Thursday, December 25, 2014

75 Years of "Star of Bethlehem" Sky Show at Buhl Planetarium

Three Wise Men approaching Bethlehem, guided by a star.

December marks 75 years after the beginning of the classic, "Star of Bethlehem" planetarium sky drama at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. This traditional, holiday sky show, which provides possible, astronomical explanations for the star that guided the Three Wisemen to the Christ child, has been shown at Buhl Planetarium every Christmas season since 1939, and it is being shown this month at the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium and Observatory at The Carnegie Science Center under the title, "The Christmas Star." This graphic was used to promote the show in Buhl's monthly, public newsletter, during Buhl Planetarium's 50th anniversary in 1989. (Image Source: Friends of the Zeiss)

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower 

When many people think about Astronomy this time of year, they often ponder the one mystery that has yet to be conclusively determined: the actual cause of the The Star of Bethlehem, as described in the Holy Bible of the Christian religion. So, with the invention of the projection planetarium in the 1920s, and the beginning of erection of American planetaria in the 1930s, this automatically became one of the topics of planetarium productions during the Christmas season.

This month marks 75 years since the beginning of a historic, and long-running, annual planetarium sky drama in Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium: The Star of Bethlehem. The Star of Bethlehem, which discusses possible explanations for the star which guided the Magi to the Christ child, has been shown in Buhl Planetarium every Christmas season since 1939.

From 1939 to 1990, this show was shown in the Theater of the Stars of Pittsburgh's original Buhl , Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (1982 to 1991 a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), usually under the title of The Star of Bethlehem. Over the years other titles have been used, such as The Christmas Star, the title now used for this show by the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium and Observatory of The Carnegie Science Center, where the show has been seen since 1991. One year, in the mid-1980s, the show was titled, The Star of Bethlehem Revisited, to emphasize that new scientific information had been added to the show.

When the Buhl Planetarium building was under design in 1937, the needs of The Star of Bethlehem planetarium show were specifically considered. James Stokley, the first Director of Buhl Planetarium, was previously Director of the Fels Planetarium, which had opened with the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1934. For the Fels Planetarium's version of The Star of Bethlehem, special, temporary staging had been erected, so a segment of the show could include a live acting performance.

When the Buhl Planetarium's Theater of the Stars was constructed, it included the world's first permanent theatrical stage in a planetarium theater! Located on the north end of the Planetarium Theater, it could be used as-is, or at the press of a button, the stage could be enlarged, expanding into the Planetarium Theater!

Each year, from 1939 to 1990, Buhl Planetarium staff members and volunteers, in costume from Christ's era, would take turns portraying “Saint Luke” on the planetarium stage. This included Buhl's female staff and volunteers; at a distance, in a darkened planetarium theater and in-costume, the audience could not tell a female was portraying “Saint Luke.” “Saint Luke” was the nickname lovingly given to this character by the staff, even though the character did recite biblical passages from both the Gospel of Saint Luke and the Gospel of Saint Matthew.

During the portrayal, “Saint Luke” would point to the Christmas Star (visible on the planetarium dome, shining above a lit nativity scene visible on scaffolding behind the dome) and use biblical verses to tell the Christmas story to the audience. As many different staff members and volunteers portrayed “Saint Luke” throughout a season of presentations of The Star of Bethlehem, each actor was not expected to memorize lines; the actor simply made appropriate gestures while appearing to lip-synch to a pre-recorded script. Most staff members and volunteers enjoyed portraying “Saint Luke,” as a welcome diversion from their normal duties.

In the beginning, each new planetarium show, including The Star of Bethlehem, ran for a month, with a new show scheduled for the next month. In later years, topical planetarium shows were often scheduled for most of a calendar season, with seasonal star-identification shows (i.e. Stars of Spring, Stars of Summer, Stars of Autumn, Stars of Winter) scheduled for one or two weeks between topical shows. This would give planetarium technicians time to reset slides and other special effects for the next topical planetarium show.

By the 1980s, The Star of Bethlehem ran from the very busy Thanksgiving weekend usually through the first weekend of the New Year (sometimes this included the Feast of Epiphany and Orthodox Christmas). The original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was closed only one day of the year; originally that day was New Year's Day, but by the 1960s management decided to close on Christmas Day and open on New Year's Day.

By the mid-1980s, The Star of Bethlehem was running on weekends and during holiday periods nearly every hour on-the-hour. Previously, the sky show had run during the schedule instituted for shows the rest of the year (2:00 each afternoon, with additional showings at 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. on Fridays, 11:00 a.m. on Saturdays, and 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays). The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (then a.k.a. Buhl Science Center) had, by that time, instituted expanded building hours on weekends and during holiday periods from November through February.

The daily expanded schedule had the building open on Saturdays, and weekdays during holiday periods (Thanksgiving Weekend and the week between Christmas and New Year's Days) from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (on Fridays the astronomical observatory was open until 10:30 p.m., weather-permitting, as usual). On Sundays, the building was open from 12:00 Noon until 9:30 p.m., while the building did close at .5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

Other times of the year, the public hours began at 1:00 p.m. Sunday through Friday (weekday mornings were usually reserved for school groups, although the public usually was not turned-away) and 10:00 a.m. on Saturdays. The building normally closed each day at 5:00 p.m., except on Fridays when it stayed open until 9:30 p.m. (again, on Fridays the astronomical observatory was open until 10:30 p.m., weather-permitting).

These additional building hours and show times on weekends and during holiday periods were provided to meet public demand. In addition to the popular The Star of Bethlehem sky show, the annual exhibition of the very popular Miniature Railroad and Village was displayed November through February. So, during the annual run of The Star of Bethlehem, particularly on weekends and during holiday periods, often Buhl Planetarium's 425-seat Theater of the Stars was filled during many of the mid-day showings.

During these holiday periods, Buhl Planetarium holds claim to the world record for showing planetarium shows, continuously back-to-back, on several days from 10:00 a.m. through and finishing at 8:00 p.m. This record was equaled, but not exceeded, in 2002 by the McFerson Planetarium located at the new facility of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. This new planetarium, which had originally opened in 1999, was upgraded and reopened to the public on 2014 November 22, after being mothballed for ten years.

Until 2007, Buhl Planetarium also held the world record for continuous back-to-back performances in a planetarium, for Friday and Saturday showings during holiday periods of both planetarium shows and laser-light concerts from 10:00 a.m. through and finishing at 12:45 or 1:00 a.m. This record was broken by the original Sudekum Planetarium at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, during a 32-hour “Planetarium Marathon,” which included both planetarium and laser-light shows, marking the closing of the original planetarium which was demolished and replaced with a new, larger planetarium.

More on the historic Star of Bethlehem Planetarium Show at Buhl Planetarium:

Complete Star of Bethlehem show script from 1979:
Link >>>

More on Buhl Planetarium's Original Theater of the Stars:
Link >>>

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Asteroid Named for Henry Buhl of Buhl Planetarium  (2014 June 26):

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100 Years Ago: Planetarium Concept Born  (2014 Feb. 24):

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70th Anniversary: Buhl Planetarium Observatory (2011 Nov. 19):

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

2014: 75th Year of Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium Historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.

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