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Lights Out

Not everyone is beaming over the end of the Natural History Museum's long-running laser shows.

Since 1974, the Denver Museum of Natural History has been letting a little popular culture seep into the facility on weekend nights, when it transforms Gates Planetarium into a laserium: Instead of gazing at simulated stars, audiences watch laser light shows set to music--rock music.

But early next month, those Laser Fantasy shows will be going the way of the dinosaurs whose skeletons reside in other areas of the museum.

Museum officials say there just isn't enough public interest in the shows to make it worthwhile to continue the 25-year-old tradition. But some museum insiders say the real reason it's lights out for lasers is that the shows are too popular with a crowd the museum's not thrilled to attract.

Showings of The Wall, based on the Pink Floyd album of the same name, consistently sell out, for example. The crowd attracted to that Laser Fantasy show, however, is a far cry from the well-dressed, well-heeled crowd that lines up nearby for the museum's showing of Everest, the IMAX film that logged its 500,000th viewer last week, far outpacing the museum's projections.

Inspired by Everest's success--and related sponsorships, programs and museum-store sales--the museum has undertaken a feasibility study to set up a new permanent exhibit, one that would be devoted to space. Such a project might well include a renovation of the planetarium, leaving no room for Laser Fantasy shows--or their fans.

"It finally boiled down to the fact that [the shows] bring the 'wrong element' into the museum," says one museum employee.

"That is absolutely incorrect," responds museum marketing director Luella Chavez. "I don't know where a rumor such as that would come from."

Perhaps it seeped out from under the tight lid that museum officials are trying to keep on the flow of information--a lid that includes a list of "Laser Show Message Points," which museum employees are supposed to share with anyone who asks why the laser shows are ending.

A laser show on a recent Sunday evening attracts only a smattering of people, but there's a mix of middle-aged couples, clingy teenage lovebirds, loners, families and groups of friends. Their faces float in the ocean of blue upholstered chairs that ring the planetarium. The seat backs are locked in a non-upright position, so audience members are forced to recline and look toward the domed ceiling.

Head laserist Toby Winsett gives a brief welcome, and then the "star chamber," as he calls it, goes pitch-black. The music of U2 fills the room, and laser-produced shapes, both abstract (such as squiggles) and concrete (such as people) dance across the dome in perfect synchronization to the songs' drum beats, guitar twangs and lyrics.

Since the show takes place in a natural history museum, it's not surprising to find science behind the fun. All of the patterns on the planetarium dome come from five dots of laser light changing positions so quickly that the human eye sees them as continually moving pictures--it's called "persistence of vision," and it's the same phenomenon that makes cartoons work.

The laser beams reflect off of rapidly moving mirrors that are programmed to throw the light into the right places. The laserist also shoots the beams through filters and prisms to create colors and other effects.

Despite all the high tech, some aspects of the U2 show have a distinct Seventies disco flavor. During one of the last songs, a smoke machine hisses forth a puff of minty-smelling fog, and thin fingers of light reach through the haze to doodle on the planetarium walls. Small colored lights twinkle at intervals around the bottom of the dome, and the yellow eagle that flaps toward the audience at one point seems to have flown straight out of an earlier era.

Many of the effects produce a giddy, stomach-turning feeling reminiscent of a sharp drop during a roller-coaster ride. When an expanding red spiral whirls atop a background of wildly spinning stars, it's almost as if the audience were hurtling through the cosmos into a vortex.

Such thrilling rides are about to end, much to fans' dismay. Twenty-year-old Kyle Sangster says that since he heard on the radio that Gates was stopping the shows, he's caught as many as he can.

After the shows end, adds student Ryan Orton, he'll probably get his laser fix at Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. During the school year, student-produced laser shows play about once a month on Friday nights, but Fiske is thinking about bringing in an outside company to put on more professional productions.

But the Gates shows will always occupy a special place in Orton's brain. "I'm pretty broken up about it," says Orton, who estimates he's seen The Wall about fifty times. "It's, like, the best laser show in the world."

Since the mid-Seventies, such shows have attracted hordes of young people who might otherwise never have gone near the museum. Gates was the second planetarium in the world to offer laser shows, say the laserists who orchestrate the performances. In the beginning, Laserium was in charge of the productions; for the past two years, Seattle-based Laser Fantasy International has coordinated the shows under a contract with the museum.

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