"Because we're an independent entity, we can go out and look for exactly the right thing, and hire exactly the right person," without red tape, emphasizes Camille Lombardo, the hard-charging executive director of Friends, who's credited with lining up major contributors and driving the project forward to this point. Lombardo, who gave up a banking career to work on the Griffith effort, recently supported a delay in the opening, extending it from the original target of this May.
The real test of the collaboration, warns FOTO President David Gold, a retired aerospace entrepreneur, will come much later. "The observatory was an excellent thing which was neglected in the past. Right now, lots of smart people are working wonderfully together to create excellence up there again. We have to make sure the systems are in place to keep it excellent over the long haul."
But the Griffith does seem to occupy a place in the hearts of Angelenos even deeper than the library or the more recently renovated City Hall. "This is the crown jewel; I absolutely feel that this is the biggest thing that's going to happen to Los Angeles in 2006," says former City Councilwoman Joy Picus, who chairs FOTO. "When people hear I'm involved with the Griffith Observatory, they always tell me the most wonderful stories. They tell me, 'I had my first kiss up there,' 'I got engaged up there,' 'I came with my fifth-grade class and I kept coming back.' "
Of the $93-million budget, about one-third has come from voter-approved bonds, one-third from the city and about one-third has been raised privately. Whatever happens with the exhibits, Angelenos will be pleased to know that after all that money has been spent, the silhouette of the observatory -- famous worldwide thanks to its use as a film location -- will not have changed. No modern structures will litter the lawn, as all new construction has been placed underground or below the sightlines of the original building and its domes, thrusting like a vision from an old Flash Gordon movie above Los Feliz.
Restoration has been supervised by Brenda Levin & Associates, responsible for such celebrated projects as the Bradbury Building and the Wiltern Theatre. Architect Pfeiffer Partners (whose principals worked on the library, City Hall and LACMA) drew up the subterranean expansion -- which will offer some faint echoes of the classic lines, albeit in reinforced concrete instead of travertine marble.
'The universe is theatrical'
ED KRUPP did not always see himself as a showman. In fact, when he began working at the Griffith as an earnest grad student in the early 1970s, he saw his temporary job as a distraction from serious astronomical work. "I was giving the planetarium show, and I was moaning about it to my friends. You started with school programs, 600 children at a time. I had a certain number of catastrophes, and I remember talking to people and saying, 'I really don't like it, it's just show business.' But after one or two months, I was saying, 'You know what, this is show business!' and I was kind of hooked."
He's been known to don a wizard outfit and hold ceremonies during a lunar eclipse to chase away the dragon eating the moon.
"The universe is theatrical," says Krupp. "It is hard to turn your head toward anything that happens in 'life, the universe and everything,' and not see this very theatrical aspect to it. Theatricality does something to our brains, and it's not a useless process. It's actually part of the way humans adapt to a new environment."
By "new environment" he means the universe we began to occupy when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. Since then, he notes, we have begun seeing the sky not as lights and motion but as "landscapes, as real places." At the same time, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, it dawned on humanity that far from being at the center of the universe, we occupy a smallish world, circling a medium-sized star now drifting along the edge of a minor galaxy composed of a hundred-plus billion equally interesting stars.
The design of the new Griffith will try to re-create that disturbing shift in perspective. Upstairs, the visitor will be aware of the historic grace of the classic building -- its marble columns and formal spaces -- and exhibits will focus on the sky as we have always perceived it from Earth: seasons, lunar phases, eclipses.
But as visitors pass down into the new "Richard and Lois Gunther Depths of Space," exhibits will attempt to move them out into the expanding universe. Here a statue of Albert Einstein will sit on a park bench and hold up his \o7own\f7 index finger to demonstrate the scale of the Big Picture.
Along the way, visitors will pass along a glass corridor offering the history of time since the big bang as a series of events "highlighted in jewels" or dine in a new "Cafe at the End of the Universe," operated by Wolfgang Puck and cut into the western hillside to offer a stunning view toward the Hollywood sign.