Laserium was born in the late 1960s and early '70s. Ivan Dryer, then a film maker, inspired by a new multi-colored laser at Cal Tech, first made a film to set the patterns to music and then assembled a team of engineers and artists to design an advanced laser projector in order to produce live choreographed laser shows. Presenting the idea to Griffith Observatory and Planetarium landed Ivan a temporary concession operating permit from the city of Los Angeles, and the first Laserium show to the public premiered November 19, 1973. Laserium expanded to many locations in the United States and abroad and has been experienced by more than 20 million people.
Laserium was important not just in terms of technology but because it introduced a new business model to planetariums - entertainment shows that extended the programming, expanded the audience and provided a new source of revenue. With planetariums now rapidly converting to digital dome video ("fulldome") systems, and science center operators likewise converting their film domes to digital cinema there is new potential for creativity and market expansion, and new interest in the pioneering example set by Ivan Dryer more than 35 years ago.
The following is an entertaining article presented by Mr. Dryer during his acceptance speach at Summit 2013.
Light Years: A Life with Laserium
By Ivan Dryer
My long journey began back in 1948, when at the age of nine years my parents took me to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles where I embarked on a trip to the Moon. I was stunned by that experience and was inspired to become an amateur astronomer, eventually coveting a position at the Observatory. After applying for a number of years, I was finally hired in 1956 as a guide, and I would attend school or do my day job, then drive up the hill to do the fun one. Of course, the pay was modest and the extra hours challenging, but I loved the Observatory, and I was most privileged to work there on and off until 1968.
In November of 1970, Dale Pelton, a fellow filmmaker, and I attended a conference at USC, “Experiments in Art and Technology,” where a physicist by the name of Elsa Garmire was showing some of the artwork she was creating with lasers in her Caltech We were impressed and got an invitation to film what she was doing. We arrived with a 16mm camera and two 400-foot loads of film. When I turned on the camera and looked through the viewfinder, I was so turned on myself I couldn’t turn the camera off! But I knew immediately this was not going be the way to present this medium; there was no way the 16mm film could encompass the scope of these images, nor, especially, their color intensity. It occurred to me then and there that this required an environmental venue, with a live presentation using an actual laser, not compromised by an intervening medium. And given my history with the Observatory’s Planetarium, it seemed the perfect forum...all this whizzing through my mind even as the camera was still whirring away.
Thus, in September 1970, Elsa, Dale and I conducted a demonstration at the Griffith Observatory. We had a helium-neon laser outfitted with one of Elsa Garmire’s “lumia” wheels, and projected undulating laser interference patterns among the stars on the dome. We put on a classical record. It lasted about 20 minutes. We turned the record over. We sat another 20 minutes, entranced by what we were seeing.
I soon after presented a proposal to the Observatory for a one-hour show that consisted of various and varied music selections, interspersed with some astronomically-referenced poetic narration (preceding the “Blue Danube Waltz”: “A galaxy is a ballerina, with a hundred billion stars sequining her costume,,,”). I had hoped this would have eased our way into the dome, but it didn’t. They essentially said, “Interesting, but no”; we were an outside group with an entertainment program that was incompatible with the Observatory’s mission. So we went away to try to regroup.
Elsa had us incorporated in February, 1971 as Laser Image Corporation, later to become Laser Images. But, except for producing a short educational film employing laser effects to elucidate the basics of color, nothing eventuated for that year. In view of our corporate torpor, my partners at the time left in November of 1971. That December, I did provide some special effects footage for the TV show “I Dream of Jeannie,” the first use of laser effects in a TV show, but I still wasn’t really getting anywhere. I had my dreams, not as a hopeful entrepreneur wanting to start a business venture, but as an individual smitten with the beauty and mystery of this little-known medium, who wanted to somehow share it with the world. But even most of my friends considered this laser stuff a dead end I should abandon in favor of pursuing my film career. It seemed nobody believed: not friends, not venues and certainly not the banks (proposed was an untried abstract entertainment: no story line, no characters, no history, no dice!). It was a very dark time.
However, there was one friend with a technical background, Charlie McDanald, who saw some potential and began to work with me as my new partner. So in 1972 we set about building projectors, including four small helium-neon units for a rock tour with Alice Cooper – the first use of lasers for a rock tour.
But I now believe the seminal event leading up to our opening was a 1973 demo I performed at the home of my old friend, Ron Oriti, alongside whom I had worked at the Observatory for most of my tenure. Though it was still just a little red helium-neon laser and a few simple lumia effects, Ron was impressed, and this proved to be crucial for the next demo in a laboratory at Caltech, graciously arranged by Elsa Garmire in June, 1973. For the first time we had a large full-color krypton gas laser on loan from the manufacturer, and we assembled a rudimentary projector.
We had invited over 100 people to the demo, and only two showed up, but they were Ron Oriti, the Griffith Observatory’s Astronomical Lecturer, and its new Director, the late Dr. William Kaufmann. He was the youngest Director of a major planetarium to that time, and I therefore imagined he might be receptive to such an adventurous proposition. However, I only recently learned that he was reticent to both attend the demo, and then to give us a shot; Ron still had to convince him we deserved the chance. He relented and arranged a permit from the City for four Monday nights, when the Observatory was otherwise closed, beginning November 19,1973.
So Charlie and I set about to build a large full-color projector in a small industrial unit. That was my night job. I didn’t finish my day job working as Documentary Editor on the feature film, “Executive Action” (the first fictional recounting of the JFK assassination) until November 7th. And throughout, on weekends I was assembling a music track that had somewhat the characteristics of a bridal trousseau: something old – actually, several things, with four classical selections dating from the 16th to the 20th Centuries; something new – recent art rock by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; something borrowed – I guess that would be Cal Tjader’s cover of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; and something blue –this, of course, was “The Blue Danube”, which became our signature piece.
The projector was fairly complex in function, but rudimentary in execution. Our scanners consisted of meter movements with mirrors attached, as commercial laser scanners weren’t yet available. We had an engineer named Jim Reynolds construct an electronic controller for the scans, which I dubbed a “scantrol.” And I choreographed the show, marrying the images to the music, mostly in my head since we didn’t have a finished projector. (Why did we really need a finished projector in advance of opening day?)
The Big Bang
In fact, we completed the projector at 5 AM on the morning of November 19, 1973. I then went home and took a shower, and at 8 AM, I appeared on the “Ralph Story’s Los Angeles” show for about five minutes with a little helium-neon projector containing a lumia wheel. At 11 AM, we had our press preview, which was also our first run-through for the show (after all, this was a laser show, and such last-minute calls are somewhat de rigueur for the medium). That night we miraculously had two half-full houses for our first public shows--I have always believed that only in L.A. would a single, brief appearance on a morning TV show have brought out seven hundred people!
By the end of our four Monday nights, on December 15, 1973, we turned away about five hundred people from our second show, prompting Dr. Kaufmann ”to see the light” and get us another temporary concession permit, which was only month-to-month, but we performed under it for the next twenty-eight years!
I had projected that we would probably bring in about a thousand people a week and might last ten years; fortunately, I was far from the mark. I was also wondering how the audience would respond to the shows after the excitement of our opening weeks, and in another instance of good fortune, they continued to respond enthusiastically. An unexpected and sometimes humorous side effect was that almost every time something of apparent significance coincided with a music cue--intended or accidental--the audience would applaud, and it didn’t seem to matter what it was.
One frequent example was sudden blackouts that, if on the beat and not too lengthy, were rewarded. These occurred because our krypton laser was water-cooled, and if the incoming water pressure dropped sufficiently, the laser would panic and shut off. It turned out the primary cause of pressure drops was toilet flushes in the restrooms, and there was some threshold number of simultaneous flushes that would trigger the shutdown. We had inadvertently discovered a new scientific phenomenon that we termed “the john effect.” As a preventive measure, we decided to have the restrooms locked during shows. And then we learned there are worse things than having the laser shut off in the middle of a show (you have 600 people in a confined space for up to an hour and, well, you can imagine what might ensue in the hallway...). The ultimate cure was a separate water line.
Yet another time in 1974, we had heard that Patty Hearst was on the lam in Griffith Park. And what would happen, we conjectured in jest, if she actually showed up at the Observatory that afternoon during our show? Now in those days, I used an old surplus oscilloscope to preset the first scan patterns in the Blue Danube. And while I was setting up, there was a sudden loud bang. Both of us hit the deck because obviously, we thought, the FBI had cornered Patty in the dome! (Can somebody be “cornered” in a dome?) Instead, we smelled an electrical odor and watched a plume of smoke rising from the old oscilloscope that had just given up the ghost. Again, the audience applauded wildly.
And one day a fly ventured onto the middle of our lumia wheel and proceeded to crawl all over it. While this was going on down at the projector, up on the dome was the shadow of this enormous insect strolling among the stars and lumia effects on the dome. The audience went crazy at that. It was too bad we couldn’t hire the fly...
We found that there were some strange seating issues in a couple of our planetariums over the years. In Seattle, for example, there were approximately 250 seats toward the back of the theater, but if you walked into a Laserium show, it looked like we had tilted the dome over and most of the people nominally seated in the back had slid down onto the carpeted area in the front...which is where they preferred to be. St. Louis carried that a little further in that the old planetarium (since redone) had a platform across the way from the console that comfortably accommodated maybe eight or ten people. Well, I was told that at least forty people had once been counted on that platform (who knows what developed from that).
Although we were now doing well at the Observatory, we decided we needed, and finally hired, a publicist, Michael Gershman, whose skill and connections spread the news nationally through articles in influential outlets like the New York Times. At the same time, word spread among the planetariums, and that spring, the then director of the Gates Planetarium, Mark Peterson, came to see for himself. He liked what he saw, and we opened in Denver in August of 1974.
This opening sticks in the memory, not only for it being our second planetarium, but because we had a literal nightmare getting the projector to work. After an exhausting all-nighter to fix it (a seemingly chronic condition for openings), show time came. A full house was seated. We started the first musical selection, the ethereal “Neptune” from Holst’s “The Planets,” and I looked up to see...Black! The dome was completely black: I thought, “My god, what’s gone wrong now?” Then I noticed that the projector cover was still in place. So, as the audience watched, this huge shadow moved across the dome, revealing the slowly-swirling lumia effect for “Neptune”. Well, it certainly was a dramatic introduction for a very appreciative crowd and the beginning of a successful engagement.
Gates Planetarium in August 1974 was soon followed by New York’s Hayden Planetarium in October of that year and then Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco in November. And then, the Omnimax dome at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in San Diego in January of 1975, followed by St. Louis, Miami and Toronto, and on and on and on. The next year, we went abroad to Kyoto, Japan and London. The world seemed to be our oyster. I suppose we reached our apogee in 1977 when we had seventeen planetarium shows in operation simultaneously, and we were cranking out projectors like Big Macs.
Along the way, we had some close encounters with celebrities. The first one I recall was during one of my performances early on at the Griffith Observatory: Steven Spielberg came up to say hello and obliquely inquired as to how it worked. I wondered if there was a possibility he might incorporate Laserium effects into his new film project, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but course that was very wishful thinking. (Fulfillment of this sort of wish would have to wait for our imagery in “Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan”; coincidentally, I did have another close encounter with Spielberg years later--upon exiting the dome after the premiere of our Star Trek show, he gave me what I took to be a grin of appreciation; yeah, I’m going with that!)
The voice-over for our first TV commercial was furnished by Leonard Nimoy (I recall that at the outset of the session, he eschewed any Star trek references, but he eventually softened and added the “Beam aboard, tonight!” tag). He also recorded the astronomy-themed intros to each musical selection, which we ultimately omitted.
My final outing as a laserist was a command performances at our studios for Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer. And we were engaged by Capitol Records to perform our “Dark Side of the Moon” show for the 20th anniversary album re-release in Los Angeles, with three Apollo astronauts in attendance.
And I suppose the most monumental interface of celebrity with Laserium was Rita Wilson’s birthday party for Tom Hanks at the Observatory (talk about an A-list—several dozen of literally the biggest stars in Town). The ad-hoc MC was Robin Williams, who at one point was calling out, “Start the laser show!” I was gratified to see Bruce Springsteen pulling his date into the theater, and exhorting, “It’s Laserium, honey!”
After nearly striking out on the initial approval that enabled our long run at Griffith Observatory we had some other, admittedly less consequential, close shaves, many with celebrity connections. Like when we were set to open at Tussaud’s London Planetarium in June of 1976: the considerable advertising and promotion had been sweeping the entire nation; the VIP and media invitations were out; the equipment was all functioning optimally and the countdown had been unusually smooth; all was in readiness...until, two days before the premiere, I got a call from Pink Floyd management: “You don’t use Pink Floyd music without express approval from the band.” So Roger Waters himself came over, had a look at the show, and gave me his hand and his approval. We had our most successful opening ever—three solid months of sold-out shows, 6800 patrons every single week!
When we opened our Aerosmith show in Boston, their hometown, another phone call came. So we did a special show for another audience of one: Steven Tyler, who also gave us the thumbs up. I was back in L.A. sweating bullets, waiting for the disposition (whew!).
In ’91, Paramount contacted me about doing a Laserium Show for the release of their album, “Star Trek: The Astral Symphony”, featuring themes from the Star Trek movies. I wanted to preface each selection with the voiceover and image of each of the original cast members, so the attorney had to get written permission from each one before we opened. The first in was from Shatner, who we had very good reason to believe was a fan (he had given us that rave review on Carson in ‘74, which certainly did wonders in L.A. and probably helped launch us nationally. The approvals then trickled in over the next 3 months until we got to opening day in San Diego...and still no Nichelle Nichols, not before about 1:00 that afternoon! An understandably open-mouthed Dr. Jeff Kirsch (until recently, Reuben Fleet Space Theater Exec. Director) had been unaware of our razor-thin call until I mentioned it in my February talk at the IMERSA Conference.
Our business model and operating protocols, mostly evolved organically, rather than being strategically planned (did I mention that I had no previous business experience, and there weren’t any examples from which to draw?).
For example, having the planetarium as our venue was not just the aesthetic imperative, it also happened to make economic sense because the venue and infrastructure already existed, and we didn’t need to build anything. Plus, it was a symbiotic, win-win relationship, since the planetarium didn’t have any extra costs for itself except for its staffing. Also, we fit into the timeslots that they were not otherwise occupying. So we could provide income to the planetarium and ourselves during the times they weren’t otherwise occupying the space.
The other important serendipity was that the planetarium gave us its glorious star-filled sky in which to ply our trade, and in return we gave it thousands of urban dwellers previously unexposed to the majesty of a truly dark sky. In fact, each show began with the presentation of the starry sky, unadorned, which invariably induced one of the strongest appreciative responses of the night. As one besotted with stars, I consider this perhaps our most precious contribution. Moreover, I subtitled Laserium “The Cosmic Laser Concert” because it played out in the cosmos, which bestowed a sort of metaphorical elevation above most other media--a genuinely “escapist” entertainment, where for one hour the visitors could completely escape their workaday routine and all its cares and confusions.
The laserists are a special breed. They are performers, of course, and our technicians on site. But they also serve as our spokespersons to the local media and our liaisons with the administration. We very seldom had to send somebody out of Van Nuys, because the laserists were pretty much self-sufficient. We didn’t plan this; it eventuated from the skill sets of the special people we were so fortunate to engage. And our backup laserists were hired initially from the planetarium staffs, where we found some of our best performers.
In terms of the marketing and finances, we had revenue sharing arrangements called gate splits, and each was determined by who did what – the division of labor. Therefore, the gate split was tailored according to the amount of advertising we did versus the host venue, as well as our respective staffing requirements (at Griffith, we had additional staff, including an onsite manager and ticket seller).
In determining our marketing budget, we originally aimed for less than fifty cents a person. That became the benchmark for our advertising dollars in most of our venues, at least as long as that scheme lasted, before the radio market splintered and movie ads began to own the airways. We couldn’t afford an ad agency, so we created our own radio, TV and print ads. Among my favorites was a series of wonderful testimonial radio spots that were instrumental in our early success. One ended with a gruff-sounding woman complaining, “It was terrible! Some psychedelic nut went on a trip!” I don’t know how many times people said, “If she felt that way, I just had to see this show!”
The admission price point we selected was always slightly above that for movies. We had an hour show that was certainly unique in the market. Movies played an hour and a half, maybe two hours, but they were a conventional medium playing ubiquitously, and we figured it was worth a little more money to see our show in the planetarium. Our surveys revealed that we struck a pretty good balance.
We heavily stressed that Laserium is a live show, featuring realtime audience interaction with the laserist, their response being overtly encouraged whenever they saw something pleasing. And like the extraneous irregularities mentioned previously, sometimes mistakes even found their way into shows when a laserist error was rewarded with applause, so this became a driver of performance evolution. But the primary evolutionary imperative, of course, was that each laserist had their own approach to building on the basic image choreography, somewhat like a jazz improvisation on the written arrangement. Thus, every show was unique, in accordance with each laserist’s individual interpretation. We even had audience members following their favorite laserists, often calling to ask if so-and-so was on that night. This had a lot to do with about 30% of our visitors being repeats, an unusually high metric. And you never knew when a fly might show up.
The Big Crunch
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last. We were guilty of what I call “empire bloat,” and at one point in the late 70s we had a staff totaling around 125 employees. At the same time, competition was starting to arise. Consequently, we were beginning to lose venues, which continued for some time. This led to a series of misadventures involving the temporary transfer of the company in an effort to save it, followed by a series of bankruptcy-court black comedies that kept me entertained from 1985 to 1997. And though we had regained some of our lost planetariums in the intervening years, we couldn’t hold them as we contracted back to the singularity, and once again the Griffith Observatory was our sole location
I must admit that we did go out with a bang when we were ultimately forced to withdraw as the Observatory closed for remodeling. So it came to pass that on January 5, 2002, there were an estimated 3000 people trying to attend our last two shows. In fact, I had to show my business card to get up the access road. It was a bittersweet moment: while wonderful to be able to end that way, this appeared to be essentially our last hurrah.
Though on virtual life-support, we did have some stirrings of activity after that, including our Laserist, Steve Shapiro, performing lumia effects onstage with the L.A. Philharmonic later that January; the next year, we conducted nightly outdoor shows for a casino in Laughlin NV; we played temporarily at Cal State Northridge’s Bianchi Planetarium; and we even put on small shows in our Van Nuys studios for several years. But it was never the same as in the big dome.
Then in June, 2009 we opened an ill-starred stint in a Hollywood theater (the same day Michael Jackson died), where for numerous reasons a lot of invested money was lost. Following that, it was ‘towel time’ for me.
So, that December I decided to turn Laserium over to my new business partner, Jon Robertson of DayStar Lasers, who is now carrying forth the Laserium legacy. He--along with our last Marketing Director and Master Choreographer, Scott Anderson; our longtime Los Angeles Laserists, Danny Neilson and Tim Barrett; and our original, and still only, Webmaster, Ron Hipschman—are working diligently to revive Laserium, which just reopened in the San Francisco Bay Area at the Chabot Space and Science Center while, of course, our St. Louis Laserist, Brian Wirthlin, miraculously and almost single-handedly brought Laserium back to St. Louis’s McDonnell Planetarium in April.
Thus, after our big bang and our big crunch, now it looks like there might be a rebound--a new “Inflation” perhaps. I fervently hope so. Personally, In addition to providing consultation and moral support to the above-mentioned projects, my principal goal for the next year is to do a book on the history of Laserium and my association with it. Meanwhile, to borrow from a couple oft-quoted earlier assessments, “It’s not dead, Jim!” “It’s alive!”
The two things that I miss the most are:
First and foremost, all the great people that I worked with over the years. (Some of them were present in Denver: like St. Louis laserist Brian Wirthlin; Toby Winsett, Denver laserist ; Ian McLennan, who served as our planetarium liaison; Benjamin Mendelsohn, backup laserist in San Francisco; and Jon Bassett, our original marketing director.) While great equipment is important, great people were always paramount with me. Even in the later years, when finances were in peril, conserving staff was the top priority, sometimes to my own disadvantage.
The second thing I miss the most was crafting shows. I really enjoyed selecting the music, creating the right dynamics for the track, and marrying the images to it. Especially fun was “Moonrock”, for which I picked music with lyrics that meshed with NASA audio to introduce each musical selection, as well as the show itself (JFK: “We choose to go the MOON”,,,Buzz Aldrin: “It looks like a collection of every variety of ROCK”).
The things of which I’m most proud are:
It’s been said that you should never be first in business, that you should let someone else be first, let them make the mistakes, learn from them and then go forward. Well, we certainly did make a lot of mistakes, but I have never regretted being first. I’m proud that we established the aesthetics and presentation logistics, as well as the business protocols, for the medium. I’m proud of the fact that we proved there was a mass market for a largely abstract entertainment.
I’m proud that many have considered Laserium as a legitimate artform, that in 1978, Arts Magazine wrote that “Within Laserium lie seeds of what will someday become the high, universally acclaimed visual art of the future.” I’m proud that “Laserium” became the generic term for laser display and an iconic reference to other media by other performers in disparate contexts, from the New York Times to “The Simpsons”, from Charlie Sheen on “Two and a Half Men”, to a Kenny Chesney concert review. I was personally tickled by my favorite Lois Lane exclaiming in a “Smallville” episode, “Whatever’s happening in there, it isn’t Laserium.”
That it has intergenerational appeal, that today’s boomers who dragged their parents to see the show in the ‘70’s, later brought their kids to see what thrilled them decades earlier. I remember an elderly woman telling me after a show that she didn’t previously like rock music, but now had an appreciation for it. Conversely, I also take some pleasure in that we ‘painlessly’ introduced classical music to our traditionally rock-oriented fans.
I’m glad that it became a global phenomenon with twenty million patrons in forty-six cities on five continents, from Pittsburgh to Paris, from Boston to Buenos Aires, from Taichung to Tel Aviv. And I’m gratified that it not only helped our home planetariums prosper (sometimes in spite of themselves), but that we may have helped light the way for your use of the dome as the setting for a unique, unmatched environmental medium--one that won’t fit in a handheld tablet or even a home theater–an experience shared in person with dozens or hundreds of fellow humans.
Finally, I’m delighted that we managed to enlist what was then a somewhat esoteric technological device that has been used to guide missiles and telescopes, to instead guide the neurons in millions of brains to dance synesthetically in a fusion of music and image that enhances both--to create a machinery of joy. The compliment I most prize was from a woman who came up to me and said, “You know, I envy you, you’re spreading joy!” Yeah, I’ll go with that.