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E.T., there's no place like dome

THE ALTERNATIVES

April 20, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

THE desert is a place where it is said that time bends, aging slows and the laws of gravity don't necessarily apply. And not just poolside in Palm Springs.

Past scrubby fields of Joshua trees down a dusty road in Landers, a gleaming white dome rises abruptly from the jagged, putty-colored horizon, a curious testament to one man's intergalactic vision: the Integratron.

The life's work of a onetime aircraft engineer, the bizarre 38-foot wooden structure was meant to add decades to a person's life (not to mention warp time and suspend gravity) through frequencies generated by electrostatic energy. Now the dome, surrounded by fruit trees, grapevines, vintage trailers and miles of nothing in every direction, will be put to a more modest use -- host to the first Retro UFO convention April 29.

The all-day affair offers a kitschy modern homage to the 1950s- and '60s-era reports of flying saucers that became the stuff of legend in this San Bernardino County outpost, organizer Barbara Harris said.

"It's a new chapter in ufology," said Harris, a graphic artist by trade. "When you go on that property ... there is something that touches your heart, that touches your soul."

Harris hopes to preserve and propagate this most mysterious slice of the desert's history, sharing the stories of those who once flocked to Landers, necks craned skyward.

To that end, next weekend's extravaganza will include talks by old-timers of strange encounters; tours of Giant Rock, now grimy with graffiti and missing a giant chunk that fell off in 2000; a contest for the best aluminum foil deflector beanie; old movies; classic cars; fire spinners; and a live poetic opera by a group called UFOetry titled "Did We Really Go to the Moon?"

Harris hopes the event will draw about 500 people to the 10-acre site; some proceeds will benefit the Morongo Basin Historical Society and help renovate the dome.

It's a fitting place to gather, considering the closest thing to a Retro UFO celebrity may be the Integratron's patron saint, engineer George Van Tassel. He built the dome for $150,000 over 18 years starting in 1957, claiming that he was inspired by a predawn meeting with a visitor from Venus named Solgonda.

Van Tassel and his family lived in a hollowed-out chamber under Giant Rock, a seven-story free-standing boulder plopped on the edge of Landers three miles north of the dome.

He didn't complete the electrostatic device at the heart of the dome before he died in 1978, and his plans and equipment to finish the 50-megavolt Integratron disappeared soon after his death.

The outlandish dome and its unlikely location are "a monument to one man's field of dreams," said Joanne Karl, 51, one of three sisters who own the dome and have worked to restore it.

As for Van Tassel's alleged encounters with visitors from Venus and his offbeat writings claiming that the sun is square, "I smile and wink," said co-owner Nancy Karl, 48.

The Karl sisters, who live there part time, are used to hosting curious tourists, retreats and rock stars like Billy Corgan eager to experience the acoustically perfect space.

The upper chamber of the Integratron, made entirely of Douglas fir and fastened with a 1.5-ton concrete ring, includes an altar littered with visitors' mementos -- including guitar picks, Tibetan Buddhist paintings, a Yoda Pez dispenser and a set of dentures.

Under one of the 16 windows sits a set of seven large quartz bowls, which Nancy plays with a suede-covered wooden stick rubbed along the rim, producing astoundingly clear tones that reverberate through the airy space.

Joanne, a former cardiac nurse, describes the experience as "like being inside a giant cello." For $10 per person, they'll give groups an ethereal, 30-minute jam session "sound bath," complete with blankets, pillows and rosemary-scented oils.

But for now, the attention is on next weekend's gathering.

"There's going to be some loony bins there," Harris says of Retro UFO's debut crowd; she's deciding between wearing a get-up of bobby socks and poodle skirt, plus the obligatory cowboy hat and alien antenna, or Judy Jetson gear.

Still, Harris and the Karl sisters enthusiastically embrace the era's nostalgia and mystery, and believe the cosmic force found in sun-baked Landers "restores [the] soul," Harris said.

"We don't want to lose that."

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Indulge in a "sound bath" and take a tour of the Mojave Desert Integratron, site of the April 29 Retro UFO Spaceship Convention, in a video report plus photo gallery at calendarlive.com/ufo.

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Retro UFO at the Integration

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Where: 2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers

When: April 29, gate opens at 7:30 a.m., closes 9 p.m. Limited space for overnight stays.

Price: $25, general admission; speaker venues and tours, $15 each. All-access tickets, $145 in advance, $199 at the door. Overnight pass $195 in advance, $245 at the door.

Info: (760) 365-3266, www.retroufo.com

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