‘Every kid remembers their first planetarium visit,” says Jay Schwartz, planetarium director at the New Jersey State Museum. Schwartz oversees shows at the state planetarium, which is housed under the large white dome off Route 29 in Trenton.
“When you walk in there’s a sense of magic that people feel,” Schwartz says, likening the experience to a Broadway show before the curtain rises. “You’re in a dome, there’s music playing. There’s an excitement that builds up. You’re waiting for something to start.”
He did say the word magic. Even among those whose “kid” years are a dim memory, the idea of “magic” at this time of year remains potent. Sometimes magic seems to be the only thing that will get youngsters to stop squirming. If that is the case, then the state planetarium’s “Laser Holiday Magic” show has arrived just in time. And through Sunday, January 3, the planetarium will present its holiday laser show twice a day.
During a recent preview it was easy for at least one audience member of a certain age to lean back in the seat and let the imagination take over, as it did during a first visit long, long ago. The show is similar to watching fireworks. It is vivid, and there is always something going on that catches the eye. The 30-minute production includes music that is boomer-friendly, featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Frosty the Snowman” by the Cocteau Twins, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Burl Ives, “All I want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” by Spike Jones, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love, along with nods to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
There is something about waiting in a dark auditorium, anticipating celestial wonders, that evokes a first camping trip. Nighttime skies depicted during the course of a planetarium show are breathtakingly beautiful, and in the megalopolitan northeastern USA there really is no other way to see them.
Schwartz, 55, says he wanted to “work in some kind of entertainment” after getting his undergraduate degree in communications at New York Institute of Technology.
“I did an internship in Rochester, New York, at the Strasenburgh Planetarium. That’s where you learned everything about how a planetarium works.
“A lot of planetarium directors have passed through that planetarium,” he says. “I’m from the Bronx, where you can’t see stars anymore,” he says. His parents are both deceased, but his sister’s family still lives there. His father owned a supermarket and his mother owned a sportswear store. “A lot of people who grew up in an urban environment, we go into this field, it seems, where we can see stars,” says Schwartz, who now lives in Lawrenceville.
If technology makes that happen, then it is only natural for that technology to be constantly evolving. At the center of everything, quite literally, is the planetarium projector. The domed auditorium was built behind the state museum in the 1960s. A Minolta projector replaced the original Spitz model in 1989. Projectors designed by Carl Zeiss dating back nearly 100 years are iconic. Armand Spitz, a Philadelphian who once worked at the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute, designed a competing model after World War II, and one was installed in the State Museum Planetarium, which has a 40-foot dome, seats 150, and is the largest planetarium in New Jersey.
“Usually a planetarium projector lasts about 30 years,” Schwartz says. “The lenses and the way it projects the planets have improved over the years.”
Planetariums are getting away from the old-fashioned projectors and going instead with “full dome” technology, which offers higher resolution and digital sound. The State Museum’s planetarium installed a full dome projector in 2009.
“We started producing laser shows in 1990,” Schwartz says. “It was a three-color system and now we have millions of colors, and we are able to color the entire dome. Technology is always improving, and the audience is always demanding more, so we have to keep up.”
The word “spectacular” is not misused in this case. Toward the end of the holiday show, water vapor gets released from above, making it easy to see the laser beams crossing each other.
“We call that theatrical haze,” Schwartz says. “That really makes for the illusion that you are immersed in the program.”
The lasers make precise designs possible and create an overall “gee-whiz” vibe.
The program itself comes from a Washington State-based company, Laser Fantasy. It creates the programs also shown at Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh, Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Boston’s Charles Hayden Planetarium, and Pacific Science Center in Seattle.
Licensing programs have two models, with some taking what Laser Magic representatives call a Netflix model where a monthly fee between $400 to $1,200 provides access to a library of shows. The New Jersey State Museum licenses a handful of individual songs for $400 each and combines them with songs from other sources. They can be used over and over.
The connection with the original planetarium experience that sends first-timers home with stars in their eyes is always paramount to Schwartz.
“I noticed that when adults come back with children of their own,” he says, “they stop by the console and say, ‘I remember coming here when I was a kid.’ And that’s something they remember from their class trips.”
When adults stop by to chat after a planetarium show, that console, which is really more like the command module of a star ship, is where they will find Schwartz and Denny Ogrodnick, 28, the planetarium educator.
Ogrodnick has been with the planetarium for only about a year, having volunteered in the museum’s education bureau at first. A native of Lumberton, in Burlington County, Ogrodnick graduated from Rowan University with a degree in education, but was unable to find a teaching job before he connected with the state museum. His mother is a nurse technician at Capital Health Systems, Hopewell.
After a typical show, the imaginations have taken over for most younger members of the audience, Ogrodnick says, adding “I was always fascinated by the planetarium.”
And why not? It is the real stuff of memories.
Laser Holiday Magic, New Jersey State Museum Planetarium, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Saturday and Sundays through Sunday, January 3, and on December 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, and 31 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., $5 to $7. 609-292-6464 or www.statemuseum.nj.gov.