Charles K. Harris and the Illustrated Song

by Jim Buhler

Picture of Charles K. Harris

Charles K. Harris

The article below on the illustrated song appeared in the inaugural issue of Moving Picture World. It was written by Charles K. Harris, composer of the mega-hit “After the Ball,” which sold more than 5 million copies in sheet music, which long set the standard for sheet music sales. In this article, Harris addresses the production of song slides from the standpoint of a music publisher.

THE ART of illustrating songs with the stereopticon is now one of the features at all vaudeville performances; in fact, it has become one of the standard attractions. To illustrate a song properly often entails a large expenditure of money. The most beautiful illustrated song pictures are those having natural backgrounds. It is not always possible to secure such pictures, and backgrounds have to be painted and prepared with scenic effects. After all the arrangements for the scenery have been made, there comes the hardest and most perplexing part of illustrating a song—procuring the subjects to pose in the pictures. They are generally secured by advertising, and often several hundred applicants will be turned away before suitable models are secured. If the song calls for a beautiful child with golden hair, 95 per cent. of the applicants (brought always by their parents) will be black-haired, freckle-faced, snub-nosed youngsters. The same rule applies to adults. In every case, however, where the work is well done, beautiful children, pretty women and handsome men must be secured for some songs, while old men and women, representing types from the beggar to the millionaire, must be found for others. Everything, whether pathetic, sad or comical, must seem real and perfectly natural. Interiors must also be furnished for the occasion, special costumes must either be made or hired, and often the models must be taken long distances to secure harmonious surroundings. All these things cost large amounts of money and often before the negatives for from fifteen to twenty-five slides have been secured the expense has amounted up to hundreds of dollars. In the case where large numbers of negroes posed in a cakewalk for a new song which I have illustrated, entitled “Linda, Can’t You Love Your Joe,” it was necessary to send photographers as far as Alabama and Tennessee, there to remain until the real Southern negro was rounded up and asked to pose for a picture:. At least sixty subjects were used in this one set, and their services cost money. The cost of this set of slides has exceeded one thousand dollars. This gives an idea what it costs to illustrate a song properly.

Often the most expert of song illustrators sometimes fall into error and incorporate ridiculous incongruities in their pictures. I have noticed a certain song, by a well-known publisher in this city, where he has a wedding party dressed in costumes of the eighteenth century issuing from a church of the very latest packing-box style of architecture, yet if he had taken the exterior scene of the church four or five away from where he took the photograph, he would have found an old Dutch church whose picturesque exterior would have been in absolute harmony with its subjects. There are many song illustrators who do not take the trouble to make their pictures harmonize with the sentiment of the songs. They never go to the trouble or expense of posing a song; most of them, in fact, know little about the art of photography. “There are many song illustrators who do not take the trouble to make their pictures harmonize with the sentiment of the songs. They never go to the trouble or expense of posing a song…” They illustrate their songs by passing off upon the public a hodge-podge of old engravings which they have picked up in the old print shops and picture stores. A great many of these song illustrators are found mostly in this city, and Philadelphia also has its share. Some of these cheap slide-makers are pirates in a small way. As soon as some reputable slide-maker brings out a new set of song slides they manage to secure a set, and after washing the paint from the picture until the slide is left plain, they proceed, at the cost of a few cents, to copy by the “contact process” the work which has cost hundreds of dollars. They then proceed to flood the market with wretched imitations of the original slides at less than one-half the price. Even copyrights on pictures do not deter them from stealing, as they have nothing to lose and to prosecute them under the present copyright aw would only be throwing money away. But the new copyright law changes all that and makes it a misdemeanor for any print or picture containing the word “copyrighted” to be used by any person or persons whatsoever without the consent of the owner of the copyright.

Singers as well as managers are now alive to the fact that a poor set of slides will do them more harm than good and managers of theaters are quick to recognize a first-class set of slides, as they must cater to ladies and children, and it is to their interest to see that their patrons get the best the market affords.

My new song entitled “The Best Thing in Life” (which is being illustrated by A. L. Simpson of this city) will revolutionize the slide industry. This set contains twenty-eight slides; in fact, is a drama in three acts. The song takes you from a club room crowded with club members in full evening dress, to Broadway, Fifth avenue, Madison Square, and to the principal points of interest in the city of New York. It was also necessary to secure a snowstorm scene for this set of slides, which was taken at night several weeks ago, corner of Forty-second street and Broadway, during the great snowstorm, and is an exact reproduction of same, which will no doubt create a sensation when thrown upon a canvas. At the present time I have a staff of photographers in Florida, where they are now posing my latest Southern pastoral song, which will also no doubt be appreciated by both the singers and managers of America.

TO ILLUSTRATE how hard it is to sometimes secure a scene or a certain subject, I have sent photographers to San Antonio, Texas, to get the “real thing,” which was a cowpuncher and his cabin for a song entitled “The Star and the Flower.” It would have been easy enough to get some stage setting in some photographic studio and get some person to represent the cowboy, but I preferred to send where I could get the real thing. In another scene a herd of cattle grazing was necessary. To secure same, photographers were sent into Wyoming Territory and there secured the finest slide ever thrown upon a canvas, which always receives a great round of applause. For my child song, “Hello, Central, Give me Heaven,” it was desirable to photograph the interior of a metropolitan telephone exchange. The officers in charge of the centrals are by no means anxious to have their switchboards photographed, and do not cater to curious visitors; but, as I was on friendly terms with the director of the Chicago Telephone Company, by his courtesy a camera was allowed to be introduced in the operators’ exchange one Sunday morning and the necessary pictures were secured. Sometimes it is necessary to take an entire theatrical company to certain parts of the city, paying them their regular price, to pose a series of illustrations on a farm or in a any vicinity where the scene is cast. A great many of my personal friends often assist in posing, but I have found it more satisfactory to engage or accept the kindness of actors and actresses, as they understand the art of posing much better.

Publishers should take a personal interest in their slides; the slide manufacturers would then be more careful. As it is, some of the publishers take a new song and hand it to an illustrator, with instructions to go out and make a set of slides for same. They forget all about it until they see the slides flashed in some theater, and are then horribly disgusted and disappointed. They have only themselves to blame. If they would have given a little time to the illustrator to see that he got his work in harmony with the song, they would get much better results. Each and every slide posed for any of my songs is under my personal supervision. A great many times one hundred and fifty negatives are taken of one set of scenes to secure sixteen slides. No set of slides is ever placed on the market unless O.K.’d by myself. Once they are there I am satisfied that the public, the managers and the singers have what they paid for.

Source: Cha[rle]s K. Harris, “Illustrating Song Slides,” Moving Picture World 9 March 1907, 5-6.
Image source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division