We take most of our entertainment options for granted. From IMAX movies to gaming consoles, high-tech recreation is everywhere. But in the pre-electronic and pre-electric world, many of the ways people sought thrilling new experiences ran from the dangerous to the bizarre. Ever wonder what Grandma and Granddad did instead of fighting zombies or shooting paintballs at each other? Here’s an assortment of unusual and forgotten entertainment systems from days past.
Staged Train Wreck
The need to see things destroyed is a very human one; otherwise, we wouldn’t have thousands of online videos showing things set afire, dipped in acid, tossed into lava, or exploded. That urge is eternal. On September 15, 1896, Missouri-Kansas–Texas Railroad’s passenger agent, the fortuitously named William George Crush, suggested staging a double train wreck to sell train ride tickets to Texas residents. About 40,000 people showed up to watch the trains smash together. Unfortunately, upon impact, both boilers exploded, killing two people and injuring more. Side note: composer Scott Joplin wrote a song called the “Great Crush Collision March,” which replicates the sounds of the trains and collision through the piano.
Nowadays, the word cyclorama refers to the curved, modular surfaces found in film studios and television sets. Also known as cyc walls, cycloramas make a smaller space look much larger by supplying what showbiz folks call an infinity wall. They accommodate green screen special effects as well. Old-time cycloramas were different. In the pre-virtual reality days, a painter created a massive canvas depicting a panoramic view of a place or historic event—natural wonders, battles, and religious subjects were popular. The cycloramas traveled far, and special cylindrical buildings were constructed to display them, giving visitors the sensation of being in another place. Sadly, while hundreds of cycloramas were painted, only a handful survive.
This one goes all the way back to the 1600s and 1700s and is a little harder to explain, much less understand. Fox tossing involved releasing a fox, rabbit, badger, wildcat, or other small- to medium-size mammal in an enclosed area and then tricking it into crossing a long, wide strip of cloth held on either end by two people. The cloth was then yanked on both ends, snapping the animal into the air. Participants “won” by launching the animals the highest, which often resulted in the poor creature being severely injured or killed. A dumber version of dogfighting, but just as cruel.
When considering entertainment systems from days past, we can’t forget spook shows. In the early 20th century, traveling magicians put on ghost- and horror-themed stage shows at local theaters. Most events involved the usual magic tricks of cutting a woman in half and the like, but they also featured seances to summon “spirits”—illusions created with mirrors, screens, lighting, projectors, and more. “Monsters” stalked the theater; pretty actresses pretended to be vampires; and inevitably the theater lights would be switched off, inspiring screams and chills in the largely youthful audience.