Man About Town: Our view of the cosmos from an L.A. hilltop

The Observatory makes you feel connected, or very small.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Do I turn you on to cool stuff or what? Last week, a great shave. This week, the cosmos. There isn’t really anyplace I won’t take you. OK, I won’t take you to Chuck E. Cheese’s — that’d just be cruel, pepperoni in the very corpuscles of the place. But any other destination is up for grabs, including the far outer suburbs of human understanding.

Tonight, Griffith Observatory, which reminds us that we are all — most probably — made of stardust, the scatterings of the big bang that occurred 14 billion years ago.

Whew, I knew I felt something.

Now, I’m a sucker for philosophical/spiritual/existentialist questions, the what-it-all-means stuff that infects dorm room discussions and Woody Allen one-liners. Griffith Observatory is a lab for such thinking, a place that humbles me more than court, or church or George Lucas flicks.


For instance, why is the cosmos expanding? And if it is, why can’t I find a decent parking space at the observatory?

In my experience, parking is getting worse, which goes counter to the conventional wisdom that the cosmos is creeping outward. There should be more parking, not less.

So, anyway, the little guy and I finally park, about half a mile down from the observatory on a busy Friday night, the skies clear as snow melt.

“Dad, I see the Small Dipper,” the little guy quickly says.


“And Christmas songs are still playing in my head,” he says.

He’s not a kid; he’s a jukebox. And he still likes hanging out with me. But he’s 10 now, and the clock is ticking on all that.

So before he turns surly, before he’s poisoned by hormones and thoughts of the freckled and fetching opposition, we take these little jaunts together across the sprawling seaside city in which he was born.

“Yep, that’s the Small Dipper,” I say.

Not to be confused with the Large (or Economy-Sized) Dipper, of course.

It is a winter night in Los Angeles — crisp and cool, what other places might call fall. In the distance, LAX. To the west, Santa Monica.


Look out across Los Angeles on these shimmery, 14-karat nights. What a party this place must’ve been in the ‘20s or ‘30s, all clear vistas, starlets and seersucker. What a party it still is.

Griffith Observatory first opened back then, in 1935 to be exact, and still graces these scrub-oak hills high above the city’s frictions — those slamming car doors, the awful bus brakes.

Sure, the observatory draws a horde. Doesn’t every place in L.A.? But it’s a manageable horde. A couple of goofs like us show up to the ticket booth just before the 7:45 planetarium show and snag two seats. Total price? $10.

Just for the record, let me get this off my big, insanely sexy chest: Griffith Observatory is two ticks to the right of spectacular. I think it is L.A.’s greatest landmark, built on moonbeams and curiosity, a glimmering Beaux Arts cathedral on the hill. Not just a science center, L.A.’s inspiration point.

Lean back some night in the planetarium’s comfy recliners and listen to guide Kelley Hazen, so poised and well spoken, so in command of this room full of strangers that you wonder why she isn’t off winning Oscars.

For the planetarium’s flagship show, “Centered in the Universe,” Hazen walks out carrying a simple glowing orb.



“We don’t have all the answers,” Hazen says, before the ceiling bursts with light and she launches into the best layman’s history of the cosmos you’ve ever heard.

“We filled the sky with stories,” she says of early attempts to explain the heavens.

“The stars do not dwell alone,” she says in introducing the mysteries of the planets.

From a deft, poetic script, she takes the stuffiness out of old standards such as Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo. She explains how Edwin Hubble, at his nearby Mt. Wilson lookout, turned his telescope into a camera and revealed millions more stars than ever.

Somehow, it is all of a piece, these heavenly notions — the myths of ancient man, the sonnets of Shakespeare, even the Christmas songs playing in the little guy’s head.

“We are stardust,” the wonderful Hazen says in summation.

See, told you.