At Planetarium, It’s Not the Same Old Sky

New York Times

By Aileen Jacobson

CENTERPORT, N.Y. — Standing behind the complex instrument panel that controls the gleaming Konica Minolta GeminiStar III projection system, Lorraine Vernola looks as though she could easily launch a spaceship, what with all the buttons, switches, computer screens and flashing lights in front of her. And in a sense, she can, at least virtually, for audiences inside the newly refurbished planetarium at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, the 43-acre former estate of William K. Vanderbilt II.

“This is the best spot in the house,” said Ms. Vernola, the assistant director of public programming. She was in the domed planetarium building that was added in 1971, on the site of Vanderbilt’s tennis courts.

(The centerpiece of the estate is his 24-room Spanish Revival house, completed in 1936.) The planetarium, which has just had a renovation that kept it closed for a year and a half, reopens to the public on March 15, but Ms. Vernola has scheduled her first school-group presentation for Thursday.

The renovation cost $4 million, of which $3.2 million went to the new projection system, which includes video and surround sound; constructing the pit into which it retracts; and lighting inside the room. The rest paid for costs like paint, new seats, a new ticketing system, lobby improvements, repairing roof tiles and renovating heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

David Bush worked the console of the planetarium's projection system, showing Orion. (Photo credit: Michael Kirby Smith for the New York Times)
David Bush worked the console of the planetarium’s projection system, showing Orion. (Photo credit: Michael Kirby Smith for the New York Times)

As Ms. Vernola demonstrated the round blue Infinium L star projector in the center of the room, part of the GeminiStar system, Lance Reinheimer, the Vanderbilt’s interim executive director, said, “You’d think that you were lying on your back outside.” The projector can throw out more than 300,000 fiber-optic points of light to simulate the Milky Way. It can also project 15,300 additional stars in more detail, Ms. Vernola said.

The equipment doesn’t just show the mythical figures that constellations are named after, but also animates them, she added. “Orion the hunter can use his club,” she said. “Taurus the bull can charge at Orion. Leo the lion can roar.”

The system has far more features and flexibility than the 41-year-old one it replaced, Ms. Vernola said. With its two flanking video projectors, it can simulate going up in a spaceship to visit the stars, the Moon and other planets. For young children, the trip might include the “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Elmo as projected guides.

Ms. Vernola said she and her colleague David Bush, the planetarium’s technical and production coordinator, were co-authoring the live shows that they create, which she narrates for school groups and he for Friday evening shows geared to adults and families. The Friday shows, based on what can be seen over Long Island that evening, are followed, weather permitting, by a visit to the planetarium’s observatory in the same building for viewing the sky through a powerful three-year-old telescope.

Other weekend shows at the Vanderbilt Museum were produced by planetariums in Britain, China and the United States. “One World, One Sky,” aimed at young children, stars Big Bird and Elmo with their friend Hu Hu Zhu, who lives in China. “Solar System Odyssey,” for children ages 10 and older (though it depends on the child, Ms. Vernola said), takes a journey through the solar system and features animated characters. “Stars,” for adults and families, combines some animation with real images to illustrate the creation, life cycles and destruction of stars. It is narrated by the actor Mark Hamill, with the Nashville Symphony performing part of the soundtrack.

For live or customized programs, either Ms. Vernola or Mr. Bush is at the control console, she said.

“Children hold onto their armrests when I crank up the sound,” Ms. Vernola said. “They really do believe they’re flying.” She can also simulate an oncoming shower of asteroids. “I love hearing them scream,” she said. Audience members sit in 147 new plush reclining seats.

In addition to family and group visits, Mr. Reinheimer said, the planetarium will be able to host corporate and other events. The star-projecting globe can be lowered below the sightlines of visitors, whose numbers can be increased to 160 with folding chairs, and a raised stage can be used for presentations, including concerts, plays and lectures.

The lobby, which will hold exhibits as well as a ticket booth, has blue-gray walls and a dark blue carpet, a color scheme that Mr. Reinheimer said was coordinated by Claudia Dowling, a Huntington interior designer who donated her services. The lighting will be dimmed when visitors arrive for shows, he said, to acclimate them to the darkness in the auditorium. (It will not be quite so dark for children’s shows, Ms. Vernola said.)

On a recent visit, one wall of the lobby was being decorated by Jennifer Karow, an Oyster Bay decorative artist who also donated her work. As she primed the wall, she said it would depict “some larger galaxies” using sequins, sparkles, shiny glass beads, rhinestones, glitter and silver leaf. “I want to create a ‘wow factor,’ ” she said.

The main reason for the planetarium renovation, mostly financed by Suffolk County, is to increase the number of visitors to the museum and, thus, its income, Mr. Reinheimer said. The out-of-date equipment wasn’t attracting as many individuals or groups as the museum wanted, he said. “As it aged, visitation dipped,” he said. That drop began long before the museum faced a fiscal crisis a few years ago that threatened its existence. The crisis has been resolved, he said, through reduced spending and additional money from the county, fund-raising and other efforts to increase attendance and membership. The renovation plans, he said, “have been 15 years in the making.”

The planetarium now can also better fulfill its other original goal, he added, which is to further the spirit of exploration and education held dear by Vanderbilt, who collected and displayed all kinds of artifacts and specimens — including a shrunken head, an Egyptian mummy and thousands of examples of marine life, for which he built a separate Hall of Fishes in 1922 — from numerous voyages around the world.

“We feel that if he were alive today, he would have approved of our teaching about celestial navigation,” Mr. Reinheimer said. With the new equipment, which accepts satellite feeds from NASA, he said, “we can travel to the outer limits of the universe as we know it.”

The Planetarium at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport, will be open to adults and families Friday through Sunday from March 15 through June 16, with days added in the summer. During the day, shows are $5 in addition to museum admission, $3 to $7. In the evenings, when the museum is closed, show tickets are $7 to $9. Information: (631) 854-5579 or

NYT Source

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