A Revolutionary-era projection with Jack Judson in silhouette. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

What Jack Judson accomplished after he retired from USAA in 1986 may seem eccentric to some. His son Dan prefers to calls his dad focused. “A strategic thinker,” Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum, opined. 

His deed: amassing the largest collection of magic lanterns and paraphernalia in the entire world. More than 100,000 magic lanterns – antique slide projectors illuminated by chemicals and a flame – slides, scripts, posters, paintings, and other items spanning 300 years are displayed at the Magic Lantern Castle on Austin Highway. Since it opened in 1992, admittance has been by appointment; Dan said if his dad thought a person asking to see the collection lacked sufficient passion, he’d decline to meet. 

The elder Judson died on Jan. 11 at age 89 after a long battle with cancer during which he continued his personal and civic activities. These included serving as a trustee of the Witte Museum and as a board member of the Bexar County Historical Commission. He was a co-founder of San Antonio’s Historic Design and Review Commission and served on it for many years.

He is survived by Dan and his wife of more than 20 years, Linde Judson.

Linde and Jack Judson enjoy the opening of “The World Through Magic Lanterns” exhibit in 2013, curated by Bruce Shackelford.
Linde and Jack Judson enjoy the opening of “The World Through Magic Lanterns” exhibit in 2013, curated by Bruce Shackelford. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

Dan said his father volunteered to serve as projectionist aboard ship during his World War II Naval service, mainly as a way to get extra pay, extra liberty, and a Jeep to pick up films, he added.

“That’s where his interest in photography and projection came from,” Dan said.

It pretty much stopped there, or lay dormant, until HemisFair ’68 and the popular show Laterna Magika in which multiple Kodak carousels projected lively artistic imagery.

“He went to R.J. Cassell, the producer, and said he wanted to know everything about it. That’s the catalyst for all this,” said Dan, sweeping his arm around the collection of projectors, some in themselves works of art. “After he retired from USAA, he went full-time into collecting and it led him to every corner of the world.”

His travels yielded magic lanterns from Japan, used in the 1600s, and all over Europe and the United States. The Castle features a life-size vignette of a Victorian-era family watching a magic lantern show in their King William parlor. 

“He was the go-to guy for people wanting to sell slides and magic lanterns all over the world,” said Anne Alexander, a retired art and antiques appraiser who sought slides for him.

Considered the grandfather of motion pictures, magic lanterns project hand-painted glass slide images of goblins, ghosts, exotic lands, and phantasmagorias affordable at first only to royalty and aristocrats, later to itinerant storytellers. Eventually they were used in scientific research, classrooms, lodges, and even as playthings for children, though mortally dangerous to ignite.

They even reported the news.

“He has slides showing election results when Lincoln became president,” said friend and colleague Bruce Shackelford, South Texas heritage curator at the Witte Museum.

Judson’s derring-do deserves slides of its own. Early in his collecting, Judson and his son dashed to St. Louis where an old movie theater was about to be demolished. Standing in the snow and “freezing my toosh off,” Dan rushed to the sixth floor projection room as the wrecking ball flew.

“I threw wads of twenties out the window and yelled for the workers to come help me,” Dan recalled. “They came up and we took all the pieces of the old projector apart and lowered it out the window by ropes and saved this piece from destruction. It’s the only one known and is fully operable.”

While some people see old projection devices as junk, Dan said, magic lanterns in his father’s collection have been loaned to the Vatican, the Museum of Natural Science in London, the Smithsonian Institution, and other museums. The Witte Museum has presented two exhibits of the collection and asked Judson to give innumerable demonstration lectures.

Judson’s collecting entailed learning about history and cultures, but history was also part of his DNA as a member of a family with deep roots in South Texas. 

His father, Jack Judson Sr., and his three brothers owned Judson Candy Company, a favorite school trip destination for many a local child in its heyday. He served as mayor of Alamo Heights for 20 years and its nature trails bear his name.

Shackelford said Jack Jr. has given the Witte Museum items from his family ranch and trading post, located between San Antonio and New Braunfels, from the time of the Texas Republic.

It was Judson who arranged for the podium used in San Antonio by President John F. Kennedy the day before he was assassinated to go to the Witte Museum.

County Commissioner Nelson Wolff and Jack Judson show proclamations upon the presentation of President Kennedy’s podium, which Judson arranged.
County Commissioner Nelson Wolff and Jack Judson show proclamations upon the presentation of President Kennedy’s podium, which Judson arranged. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

“Jack and I spent a lot of time together,” Shackelford said. “He advised me in collecting and exhibits, and he knows San Antonio politics in and out. In the last days of his life, I spent six or seven hours with him writing down things I wanted to know.”

Judson’s counsel also was an asset to McDermott, she said. When she became president and CEO in 2004, one of the first things she did was ask him to serve on the board.

Understanding the importance of collections, “the soul of the museum,” as he called them, he built a collection committee and advocated for a research center, apart from the museum, that would give visitors and professionals access to the Witte’s collection of 300,000-plus artifacts. In 2014, the B. Naylor Morton Collection Center opened next door to the Witte. 

“Jack was instrumental in helping us decide to do that,” McDermott said. “It was so thrilling to work with him because he really raised the bar. I relied on him very much as a mentor. He was a giant at the Witte.”

In thanks, McDermott once gave him a jar of pickles because he’s the one she would call when she got into a pickle, she said, knowing he would come up with a diplomatic strategy for moving ahead. 

“He walked through life on a series of lily pads,” his son mused about his peripatetic interests. “You never knew if he was going to slide off one. But when he found a lily pad he really liked, that’s when he’d embrace something. His collection of magic lanterns is purely accidental, but in terms of distilling information about the times down to this exact focused science – that’s pretty extraordinary.”

Jack Judson demonstrates two types of magic lanterns in a lecture at the Witte Museum.
Jack Judson demonstrates two types of magic lanterns in a lecture at the Witte Museum. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.