Albert Smith’s Moving Panorama

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I’ve had a request (the first ever) to tell the story of Albert Smith, the man who invented merchandising.

Albert was a wealthy young man-about-town in the 1850s. He was a friend of Charles Dickens and, indeed, produced a couple of Dickens’ plays for a London theatre. These were exciting times if you had money (pretty awful if you didn’t). Britain had an expanding Empire, science was constantly producing new ideas and gadgets, the Crystal Palace ‘Great Exhibition’ in Hyde Park was the greatest show on earth and new forms of entertainment were springing up, especially visual ones.

If you were young, adventurous and wealthy, the latest craze was to climb Mont Blanc, France’s highest mountain. Albert did this in 1851 and a year later turned his experience into a must-see, sensational attraction at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London.

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He produced a painting of the ascent of the mountain on a long canvas with a roller at the top and bottom, and as the picture moved down, the audience saw the climbers going up the mountain. This type of show was called a moving panorama.

Your first reaction to the story so far is that this can’t possibly have been entertaining enough to fill a theatre, night after night, but it was and did, for 2,000 performances over six years, including a Royal Command performance for Queen Victoria. So why was it so successful? Well, as is often the case, it’s not just about the visuals, it’s about how you tell the story. Albert was a superb orator and could keep an audience on the edge of their seats as he recounted (and exaggerated) the dangers of the mountain. And, they could see the action on the screen! Also, the lecture was accompanied by sound and light effects to enhance the experience of ‘being there’. He was also a shrewd businessman. The theatre foyer was redesigned to become an Alpine village where you could buy souvenirs of the show and he had a song especially written and sold sheet music of same. Does all of this sound familiar? Show related merchandising had arrived.

The picture shows Albert giving his lecture with the moving panorama behind him depicting climbers (the black diagonal line) ascending Mont Blanc.

I give presentations on ‘Optical Entertainments before the Movies’ on a professional basis and Albert’s story is a small part of my talk.

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