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Ed Krupp's Star-Studded Cosmic Extravaganza

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The Griffith Observatory's Astronomer-in-Residence Is Inspiring Los Angeles to Wake Up and Embrace the Night.

February 14, 1999|K.C. COLE | K.C. Cole is a Times science writer and the author of "The Universe and the Teacup: the Mathematics of Truth and Beauty" and "First You Build a Cloud: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life."

At 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, the people of Los Angeles were shaken from bed by a fierce rumbling. Running outside for safety, many looked up and were surprised to see thousands of glowing objects in the sky, a thousand sparkling points of light. Frightened and fascinated, a good number of those people called Griffith Observatory in the days that followed for an explanation.

At first, staff members were puzzled. Slowly, they realized what had happened. For the first time in their lives, many citizens of Los Angeles had seen the stars. And they didn't know what to make of them.

The Milky Way, that frothy river of light spilling across the blackness, the ancients' stairway to heaven, was unknown to them. The great bears and scorpions, wandering planets and fierce warriors, lions and princesses that once played such an intimate part in human affairs, were alien forms. Like Puff the Magic Dragon, they had disappeared from our collective consciousness when people ceased to believe. For the last several decades, the house lights have been up so high that we've not been able to see the show. It took a major earthquake and a citywide power outage to turn the stars back on.

"The real night sky is now so remote, most people have forgotten what it looks like," says Ed Krupp, Griffith Observatory's director and resident sky spirit. It's so bad, he points out, that during a romantic moment in the movie "Dragnet," Joe Friday's galfriend looks up from the seat of a convertible and exclaims: "Oh, look at the stars! There must be dozens of them!"

In fact, thousands and thousands are visible to the naked eye. Billions and billions in reality. As recently as 100 years ago, Los Angeles residents could still walk outside and see them. Now that these diamonds of the night have been swallowed by light pollution, we've lost something essential, a source of spiritual replenishment.

Ed Krupp is dedicated to giving the sky back to Angelenos, to giving them, as he puts it, "the best sky we can." A lot is at stake. Our very souls, perhaps. So he dresses up in a wizard suit and bangs pots to scare away the demon eating the sun during an eclipse. He climbs remote, frozen peaks to explore yet another sacred site where ancient peoples drew their power from the heavens. What the sky provides, he says, "is a perspective on ourselves and nature that is unavailable any other way. Griffith Observatory is intended to transform a person's mind, aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually."

In that sense, the observatory is L.A.'s own Heaven's Gate, the place where the city meets outer space and millions of people come each year to drink in the great Up There. More people saw Comet Hyakutake from Griffith Observatory in 1996 than from any other place on the planet. Even on Academy Awards night, 3,000 people left their TVs to watch the real stars. The comet hotline rang constantly and there was a 2 1/2 hour line to get a look at the interplanetary interloper through the observatory's 12-inch telescope. As Krupp describes it, the front lawn was overrun with "comet fever outpatients," whom the staff treated with "eyeball to eyepiece" therapy.

In many ways, Krupp's stewardship of Griffith Observatory harks back to the original vision of the place. In 1912, 16 years after he'd given Griffith Park to the city of Los Angeles, Col. Griffith J. Griffith followed up with the gift of the observatory. The colonel, like Krupp, was very much concerned with changing people's minds and souls. Griffith looked through the telescope on top of Mt. Wilson, and what he saw convinced him that such an experience could be profoundly transcendental. "If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would revolutionize the world," he said. An understanding of science--and specifically, astronomy--could uplift common people from "the trenches of ignorance." No idea was too complex to explain to the general public, he insisted.

After the colonel's death and a series of delays, ground was finally broken in 1933. In 1935, the observatory opened. "Plain people"--as Griffith had termed ordinary Angelenos--flocked to see the 25-cent planetarium show and look through the 12-inch telescope. Soon the Art Deco observatory took its own hallowed place in Hollywood mythology, playing a starring role in James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" and smaller parts in Flash Gordon movies and dozens of other films. It even served as Jor-el's castle on Krypton in "Superman."

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Nine years after Griffith Observatory opened its doors and telescope domes, Edwin C. Krupp was born in Chicago and almost immediately began looking up. When he was 8, his prescient parents gave him a book about a boy named Terry, who journeyed around space meeting the planets, the sun, the moon, the stars. "I memorized the names of the planets, turned my eyes to the sky, and never looked back," he says.

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