Hollywood's brightest star

A fabled classic made new, the Griffith Observatory is a must-see

Matthew Jaffe

Info: Griffith Observatory is open Tuesday through Sunday. Free admission, planetarium show $7; 213/473-0800.

Looming high above Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory looks to some like a classical temple, to others like the mysterious compound of a mad genius in a vintage science-fiction movie.

The renovated observatory's three copper-clad domes top a building of exquisite grace that rises from the Hollywood Hills. The central dome is home to a planetarium; inside the two smaller domes are the observatory's public telescopes. There are larger and more advanced instruments, even within Southern California.

But a telescope's significance can't always be measured by its reach into space so much as its reach here on Earth: More people, some 7 million in all, have looked into the heavens through Griffith's Zeiss refracting telescope than any other on the planet.

Few institutions can literally reveal new worlds to its visitors like the Griffith Observatory. And it is the rare observatory that becomes a cultural icon. As a movie and television location, it has come to symbolize Los Angeles. Its greatest prominence came in the 1955 film classic Rebel Without A Cause. Plenty of astronomical facilities may honor Galileo, but only Griffith Observatory has a monument ― in the shadow of the Hollywood sign ― that honors a star of a vastly different firmament, James Dean.

After a five-year-long, $93 million restoration and expansion, the observatory was finally unveiled anew in 2006, and the public again has access to this window on the galaxy. 

Now playing: the universe

"We have a story to tell and it's a story on a monumental scale," says observatory director Edwin C. Krupp. It's the rare sequel that transcends the original. But in the case of the Griffith Observatory, when you're all about the big picture in the land of Cinerama, it helps to have one of your own. The observatory holds a 3,040-square-foot porcelain enamel wall that captures a sliver of space encompassing 1.7 million visible objects ― galaxies, stars, asteroids. Compiled from actual observational data, it's the largest astronomical image ever created, and called, simply enough, the Big Picture.

It dominates a gallery in the observatory's addition, which was constructed underground to match the original building's appearance. Within the gallery hang planetary models scaled to the circular, 200-seat Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, which represents the sun. Earth is basketball-size, while Pluto ― still clinging to its place in the solar system, at least here ― has the diameter of a table-tennis ball.

As for the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, Krupp describes it as "the most accurate, the most awe-inspiring, and the most gorgeous in the world." Its star projector is only the observatory's third and represents a technical leap of 40 years. Nor is it the only advance: With their wooden headrests, the old planetarium chairs had once been described as "the most uncomfortable seats in the Milky Way galaxy." They have given way to plush, padded seats that recline.

Griffith Observatory not only commands Los Angeles visually, but spiritually too. For decades, it provided one of the few common experiences in a sprawling, disparate city. Generations of children came here on school field trips, then, as teenagers, spent weekend nights at Laserium shows that began in the planetarium during the 1970s. These spectacles synchronized laser light displays with the music of such groups as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

"The observatory is a different kind of place," says Mark A. Pine, deputy executive director of Friends Of The Observatory and exhibit program manager. "It's one of the only spots in Los Angeles where you see everyone from the city. Here you can see all the different faces and hear all the different voices speaking all the different languages."

The people's observatory

In many respects, this is how Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, the observatory's original benefactor, envisioned its role. By the early 1900s, Southern California had emerged as a leading center for astronomy. Krupp describes it as the modern world's counterpart to the ancient world's great astronomical center of Alexandria, Egypt, where the universe that we know today was first understood and mapped.

Rather than another research facility, Griffith wanted a public observatory where the average person could look through a telescope. Until it closed for renovations in December 2002, Griffith Observatory always stayed open until 10 p.m. and never charged admission.

Eventually, however, after welcoming 10 times as many annual visitors in recent years as originally projected ― and a grand total of 70 million visitors since its 1935 opening ― the building simply began to wear out. The planetarium's projector was spitting out sparks. The observatory also needed to catch up with advances in astronomy and the world of museum display.

In the end, though, the Griffith Observatory is about more than simply pondering the mysteries of space from the comfort of a theater. The galaxy of lights that spreads across the Los Angeles Basin beneath the observatory long ago overwhelmed the Milky Way's gossamer glow. But after visiting the Griffith Observatory, gaze skyward over the hills and into the Hollywood night and you'll discover that your imagination has never burned brighter.

"If nothing else, we just want people to look up sometimes," Pine says. "To have that moment and take a break from the business of their daily lives. To consider their place in the universe."