Pure Energy

(Photos by Timothy Norris)

(Photos by Timothy Norris)

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 anything during 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.”

Everyone except the observatory’s stodgy director, who declined Dryer’s offer. Dryer wound up getting some good practice combining his new technology with the spirit of the times when he signed on to shoot concerts and do laser effects for a movie called Medicine Ball Caravan, a Woodstock-like travel documentary by French director Francois Reichenbach that chronicled the tour of Alice Cooper, B.B. King and the Youngbloods. (The film retains some cult cachet today, less for its laser visuals than the fact that it was edited by a young Martin Scorsese.)

Once recovered from that odyssey, Dryer got a second crack at Griffith Observatory, which in 1973 hired William Kaufman, at 28 the youngest director in the institution’s history. Hipper than his predecessor and interested in attracting a new audience, Kaufman gave Dryer a trial run in the dome. Dryer and his partner, Charlie MacDonald, borrowed a krypton laser, a full-color machine capable of putting out reds and violets so deep they’re just this side of invisible.

“We finished building the system at 5 in the morning the day of the show,” Dryer said. “We went on a radio show later on that day. Other than that, there was little promotion. On the first night we were mostly full. By the end of the four-day trial run, we had to turn away 500 people.”

This was when DVDs or Lasik surgery would have been science fiction. Before revolutionizing communications, medicine, measurement, energy and electronics, lasers were lighting up Emerson, Lake and Palmer at Griffith Observatory. The Laserium was, in fact, the first commercial use of lasers. And it took off.

When he was 3, Dryer attended the premiere of Fantasia in San Francisco, so it’s perhaps fitting that he found himself the impresario of an audiovisual extravaganza. Also a fan of 2001 (which he’s seen 20-some times), Dryer says that much of the early Laserium programs were inspired by Kubrick’s visual approach to music (and musical approach to visuals). Dryer used the music from 2001’s colored-light sequence beyond the monolith, and maintains that their most memorable Laserium piece mirrored the space ballet set to Blue Danube.

“I prefer classical, so we played Strauss, Respighi and Copland,” Dryer said. But he and his partners quickly realized that “psychedelic music just goes well with the Laserium.” Pink Floyd seemed to really do the trick. “The first program was before Dark Side of the Moon came out, so we used Meddle. The finale was Echoes. And that just got people in the right mood.”

Laseria appeared in cities all over the world, from Athens to Rio to Tel Aviv. “There were also competitors doing knockoff shows in more locations,” Dryer said. And movies like The Black Hole and American Pop incorporated Laserium effects. Eventually, Dryer even met Pink Floyd; while installing their London show, Dryer and his staff gave a command performance for Roger Waters, who gave his official approval for the show, which went on to three sold-out months.

“I had no idea how popular this would be,” Dryer said. “It was supposed to be temporary and wound up as a career. As many as 20 million people have leaned back and watched the sky light up to music.” What made that experience so popular? Dryer thinks it’s something about the fundamental appeal of light: “The quality of that light triggers something in the brain, I think. It gets into the limbic system” — the central neurological structure where the passions reside — “and stirs things up. The light and the music trigger our deepest emotions.”

Since Pythagoras’ “music of the spheres” there have been theories about color and music working a pre-intellectual, pre-verbal magic on the human mind. The idea that the lighted paths of planetary bodies created a sidereal harmony of sublime music was picked up later by mystically minded mathematicians, like Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler and the Jesuit scientist Louis-Bertrand Castel. To realize the synthesis of color and music, Castel created the ocular harpsichord, which displayed pieces of stained glass along with corresponding keys for tone. Color and music are, after all, both fundamentally mathematical phenomena, and Castel thought that they represented a harmonic system at the root of the universe.

Following Castel came a variety of devices of increasing complexity: the kaleidoscope in 1816; Bainbridge Bishop’s pipe-organ attachment that synchronized colored lights with music in 1876; British painter Alexander Wallace Rimington’s Clavier à lumières in 1895, which attracted the attention of Richard Wagner, as well as the synesthetic composer Alexander Scriabin, who constructed a similar “keyboard of light” for the 1915 New York performance of his audiovisual work Prometheus: Poem of Fire.

Directly inspiring the Laserium was the work of Thomas Wilfred, a Danish-born artist who first created what he called “lumia” — shifting, organic, nebula-like light shapes from contraptions using conventional light sources and defracting optics — as early as 1909. Wilfred, a theosophist, called his mystical machine the Clavilux, and his series of light-based artworks were inducted, along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, into posterity by way of MoMA in the “16 Americans” show in the early ’50s. Two decades later, when Dryer visited Dr. Garmire’s office, what so captivated him were the “undulating clouds of light” created by a homemade lumia wheel Garmire had built to work with her lasers.

“So we went to work here creating our own lumia wheels,” Dryer explained as we continued our tour of the studios. Dryer and his partners built their own molds, cast their own plastic, and experimented with materials. “We built them custom, trying to find different interference patterns. It’s been a constant process of development.”

If there’s a slight mad-scientist atmosphere at Laser Images Inc., it’s at its strongest inside the equipment room, where the greenish-white beam of the ?????Coherent Sabre PLD argon/krypton laser casts its suggestive glow in the darkness. “See the beam splitting?” Dryer asked as we stepped closer. “Part of it goes to another room to power the projector in the second studio.” The 5-foot-long device, 5,000 degrees inside, requires continuous water cooling. A 480-volt, three-phase plug in the wall is giant, the size of a gorilla’s fist, and is connected to the laser with a two-inch-thick cable. It hums. And at full power would burn skin instantaneously. I half expected Walter Peck, the EPA official from Ghostbusters, to show up and demand to shut the whole thing down. And what is the magic word, Dr. Venkman?

Instead, Ben, one of Dryer’s laserists, stepped in to explain the projector. “We do it all with smoke and mirrors,” he says. “The beam is broken into four colors, then routed to mirrors.” A fiber-optic cable carries the signal to the two projectors at the front and back of the room where the show is staged. At the projectors, the lumia wheels, mirror balls, reflective wheels and various other servo-driven optical devices create the effects we’ve all seen orchestrated to psychedelic tunes on a Saturday night. Laser Images sells retail models of projectors like these for between $60,000 and $250,000.

When I asked about the original equipment from Griffith Observatory, Dryer lamented that it’s in the warehouse — in parts. “It got rusted in their storage. That was very disappointing,” he said. “It was the most sophisticated laser projector in the world, and now it’s in the boneyard.” Ben added that he misses some of the effects we could do with that one. “The raster scans and modulated color fields.”

The ignominious end of the observatory projector came after a steady decline, as laser shows went from counter-culture to cultural background noise to tragic cliché. Updated music lists, including some questionable forays like the Lollapalaser Experience — “Them Bones,” by Alice in Chains? — did not stop the slide. With most projectors put to less glamorous work at corporate events, parties and Smash Mouth concerts at Irvine Amphitheater, there’s still business, just not the show business Dryer would prefer. After Griffith Observatory closed, there was a brief stint at Cal State Northridge’s planetarium, but that didn’t work out. “Eventually,” Dryer said, “we decided to do them here. In fact, the show’s about to start.”

After a demonstration of a side project called LightDancer, a fairly ingenious audiovisual karaoke contraption where a participant’s body movements create improvisational melodies and visuals to any tune, we filed into the main studio for the Beatles show. An assortment of worn thrift-store sofas faced the wall. Smoke drifted around. It seemed sad how far the Laserium has come from its 600-seat Art Deco home atop Mount Hollywood, although at the same time there was a certain charm to the place — as the ultimate stoner’s living room.

The show started. It opened with “Twist and Shout” ?and hit about a half dozen poppy early Beatles tunes before “Tomorrow Never Knows” came on and made the Beatles’ first psychedelic invitation to “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.” The lasers worked their vivid way around the room in time with the rest of the usual suspects: “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life.” The end was, of course, “The End.” Laid back under the lasers, the large Mexican family that made up the rest of the audience loved it start to finish. Even the younger kids, all born a decade into the postscreensaver generation, raised on sophisticated computer graphics from all directions, and surely not recalling the forgotten time when you had to go somewhere and pay a ticket to be entertained by light, left with smiles on their faces.

Dryer hopes to re-create that time by relocating the Laserium to yet the grandest location of them all: the former Spruce Goose dome in Long Beach. “We’re working out a deal with them right now,” he told me after the show. The 415-foot-diameter geodesic dome, the largest in the world, has been mostly empty since the Spruce Goose moved to Oregon in 1995. “We’ve got a lease to use 60 percent of the dome for our new show. That’s 1,500 to 2,100 people we can accommodate!” An ambitious plan, perhaps, considering the recent fortunes of the Laserium, but stoners citywide can rejoice, because Dryer’s never one to be discouraged. “We’re opening in January. We’ll have the regular laser show, and the LightDancer. And shows with live music. We’re working with a tribute called Led Zepplica. They sound incredible. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

See for show information.