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.
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.
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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.
For the song "Money," the tune's introductory sound effects of ringing cash registers and jingling coins were matched to images of -- you guessed it -- animated cash registers and bouncing coins (though the saxophone solo during which the George Washington profile on a quarter struts and squeals along on his own sax is riotous). Same as for "Run Like Hell." The refrain of "run, run, run, run, run" was paired with an image of a running man. As if seated in front of a Jim Carrey movie in which punch lines were as predictable as Antarctic weather reports, the young 'uns whistled and shouted along with every anthropomorphic conceit or expected turn.
"We play with people's minds," says Dartanian, whose birth name is J. Scott Guthrie. "I'm aware of the mind-set of the people in here, and I play off that."
The comfort that comes from watching a favorite song unfold in vibrant primary colors is what moved Dartanian to take up lasering in the first place. He had grown up in Houston on a steady diet of what LFI specializes in: Zeppelin, Rush, Hendrix and Floyd. After graduating in 1995 from Alief Hastings High School, where Dartanian discovered his love of theater's techy side, he worked for Main Street Theater for a couple years before taking a manager's position at the Starbucks off Shepherd near Highway 59.
With a friend from the coffee shop in tow, Dartanian chanced upon a laser Floyd show in the spring of 1998. "We were smokin'," he recalls, "and just lookin' for something to do." Both left Burke Baker impressed. After his friend died unexpectedly, Dartanian began to haunt the planetarium, showing up almost weekly in the hopes that, under the lasers and surrounded by the music, he could re-create the past, even if only for a moment. Landing his laserist gig was as simple as posing a question: He asked the laserist on duty for an application. "He couldn't believe it," Dartanian says. "He said, 'Nobody wants to learn.' "
Presenting shows is a power play -- between the laserist and the images, which are designed and programmed by the engineers at LFI headquarters. All LFI versions of "The Wall" are the same in every planetarium they inhabit, much like how all copies of, say, The Matrix are identical in rental stores across the country. Where the laserist gets to exercise influence is in the delivery. With a couple switch flicks, the laserist can change the size, color, direction and consistency of an image. Seeing as the U.S. Defense Department has just learned to zap ballistic missiles from the sky with these beams of light, such manipulation skills can be intoxicating. Dartanian defends his thumbprint on Burke Baker's laser shows like a junkyard dog his dirt. "Each knob and dial is three different effects," he says. "A subtle turn makes all the difference. Learning a laser is like learning an artistic palette .The laser is an instrument I play every night."
LFI and HMNS's arrangement began sweetly. The organizations were engaged in what LFI referred to as a gate-share agreement. LFI provided the equipment (including the shows themselves), the laserist and operations manager and advertising, while the museum provided the venue and ancillary support, like ticket takers and security. Both companies shared in the profits.
Those profits apparently weren't as high as some of the planetarium's other laser offerings, such as the edutainment "Powers of Time," which was regularly sold out throughout its five-month run earlier this year. About a month ago both HMNS and LFI began brainstorming on ways to improve exposure and get folks in the door. Both felt the planetarium had to compensate for its poor locale. While the science center gets its share of visitors, perennially ranking as one of Houston's top tourist attractions, it remains too far removed from the retail playlands of teens and young adults, people HMNS believed would have typically gravitated toward laser rock shows. Short from relocating the 36-year-old planetarium and the building that houses it, which underwent $1.5 million worth of renovations two years ago, the organizations really had no other options.
Not that HMNS is all that sad about the breakup. One of the reasons HMNS decided to part company with LFI, says museum spokesperson Debra Ford, is because Burke Baker upgraded its laser technologies. From three-fourths coverage, the planetarium's lasers can now cover the entire dome, which spans some 50 feet in diameter. That's one huge canvas and one that HMNS apparently doesn't want to waste on laser rock shows. "We want to move into sci-fi adventure," says Ford. "We want to utilize our full production capabilities." Says Dr. Carolyn Sumners, who has been an HMNS astronomer since the museum opened: "As we add [three-dimensional] images, we want a more interactive experience, more theater laser shows that appeal to a sub-population that doesn't visit the museum." Self-produced creations, 3-D works and educational programs will keep the planetarium's sky busy and seats full.
The atmosphere, however, probably won't ever be as melodious again.
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