By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the beginning, there was only light. Then inflation kicked in, and that light energy condensed and cooled into the matter that formed the stars, planets, nebulae and other heavenly bodies that illuminate the firmament. This we learn in planetarium shows, like the one projected onto the interior of the dome theater at Griffith Observatory. Then there’s that other power of light we learn about at the observatory — the kind you discover if you stick around for the late show, when the academic astronomy is over and the Laserium kicks in, turning that same dome into a kaleidoscopic display of colorful beams and patterns set to music, and the eager audience, admonished against “smoking of anythingduring the performance,” explores the universe in a whole different way.
Or so it used to be. In 2002, when the observatory closed for its $93 million renovation, the Laserium lost its home of nearly three decades. To the surprise of many, when the observatory reopened last month, the Laserium didn’t. A tragic loss, as it is a little-known fact that Griffith Observatory was the very first venue for what became an iconic pastime for a generation of stoned high-schoolers.
That venue was also its last. The once-pervasive Laserium phenomenon, having peaked in 1978 at 46 locations, was then besieged by the unlucky combination of market forces, technology’s onward march, changing tastes and the Reagan era. The final public Laserium was clinging to life at its birthplace until the Observatory Renovation Committee unilaterally decided to exclude the extracurricular show from its grand plans.
“Remember,” said Dr. E.C. Krupp, the current director of the observatory, when I asked him about the Laserium, “our main mission is education, and the Laserium was not so much educational as entertaining.” Apparently Dr. Krupp is unfamiliar with the educational benefits of hot-boxing a caravan of cars, winding up the mountain, and then leaning back in the wooden headrests for an aurora-enhanced audiovisual ballet of Dark Side of the Moon at midnight. When I expressed shock that the observatory would abandon such a long-standing program, Dr. Krupp explained, with the slight weariness of a serious professional who’s had to explain the obvious a hundred times too many, that the Laserium was not the observatory’s program to begin with. “The Laserium borrowed the theater for the empty hours after the regular planetarium shows,” he said. “They were always run by an outside party.”
That outside party is Ivan Dryer, creator of the Laserium and founder of Laser Images Inc., which has been based in Van Nuys since 1973. “We’re still kicking,” Dryer said when I reached him at his office. “And working on a new plan to bring the Laserium back to the public.” The old laser and projector equipment from Griffith Observatory, unceremoniously stashed in a basement when renovations began, is back at the Laser Images facility, and when I asked if I could see it, Dryer said, “It’s in pretty bad shape, but you can visit us here — and see a show while you’re at it.” It turns out that Dryer and his crew of laserists and technicians have been putting on small, occasional Laserium performances in a converted studio for the past couple years. “This Saturday is the Beatles, then Pink Floyd, then Led Zeppelin. Come on up!”
Laser Images Inc. operates out of a semi-industrial cluster of buildings near the Van Nuys Airport. The halls are painted with black-light murals of galaxies, and there were smoke machines working at full strength when Dryer showed me around one recent Saturday night. “We have two studios here, one for our main show, and another smaller one,” he said. “And the lasers are back there.” It’s not quite as majestic as the Griffith Observatory overlooking Los Angeles, but to Dryer it feels like home. “This is where we’ve been building projectors since 1974.”
Dryer dreamed up the Laserium a few years earlier, in 1970, the exact right cultural juncture for such an idea to take root. The counterculture was in full swing, and lasers, demonstrated for the first time just a decade earlier in 1960 (in Malibu, no less), were becoming an affordable, commercial technology. Dryer, a former astronomy student turned filmmaker, saw a public laser demonstration and sought out Caltech physicist Elsa Garmire, who was experimenting with the artistic possibilities ?of laser light.
“I was awestruck,” Dryer explained in his conference room. “The laser display was beautiful, and there was backscatter lighting up the equipment room. I set up the camera and couldn’t turn it off.” Dryer filmed the light show with the hope of setting it to music. But lasers are pure color; they emit coherent light in narrow wavelengths. When Dryer’s reels were developed, he realized that film would never be able to capture the color saturation and quality of the original laser light.
Desiring a live show, Dryer contacted the Griffith Observatory, where he had once volunteered as a guide. As a test, Dryer brought in a red helium neon laser, some optical diffusers and a turntable. “We set up, put on Corelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto,’?” recalls Dryer somewhat wistfully, “and hypnotized everyone.”