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Edison: The Wizard of Light
Outside view of Edisonís lab as the crew sets up to film

This past September I was lucky enough to visit Edisonís West Orange, New Jersey lab without leaving Toronto. What's more, I was able to visit the site in the late 1800ís and meet Thomas Alva Edison himself and William Dickson. Some of you may be familiar with Dickson who deserves much of the credit for developing and refining Edisonís Kinetoscope. I was able to spend some time in the Black Maria (the first movie studio) and even sneak into Edisonís private office. This miracle was made possible by the Devine Entertainment Co. of Canada who were in the process of filming a fictionalized story involving Thomas Edison.

The Devine Companyís producers, David Devine and Richard Mozer, have previously produced the prime time Emmy winning Beethoven Lives Upstairs and the well known Composer's Specials which won the Cable Ace Award for Best Youth Program in the U.S. as well as the American Librarianís Association Award. This most recent project is part of a childrenís series of six short films intended to bring famous scientists to life through the eyes of children. Their first instalment on Einstein last year was recently followed by Leonardo: A Dream of Flight which aired on the Family Channel in Canada and HBO in the U.S. This will be followed by Galileo: On the Shoulders of a Giant in January of 1998.

Part of the interior of Edisonís lab

Presently in production with the instalment Edison: The Wizard of Light, Devine and Mozer expect to have this ready to air by December 1998. Other instalments include films about Sir Isaac Newton and Madame Curie.

The Edison film centres around a fictional movie director, Jack Maloney (played by Jesse Collins), at the time of Edisonís death in 1931. Through a series of flashbacks we find out that Jackís interest in film making started out in 1893, when as a 10 year old street urchin he sneaks into Edisonís lab for shelter. He is discovered by the great man himself (played by Canadian actor Ken Welsh) and a friendship ensues as Jack learns about Edisonís many famous inventions.

At this time Edison is developing the motion picture camera and as part of his experiments we get to see an antique Zoetrope. Eadweard Muybridge the father of moving picture theory also demonstrates a Zoopraxiscope (an early device designed to demonstrate the principles used to produce moving pictures.) From these machines Edison and Dickson were able to develop the Kinetoscope.

Domenic setting up for a scene in Edisonís lab

Even though the series is intended for children, a great deal of care has been taken to ensure the sets and props are as authentic and accurate as possible. Devine visited the Edison Lab in West Orange, New Jersey to do research for the film where he was able to find original photographs to help construct the West Orange Lab, his office and the Black Maria.

The site substituted for West Orange, New Jersey is located in downtown Toronto at the old Gooderham Distillery which is a complex of 15 buildings built in the mid-1800's and presently being used by film companies needing to recreate this period. The day I first visited the set an episode of the YTV series Goosebumps was being filmed. This complex makes an incredible backdrop for many of the street scenes in the film. Standing at the centre of the cobblestone streets with much of the modern city blocked by the buildings, gives an overwhelming sense of what the city was like in the 1800s. Add to that the set decorations, horse drawn carriages and the extras dressed in period costumes and you get a feel for how good this film will look.

Edisonís office

As you can imagine recreating Edisonís lab required a great deal of research, not to mention some expensive props. With the University of Toronto who providing most the old glass and lab equipment, and some very creative carpentry, the finished lab looked very authentic. To this was added a wide variety of phonographs and cylinders from the collection of CAPS member Domenic DiBernardo. These phonographs ranged from many parts machines strewn about the lab as experiments in progress, to a few complete original machines.

An unusual machine used in the movie was an original Edison talking doll, which plays a prominent role early in the film. At one point in the scene Michal Suchanek who plays Jack as a child, is startled by the doll's voice and drops the doll. There were a few tense moments during filming when Michal went to drop the doll thinking it was a cheap substitute. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a photo of Domenic when the director cued the actor to drop the doll on the concrete floor just as one of the crew was informing him of the actual value of the doll. Luckily nothing was broken. Also carefully recreated was Edison's office. Although a few of us will notice minor errors in the props used, the office still had an air of authenticity.

A Street scene showing Jack as a street urchin

To create the Black Maria set, antique movie camera collector Robert Gutteridge was enlisted to provide several authentic film props and build a few reproduction pieces. As with the lab set, a great deal of research was done to ensure its authenticity. Replicas of equipment such as an Edison Kinetoscope were used where it was not possible to have the actors damage a real one as part of a scene.

Other locations used in the film included Spadina House beside Toronto's historic Castle Loma. The Spadina House's striking similarity to Edisonís West Orange home "Glenmount" made it an ideal location for filming.

Unfortunately we will have to wait until December 1998 to see this film but as the date draws nearer, we will attempt to find out exact premier dates and times for HBO in the U.S. and the Family Channel in Canada. As with all the programmes in this series, they may be purchased privately, or by libraries and schools through Devine Entertainment. When the film is released we will make available information on how to order this film.

I would like to thank Devine Entertainmentís, David Devine and in particular Donald Benett (who handled the props for the movie) for allowing me to snoop around the set and take some great pictures.