Ahideous backup of cars jamming the road to Griffith Park usually signifies a sold-out show at the Greek Theatre, but on this particular Saturday night, the draw is higher up the hill. It's the final performance of Laserium, the music-accompanied laser light show phenomenon that began here at the Observatory 28 years ago. And while the astronomy-teaching function of this grand 1935 structure is scheduled to return in 2005 after a multimillion-dollar renovation, Laserium will not. Not everybody, it seems, will be lucky enough to get in this night, and, since the rangers lock the gate to the park to halt the automotive influx, fewer still find a parking space.
After hiking up, those who score tickets, as well 100 or so VIP guests, have the honor of being the last group whose crania are cradled in the planetarium's 600 worn wooden headrests, as they comfortably (uh, sort of) gaze up at the ceiling and listen, for the final time, as the Observatory guide welcomes everyone and warns them that there is to be "no smoking of anything during the performance."
Before the lights go down, the creator of Laserium, Ivan Dryer, is introduced and receives a lengthy standing ovation. The 62-year-old filmmaker with an astronomy and engineering background saw his first "laser light show" in November 1970, when he was invited to film a demonstration by a Caltech scientist who'd been using a laser in her off hours to create artwork. A month later, he approached officials at the Griffith Park Observatory, where he'd once worked as a guide, with the idea of putting on a show there. For three years, the answer was no, but a new administration warmed to the idea, and Laserium was born.
"When we first started, there were a whole lot of mistakes to be made," recalls Dryer, a tall, wizened, Ichabod Crane of a man. "We found that if we made mistakes on cue, on the beat, that was OK with the audience." There was "The John Effect"--if too many toilets were flushed in the bathroom, the water pressure in the water-cooled ion gas laser (which reaches a core temperature of 5,000 degrees) would fail. Dryer also recounts the time his then-partner accidentally touched a high-voltage wire and shocked himself during a show, the audience believing the screaming was part of the entertainment. Similarly, when a fly landed on the lumia lens and began crawling around it, casting a giant sci-fi insect form on the ceiling, the crowd cheered wildly at the clever effect. Rather than swat it away, Dryer says, "we wished we could train it and hire it for future shows."
In the intervening 28 years, laser technology and techniques improved, glitches were removed and new versions came along--Laser Rock, Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," Led Zeppelin, Lollapalaser and the final incarnation, Laser Visions, which features ambient/ techno/electronica a la Orb, Enya and Vangelis.
"You signed on for Laser Visions tonight, but first we wanted to bring you back to 1973 to what was the most popular selection from the first Laserium show, the 'Blue Danube,'" says Dryer. With that, the room darkens and what now appear to be simple (but back in the day, radical and dazzling) red, blue, violet and green ellipses twirl on the ceiling, expanding and contracting to the rhythms of the Strauss waltz.
Later this year, Dryer will open the Laserium Cyberdome at an as-yet-undisclosed location in Hollywood, which will feature live music, lasers and other interactive 21st century gizmos. But when the final strains of Robert Miles' "Children" fade out and the house lights come back up, the entertainment franchise that spanned 45 cities and delighted more than 20 million people comes to an end.
The VIP guests make their way over to the Tam O'Shanter Inn--a rambling faux Scottish hunting lodge in nearby Atwater--for the "wake," where a cold cuts and potato salad buffet awaits.
"It was after seeing Laserium here in 1974 that I got inspired to take this course in my life, so it's a nice kind of circle closing itself to come here," says R. Merlin, a Jerry Garcia-ish figure from West Los Angeles dressed in tie-dyed shirt and silver sneakers, with a gray beard and ponytail. Nowadays, the 53-year-old Merlin performs light shows for rock videos, including Michael Jackson's "Rock With Me," as well as for the Academy Awards and other events.
Indeed, the guests here seem like one large brotherhood of the laser. "It's like a high school reunion. I'm seeing people I haven't seen in years," says Ron Hipschman, part of a large Bay Area contingent who worked the Laserium show during its run at San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium. Other groups have come from as far away as Florida. "Laserium is kind of a rallying point," says Craig Spredemen, a former Laserium laser operator who now works as a software engineer in West Hills.
Since there is no place to receive formal training in the laser arts, the only way to learn is by becoming an apprentice, and thus, Spredemen explains, "a lot of the people have had contact in one form or another with Laserium at some time in their history."
Invariably, that means working under Dryer, who appears to be universally regarded with awe and respect. "There are all kinds of horror stories that people tell about light show guys, especially from the '70s," says one longtime member of the brotherhood. "But in a field full of rapscallions, no one's ever said an ill word against Ivan."