Sound and Blight
A show bringing Lincoln's capitol to life dies
at the box office
February 10, 1978
Folks in the Springfield area have been trying to make the Lincoln era come alive since the 1930s, when New Salem was built. Later we got docents at Lincolns' home dressed up as their neighbors and, in 2005, a Lincoln robot at the new Presidential library. In between tourists were given a high-tech sound-and-light show that would use flashing lights and music and portentous prose to make bored tourists feel as if they were in 1850s Springfield, when all they really wanted was to be in a restaurant in 1970s St. Louis.
The show bombed. When I wrote about it again in 1981 it lingered embarrassingly, leaving Springfield's Lincoln-minded elites resembling the family that can't quite bring themselves to pull the plug on a decrepit aunt. The show was kept alive by artificial means in the form of state money, playing to ever-dwindling crowds; so inconspicuous a presence did it become that no one quite remembers when it was finally shut down.
There are some things you can't get people to watch even when they're free. City council meetings are one, the summer sound and light show at the Old State Capitol apparently is another. The trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, which runs both the old statehouse and the sound and light show which plays there, are considering paring the schedule of performances for the half-hour electronic display from seven to four nights a week—partly, they say, because they haven't enough money and partly because not enough people are showing up to watch it.
These are the facts: In its premier season the show attracted 41,000 people; in 1977 it attracted only 15,000, an average of 126 people per performance; the ISHL was allocated $22,700 to run the show, but library officials transferred all but $9,500 of it into a reserve fund; the remaining $9,500 is enough only for an abbreviated four-shows-a-week schedule.
The report makes discouraging reading for backers of the project, who were infused with an almost giddy optimism in 1974 when the idea was first made public. The program, for those who haven't seen it (which apparently means just about everybody) uses exterior lighting and taped narration and sound effects to create "optical and mental illusion" in illustrating the history of the old statehouse. It was promoted by the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission with the enthusiastic connivance of the historical library, which hoped to see the Old State Capitol of which it is a part lifted to a place beside Lincoln's home and tomb at the head of the list of important Illinois tourist spots.
The whole thing cost some $585,000, 85 percent of which came out of the pockets of Illinois taxpayers. (This last fact made the IBCs claim that the show was a "Bicentennial gift to the people of Illinois" sound pretty silly, even for an agency that specialized in expensive silliness. A gift from whom?) James Myers, then a trustee of the library, reportedly told the press in late 1974, "This will be the most important sound and light show in the western hemisphere." That extravagant prediction was echoed by the reporter who speculated that the show "may be the showcase of the nation's Bicentennial”—thus proving that, although journalists are obliged to report what people tell them, they shouldn't always believe it.
Nothing, save the resurrection of the Great Emancipator himself during the performance, could live up to that kind of build-up. The 15,000 total attendance in 1976 (a period in which 229,964 people toured Lincoln's home five blocks away) was cruel news. It is interesting if unproductive to speculate about the reasons for the low turnout. One answer was provided by several local attendees, who found the show a bore. Though admiring of the technical virtuosity that went into its production, most of them found it dull, all sound and fury (borrowing a phrase) signifying nothing. It seems probable that the first-year attendance figures were inflated by such curious locals by the second year Springfieldians had been forewarned and no longer took friends, kids, and visiting relatives to see it, and the figures dropped.
Then, too, is the possibility that most tourists simply don 't think a program about the old statehouse, no matter how vividly done, is worth an expensive overnight stay. The need for people to stay over to see it—mentioned to the city as one good reason for the program, because it would thus increase tourist spending—may in fact be its undoing. The Old State Capitol, though undeniably handsome, is nevertheless only a reconstruction. Further, it has neither the intimacy of Lincoln's home, the cold awesomeness of the tomb, or the charm of New Salem. My guess is that most of those 15,000 who saw it last year had planned to stay overnight in Springfield anyway and took in the show as a welcome alternative to staying in their motel rooms while the twelve-year-olds watched "Welcome Back Kotter.”
I argued against the project several times in print in 1976, but never, I have to admit, because I thought it would be unpopular. Indeed, my fear was that it would prove to be exactly what the touring public wanted, and that sound-and-light shows would become as necessary an adjunct to our historic sites as free toilets; I envisioned a future in which half the country would be set to whirring and clicking every summer's eve.
That possibility now seems remote. But from the other aspect of the project I found distasteful we are not yet relieved. The banks of loudspeakers and spotlights used to create the program are hung from four tall black poles mounted on the south side of the old capitol mall. That's the side from which most tourists approach it, and the poles spoil what is otherwise an enchanting view. The poles are an abomination—ugly, inappropriate, obtrusive. State Historian William Alderfer, speaking to the city council two years ago, said of the poles, "People won't see them unless they look right at them”—which, considering their size and location, is hard to avoid. Alan Anderson, then editor of this paper, was more accurate when he punningly called them "a pall on the mall."
I have a suggestion. Cancel the show. Tear down the light poles. Forget the $600,000 spent on the show so far. Chalk the whole fiasco up to experience. Nobody will mind. Illinoisans are used to the idea of the state wasting their money. ●