The William M. Staerkel Planetarium, being a science facility, is going to try an experiment: On the weekend of February 19/20 and again February 26/27, we will offer laser shows in the dome at 9:30 and 10:30pm.
The cost is $8 per person per show, with all tickets being sold at the door. You can find a full lineup of programming if you check out the planetarium website.
Now. some folks may dispute this fact, but this is the first time laser shows have been offered to the public beneath Staerkel’s dome. We’ve come close to it before: Back in 1990, members of the Parkland Astronomy Club met to discuss new projects, and someone mentioned doing a musical show at the planetarium as a fundraiser. We chose Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as the classic soundtrack for the new show. The planetarium staff proposed creating it as a laser show, but the college refused the request, so club members began looking for different ways to depict the show visually.
Developing the First Light Show
One of the items we looked at were light beams. At that time, the planetarium sported 70 computer-controlled slide projectors. By placing a few holes at the bottom of a 35mm slide frame that’s all dark and then putting it through a projector, light would only come out through those holes. Then, with chemical fog in the room, you could see the beams. Turning on several projectors at once made it look like we had a multiple-projector laser system! This was evident during the opening of the song Time, where the clock’s tick-tocks were synced visually using one slide in each panorama projector and only one dot in the corner of each frame. By cross-fading the dots back and forth, we had beams crisscrossing in time to the music.
Our Carl Zeiss star projector looked great in the fog, too. As we spun the machine on its three axes (diurnal, latitude, and precession), you could see all the star beams as they left the machine and headed for the dome, again appearing like laser beams (though they weren’t). The original show’s creator, Chuck Greenwood, used a special projector called a “revealer” to perform a classic prism effect as well. Using a motor, he pulled an occulting frame across the focal plane of the projector, basically revealing from right to left whatever image is placed in the projector. So one regular slide projector projected the prism and the revealer allowed the image of a light beam to appear to enter the prism and split into the classic spectrum. We had to align this effect before every show, mounting the revealer upside down so as to display the image with the correct orientation.
Our Premiere Weekend was Hot…in More Ways than One!
Oddly enough, our light show debut was supposed to have a laser in it! Chuck had bought a laser and built the effects to go with it for the show. It failed literally right before our premiere, so we scrambled to put a short section of film in that spot. That section of film worked so well, it stayed in the show all the way to 2010!
On our opening weekend in May 1990, we sold out all four shows! We even had some “special guests” attend our late show one evening. During the spinning of the Zeiss in one song, we had strobes go off, which was an awesome effect. I told Chuck at the time that those looked really cool. He replied that he didn’t do those! It was the fire alarm! The fog had evidently become too thick, which had set off the alarm. Then we had to convince the audience that this was real. I don’t think the fire department was all that happy to see why they had been summoned.
(Chuck later presented a paper at a regional conference titled “Laser Shows Without Lasers.” It raised a few eyebrows since no one was doing anything like this.)
End of the Light Show Run
Unfortunately, we had to stop doing our light shows (we never advertised them as laser shows) in 2010 when the Staerkel Planetarium went digital. We had to remove all the former slide projectors from the dome, thus making it impossible to do the lightbeam effects. The last light show we did was naturally Dark Side. I had tears in my eyes performing it for the last time. And Chuck flew all the way from Florida to attend the last show. I still have one of the 1990 posters framed in my basement. It had been quite a 20-year run!
Of course, our new Digistar 4 system is phenomenal. We can do so many more things with it than we could with slide projectors … but it won’t play the old shows.
Nearly six years later, I still get asked probably twice a week, “Hey, when are you going to do Floyd again?” The interest that remains for those shows is amazing. This brings us to the last two weekends of February 2016. With the help of Audio Visual Imagineering, we will be renting a laser system for these weekends. And on February 19, night number one of four, I’m insisting on a “Pink Floyd Night.” It will be Dark Side followed by The Wall. True, it won’t be the same show, but it will be nice to hear that classic lineup of songs in the dome, once again. I hope you’ll enjoy it with us!
[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]