.
Among Bellinger’s favorites is a triunial lantern from 1891, made of wood and brass; its three lenses enabled lanternists to create continuous movement of images across screens. She also favors the “peacock lantern,” a viewing device circa 1895 with colorful, rounded lenses, and “incredibly simple but stunningly beautiful” lithographs that transform when held up to a light source.
“Today, it’s sort of hard for me to remember that Jessica never met Dick,” Bellinger told ARTnews, referring to her late husband, “because he would’ve just adored her, and they like the same things—they would’ve had a whale of a time together. Jessica is the reason that the collection ultimately went [to the Academy Museum], because of her sensibility, her appreciation, and her real love and delight.” It was important to both Bellinger and Balzer that the collection be kept together to preserve its historical scope and, as Bellinger puts it, “to honor his memory and what it meant to him.” She joined the Academy Museum’s board of trustees this past July, and describes it as a “perfect fit” for the collection.
For Niebel, one of the collection’s greatest strengths is its comprehensiveness—it includes examples of a broad range of object types, all of which are in good condition. And if there is a rare example of a certain piece, it is often found in the holdings.
“You can only find these if you collect for a long, long time,” Niebel said of the collection’s more singular objects. “Magic lanterns come up at auctions all the time. Some things you can really find easily, and they might not even be that expensive. But only over the four decades that he collected was he able to find objects in such fine condition and objects that are so rare yet representative of something.”
Balzer was a businessman with an artist’s eye. Although best known as a consultant—he started in that line with the United Automobile Workers and United Steelworkers, and in 1967 founded the firm Balzer & Associates, Inc.—he worked as a photographer throughout his life, and his photographs are in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the monographs Street Time, China: Day by Day, and Clockwork: Life In and Outside an American Factory, among others. He authored the 1998 book Peepshows: A Visual History, and he was also cofounder of the nonprofit Petra Foundation, which for 25 years offered fellowships centering on social justice.
Balzer’s passion for pre-cinema objects was sparked in the mid-1970s when he met a collector of such material at an antique fair in the United Kingdom. Once he caught the bug, he bought in bulk, acquiring entire collections from auction houses or individuals and setting up a payment plan, then selling off pieces he didn’t want and applying those proceeds to his original purchase—often making money in the process. He wound up with a collection that is as broad as it is deep, with pieces from Europe, Asia, and North America.
“He loved this gentle kind of showmanship and trickery that was involved in so many of the objects,” said Bellinger, adding that he took great joy in putting on magic lantern shows after dinner parties, at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other venues.
Balzer also nurtured his fascination with pre-cinematic storytelling through the Magic Lantern Society of the United States and Canada, an organization founded in 1979 that brings together enthusiasts in the field. He was chairman of the Society from 1984 to 1989, and hosted two of their conventions in Boston, in 1987 and 2014, gathering collectors and purveyors of such esoteric materials to share and preserve information about their history and care.
“This is something that appeals to a particular kind of person, someone interested in pictorial history, showmanship, and the pre-history of cinema,” said Larry Rakow, a longtime friend of Balzer, who served as vice president of the Society from 2004 to 2008, and himself hosted two conventions. The organization now has more than 100 members internationally.
Rakow, who was first acquainted with Balzer when he sold him a large selection of magic lantern slides he had acquired in the early 1980s, said that the scope of the Balzer collection—the number and range of objects, books, and ephemera—is what makes it so significant, and Balzer’s “tremendous love for the medium” and “very wide appreciation of virtually everything that went into the history of cinema” was what set him apart as a steward.
“Without being arrogant about it, Richard Balzer showed me exactly where I was on the pecking order of magic lantern collectors, and it was not very high up,” Rakow said, adding that the Academy Museum has an opportunity to help visitors “start filling in the blanks” in the history of magic lanterns, which is a “part of pre-cinema history that was effectively lost.”
As fascinating as these objects are, they rarely left Balzer’s carriage house. Some of them figured in a 2017 exhibition entitled “The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820” at the Harvard Art Museums, where Balzer performed a magic lantern show. Balzer didn’t live to see the 2018 exhibition “Phantasmagoria” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on which he collaborated.
Marjorie Cohn, curator emerita of prints at the Fogg Art Museum and former head of the Harvard Art Museums, met Balzer in the early 1990s when he wanted help identifying the types of prints he had collected.
“We would have wonderful conversations about the excitement of the chase and about the way one dealt with dealers and the way one dealt with other collectors and museums—the whole culture of collecting,” said Cohn, who collects Old Masters prints and Japanese drawings. “I think the thing that amazed me most about his collection—beyond the scope and his knowledgeable identification of what he had—was the preciousness of the things he had. We’re not talking precious in terms of market value, but in terms of their sheer survival,” Cohn said, alluding to figurines, games, and devices that are hundreds of years old.
Last year, the MFA Boston, acquired about 40 objects from the Balzer collection. Ben Weiss, director of collections and curator of visual culture at the MFA, has witnessed audiences’ “pure delight” in the pieces, particularly young audiences.
“Very simple optical tricks totally captivate people, and it’s amazing to watch,” Weiss said. “And everybody—all the designers, all the graphic designers—they all came away just feeling giddy with pleasure at the prospect of working on the show.”
“The kinds of objects he had that were more ‘object’ than ‘art’ were never terribly artful because that wasn’t the whole point,” Cohn added. “I never turned up my nose at what he showed me because it was so obvious why he collected them. He made a whole universe.”
Bellinger hopes that in its new home at the Academy Museum this universe of curiosities can help people of all ages understand the history of cinema more deeply, and perhaps help younger visitors imagine how people entertained themselves in earlier times. The Academy Museum’s assessment of the fragility of some objects and how frequently they can be displayed is still underway, and Niebel said that understanding visitors’ first impressions of the museum will help inform future presentations of the Balzer collection and other such materials. As part of the gift, the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in L.A. will receive Balzer’s related collection of books, prints, and other ephemera.
“I have high hopes that children will have the opportunity to engage with it,” Bellinger said. “I think they’ll learn about the wonders of cinema and the origins and the history of so much that is our world today. It’s a whole other way to bring history to life and to teach … and … entertain people.” It’s also an opportunity for Hollywood to reach out beyond the film capital: Bellinger added that it will “enable this institution, which is so incredibly important to the history of our country, to be able to tell its own story and reach further back beyond the United States to where the story begins.”