Later, Floyd

Laser rock shows at the Museum of Natural Science go the way of the dinosaurs

As the lights dimmed, everyone staring up at the faux starry-night sky on the ceiling of the Burke Baker Planetarium whooped and hollered. A young man seated along the western wall surreptitiously produced a silver flask from his coat pocket, imbibed, then reclined back in his seat, his body language a breathy sigh. Behind the rows of stargazers and in front of a gigantic mixing board, a tall, thin man darted around, flicking switches. He clicked one knob then leaned into a microphone, his straight, long dark hair drooping over his velvet button-down shirt. In his most masculine voice he asked, "We got any Pink Floyd fans in the audience tonight?" which ignited another raucous outburst of applause and yelps. He tapped at a couple more knobs and buttons, situated in reds and greens of pretzel logic at his fingertips, and a low bass tone throbbed through the air as a stack of red bricks appeared in the "sky." Everybody cheered. "Laser Pink Floyd: The Wall" had begun.

Laser rock shows, ummm, rock. Burke Baker has hosted these laser interpretations of pop music since 1986. For the past six months, Dartanian, with help from part-timer Zena Stardust, has handled most of the duties as resident "laserist." He is also operations manager of the laser shows, one of myriad infotainment offerings at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Every week, or at least every Friday for the Laser Floyd shows, people crowd into the planetarium and offer up their ears and eyes and everyday woes to the sounds of Floyd or Rush or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Beatles -- and to the designs of Dartanian, who dutifully pops in a preconfigured video of laser images and promptly tinkers with what appears on the planetarium dome, like a master rock producer. The results are Prozac pills for the ears.

Geometric shapes and patterns swirl in sync with sounds. Band logos and icons flutter into view at precipitous moments in songs. Dense forests of tiny static lights or huge planes of astral latticework envelop the viewer, making him feel as if he were flying through the cosmos. A marriage of sights and sounds, a laser rock show makes visual the intangible sonorities and colors of memorable melodies. It's a natural synthetic phenomenon.

Mother, do you think they'll like this laser image? Laserist Dartanian colors the Burke Baker "sky."
Deron Neblett
Mother, do you think they'll like this laser image? Laserist Dartanian colors the Burke Baker "sky."

But for the past couple of months, Burke Baker's laser rock shows have been the subject of considerable debate. The handiwork of HMNS and Laser Fantasy International, a Seattle-area company that essentially leases its programs to various planetariums across the globe, Burke Baker's laser rock shows have been -- with the exception of Laser Floyd -- unable to generate much heat. While Floyd-related shows have typically attracted strong attendance numbers, between 75 and 100 patrons per outing, says Laurel Ladwig, Burke Baker manager, others have been less than stellar. At "Laser Rush" not long ago, only four seats out of 200 were occupied. Earlier this month HMNS decided to end its contract with LFI. The last show will be Saturday, July 22.

LFI confirms, saying Houston was one of its weakest-selling markets, out of 20 worldwide: "At this point in time," says Rikki Rothenberg-Klein, LFI vice president of marketing, "Houston is not renewing….It's very amicable."

And sad. Laser rock shows have graduated from seriously pompous family entertainment to cool camp. The first company to set laser designs to music was California's Laser Images Inc., which birthed Laserium in the early 1970s. Some of the company's first performances were of the elegantly symphonic variety, mixtures of the maudlin melodies of Aaron Copland and Johann Strauss with the overblown, watered-down classicism of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Earth, Wind & Fire. The company's first rock show, Laserock, capitalized on the demand for the highly orchestrated sounds of bands like Yes, Genesis and the Alan Parsons Project, artier-than-thou acts whose material -- ever-shifting time signatures, mellifluous soundscapes and moody, moody, moody sonic atmospherics -- seemed prime for visual accompaniment.

Laserock debuted in 1977, the same year as Laser Fantasy International, which introduced a signature style to the laser rock idiom. Somersaulting squares weren't enough; LFI had to have swooping skies of triangle tornadoes. The company is one of the -- if not the -- largest laser rock show producers in the country, with host domes in 14 U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Boston and its home turf of Seattle. So long as classic rock radio thrives, so it seems will laser rock shows.

"The purpose of a laser show is generally, 'You're not quite sure what you're gonna get,' " says Tim Walsh, Burke Baker's original laserist and owner of Laser Spectacles in San Marcos. "It's the unknown. That's what people like. And it's our job to play on that when it happens."

Since laser rock shows underscore the postmodern sensibility that says a retro accouterment, like classic rock, blends perfectly with modern technology, like mind-reeling laser imagery, folks young and old are attracted to the combination. At recent performances of "Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall," crowds were made up mostly of teenagers. Which makes sense: This group seems to be LFI's target audience by virtue of the demographic's well-documented spending power and LFI and Dartanian's relatively straightforward presentations.

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