Bright Lights, Big City: The Bid To Rescue a City’s Window to the Universe. (Personal Essay, History/Technology)

Some things are set in stone at an early age for some people. My grade three teacher must have recognized something significant in me for better, or more likely; for worse. On my annual report card she wrote in perfect blue ballpoint script, the way only grade three teachers can, the following summary of my tiny 8 year old brain. “Colm est un bon Ă©tudiant, mais il est toujours dans la lune.” Meaning; Colm is a good student, but is always on the moon. The die had been cast. The point of no return had unceremoniously been passed.

1984 The author, top row, second from left, pictured in 1984. Bold fashion choices and decidedly lunar ambitions.

There were two subsequent childhood experiences that began my lifelong love affair with science and space. The first was going to see James Cameron’s 1986 summer blockbuster film, Aliens. My mother took my friends and I one rainy summer afternoon, after being bamboozled by three unrelenting, hyperactive children. Against my mother’s better judgement, and despite it’s 18 plus restricted rating, my life was irrevocably changed that day inside our local cinema on Avenue Dorval in Montreal. The premise of the sci-fi/horror film incorporated marines in the future fighting off these incredible, seemingly indestructible, horrific H.R. Giger designed aliens. The film both terrified and repulsed me. It was fantastic.


The second thing that made me fall in love with space was the McLaughlin Planetarium. It was a kind of junior astronomy course for tykes I took the first year after my family and I moved to Toronto. The scene of the crime was the Royal Ontario Museum on University Avenue. For my parents, it was a way to keep my twelve year old self busy, I knew. Still, as there seemed to be not much else to do, having left my life behind in a city six hours by car away, I gave in.

Although there was a classroom element to the after school program, I have a vivid memory of the first day I was ushered into the planetarium’s main room and casting my eyes on the monstrous projector placed in the center of it. Huge, dark and menacing with big black eye balls in every direction, it looked to me like a giant robotic insect. It was straight out of the movie Aliens. I expected it to shoot acid or laser beams at me, incinerating me at any second. Petrified, I was sweating profusely in that darkened theatre, glad that it was so dark, so no-one could see how scared I was. And when I saw that night sky appear above me for the fist time, I was mesmerized. I didn’t understand how they did it. I still don’t.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAZeiss Planetarium Projector in Montreal, courtesy of Wikipedia. Similar to Toronto’s. Acid not included.

I revisited the planetarium in my teens, this time with far less educational ambitions in mind. This time it was to check out the Laser Floyd and Laser Bowie shows. The concept of these laser concerts, designed by a Florida based firm called Audio Visual Imagineering, was to showcase iconic music with an incredible, state of the art light show courtesy of the projector. Both shows literally blew the collective brains of my friends and myself.

I was thinking about both those two early memories when I first heard that they were going to demolish the building. It’s always in the presence of losing something forever, that you remember why it held so much value to you in the first place.

The planetarium first opened it’s doors October 26, 1968 thanks to a grant by Colonel R. Samuel McLaughlin, who founded one of the first car manufacturers in the country. It featured a thirteen foot, Zeiss Jena Projector designed in East Germany. It remained open for 27 years, allowing all of five million people a chance to gaze at stars and learn about the universe.

Ultimately, despite it being one of the only profitable North American planetariums in operation, it fell victim to one Mike Harris. The former grade seven math teacher and ski instructor turned Premier of Ontario had developed a so-called Common Sense Revolution; a platform styled after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. This resulted in many cuts, among them the historic planetarium. It was swiftly dismantled. The historic projector was reportedly sold to York University for the sum of one dollar.

The planetarium for me was the first time I was presented with a world outside of my own. It provided an escape and a sense of wonder that are such an important experience not just for children, but for people of all ages. In a city whose skies are obscured daily with fresh, rectangular towers of concrete and glass, and a world divided by politics, religion, and greed, shouldn’t we save a small spot where we have a chance to dream of something larger than ourselves?

The University of Toronto, which bought the building in 2004, are planning on razing the planetarium and erecting a cultural center. If you’re interested in helping out and signing a petition to prevent the McLaughlin from being destroyed and restoring it to it’s former glory, go here. There is also a Facebook page you can join and share with your friends, family and co-workers.

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