Laserium finds a vintage Hollywood home


Marla Maples has what appears to be an extremely bright green mole on her cheek. Actually it’s just a benign laser beam, straying onto her features as she stands inside the lobby of Hollywood’s venerable Vine Theatre. Technicians are hurriedly turning the 1937 movie house into the new permanent home of Laserium, which is returning to Los Angeles beginning Friday after seven years of being officially unplugged.

Maples was never among the hundreds of thousands of people who took the laser light show in during its 1973 to 2002 run at the Griffith Observatory’s planetarium. She’s stopped by the Vine to discuss a program she’s spearheading that will kick one-fourth of group-ticket sales back to charities. But she’s well aware of Laserium’s former reputation as L.A.’s most infamous stoner rite of passage. “I promise there’ll be no smoking going on,” she laughs.

Laserium founder Ivan Dryer admits there was a tacit understanding in the old days that some patrons might arrive already lit up. “I mean, I used to tag our ads ‘Be Prepared,’ ” he says, quoting a vintage 1970s catchphrase that didn’t necessarily refer to Boy Scout-approved prep. “But I think that there’s less consciousness now that that’s a necessity to be prepared for a Laserium show. We’ve always had G-rated shows, and we’ve always had a lot of family attendance, so we intend to push that as part of the nature of our brand.” It doesn’t hurt that Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Beatles -- the mainstays of the new venue’s initial rotating shows -- are now considered family heirloom hand-down material and no longer the stuff of head shop soundtracks.


If the wink-wink motto of the old Laserium was “Be Prepared,” at the new location they’ll be counting on impulse business from a lot of patrons who couldn’t come less prepared: the thousands of foot tourists who cross Hollywood & Vine every day, whose eyes may be caught by the beckoning outdoor beams that will soon dance across a curved portion of the old structure’s facade. “We’ll certainly get a lot of walk-ups here that we couldn’t get at the Observatory,” Dryer says. “You couldn’t walk up the hill in Griffith Park as a casual thing.”

But are once-reliable locals still guaranteed to remember, or care about, a phenomenon that’s been off the market for the better part of the decade? When the Observatory closed for renovations in 2002, the laser equipment went into mothballs, too, leaving wistful nostalgists to re-create the experience by spinning “Dark Side of the Moon” at home and sadly waving laser pointers at their cottage-cheese ceilings.

Some fans assumed Laserium would be back when the Observatory reopened in 2006, but the current administration had no interest. “The grant they received said essentially: education, not entertainment,” says Jonathan Todd, Laserium’s marketing vice president and chief evangelist. And a plan that year to move into the Spruce Goose’s massive dome in Long Beach never materialized. It was around then that the format’s backers literally stopped looking up and started looking ahead.

The Observatory’s snub “was a perfect nudge that allowed Ivan and his team to go to work in their incubator in Van Nuys,” says Todd, “developing a three-dimensional version of what was essentially two-dimensional in planetariums. It took a few years to develop that, because the coding for even a second of all this multimedia is massive.”

Walk into the Vine Theatre’s auditorium and you may be shocked at how much it still looks like the second-run movie house it was until late 2007. About 200 seats were removed to make way for a stage area and control panels in the rear -- but the 424 that remain are the same funky orange seats that moviegoers of a few years ago will recall. They don’t recline like the Observatory’s chairs, but they don’t need to: Producers insist the days of chiropractor-friendly neck-craning have come to an end, because all the action is at panoramic eye level. Each show starts with animations projected on the former movie screen, then expands the action to three semi-transparent scrims closer to the audience, two additional screens on the side walls, mirrors, and -- new to the Laserium experience, surprisingly enough -- real mid-air effects.

“We weren’t allowed to put haze in the planetarium to light up laser beams,” explains Dryer, “so we really couldn’t do beam effects very well there, which always frustrated us”

As a “second home” and “spiritual mecca,” the Observatory was “hard to let go of,” Dryer admits. (In an NPR interview a few years ago, he was more blunt about the separation anxiety, calling it “a stab in my soul.”) For close to a decade, starting in the late ‘50s, Dryer worked nights at the Observatory, picking up pegs in the pendulum pit and other odd jobs, while working as an experimental filmmaker by day. He first fell in love with lasers by accident, at a Caltech demonstration. “The color is so rich, unlike anything else you can find anywhere, film just can’t reproduce it,” he says. “I told myself, you know what? This is gonna have to be done live with a laser, in some kind of environmental setting.”

He set up his first crude laser demo for the Observatory in 1970, but was given a firm “no” for the same reasons Laserium wasn’t allowed back in circa 2006: Administrators saw it as pure entertainment, with no educational value. But in 1973, a younger and more receptive planetarium director saw the light, and a 29-year run began, with hundreds turned away by the end of the first week, even though the only publicity or advertising had been Dryer’s guest appearance on Ralph Story’s old morning TV show.

The new venue, which originally opened as the Admiral Theatre in 1937, has a panoply of celestial objects too -- just no constellations to contend with on the auditorium ceiling. The existing star motifs start with Laurence Olivier’s on the Walk of Fame sidewalk out front. You’ll also find colorful vintage neon stars beckoning from the underside of the marquee, added in a 1960s redesign that saw the Admiral undergo a name change to the Vine. Other cosmic elements are new additions. The lobby now sports a small, dome-like indentation in the ceiling, where a freshly painted black-light star field is augmented by the spacey lightning bolts of a Tesla coil -- “a little homage to the planetarium history of Laserium,” Todd says.

The core Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin shows are essentially 3-D modifications of the old 2-D dome shows. But they’ve added a previously unseen “LightDancer Experience” show that can be purchased in tandem with one of the traditional programs ($12 for classic show, $18 for combo); in it, customers take turns stepping under one of two hovering halos in order to control the entire theater’s music and lighting with every twitch of their body movements.

Another big switch that makes this not your baby-boomer father’s Laserium: the ability to present live bands, who may want to incorporate the “LightDancer” technology into their act. Several acts are already booked for 6-8-day engagements in the fall, starting with New Age mainstay David Arkenstone in September, and following with DJ Mobius 8 and Eastern European house/trance artist Ilone Europa.

Can Laserium bring more tourists to the eastern stretch of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame? Laserium’s backers are counting on attracting theatergoers who complain that there’s nothing to do before or after a show at the nearby Pantages, for starters. “There’s nothing else to do right here, and we’re a whopping 45-minute commitment,” says Todd. More critically, the new W hotel and retail complex are slated to open in November, putting hundreds of travelers’ rooms within a 20-second walk of the installation.

Nothing Laserium has added to the Vine interferes with the historic elements that remain preserved from the theater, and everything is easily removable. But the company also has a five-year lease, with an additional five-year option they swear they’ll be exercising come 2014.

“Everybody’s saying, how long you gonna be here?” says Todd. “Two weeks? No. A decade. We’re not going anywhere.” Spoken like someone who intends to make Laserium’s former hilltop hosts eat their stardust.