Lights Out

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

Until September 6, Laser Fantasy will continue to present its Friday, Saturday and Sunday night shows at Gates, alternating the eleven possibilities--everything from the Beatles to Def Leppard to Smashing Pumpkins to The Wall, a classic that head laserist Winsett describes as the "cornerstone of anybody's laser show."

But the museum is yanking that cornerstone and all other laser shows because the audience base has been steadily declining for the past five years, according to Chavez. The average occupancy rate of the shows had been hovering around 40 percent, say museum officials, until the recent announcement that the shows would soon end increased it to about 55 percent.

And at the same time laser-show audiences have been decreasing, Chavez adds, the museum's own interests have been expanding. Because of new technology such as virtual reality, audiences are looking for more sophisticated entertainment. The museum committed to a $345,000 investment in Everest long before a deadly storm killed a dozen climbers two years ago; that investment has paid off handsomely, not just with huge attendance figures, but also with related programs. "We're learning lots of things with this Everest model," says Chavez. "We can repeat it. It doesn't just have to be with an IMAX program." For example, she says, museum patrons have expressed a desire for more lectures and classes in the evenings, and the planetarium could be used for such educational programs.

Planetarium director Don Asquin says the choice to end the laser shows is a business decision related to the museum's goals. "I'm sure you're getting the same line from everyone," he says.

That wouldn't be surprising. Most of the reasons Chavez cites appear on the list of "Laser Show Message Points"--although, of course, employees are not supposed to reveal that they're reading from a prepared script.

The museum didn't use that script with Stefanie Hare, who works for the museum and planetarium division of Laser Fantasy International. When Hare heard in March that the museum didn't want to renew its contract with Laser Fantasy, she came to Denver to try to persuade museum officials to change their minds. During that meeting, says Hare, most of the topics now appearing as "message points" were not discussed.

"I was given a very specific reason: We did not meet the mission of the institution," says Hare. That mission is "to attract and serve the diverse audiences of Colorado by promoting the study, understanding and enjoyment of the universe, nature, science and human culture."

But laser shows have helped other institutions meet similar goals. "The laser shows over time have been very popular. We try to bring a broad cross-section of the public to our facility, and the laser shows help us bridge a gap," says Diane Carlson, director of public programming at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. "The laser shows provide an activity for an age group that we otherwise don't attract." Out of 825,000 visitors to the center last year, approximately 125,000 (around 15 percent) went to see laser shows, Carlson says, "and it is a source of additional revenue."

And Hare argues that the laser shows are serving the needs of Colorado's "diverse audiences" by providing a safe environment on weekend nights for youths. "When you take that option away from the teens in the Denver area, I think that raises some questions," she says, adding that she doubts the museum will really be offering lectures and classes in place of the laser shows, which are scheduled as late as 10:30 p.m.

And sources close to the museum, who asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation, have their own questions about the museum's decision to ax Laser Fantasy.

"I think they're not being totally up front with their employees," says one museum worker. She says visitors often ask her why the laser shows are ending, and because she's only heard a vague explanation that the shows don't meet the goals of the mission statement, she can't really tell them. Ridding the museum of stoned teenagers isn't one of the message points, she adds--but it's been discussed behind the scenes.

Chavez, who has shielded even the museum president, Raylene Decatur, from commenting to Westword, insists the museum doesn't "add or delete programming based on personal preference." The decisions, she says, are made by a committee comprising the director of education, the director of exhibits, the chief curator and herself. Both museum treasurer James Barlow and chief curator Richard Stucky say doing away with an unwanted audience was not a factor when the decision was made to discontinue laser shows.

The museum is currently in the "feasibility mode" of studying a possible new space exhibit, says Chavez. "So far, all of our testing on this has been very positive."

And if a few teens get lost in space in the process? As The Wall advises: "Hey! Leave those kids alone.

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