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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Star Attraction
Despite its lofty locale and educational ambitions, the Griffith Observatory can't completely rise above Los Angeles and its showbiz ways. Nor should it try to.

By Mark Kendall

The Griffith Observatory sits on a perfect perch overlooking Los Angeles, offering striking views of a city that certainly enjoys looking at itself. But even with its grandly domed architecture and exalted setting, this civic icon never looks down on the city it belongs to. The Griffith plays right along.

Visitors catch a glimpse of James Dean before they even reach the observatory's entrance. A bust of the Rebel Without a Cause actor is set in an outdoor spot that makes it easy to include in photos with the famous Hollywood sign, which looms on a nearby mountainside. Rebel is the most famous of the many movies shot here, though a close second would have to be 1984's The Terminator, which opens with a cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger strutting around the observatory grounds in the buff.

Along with its role in movies, the observatory holds an equally enviable position when it comes to L.A.'s other obsession: real estate. Set upon a bluff in the city's largest park, the observatory can be seen from throughout much of the Los Angeles basin on a clear day. "Its location means we have this extraordinary advantage over similar sorts of institutions. We don't advertise. Everybody knows the place," says Griffith director Edwin Krupp '66, who has guided the observatory for more than 30 years. "It is on the best piece of public observatory real estate in the world."

But for a recent stretch of nearly five years, the observatory was out of the picture, closed for a $93 million renovation that dug out 40,000 square feet of new space beneath it and added spiffy new celestial exhibitions. The observatory's centerpiece planetarium-and the show that plays in it-was completely revamped, and a second theatre added, named for donor Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame. Expanded amenities include a new cafe operated by -- of course --Wolfgang Puck.

The project was a big deal for L.A. Krupp remembers taking city bigwigs on a preview tour-the Griffith literally belongs to Los Angeles-and as Krupp recalls, energetic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took him aside, put his arm around him and whispered in Krupp's ear: "Get it done." While overseeing the frantic finishing touches, Krupp was fielding interviews from national media, from Newsweek to The Associated Press, and training new staff, all while coordinating a flurry of events. The re-opening festivities culminated with October's "Galactic Gala," with a guest list thick with local politicians and celebrities such as Nimoy, Angela Bassett, Loni Anderson, Shirley Jones and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, to name a handful. And while the celebs have long since scattered, the pace of activity has yet to return to pre-renovation levels.

Though the renovation and its aftermath have placed great demands on Krupp, they also have left him with an even deeper sense of the observatory's place in L.A. life. "I have lived through the experience of all of the elements of the community laying their claim on the building when it reopened," he says. "And those claims are laid in a variety of ways. They're not bad: 'I want to be there when this happens, I want to do this.' Some of them were wonderful." Shortly before the ribbon cutting, he got a request from a woman who was present at the observatory's 1935 grand opening. She wanted to be invited to the re-opening. "Are you kidding?"' says Krupp. "Of course we'll invite her. She had a fair claim."

Southern Californians' "claims" on the observatory often are established in childhood, as some 50,000 school kids visit on field trips every year. "It is difficult to talk to anyone who has spent any time in Los Angeles and find that they do not remember their first visit to Griffith Observatory," says Krupp. "Usually those people remember a trip on a school bus."

 Childhood visits, Krupp says, have a long-term impact, even if it's usually not a deep one. "The observatory never was intended and shouldn't be thought of as a place to have a deep impact on people's knowledge and background. I mean, that's why you go to college," says Krupp. "The observatory's real genius is, in fact, inspiring people to do the next thing, whatever that might be. And so these moments where people come, say as part of a school group and experience the place ... there's that little part of their life and their mind (that) has been affected. The ripple of that you can never, ever assess."

One of those riding the ripples is 75-year-old Robert Branch, who remembers visiting the observatory as a 12-year-old Boy Scout in 1944. That got him hooked. From the end of World War II until about 1950, he took in a planetarium show every month. "It was almost a religious experience to sit under that dome, have it darken, and then see the night sky projected onto the ceiling," says Branch, who has long been involved in the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers.

For his part, Krupp talks of Angelenos making the "pilgrimage" up that winding mountain to the place that puts earth, sky and L.A. in a different perspective. Astronomy, he says, "prompts the big questions and those big questions invite curiosity. Curiosity then leads to a quest for more accurate descriptions of nature. And more accurate descriptions of nature are a demonstrated tool of survival. We're simply engaged in an age-old human enterprise, which is getting alert and ... assimilating and synthesizing and analyzing."

But if the observatory is some sort of Cosmic Cathedral, Krupp takes a decidedly low-pressure, just-glad-you-came approach to his parishioners. This is not a city overrun with people waiting tables and tending bar until they get their big break in astronomy. Krupp knows that prior to the renovation, about half of visitors didn't even set foot inside, content to gaze upon L.A. from this lofty site, "which is fine," he says. Krupp, though, isn't above using a little showbiz savvy to draw those eyes inside.

Sure, in his first weeks working here, as a grad student at UCLA, he detested giving the planetarium shows, which didn't fit into his view of "Serious Science." But by his third week, Krupp had succumbed to "the smell of the grease paint, the roar of the crowd."

Now he revels in that showman's role. Wearing loud star-themed ties and dispensing pithy quotes-he has long called the observatory the "hood ornament of Los Angeles"-Krupp is often recognized by repeat visitors as he strides around the museum, and he has been known to give his share of impromptu talks. At the observatory, "performance goes on every day," he says. "And it's always a delight to me."

Krupp keeps honing the show. His goal is for the Griffith to reach the point where a visitor can't walk through the place without encountering a guide talking to a group of people. "I'm not talking about a docent," he says. "I'm talking about entertainment and showmanship." Krupp recently came across one of his guides giving a spontaneous talk to a group of visitors as they waited in line to enter the planetarium show. Afterwards, the group broke into applause. Perfect. That's just what Krupp is looking for.

On to the main event: The centerpiece of a Griffith visit is the planetarium show, movie magic projected onto the observatory's dome, accompanied by live narration by actors. Ann Hassett, the veteran TV producer brought in to help create the new show, was worried at first about what sort of reception she would receive from the astronomers about "this not being your boring, old-fashioned science film." But those concerns were quickly quelled. "Everyone wanted this to be a unique experience for the viewer ... not a science lecture."

Shh. The show is starting. The actress narrating the presentation holds aloft a glowing orb as she begins the story. Audience members lean back and watch the domed ceiling fill with images. To swelling music, they take in the breathtaking flashes of stars and galaxies-the Big Bang is a blast to watch-but they also meet several historical figures. The story takes viewers from Ptolemy to Galileo and beyond, seeking to inspire young people by putting a human face on astronomy. The script seeks to pique interest in the big questions: "Who are we? Why are we here? Why is the world the way it is?"

When it's over, and the audience is filing out, Gina Grubbs and her teenage nephew Jonathan Hall are overheard marveling at the production. "That woman was good at storytelling," says Grubbs. They gush on after being approached for an interview. "She (the narrator) kept me captivated through the whole thing," says Hall, a 16-year-old from Yucaipa who plans to become a mechanic. "It's interesting how they make it all real and stuff."

Rave reviews for an astronomy show? From a backwards-cap-wearing teenager? That's right. At the Griffith, celestial stars and the Tinseltown kind don't collide. They work side by side. They conspire.

Griffith Facts

Whether serving as a field-trip magnet, make-out spot or movie backdrop, the Griffith Observatory is one of Southern California's most beloved institutions. And even if you've never visited the observatory, you've almost certainly seen the place on the silver screen. Here's the lowdown on this lofty attraction:

The backstory: After making his fortune in mining, "Colonel" Griffith J. Griffith in 1896 donated more than 3,000 acres to the city of Los Angeles for a park, with plans for a railway whisking visitors to its highest peak. Then came trouble: Griffith shot his wife in the head in 1903. She survived, permanently disfigured. After a sensational trial and "alcoholic insanity" defense, Griffith spent about two years in prison. Griffith then set out to do right, crusading for prison reform and donating funds for an observatory and Greek theatre to be built in the park. He died in 1919, long before the Griffith Observatory's 1935 opening.

The setting: The observatory is perched at 1,135 feet on a bluff along the south slope of Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park, which encompasses more than 4,200 acres and also is home to the Los Angeles Zoo, the Greek Theater and the Museum of the American West. Originally, the observatory was to be built at the very top of Mt. Hollywood at 1,640 feet, but that proved impractical. In subsequent years, though, there were many failed proposals to build on that higher ground for other purposes, ranging from a revolving restaurant to a star-shaped Hollywood Hall of Fame with aerial tramway. A fire in early May burned more than 800 acres in Griffith Park.

The flicks: Even before the observatory opened to the public in 1935, film crews arrived to shoot scenes for the Gene Autry sci-fi western serial Phantom Empire. The Griffith served as the palace of Ming the Merciless in the 1930s Flash Gordon serials and is entwined into the plot of 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. More recent films shot here include The Terminator (1984), Dragnet (1987), the Rocketeer (1991), Bowfinger (1999) and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003).

The renovation: The museum closed from January 2002 until November 2006 for a $93 million expansion and makeover. Crews carved out 40,000 square feet of new space beneath it. Additions include a 200-seat theatre, classroom, cafe and 60 new exhibitions. New attractions include The Big Picture: a 152-feet-long by 20-feet-high image showing more than a million stars, galaxies and other celestial objects. The planetarium has been revamped with plushier seating and a new show, "Centered in the Universe." One caveat: limited parking-that perennial L.A. plague-means that, as of press time, reservations for off-site parking and a shuttle ride to the observatory are required.

Sources: Professor Mike Eberts of Glendale Community College, and Edwin Krupp '66 of Griffith Observatory, www.griffithobs.org.
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