Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pepper's Ghost and the Spirit Lodge at Expo 86

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I saw one of the best live / theatrical performances I have ever seen, which is the subject of this post. Like all great live performances, part of the impact that it has on you is that you are seeing something that will never be seen again. No matter how rehearsed, no matter how often they give the exact same performance, what you are seeing is live and those moments can never be recreated.

And what I saw was really well done. It was a story about the freedom of the people and of the tribe and about the love of a man for his family. The setting of the play is a native american lodge of some sort, at night, around a campfire.  Our narrator tells you the story his grandfather told him once, long ago.   We of course are not around a fire in native america, we are seeing this as part of a World's Fair and as part of the General Motors pavilion but, magically, it all still works.

I admit, it is hard to believe that what I saw was or could be as good as I remember it.  But as I have researched this post on the sometimes useful but always annoying Internet, I have come across other people who have a similar opinion about what they saw there in that pavilion.

Perhaps if one saw such events from time to time, then perhaps one could believe in the power of narrative, live theatre and the other theatrical arts to enrich our lives and maybe even improve the world.

But of course that is terribly naive and we know better today.

But in 1986 I was much younger and idealistic and made a last minute decision to attend the World's Fair (1) in Vancouver, Canada, Expo 86 (2), in the final week it was open. It was an impromptu trip and it was so long ago that I barely remember any of the practical details. I think a friend had rented a house so I had a couch to sleep on. I don't remember if I drove or flew to Canada, but somehow I remember having a car so maybe I flew and rented, it doesn't matter. But there I was at Expo 86 in its final week as they were basically wrapping up the park after a successful six month run.

If you have never been to a World's Fair before, as I had not,  it is a combination of theme park and international foreign affairs public relations and trade relations exposition. The park is filled with pavilions from various countries that want you to know about their history and what an attractive place it is to visit, to make investments in, or even perhaps to emigrate to. They will have a beautiful building that somehow represents their country, it is usually very open and large, so that you can walk in and get a passion fruit drink and watch films about diamond mining in S. Africa, or who knows what.

A world exposition is an opportunity for designers, architects, businesses and governments to show off how creative and positive they can be.  When things come together, these Fairs can have an impact for years or decades after their run.   In a few cases, such as Paris 1900,  they are recognized as important culturally for as long as a century or more.  So they spend a fair amount of money, which varies depending on how the world economy is doing and produce a result which serves many purposes, from the level of world government and business down to the individual and his or her family.

Expo 86 was "special format" heaven. Special format is the term we used to use in the world of theme parks to describe unusual film format and projection situations. The Hobbit at 48 fps is a modern example of what we used to call special format. At Expo 86 we had real Imax, stereo Imax, Showscan, Stereo Showscan, and on and on. These are all obsolete but esteemed film formats and terms-of-art from the days before digital projection. (5)

But everyone said that the "must see" pavilion was the General Motors exhibit, which had the odd name of "Spirit Lodge".

Spirit Lodge was very difficult to get in to see.  Apparently the theatre was quite small and could only handle a few people per show and maybe 4 shows an hour, so the show itself was short.   There were no reservations as I recall so you just had to get there early and wait in line.   So I did and thus was able to see Spirit Lodge in its first release and in its proper place.

You were in a small room that I think maybe held about 80 people arranged in a semi-circle around the stage. The stage was at the level of the lowest row of the audience, you shared the same space. Like good close-up magic, part of the appeal of what is about to happen comes from the fact you are so close and not more than a few feet away. There is only one performer, a single older man. No robots, no apparatus that you can see.   Just a small camp fire in the center of a dirt floor.   There were a few props around the stage to set the scene and to provide objects for dramatic shadows during the show.  There was nothing to keep you from walking the few feet from your chair to the center of the stage if that is what you wanted to do.

The lights go down and a man comes out. He is dressed in what I remember as a traditional native american costume from someplace cold (e.g. like Canada).  He was there that night, he told us,  to tell us a story that his grandfather told him many years ago here in this lodge. It is clear from the context that he is addressing us as if we were his grandchildren.  He talked about his love for his grandfather who has been dead for many years now and he told the story of a magic canoe and how it took the men of the tribe wherever they wanted to go. The meaning of freedom, he said, was the freedom of the people to travel. Without the freedom to travel, whether in a magical canoe or otherwise, then there was no real freedom.

And as he spoke to you, live, right there, magically a few feet away, what appeared to be flames and smoke came out of the stage floor and hovered in the air. As he warmed his hands by this magical and impossible fire, images started to appear in the smoke to illustrate his story of his grandfather and the magic canoe from long ago that let the people go where they wanted. The images appeared to be there, live, in three dimensions, not projected in any way, but real.  He moved his hands above the fire and commanded his memories to appear and they did. They came and went in a dreamlike fashion. But it was right in front of you and a few feet away and it looked completely natural.

What I was seeing, of course, without realizing it, was Pepper's Ghost (3), that famous 17th century stage illusion which uses glass and half silvered mirrors to project a stage somewhere out of sight to the stage in front of the audience.   Using the magic of mirrors gives the perfect illusion of depth and substance like we only approximate with stereopsis. Somewhere in the back, or above me, was another stage that had some combination of film projection, perhaps projection on solid objects, perhaps projection on other transparent screens, and so forth.   Mirrors and glass were used to transmit the image to the center of that little stage with you not more than a few feet away from it.

How they managed to do this in a way that worked for all the different perspectives in the audience that day, and every day of its performance, is a mystery to me. Pepper's ghost is very tricky to execute and yet we had a lot of people sitting around the campfire. But it was perfect.

I have never seen Pepper's Ghost look so good.

I am not sure what this picture is, but it may be concept art associated with Spirit Lodge.

And of course, the context at the time, remember, is 1986 and the world is still divided by the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. And there are many nations where people are not allowed to travel outside their country for fear that they would defect to the West. So, Spirit Lodge, at this international exposition in the pavilion of General Motors was about the freedom to travel, in other words it was a subversive message, tastefully done. Very nice, and unusually well done for a company like General Motors, it seemed to me.  (4)  

It played for the length of the Exposition and, as is the nature of such things, disappeared.

I know that years later a version of Spirit Lodge opened at  Knott's Berry Farm. It may still be there for all I know. But I have never seen it there, and don't intend to, because I know it would only diminish it for me. Part of what made Spirit Lodge what it was, was when and where it was. In Vancouver, much closer to the reality of native america than Knott's could ever be. And it was performed then, during the Cold War, when the concept of transportation as a manifestation of freedom could have the subversive meaning that it had that day.

For more on Spirit Lodge see



1. A world's fair or exhibition is an event that only happens a few times any generation and is controlled by an international body. In the history of America the 1938 and 1964 World's Fairs are particularly significant. Some believe that the 1964 Fair was the high point of our civilization in its purest most idealistic form. 

2. Expo '86 was held in Vancouver, Canada between May 2 and October 13, 1986.

4. Apparently General Motors is known for doing very nice pavilions at World's Fairs, although I do not know the details of this.  So this was not out of character at all and probably a good investment in their global identity.

5. Deleted paragraphs:

Expo 86 had fireworks every night. But in the final week, they did not just have a fireworks show, no, they had a fireworks show designed to use up their extra fireworks so it would all be gone when the last show was over. And they had a lot of fireworks. I mean hours of fireworks. All overwhelming and filling the sky. It went on and on and on. Fireworks need to be experienced and is not something you can store up and remember, unfortunately. But I have the memory of thinking that I will never see a fireworks show like this again.

There were dozens and dozens of pavilions representing countries from all over the world, and a very entertaining center "walkway" of the history of transportation that was many lifesize sculptures for kids to play on representing transportation through the ages, from horse drawn cart through jet airplane and submarines and space craft.


  1. I remember the Spirit Lodge at Expo '86 very well. The theme of the expo was transportation. The USA had the Skylab space station, the USSR had real spacecraft and other hardware and GM told the tale of the Magic Canoe.

    Tthe lodge, which we are told of while waiting to enter, was a place of refuge for travelers, and as a storm is approaching we were ushered in and took our seats. And there was a old man, a shaman, who told us stories. The smoke from the fire would form images which would pause, and then go up and out the top.

    The most important thing that he told us was the story of the Magic Canoe. It was large enough for an entire village, and small enough for a young boy. And all you had to do was think of where you wanted to go, take one stroke with the paddle, and you were there.

    Finally at the end the old man turned into smoke and went up and out. But it is the simplicity of the story of the Magic Canoe that I especially remember after all these years.

    - John, Westminster, California

  2. Dear John,

    You have an awesome memory. Thanks for commenting.