Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Laserium: 40th Anniversary

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

Today (November 19) marks the 40th anniversary of the musical concert set to laser lights known as Laserium, once seen in many planetaria worldwide, including Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center). As Laserium is considered the first on-going laser show that was not part of a special or one-time event, it is also thought that Laserium launched the international laser display industry.

The first Laserium laser-light concert took place in the Griffith Observatory Planetarium, on a high hill in Griffith Park above the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, on 1973 November 19, produced by the new company known as Laser Images of Van Nuys, California. Laserium concerts went on to be shown in 46 other locations worldwide (and viewed by more than 20 million people), including in Buhl Planetarium's 425-seat Theater of the Stars four years later in the Summer of 1977. Taking advantage of scientifically-rooted entertainment programs in a scientifically-oriented venue, Laserium provided planetaria with new programming (mostly at night, after the conclusion of the day's last planetarium show, or when some planetaria were normally closed), a new and younger audience base, and a new revenue stream.

Apparently, there was some debate among Buhl Planetarium officials, as to whether to host Laserium at Buhl Planetarium. The late John Miller, who was Buhl Planetarium Floor Manager during the 1960s and 1970s, recalled an incident shortly following the conclusion of a Buhl Foundation Board of Directors meeting, which had been held in Buhl Planetarium's second-floor Library in late 1976 or early 1977. In Buhl Planetarium's first-floor Great Hall, near the entrance to the east staircase leading to the Library and also to the Astronomical Observatory, Buhl Planetarium Executive Director Carl F. Wapiennik was speaking with Buhl Foundation Board member (representing the City of Pittsburgh, as a then-member of Pittsburgh City Council; he is now a Judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Orphans Court Division) Frank J. Lucchino. As John Miller remembered it, Frank Lucchino said to Carl Wapiennik, in no uncertain terms, "You get that Laserium!"

Buhl Planetarium began, on 1977 July 14, showing Laserium six nights a week, except Monday evening when Buhl was normally closed. By 1982, Laserium was shown Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings each week (as Buhl was now closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights), as well as a family-oriented Laserium concert on weekend afternoons.

Evening shows were usually scheduled at 8:00, and 9:15 Thursday through Sunday, with additional shows at 10:30 and at 11:45 or midnight on Friday and Saturday. Weekend matinees were scheduled at 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays and at 3:00 p.m. on Sundays. During the Christmas holidays, a holiday-themed laser show was offered on weekends and also at 3:00 p.m. during the extended holiday hours of Christmas week.

In the first fiscal year of Laserium operation at Buhl Planetarium, 1977-1978, 119,308 people attended a Laserium concert; of this number, 118,150 were paid admissions. Additionally, 4,448 students in 75 school group visits also attended Laserium.

In the late 1980s, Laserium ticket prices were $5 for adults and $3.50 for children ages 3 to 12 for evening shows. Prices for family matinees (usually on weekends and during holiday periods) were $3.85 for adults and $2.50 for children ages 3 to 12. There was no special price for senior citizens. People could call a special pre-recorded telephone message (different from the regular Buhl Planetarium pre-recorded activities messages) to learn of each week's concerts including times and prices, at 412-321-5554.

A Laserium exhibit, explaining the science of lasers, was also displayed in Buhl Planetarium's Great Hall, near the entrance to the Theater of the Stars, for several years. 

The Laserium staff at Buhl Planetarium consisted of two people. The person operating the Laser projector (which was installed adjacent to the planetarium control console) was known as the Laserist. At Buhl Planetarium, the primary Laserist was Jon Hanson Shisler, who simply used Jon Hanson as his stage name. There were several other part-time Laserists, often regular Buhl Planetarium employees, who performed a Laserium concert when Jon Hanson had a day-off.

Unlike other types of shows, including some planetarium shows, Laserium shows are not pre-recorded. The Laserist manipulates the laser and performs the show, live, at the time of the presentation. The multicolored laser light is choreographed to the pre-recorded music, usually rock-and-roll songs for young people in the evening shows. However, the family matinee shows often included classical music and holiday-themed music.

The second staff member was the Star Pilot, the person who operated Buhl's historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector (and sometimes other planetarium special effects projectors), to display a star field during the Laserium concerts. It is believed that the position title of "Star Pilot" originated at Buhl Planetarium. Usually Buhl technicians or planetarium lecturers were Star Pilots for these shows.

Of course, regular Buhl Planetarium ticket cashiers sold tickets for Laserium. Buhl Floor Aides took the tickets at the Planetarium entrance, as well as seating latecomers with a red-lighted flashlight, entering from the side exits. A Buhl Floor Aide often sat-in on each concert, to ensure that there were no problems in the Planetarium, Buhl Planetarium paid for a City police officer, on special detail for Laserium, to be on-site during all evening Laserium concerts, to ensure security of the staff and patrons.

As an entertainment program, it was necessary for Buhl Planetarium to charge City of Pittsburgh Amusement Tax for each Laserium ticket, which was not necessary for Buhl's planetarium and other science education programs. Usually, this tax was hidden in the overall ticket price.

At that time, the City Amusement Tax was ten percent of the ticket price. The City Amusement Tax was cut in half, with the formation of the Allegheny Regional Asset District (ARAD) in 1994, which used half of the proceeds of a new one-percent sales and use tax levied in Allegheny County to help fund museums, libraries, sports stadia, and other cultural entities or "regional assets." Prior to the formation of ARAD, Buhl Planetarium had been subsidized by the City and County governments, sporadically.

As planetarium shows could be scheduled for school groups at Buhl Planetarium, Laserium shows could also be scheduled for the school students to see. To avoid charging schools the City Amusement Tax, Buhl Planetarium added an educational segment, which explained the science of lasers and their many uses, at the beginning of each school group Laserium concert.

Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh and his family visited Buhl Planetarium on 1984 May 25 to see Laserium. The Governor had been invited that evening by Buhl Science Center President Joshua C. Whetzel, Jr., who was lobbying for state funding for construction of a new science center building on the North Shore of the Ohio River, across from Downtown Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did provide significant funding ($17 million of $40 million cost) for this project, which resulted in construction of The Carnegie Science Center.

That Friday evening, the Governor and his family attended the 9:15 p.m. Laserium performance. As the Governor's wife, Ginny, entered Buhl first, she was almost charged the regular ticket price, as the ticket cashier did not recognize her.

At that time, Buhl Planetarium's exhibit galleries closed to the public on Friday evenings at 9:30 p.m. So, since the Laserium show lasted about an hour, the Governor and his family, normally, would not have been able to see any Buhl exhibits after the show.

However, one Buhl exhibit (located in the Great Hall close to the building entrance), by necessity, actually operated 24 /7 /365: the BioCorner Embryology Exhibit, where chicks (and occasionally ducklings) were hatched in front of visitors' eyes every weekend and displayed in brooders the rest of the week. So, when the Governor and his family left the Theater of the Stars after the Laserium show, the SpaceWatchtower blog author, Glenn A. Walsh (who had created the exhibit a year earlier and was Curator of the exhibit), suggested that they visit the BioCorner exhibit before leaving Buhl Planerarium.

Josh Whetzel (who had originated the concept of a Buhl embryology exhibit, after seeing a similar exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry) agreed with this suggestion, and the Governor and his family spent the next ten minutes viewing the exhibit and petting, feeding, and holding the young chicks. This exhibit was of particular interest to the Governor's son, Peter, who has physical and intellectual disabilities.

While Laserium began the laser entertainment industry in 1973, competitors soon followed. Laserium continued performing shows at Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory until 2002. According to Laser Images, Laserium was the longest running theatrical attraction in the history of Los Angeles. Today, Laserium is shown at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, and Laserium recently returned to the St. Louis Science Center. Laserium also offers shows at their Van Nuys studios on select dates, and they continue to perform laser shows at special events.

On 1987 October 1, Buhl Science Center management decided to begin showing laser shows from a newer company, Audio Visual Imagineering (AVI) with Laserist John McLeroy.

According to a news article in the 1987 October 1 issue of The Pittsburgh Press, Buhl Media Relations Assistant Mary Pat McCarthy said, "AVI is developing newer shows. They're on the cutting edge of the laser world. It just seemed to be more up-to-date." The news report also stated that the AVI laser to be used at Buhl Planetarium was a krypton laser, "about four times as powerful as Laserium's" according to Mr. McLeroy.

However, change in laser companies again came to Buhl Planetarium, when Laser Fantasy International (LFI) started showing laser shows in the Theater of the Stars on 1990 March 15. According to an article in the "Weekender" section of that day's issue of The Pittsburgh Press, Laser Fantasy would use "precision beam technology of the 5-watt Argon laser and the 1.5-watt Krypton laser."

Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), which had opened as America's fifth major planetarium on 1939 October 24, closed permanently to general public visitation on 1991 August 31. The new Carnegie Science Center, with a new Henry Buhl Jr., Planetarium and Observatory, opened a mile away, on the North Shore of the Ohio River, on 1991 October 5.

The original Buhl Planetarium building was then designated  the Allegheny Square Annex of The Carnegie Science Center, a tutorial center for Science Center science and computer classes, as well as teacher professional development programs (as The Carnegie Science Center was purposely designed without classrooms). However, in a budget-cutting move, the original Buhl Planetarium building was completely closed (despite protests of this author) in February of 1994. Space was, then, renovated on The Carnegie Science Center's third floor for classrooms.

The original Buhl Planetarium building, today, is part of a complex used by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. The complex also includes the historic 1897 original main post office for the City of Allegheny (which merged with the City of Pittsburgh in 1907) and a modern "Nightlight" building which connects the two historic structures. The Children's Museum is now, also, considering reuse of America's first publicly-funded Carnegie Library building, next-door, which was abandoned by The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (also protested by this author) after lightning struck the clock tower in 2006 (even though the City completely repaired the damages to the building).

Laser shows continue to be shown at The Carnegie Science Center. While they were shown in the Omnimax Theater in the first few years of the new Science Center's operation, they are now shown in the 156-seat Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium. The laser shows are now operated by The Carnegie Science Center, using equipment built by Laser Fantasy International. According to the Science Center web site, the new laser technology, which uses less electricity than previous laser systems and does not require flowing water for cooling, will save approximately 300,000 gallons of water and more than 30,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year (which represents approximately 500,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emmissions).

November 19 marks another anniversary for Buhl Planetarium. On the evening of 1941 November 19, Buhl Planetarium's third-floor Astronomical Observatory (originally known as The People's Observatory) opened to the general public with the dedication of the rather unique 10-inch Siderostat-type Refractor Telescope. Noted Astronomer Harlow Shapley, then Director of the Harvard College Observatory, gave the keynote address. First light through the telescope was the ringed-planet Saturn.

The same evening a new planetarium show premiered, titled "Bombers by Starlight," on celestial navigation. And, in the lower-level Octagon Gallery a new exhibit opened, titled, "Can America Be Bombed?" This was two and one-half weeks before the surprise Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii !

Early History of Laserium at Buhl Planetarium:
Link to first page >>> http://buhlplanetarium2.tripod.com/BuhlAnnualRpt1979-80p24.JPG
Link to second page >>> http://buhlplanetarium2.tripod.com/BuhlAnnualRpt1979-80p25.JPG

More on Laserium:
Link 1 >>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laserium
Link 2 >>> http://www.laserium.com/

More on Buhl Planetarium's historic Theater of the Stars:
Link >>> http://buhlplanetarium3.tripod.com/BuhlZeissII.htm

More on Buhl Planetarium's BioCorner Embryology Exhibit:
Link >>> http://buhlplanetarium4.tripod.com/biocorner/historybiocorner.html  

More on Buhl Planetarium's historic Astronomical Observatory:
Link >>> http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/2011/11/70th-anniversary-buhl-planetarium.html

Special Thanks: Sharon Shanks, Planetarian Editor, and Scott Anderson, Laserium.

Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.

Related Blog Post ---

Former Buhl Science Center President Dies - Joshua C. Whetzel, Jr. (2012 Jan. 29):
Link >>> http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/2012/01/buhl-science-ctr.html
Want to receive SpaceWatchtower blog posts in your inbox ?
Send request to < spacewatchtower@planetarium.cc >..


Glenn A. Walsh, Project Director,
Friends of the Zeiss < http://buhlplanetarium.tripod.com/fotz/ >
Electronic Mail - < gawalsh@planetarium.cc >
About the SpaceWatchtower Editor/Author: < http://buhlplanetarium.tripod.com/#GAW >
SpaceWatchtower Blog: < http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/ >
Also see: South Hills Backyard Astronomers Blog: < http://shbastronomers.blogspot.com/ >
< http://buhlplanetarium.tripod.com/#news >
Twitter: < https://twitter.com/spacewatchtower >
Facebook: < http://www.facebook.com/pages/SpaceWatchtower/238017839577841?sk=wall >
Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
* Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh:
  < http://www.planetarium.cc >
* Adler Planetarium, Chicago:
  < http://adlerplanetarium.tripod.com >
* Astronomer, Educator, Optician John A. Brashear:
  < http://johnbrashear.tripod.com >
* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries:
  < http://www.andrewcarnegie.cc >
* Civil War Museum of Andrew Carnegie Free Library:
  < http://garespypost.tripod.com >
* Duquesne Incline cable-car railway, Pittsburgh:
  < http://inclinedplane.tripod.com >
* Public Transit:
  < http://andrewcarnegie2.tripod.com/transit >