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The cosmic messenger

Times Staff Writer

AS a group, astronomers have been known to disagree now and again. But they long ago reached consensus on a name for the persistent and singular phenomenon that was first sighted at Griffith Observatory in 1969. They call it Ed.

From more than three decades of observation, Los Angeles sky watchers know this phenomenon’s appearance is typically heralded by the approach of an aged turquoise Chevrolet Camaro. At the wheel will sit a slight but indefatigable man with a mustache, rimless glasses and, most likely, a garish tie with a planetary theme. This is Edwin C. Krupp, 61-year-old UCLA PhD, author, archeo-astronomer, cosmic showman, comic-book collector and director of the Griffith Observatory for the last 32 years.

“It works,” Krupp said recently of the Camaro, which he bought new in 1968. “I’m comfortable with it. I can get it fixed. And every day, someone either admires it or offers to buy it.” Besides, Krupp said, if it can last another 59,000 miles, his odometer will match the diameter of the moon’s orbit around Earth -- 480,000 miles.

This may not sound like conventional astronomy, but it’s classic Krupp. Since stepping up from a curatorial position to take the reins of the observatory in 1974, he has taken a cue from the neighboring Hollywood sign and made it his mission to integrate popular culture and astronomical awareness every chance he gets. Now, with the landmark Griffith Park facility reopening Friday after four years closed and $93 million in upgrades, his philosophy and habits have never been more visible.

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“This project has been fluid,” Krupp said, sidestepping office clutter to reach his desk. “The minute you pause, you start creating more problems down the line. So you have to make decisions.”

Though Krupp moved into this office in May, the room around him was crowded with unpacked boxes. On the walls, back issues of Sky and Telescope and National Geographic shared shelves with action figures of Albert Einstein and a Marvel Comics character called Doctor Strange.

Comic books “are essentially mythic, so that interests me,” said Krupp, who buys about a dozen per month. “I’m interested in belief systems. I’m interested in symbolic representation. I’m interested in compressed language.”

Indeed, Krupp spouts sound bites the way black holes suck cosmic matter. During a tour of the new planetarium, he suggests that the old wooden headrests may have violated the Geneva Convention. Asked how the observatory is handling the debate over Pluto, he proposes fluctuating display of the planet count, “like the sign that shows the number of hamburgers served at McDonald’s.” Resisting the trend toward all-recorded planetarium presentations, Krupp announces that he’s sticking with live lecturers because “this place isn’t about astronomy -- it’s about astronomy and people.”

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His books are that way too. He’s written several that focus on the role of astronomy in human belief systems and several for children, which bear such titles as “The Comet and You.”

Mark Pine, who worked as deputy executive director of the Friends of the Observatory before joining the observatory staff in recent weeks, said recently that he sees three archetypes reflected in his new boss: Carl Sagan, the scientist and public-television popularizer; Griffith J. Griffith, the donor who believed a century ago that looking through a free telescope could change a person’s life; and the Energizer Bunny.

“He has a different way of looking at things,” said Paul Knappenberger, president of Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who has known Krupp through more than 20 years of professional conferences and shared eclipse expeditions on land and sea.

“At first, you might have a tendency to underrate him, because he is such a character. But under the flamboyance, there’s a love of the sky and a desire to share that with anybody who will listen to him,” Knappenberger said. “He’s really made that a physical reality there at the new Griffith.”

Still, Krupp does not enjoy universal admiration among those who tote telescopes. Stung by his recent decision to recruit actors unschooled in astronomy to serve as narrators for the new planetarium show, some local astronomers, including Pasadena City College professor John Sepikas, say Krupp has “gone Hollywood,” dumbing down the institution’s offerings.

Krupp responds that he wants good communicators, whether they have astronomy degrees or not, and that there’s now room for more sophisticated discussions outside the planetarium show.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him stumped,” said Andre Bormanis, a science consultant and story editor for the “Star Trek” television franchise who collaborated with Krupp and artist Don Dixon on the new planetarium show’s script.

Because of the way most academics specialize, “most PhD astronomers couldn’t find Ursa Major if their lives depended on it,” Bormanis said. “Ed can identify every constellation in the sky and tell you the history and mythology of that constellation from ancient Greece through the Chumash.”

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Krupp traces his astronomical inclinations to his youth in the suburbs of Chicago. His father was an engineer who worked for Lockheed and Rockwell on defense and space-program projects, including the Apollo program.

But those weren’t the only astronomical influences on the boy. At 8, Krupp remembers, he opened a volume called “Ski-Hi” and found a fable about a boy who leaves his room at night to visit the planets and learn of their properties and earthly mythologies. The book so “haunted” him, Krupp said, that he hunted years before finding a copy in 1994. He made it a 50th birthday present to himself.

Still, as an ambitious astronomy graduate student at UCLA, Krupp didn’t have much use for the populist programs at Griffith Observatory. It was only after repeated nudges from a professor, Krupp recalled, that he sought out a position as part-time lecturer in 1969. And when he faced a planetarium full of 600 schoolchildren for the first time, “it was horrifying ... I thought, ‘This is really not for me. It’s show business, not astronomy.’ ”

But before long, Krupp realized that as a public astronomer, “what you can do is affect people emotionally and intellectually. And you can see it happen, live.”

Soon Krupp had his doctorate and a curatorial job at the observatory. Then when the top job opened up, city officials asked him to take over as acting director. In 1976, the job became his in full, and it was only a few years later that he started campaigning for a major renovation -- the same renovation that is now, at long last, nearly complete.

“Once this building gets its grip on you, you begin to be transformed,” said Krupp, whose city salary is about $118,000 yearly. “I’ve seen it happen over and over.”

But since his early years as director, Krupp has also been slipping out of town frequently to pursue a parallel career. As an archeo-astronomer, he analyzes and leads tours to stargazing sites used by ancient cultures worldwide.

Krupp estimates that he’s visited 1,800 astronomy-related archeological sites, from established landmarks like Stonehenge and Machu Picchu to far-flung rock-art sites in southwest China and an “alleged Sabian planet shrine” in the Turkish desert.

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Krupp, who is divorced with a grown son, lives in an Eagle Rock Craftsman bungalow. Some people, he knows, see him as an eccentric. He sees himself as a skeptic in the most healthy sense, especially when it comes to technology.

Hence his car, which continues to function and therefore doesn’t need replacing. Hence his long resistance to buying a cellphone, even amid the round-the-clock drama of high-stakes fundraising and construction.

And hence the evolution of his music library. Through the late 1980s, while the rest of the world was beginning the switch to CDs, he stuck with records and a turntable -- until 1990, when Bob Dylan released “Under the Red Sky” and Krupp discovered he couldn’t get it on vinyl.

“I actually have to have a need for technology before I acquire it. Technology is always more complicated than you think it’s going to be,” he said. But, he quickly added, “any place where we need the cutting edge, we get it.”

And so, he said, the observatory was among the first city agencies to buy personal computers in the 1980s, one of the first to get an Internet connection in the 1990s and one of the first to build a website soon after.

“He’s got a scientific mind that requires data,” said Camille Lombardo, 14-year executive director of Friends of the Observatory, adding, “This is not a job for him. It’s way beyond that.”

And for all his skepticism, Krupp does change his mind when the facts, space-based or otherwise, seem to require it.

This year, when talks got serious about bringing Pine aboard as his new deputy director, Pine approached his prospective boss with a key requirement. He’d come aboard, he said, if Krupp would start carrying a cellphone.

Pine got the job. The phone, Krupp promises, is coming soon.

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chris.reynolds@latimes.com


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