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Lights Out

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...
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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.

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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