Check In to a Room With a Stellar View

If your child complains that there are monsters on the popcorn ceiling of his room, get a grip and try to rejoice in it. It's a sure sign that the kid has imagination.

To a child, an acoustical ceiling is like a big Etch-A-Sketch, with a limitless store of images that he can change just by shaking his head and looking again. In 15 minutes, a kid with a geared-up brain can yank more pictures out of one ceiling than Rorschach could have dreamed up after a four-day bender.

This suggests, also, that if your child has a tendency to play a bit fast and loose with the natural laws of the world around him (and especially if he likes Stephen King) you might give some extra thought to what you put in his room. For instance, that smiling fuzzy pink worm you won after 15 tries at the church carnival ring toss--put it on your child's night stand and it could turn into an immense, scaly, rapacious alien, dripping slime all over the room as it prepares to messily devour junior as soon as the lights go off.

Cute stuffed gorillas turn into King Kong, shadows cast by baseball bats become headsman's axes and the little wooden choo-choo mutates into a runaway phantom express bearing down on little Johnny as his teacher cackles insanely from the engineer's seat and waves his latest report card.

And, depending on the light and the kid's mood, all of that stuff, plus a few million more intriguing images, are contained in one popcorn ceiling.

You try getting 40 winks in a room like that.

But Jim Beatty and Lance Martin have found a way to defuse the potential chamber of horrors and turn a dark room into something any kid (or adult, for that matter) would be delighted to be locked in.

Beatty and Martin operate Huntington Beach-based Stellar Vision of Orange County, one of a handful of franchises on the West Coast that specialize in turning rooms into planetariums. Using a machine that correctly positions the stars, constellations and planets in the night sky, the pair use a special luminescent compound to apply dots on the ceiling (and the walls, down to the light switches) that can duplicate what you would see in the heavens on a perfectly clear summer or winter night.

They won't say how it's done (a "trade secret," they call it), and they won't let you watch them as they work, but they say that within two to three hours they can make the interior of the average-sized bedroom look very much like the exterior of the average mountain cabin.

Also, they say, they can apply a pattern of heavenly bodies that corresponds to either the winter or summer sky as seen in this hemisphere. Or they can build a sky around a particular constellation that corresponds to your sign of the zodiac. Or they can create a physically inaccurate yet fanciful starry ceiling, something you'd never see through a telescope but that might show up in a Spielberg movie.

And during the daytime, all of it is invisible. The compound used to create the dots on the ceiling can only be seen in the dark, even if it is applied to wallpaper (it is sometimes slightly visible on dark surfaces, said Beatty). It is "energized" when the room lights are turned on for a few seconds and slowly fades away after about 20 minutes (the compound can be almost instantly charged when a black light is used).

The effect is dramatic, especially if the room is quite dark. The configuration of the stars, planets, nebulae and galaxies give the illusion of three dimensions. Add to this a tape of crickets chirping and frogs croaking (Beatty and Martin use one in their demonstration trailer) and the boundaries of the room seem to disappear further.

Beatty and Martin charge $2 per square ceiling foot for their work. Included in the price is a guidebook to the night sky, in case you get tired of simply staring at the ceiling and want to know the names of the cosmos that are up there.

And, if you sell your house to someone who thinks the moon landings were faked and would rather put up a chandelier, the universe-on-the-ceiling can be eradicated by painting or wallpapering over it. Otherwise, it's fairly permanent. You can wash the walls and ceiling all you want, said Beatty, and it won't come off.

It's not much of a surprise to know that the Stellar Vision business was started in 1984 by a Portland, Ore., man as a way to banish childrens' fear of the dark. There is something forbidding about a mostly light-tight bedroom but, even if you are an adult, the planets and stars are somehow companionable, fellow travelers in the night.

Today, however, Stellar Vision also is marketed using its romantic value as a hook. A good amount of Beatty and Martin's work has appeared in hotel rooms. They said they also recently provided a celestial ceiling for "a UFO party in Malibu."

"We were kind of like the guests of honor," said Martin.

Still, we're talking mostly about kids here, so I should offer one last admonition: If you decide to put the galaxy on your child's ceiling, don't let him see any of the "Alien" movies until he's, say, 45. A fertile imagination never ages.

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