The Stars: Up Close and Personal

Wolff PlanetariumThis was the first week of the 2012 NCAA basketball tournament. Both local entries, Xavier and the University of Cincinnati, survived their first games and are playing tonight (Sunday). The week also contained Saint Patrick’s Day with temperatures in the 70s and a parade on the actual holiday. However, even amid all the madness, marching, and meteorologic magnificence, the highlight for me was sitting in a folding chair inside a seventy-five year old stone building.

Trailside Nature CenterTrailside Nature CenterThe building was the Trailside Nature Center in Cincinnati’s Burnet Woods. The chair was part of a circle surrounding the oldest planetarium west of the Alleganies. The WPA built the Nature Center in 1939. It didn’t have quite as many walls in those days and there was no planetarium. That arrived around 1950. Planetarium is the name of the precision projector; Not the building. This one, known as the Wolff Planetarium, is a Spitz A-1. The original unit, purchased for about $500, was an A model but somewhere along the line, it was sent in for repairs and came back an A-1. Maybe it was easier to replace rather than repair the broken unit or maybe the update was the best way to fix things or maybe it was a mistake. No one in Cincinnati wanted to chance asking. Another bit of luck seems to be behind the dome. While it is possible that the builders had a planetarium in mind (America’s first planetarium, the Adler Planetarium, opened in 1930.) there is, apparently, no evidence of that. In fact, the dome is just a wee bit short so that some stars get projected on the wall below the “horizon”. The building originally contained even more museum style displays than it does now and the dome was just part of the ceiling.

I’ve been to a few planetariums but most have been the typical late twentieth century set up with a recorded presentation and automatic/computerized positioning and all had seriously reclined seating that points your eyes to the artificial sky without your neck being involved. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Laying back in a nicely padded recliner is one of my favorite “activities” and swiftly stepping through seasons or centuries accompanied by carefully synchronized music and commentary is certainly entertaining and informative. But it’s not interactive and it’s not very intimate and it’s probably not as much fun as I had Friday night.

Trailside Nature CenterA good part of that fun can be directly attributed the Mr. Mike. Mr. Mike does the greeting, reservation list checking, and fee collection. He also pulls the curtain!, operates the projector, delivers the commentary, aims the (definitely not here in 1950) laser pointer, and occasionally punches buttons on a boombox to launch stuff like Also Sprach Zarathustra  and Here Comes the Sun. He also encourages and answers questions and prompts attendees to help with sound effects as he tells Greek, Roman, and Native American stories (“…and then the mother bear let out a deep growl.”). Constellations of the Zodiac were a big part of Friday’s show and Mr. Mike shared pointers on how to find several of them.

I don’t know if Friday’s audience was typical but I do know it was one of the most diverse I’ve ever been part of. That this was in a room with a capacity of twenty made it even more impressive. Five of the seats were filled by three rest home residents and their two attendants. They arrived in a lift equipped van and slowly made their way to the show on walkers. The park borders the University of Cincinnati campus and two seats were filled by a young couple who looked as if they might be students on a date. There was a mom-dad-and-two-kids family. There were two or three mothers with young children. There were black folks, brown folks, and white folks. Everyone was attentive and most contributed comments or questions. The kids did the best sound affects. The people from the rest home showed the most appreciation.

Mr. Mike’s helpfulness continued after the show. Outside, he identified the only star visible in the early evening sky as Sirius. The other two bright spots most of us thought were stars he told us were the planets Venus and Jupiter. You may find information on the internet claiming there are weekly shows with $2.00 admission. At present shows are held once a month and admission is a still bargain $5.00. Call  (513) 751-3679 for the latest information and to reserve your folding chair.

2012 Saint Patrick's Day Parade2012 Saint Patrick's Day ParadeOf course, I can’t just ignore Saturday’s parade. With the temperature at a record tying 74 degrees, the crowd was huge was the parade. I have not heard attendance estimates or the number of units but getting the parade out of the staging area took well over an hour and a half.

Thomas GriffinFormer Air Force Major Tom Griffin, one of five surviving Doolittle’s Raiders, was the parade’s Honorary Grand Marshall. I’ve always thought that “honorary” meant “not really” and I’ve never figured out what a parade’s Grand Marshall does except ride and wave. In other words, Grand Marshall seems like a rather honorary position so the title Honorary Grand Marshall seems something of a slight. I hope I’m over thinking it. Major Tom was one of the things I was looking for in the parade. I got this so so shot through the crowd at the turn onto Fifth Street then moved ahead in hopes of getting a better picture. After working my way through the crowd at Fountain Square and beyond, I discovered that the car he was in had disappeared and that the real Grand Marshall, whose name I failed to note, had bailed out of his ride. I gave Griffin the benefit of the doubt and thought he might not have felt up to traveling the whole route. But I’ve since seem a photo of him standing at the reviewing stand and I’m guessing the the real GM is there, too. I heard “Where is he?” comments from the crowd beyond the Square so I know that others wanted to see the hero as well. I’ve never studied the subject but this is the first time I’ve been aware of Grand Marshalls of any sort not finishing a parade. If it was Griffin’s decision — if he wanted to see the parade from the front row — I’ve no complaint whatsoever. He has more than earned the right to get out of the car anywhere he pleases. However, if anyone else at all came up with this idea, you should probably apologize for leaving more than half the parade route asking “Where is he?”

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