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Ed Krupp’s Star-Studded Cosmic Extravaganza

K.C. Cole is a Times science writer and the author of "The Universe and the Teacup: the Mathematics of Truth and Beauty" and "First You Build a Cloud: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life."

At 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, the people of Los Angeles were shaken from bed by a fierce rumbling. Running outside for safety, many looked up and were surprised to see thousands of glowing objects in the sky, a thousand sparkling points of light. Frightened and fascinated, a good number of those people called Griffith Observatory in the days that followed for an explanation.

At first, staff members were puzzled. Slowly, they realized what had happened. For the first time in their lives, many citizens of Los Angeles had seen the stars. And they didn’t know what to make of them.

The Milky Way, that frothy river of light spilling across the blackness, the ancients’ stairway to heaven, was unknown to them. The great bears and scorpions, wandering planets and fierce warriors, lions and princesses that once played such an intimate part in human affairs, were alien forms. Like Puff the Magic Dragon, they had disappeared from our collective consciousness when people ceased to believe. For the last several decades, the house lights have been up so high that we’ve not been able to see the show. It took a major earthquake and a citywide power outage to turn the stars back on.

“The real night sky is now so remote, most people have forgotten what it looks like,” says Ed Krupp, Griffith Observatory’s director and resident sky spirit. It’s so bad, he points out, that during a romantic moment in the movie “Dragnet,” Joe Friday’s galfriend looks up from the seat of a convertible and exclaims: “Oh, look at the stars! There must be dozens of them!”

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In fact, thousands and thousands are visible to the naked eye. Billions and billions in reality. As recently as 100 years ago, Los Angeles residents could still walk outside and see them. Now that these diamonds of the night have been swallowed by light pollution, we’ve lost something essential, a source of spiritual replenishment.

Ed Krupp is dedicated to giving the sky back to Angelenos, to giving them, as he puts it, “the best sky we can.” A lot is at stake. Our very souls, perhaps. So he dresses up in a wizard suit and bangs pots to scare away the demon eating the sun during an eclipse. He climbs remote, frozen peaks to explore yet another sacred site where ancient peoples drew their power from the heavens. What the sky provides, he says, “is a perspective on ourselves and nature that is unavailable any other way. Griffith Observatory is intended to transform a person’s mind, aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually.”

In that sense, the observatory is L.A.'s own Heaven’s Gate, the place where the city meets outer space and millions of people come each year to drink in the great Up There. More people saw Comet Hyakutake from Griffith Observatory in 1996 than from any other place on the planet. Even on Academy Awards night, 3,000 people left their TVs to watch the real stars. The comet hotline rang constantly and there was a 2 1/2 hour line to get a look at the interplanetary interloper through the observatory’s 12-inch telescope. As Krupp describes it, the front lawn was overrun with “comet fever outpatients,” whom the staff treated with “eyeball to eyepiece” therapy.

In many ways, Krupp’s stewardship of Griffith Observatory harks back to the original vision of the place. In 1912, 16 years after he’d given Griffith Park to the city of Los Angeles, Col. Griffith J. Griffith followed up with the gift of the observatory. The colonel, like Krupp, was very much concerned with changing people’s minds and souls. Griffith looked through the telescope on top of Mt. Wilson, and what he saw convinced him that such an experience could be profoundly transcendental. “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would revolutionize the world,” he said. An understanding of science--and specifically, astronomy--could uplift common people from “the trenches of ignorance.” No idea was too complex to explain to the general public, he insisted.

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After the colonel’s death and a series of delays, ground was finally broken in 1933. In 1935, the observatory opened. “Plain people"--as Griffith had termed ordinary Angelenos--flocked to see the 25-cent planetarium show and look through the 12-inch telescope. Soon the Art Deco observatory took its own hallowed place in Hollywood mythology, playing a starring role in James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and smaller parts in Flash Gordon movies and dozens of other films. It even served as Jor-el’s castle on Krypton in “Superman.”

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Nine years after Griffith Observatory opened its doors and telescope domes, Edwin C. Krupp was born in Chicago and almost immediately began looking up. When he was 8, his prescient parents gave him a book about a boy named Terry, who journeyed around space meeting the planets, the sun, the moon, the stars. “I memorized the names of the planets, turned my eyes to the sky, and never looked back,” he says.

The book was lost, but he never forgot it. He spent decades tracking it down, talking about it on television and in his monthly column for Sky and Telescope magazine. Finally, a woman in Southern California who heard him on TV said she had a copy. He bought it for himself for his 50th birthday. The title was “Sky-Hi,” publication date 1952. Young Ed spent a lot of time at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium. When he was 12, his family moved to California. He studied astronomy and physics at Pomona College, earning his master’s and PhD at UCLA. But academic research was not to satisfy his restless soul. Fatefully, some of his graduate students had part-time jobs at Griffith Observatory, and when a position opened, his UCLA advisor, George Abell, urged him to apply. “I didn’t have much interest in doing it,” he says. “I always wanted to be an astronomer, for God’s sake! And this was peripheral. There’s not a lot of respect in the astronomical community for the planetarium thing.”

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At Abell’s insistence, however, he took the job, and soon found himself giving planetarium shows to audiences of 600 schoolchildren. “It was frightening,” he says. “I remember coming home and complaining, ‘Gee, this isn’t astronomy. This is show business.’ ” Within two weeks, however, he was singing a different tune. “I was coming home saying: ‘It’s show business!’ You bring on those stars and it’s a performance, and you can hear the audience respond.”

Krupp certainly looks more like an entertainer than your stereotypical astronomer. Ringo Starr comes to mind. Or maybe Captain Kangaroo. With his wild, homemade ties and bushy sideburns, he bounces around like a 1960s version of the Energizer Bunny. Colleague Kara Knack, who directs the Friends of the Observatory group that raises money for Griffith, says Krupp is never too busy to look at the sky. But it’s not just the sky. Krupp doesn’t want to miss anything. “You know,” Krupp says, “if there’s a piece of music, and someone says, ‘Hey, you should listen to this,’ it really cheers me. I think, ‘Gosh! That was lucky! I coulda missed that!’ ”

Since he signed on as lecturer at Griffith in 1970, Krupp has not stopped sharing his “can’t miss this” attitude with the people of L.A. Two years later, he became a curator. In 1976, he became director, a title he’s held ever since. One of his main missions has been to counter the cynicism he found so unsettling in some of his fellow guides--mostly graduate students in astronomy who tended to look down their noses at the great uninformed crowds with their endless “stupid” questions about the sky.

“Everybody deserves respect,” Krupp says. “Everybody deserves an answer to questions. It might be my mom they’re complaining about. You know, my grandmother is a part of the general public.” The message has clearly gotten through. People know they can call on the observatory for just about any sky information imaginable, to the tune of 600 calls a week. Public defenders and district attorneys call to find out whether it was dark at the scene of a crime, what time the sun went down. Recently, the phones were flooded with calls from Muslims wanting to know the exact time of the new moon, says John Mosley, who runs Griffith’s public programs. The “birth of the moon,” he said, marks the beginning of Ramadan. At Christmas, people want advice on buying telescopes as gifts. “That’s what we’re here for,” says Mosley. “Anyone in the world can call to ask a question.”

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About the time he was discovering show business, Krupp also became fascinated with ancient shamans, warriors, kings and just ordinary folk as they related to, and relied on, the heavens. Today he is an expert in a field known as archaeoastronomy, the study of how ancient civilizations approached the sky. The discipline explores, among other things, the relationship between the human mind and the heavens.

Sparked by a renewed interest in Stonehenge in England in the early 1970s, archaeoastronomy attracted a small but passionate group of astronomers with a special affinity for the culture of their field. Where Krupp stood out--not surprisingly--was in his insistence on seeing everything firsthand. “I wanted to see what it looked like on the ground, and how does it fit into whatever else is around,” he says.

There’s a reason, for example, rock art isn’t found in museums. “Why is it out in the open? Because it’s the spot that’s important.” A sun spiral or spirit carved or painted on a rock wall might be aligned with a mountain peak so that a shadow or spear of sunlight falls over it at a given time of day or year. It might point to the moon or constellations. “It’s all evidence of human interaction with the environment. And it’s important because this is like the first symbolic vocabulary that we’ve got.” Krupp’s extensive research and travels--he has made more than 1,400 trips to sites--have impressed him with the clear commonalities among cultures in space and time: In a Hopi village in the Arizona desert, a rooftop observation point looks out over a notch in the distant mountains. That notch shows where the sun sets, serving as an observatory for tracking the winter solstice. In Egyptian temples halfway around the world, people constructed special chambers for ritual observation of the sun. The Kogi people of the Colombian highlands build circular temples. At the solstice, the sun’s rays strike a fire pit. The same story is told again and again, from Chumash sites on California’s Sierra Madre Ridge to the Buddhist cosmic mountain of Borobudur. “For ancient peoples, the sun, the moon and the stars were more than calendars and clocks. They were gods. . . . " Krupp says. “To observe them was to confront the sacred.”

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Krupp’s interest in archaeoastronomy has forced him to be much more than an astronomer. “You’ve got to do your homework in mythology, anthropology and archaeology,” he says. “If I don’t learn to talk the language of these other specialists and understand what’s important to them, then I’m just blowing smoke.” His first book on the subject, “In Search of Ancient Astronomies,” won the 1978 American Institute of Physics science writing prize. His most recent, “Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings,” was published in 1997. There were three widely acclaimed books in between, plus three for children. One of those--"The Comet and You"--was a collaboration between Krupp and his artist wife, Robin, and the couple is now working on another children’s book, “The Rainbow and You.”

Work, in fact, is what the Krupps mostly do. Robin’s studio occupies half of the second story in their Eagle Rock Craftsman bungalow, her husband’s office the other half. Thousands of books on everything from astronomy to Celtic myths are double layered on the shelves and stacked in shoulder-high towers on the floor. Krupp also loves music, and while he did make it to a Bob Dylan concert last May, he rarely has time to listen to his hundreds of 33 1/3 rpm LPs. “We’re either here working,” he says, “or we’re off someplace working.” (Their 23-year-old son is now in Missoula, Mont., completing his second year of graduate school in theater technology).

Krupp quickly adds, though, that the couple’s frantic schedule is fine with them. “It’s fun,” he says. Anyone who doubts his sincerity might note the decor of the Krupps’ home, which, like his office at the observatory, brims with dozens of plastic Superman and Spiderman action figures, Mickey Mouse dolls and complete collections of the adventures of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. The icons of popular culture are modern versions of the ancient heroes of myth and legend, he believes.

Above the Krupps’ fireplace, a mantel-top Elvis shrine holds books and photos of the King in his various incarnations (and reincarnations). Krupp started to believe that Elvis had become a world religion when he heard that more than half the people on the planet saw his last concert. He thinks his theory was proven some years ago when he was leading a lecture tour of archaeoastronomical sites in Israel. The bus pulled in for a “rest stop” just outside Jerusalem--at The Elvis Mountain Inn.

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To this day, Krupp isn’t sure himself whether archaeoastronomy counts as a legitimate field. And he doesn’t care. “It’s just like the planetarium thing. I’m doing what I’m doing and the important thing is to do it right. My job at Griffith Observatory is not to worry about whether or not the astronomical community has respect for it. The job is to worry about the audience and to succeed at transforming people’s vision and understanding of the universe around them.”

Bringing astronomy to the public and archaeoastronomy frequently combine. In 1982, he organized the first U.S. tour to see a phenomenon orchestrated by ancients--a feathered serpent, made of light and shadow, that appears to slither down a Mayan pyramid at sunset during the vernal equinox. Since then, mostly through UCLA Extension, he and Robin have led dozens of other tours in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America and Central America. Krupp sees a lot of modern-day archaeoastronomy reflected in the observatory. Like the ancient sites, it’s a place where people’s souls are touched.

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On a friday evening, krupp is showing off the “jewel on the hill,” to Miguel Sanchez, an eighth-grader from Julie Lathrop Middle School in Santa Ana. On the recommendation of his teacher, Sanchez had written to Krupp, who responded with a detailed three-page letter and extended an invitation for Miguel to visit the observatory. Such visits are not at all unusual. The week before, Krupp spent more than an hour with a teenager from Brentwood Middle School, helping him write a school report on Mayan astronomy. “I can’t meet with every kid in the city of Los Angeles,” he says. “But if I meet a kid who is motivated, who goes to the trouble to find me . . . I can’t risk [losing that kid]. . . . People invested in me, for God’s sake.”

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As usual, Krupp starts his tour at the solar telescope that stays fixed on only one star, our sun. It sends a live image of that nuclear furnace as it was eight minutes ago into the Hall of Science. Then student and teacher climb onto the observatory’s badly cracked cement roof for a view of snow-covered mountains, the Hollywood sign, the city laid out in long parallel grid lines below. “You’re at a junction between earth and sky that permits you to see the city,” says Krupp. “You can’t see the city from everyday life. But by its very location, by its meaning and its nature, Griffith Observatory does in fact elevate people.” By the time Krupp and his charge get to the Hall of Science below, they’ve accumulated a following of several dozen people. They can’t resist his rapid carnival-like banter. The Pied Piper of the stars lures them with the music of his own enthusiasm--always playing on fast forward. Together, they contemplate the Foucault Pendulum, a 240-pound swinging brass ball suspended from the ceiling--one of the first experiments to prove that the Earth does move. They watch a model “moon” revolve around them, figuring out the phases. They view Hubble Space Telescope images, view several cases of meteorites (including one from Mars) and “meteor wrongs,” as Krupp likes to call them--look-alikes that turned out not to be the real thing. Then, at 7:30, it’s time for the show in the planetarium, the sky within a sky. The projector crouches in the center of the planetarium like a giant insect, re-creating the sky forward or backward in time for thousands of years.

“This is the only place in the urban environment where you’ve got a chance at seeing the night sky,” Krupp says. “It is the one experience nobody else in town can deliver.” And it comes at a bargain basement price. Seventeen full-time people run the program for nearly 2 million visitors a year. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Krupp points out, has three times Griffith’s budget, and only a third as many visitors. The Hayden Planetarium in New York has five times the budget and only a quarter of the attendance. “There was a story in The Times about the LA Museum of Contemporary Art, and it mentioned that their staff is like 75 and their budget is $10 million, and I just had to laugh,” says Krupp. “I mean, their attendance was, oh, I think 400,000.”

These days, Krupp focuses almost exclusively on keeping his beloved observatory from falling apart. The sky is really falling. The roof leaks like the proverbial sieve. The seats in the planetarium--the very ones that James Dean sat in--sometimes stab unwary visitors with wayward springs, and the parts don’t exist to replace them. Krupp calls them “the most uncomfortable seats in the Milky Way.” Krupp’s first priority is to use funds voted by Angelenos in recent tax measures to fix the building and return it to its 1930s dignity and grandeur. That means replacing the 1964 Zeiss planetarium projector, so old it will be displayed as an antique when a new model takes its place. Then, if private funding can be found, Griffith will go underground, digging out new space for exhibits, classrooms and offices.

All this means Ed Krupp has had to pick up yet another profession: Raising money . . . spending money. The only reason the constant 12-hour days don’t bother him, he says, “is cause I get to do astronomy every day of the week. You know, it’s like a privilege.”

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