Upgrade helps stars shine even brighter at Griffith's planetarium

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Griffith Observatory's Samuel Oschin planetarium has a long history of entertaining and inspiring Angelenos. When it opened in 1935, it was the first of its kind on the west coast. It pioneered shows that transported the audience to new and wondrous places. It's where laser light music shows were born.

Now, after a $2.5 million upgrade, it's once again one of the most advanced domed theaters in the world.

Staff will show off the new planetarium system Monday night, but any visitor can see the changes by attending one of the daily shows.

Thanks to this upgrade, paid for by Friends Of The Observatory and the Ahmanson Foundation, the planetarium is now equipped with a new lighting system and six digital projectors.

Now the dome has what’s called an 8K image, says Observatory curator Laura Danly. The best TVs are around 4K, so shows at Griffith are now incredibly bright and crisp.

"We now see features we never saw," Danly commented. "There’s a loaf of bread on Galileo’s table that we never saw before, there are Roman sentries in Alexandria that we’d never seen before."

There are currently two shows at the Observatory: Centered in the Universe and Water Is Life. Danly says a new show is in development and it will take full advantage of the improved image quality.

 

(This home movies from the Pietsch Collection titled "Black and White Weekend Jaunts," Part I shows the Observatory a few years after it opened to the public.)

 

The planetarium opened to the public when the Observatory was completed in 1935.

"It was an extraordinary novelty," said Ed Krupp, director of the Observatory.

He says at the time movies were black and white, sound was still pretty new and special effects were relatively minimal. So the public was quite impressed by this new space theater.

"After all it was a dome and a theater and this strange instrument that puts stars on the ceiling."

While there were other planetaria, Griffith’s was close to Hollywood. Legend has it this inspired Observatory director Dinsmore Alter to do more than just show the stars.

Krupp says he wanted create experiences that "take people to the moon, take people to Mars, take people around the galaxy."

Using zoom projectors and artist renderings, he developed shows that did just that, and the style caught on.

One such show at Griffith was even immortalized in the 1955 James Dean classic "Rebel Without a Cause."

In the 40s, World War II pilots trained to navigate by the stars there and later so did the Apollo astronauts.

However, by the 1950s and into the '60s, the public's interest in the planetarium waned, in part because of advances in movies and TV, said Krupp.

"Hollywood gets slicker but the planetarium doesn’t," he said.

Fortunately, a new era of show was on its way thanks to a visionary young man named Ivan Dryer.

In 1970, Dryer attended a conference at USC where he saw a demonstration of laser light projections. He fell in love.

Having worked at the Griffith Observatory in the past, he knew the dome would be the perfect place to show off lasers like these. He just had to convince the staff to let him do it.

"Originally they were a little bit reticent about doing it, it took a bit of convincing and time," Dryer recalled.

Eventually, the staff agreed to sit for a preview of lasers set to classical music.

"We sat there for 45 minutes and turned the record over and watched for another 45 minutes. It was so entrancing."

Dryer got the go ahead and soon, shows were selling out.  He formed a company called Laserium and spread the experience around the country.

(Tank by Emerson Lake and Palmer plays in a laser show by Ivan Dryer. This was filmed in 1971 and 1972 in the Cal Tech labs of Dr Elsa Garmire in California.)

When Griffith reopened in 2006 after a major renovation, staff decided it was time to focus solely on space, and the laser shows were left out.

The planetarium switched to digital projectors, which were still pretty new at the time. The old uncomfortable seats were also replaced with more comfortable ones.

Now, almost 10 years later, the planetarium is leveling up once more.

Seven-year-old Mario Lopes of Whittier got to experience the new system one recent evening. It was his first time at the Observatory.

"It was a good movie, it took us to all the planets and showed us how the world, the galaxy was made," he said.

Lopes is just the latest in a very long line of people who got their first brush with space in strange looking building sitting a hill above LA.

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