"There was no way to tell it wasn't the real thing," said the first patrons of the first star show at the Hansen Planetarium.
It was Nov. 27, 1965. The show was "The Star of Bethlehem." Utahns sat in plush chairs and stared up, for the first time, into the dark dome. They felt exactly as if they were looking at crystal stars on a clear night.Since then the Hansen Planetarium has shown the stars to more than 4 million visitors.
The public is invited to celebrate the planetarium's 25th anniversary on Monday evening, Nov. 26, with a $25 per person reception and buffet dinner, which will include a speech by Ellis D. Miner, assistant project scientist on the Voyager and Mariner planetary exploration missions. After Miner's speech, patrons will watch "The Star of Bethlehem."
If interested in attending, call 538-2104 to see if reservations are still available.
That first star show, written by Mark Littmann, the planetarium's original director, is as popular as ever. It is one of a score of star shows the planetarium produced for local audiences, then sold to other museums and planetariums throughout the world.
The current planetarium director, Von Del Chamberlain, estimates that as many as 50 million people may have seen Hansen Planetarium productions.
Utahns have Gail Plummer, a former speech teacher at the University of Utah, to thank for the fact that we have a first-class planetarium in our state.
When he learned that the Salt Lake Library would move to a large new home on 500 South, Plummer started looking for a way to build a planetarium in the old library building at 15 S. State.
John Q. Packard's silver fortune had built the beautiful limestone building back in 1905. In 1964 the building was not on a historic register, and several downtown businesses wanted to buy the property from the city for a parking lot. But Plummer brought his dream to Mrs. George T. Hansen. She offered a $400,000 donation if the city would keep the building and turn it into a planetarium. The Hansen Foundationgift more than covered the cost of building a dome and buying the best projector that Spitz Laboratories could build.
That first year, the city hired Mark Littmann, who was teaching English at Northwestern University and also held a bachelor's degree of science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to direct the planetarium.
Littmann was in charge for 17 years - from the early days, when the planetarium's $122,000 budget was aided by the city library funds, to the middle years, when Salt Lake County took over operations and funding came in the form of an 0.2 mill levy, an increasing number of foundation grants and admission fees.
Littmann quit in 1983, during an acrimonious exchange with county commissioners over planetarium accounting procedures.
Littmann is best remembered for his creativity in producing star shows, children's programs and laser-music entertainment. His philosophy was, "If you entertain people well enough they learn an awful lot."
The planetarium drew 100,000 visitors in its first year of operation and consistently draws more visitors per capita than any other planetarium.
"Last year we had approximately 250,000 visitors," says Chamberlain. "That includes 50,000 students we saw in our outreach programs but does not count those who just come in to see the exhibits."
Currently the planetarium has a $2.5 million budget, which includes, Chamberlain says, "a $225,000 grant to produce a show about cosmic disasters, $700,000 from Salt Lake County, $165,000 from the state for school programs, and about $600,000 from sales of merchandise (worldwide). The rest of the funds come from ticket admissions, gifts and donations."
What do the next 25 years hold for the Hansen Planetarium? "Our dream is to become part of a science center," Chamberlain says. The planetarium's current board of directors has formed a task force to that end and will make recommendations early in 1991.
So, Chamberlain says, the next few years should see the planetarium featuring more audience-participation shows and moving away from straight space science into some of the basics of science.
The key to a vital science center, he says, is hands-on learning. "We need to change children's attitudes, from the typical attitude that science is dull and difficult to the realization that it is exciting and essential."