History of the EASTSIDE ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY -
THE FRIENDS OF THE PLANETARIUM:
-by Judy Mason,
Secretary & Newsletter Editor
C. Willard Geer founded our organization as "The Friends
of the Planetarium" in 1972, on the campus of Bellevue Community
College, (BCC). It was his drive and devotion to a cause he believed
in that made a planetarium at the college happen, and who gave
our organization a lasting sense of purpose that carries on to
the present day. Without his presence in the community at the
precise time of BCCs development, it is safe to say there
would be no planetarium there now. He was energetic in dedicating
himself to getting it built by writing letters, giving speeches
to encourage donations, and founding "The Friends" to
help. He spent many hours representing the college in presentations
to all facets of the community from the business level to the
school childs level.
Geer visited the seven school districts in Western Washington
served by BCC, and helped by members of "The Friends",
gave out attractive posters showing a medieval astronomer with
the caption, "Own a Star" to children for their donations.
Mary Geer, his wife also went on the lecture circuit, speaking
before clubs and community groups.
Dr. Geer's plan was that all school classes would be able to visit
the planetarium for free. He even figured out how much money could
be saved if the college would simply go unpainted in order to
use that money for the star projector. Nothing should stand in
his way, not even paint!
rolled in and were turned over to the college. Dr. Geer had invented
the color television tube, holding 14 patents on it from 1944,
and donated patent money to the cause unheralded. His letter-writing
campaign was successful in getting a $200,000 government education
grant for the planetarium, as well.
the planetarium was built and the $40,000 Model A4A star projector
designed by Spitz
Space Systems was installed in 1974, the government grant
dried up and there was no money left over for other needed equipment.
Items such as special effects projectors, a sound mixing panel,
a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and a lot of bare necessities such
as work lights for the back of the dome, dimmer switches, slides,
slide carousels, and the electronic wiring for all of it were
needed, so the real work of "The Friends" began. The
charter was to promote the BCC planetarium by assisting financially
in its operation, maintenance and improvement. Members began donating
their time in assisting the science staff by putting on public
planetarium shows in order to get enough for all those items needed
by new planetariums. "The Friends" gave BCC $2,800 in
1975 for use in the planetarium.
large and small telescopes (6-inch and 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrains)
and two 13.1-inch Dobsonian "Odyssey 1" telescopes would
be purchased for use at star parties and by the astronomy class
instructors. Money was set aside for a classic 14-incher with
the idea of expanding upward to build an observatory. The director
of plant operations at BCC agreed that the plan was sound and
that specifications were agreeable to the original architect.
A check for $4,400 was given to the college for purchase of the
14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope, but an observatory did not
materialize for more than twenty years, even though the president
of the college at the time, Dr. Thomas OConnell, had assured
"The Friends", in a letter, that BCC was moving to acquire
the necessary funding for a dome to house the telescope. Others
at the college in those days (1978) did not share the vision of
Dr. OConnell and "The Friends".
original directors of "Friends of the Planetarium" in
1973 were Dr. Willard Geer, Lois Watson, Joie Soper, V. Robert
Baker, Morris Weatherford and Everett Reagan. By 1974, the first
officers were Dr. Johan Telkamp (pres.), Dr. Eckart Schmidt (vice-pres.),
Everett Nelson (treas.) and Judy Mason (sect.). Instructor Jim
Rostirolla soon became the science divisions planetarium
director. However, BCC didn't have the funds to cover his salary,
so it was agreed that money donated by "The Friends"
could be used to pay him.
Geer arranged for the monthly meetings of "The Friends"
to be held in the planetarium and said that science department
teachers would present one hour programs at each meeting. He presided
at several of these, teaching how the sky looked from different
latitudes and teaching right ascension and declination to locate
constellations and addresses of stars among the 1,350 stars projected
on the 30-foot dome. He said that on the occasions when there
were lecturers, the star projector still would be used for a minimum
of 15 minutes at such meetings.
Thankfully, Dr. Geer lived to see his dream come true - school
children were visiting the planetarium regularly. Community groups
also were reserving the planetarium for free programs. "The
Friends of the Planetarium" were putting on shows for the
public ($600 profit given to BCC from the first years Christmas
shows alone) assuring that enough money would be available for
adding to equipment and updating things as needed.
Geer was such a dynamic teacher, only his family knew that he
was actually in frail health. He died in Aug. 1975, before BCCs
tenth anniversary celebration, held January 25, 1976. In connection
with the celebration, a special open house was held at 1:00 p.m.
to name the "Willard
Geer Planetarium" in his memory. His wife Mary was in
attendance. Dr. Geers sons Charles and Richard spoke for
the family as their fathers memory was honored. An overflowing
crowd for the event made it standing room only. At a special star
show following the dedication, BCC President Dr. Merle Landerholm
sat on an upturned wastebasket, the better to view the dome! Planetarium
star shows were held every 20 minutes all afternoon.
his many accomplishments, Dr. Willard Geer was the original
inventor of the color television tube, Bellevue Community
College's first Physics teacher, and the founder of the first
major planetarium in the Puget Sound Region.
year 1976 continued to be a very special one. Glorious Comet West
graced the eastern morning sky in early March. Member Bill Kelso
gave public telescope-building classes. The 8-inch telescope,
acquired by "The Friends", was taken along with BCC
astronomy students on the first of many field trips to a meadow
at Stampede Pass. Special public shows were held in spring, fall
and winter on various subjects and members drummed up publicity
by making television appearances on the old "Seattle Today
Show", or by being interviewed on Jim Frenchs KIRO
September, the Viking spacecraft touched down on Mars. President
of "The Friends", Dr. Eckart Schmidt, presented a public
show called, "Viking on Mars", to commemorate the occasion.
Dr. Schmidt had worked on the Viking Project as a propellant chemist
while at Rocket Research Corp. which built the Viking engines.
It was exciting to have someone at the forefront of science as
a Friends director!
admission to public shows was usually just $1.00 (nonprofit corp.!),
it took a lot of hard work on the part of "The Friends"
to make money, especially when Santa suits, special slides and
other equipment had to be purchased first. But that was okay too,
as it all added to the planetariums working inventory! Tickets
finally went up to $2 for adults, $1 for those under 18, and were
sold through Fidelity Lane, The Bon Marche Ticket Office, Bell,
Book, & Candle and the BCC Bookstore - and all but the bookstore
took a cut. The first shows that were presented included: "How
I Use the Stars to Find My Way from North Pole, Alaska to the
USA by S. Claus", "The Star of the East", 'Whose
Planet Is This?", "The Loneliness Factor", "The
Magical Universe", and "Viking on Mars".
April 1977, The Friends had given BCC over $40,000 for the planetarium.
No sitting on laurels! Ambitious plans for more and more new shows
were made. "You Were Born on a Rotten Day", a delightful
spoof on astrology was presented as a public show. "The Friends"
sponsored Boy Scout Explorer Post M-31 and they began writing
a public show of their own, called "The Star" that was
finally produced by Friends member Brian Parkhurst. Other star
shows that would be presented to the public included various versions
of "The Guiding Star", plus: "Springtime of the
Universe", "The Dawn of Astronomy", "To Worlds
Unknown", "Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico", "All
Systems Go", "The Universe of Dr. Einstein", "The
Last Question", "A Comet Called Halley", and "Starbound".
was such a beloved show that it produced $604 and was brought
back for showings that netted $640 and $818, all of which was
used to buy a movie camera and six new projectors to make a cove
scene around the planetarium dome.
proceeds from public shows was always "turned into"
equipment for more shows for the planetarium and the transactions
were not always duly noted. Many of the shows were made available
in those days by the American Chemical Society, the American Association
for the Advancement of Science and various planetariums such as
the Hansen in Salt Lake City. What many people dont realize
is how much work went into putting everything together for a show.
The editing, processing, and arranging of special effects is a
long, tedious process. Yet most of these classic show scripts
were so elegant that it would take little to update them for staging
in the present day. Okay, maybe not "little", but it
could be done by "The Friends'" members who made the
shows work; Eckart Schmidt, Brian Parkhurst, Todd Ullery, Pat
Terhune, Dave Inverso, Dorothy Day, Neil Beck, Larry Shea, Debra
Benton, Maia Mason, Chris Mason, Mary Olszewski, Becky Masters,
Robert Briggs, Jay Pennel, Joe Palmer, Bill High, Curtis Hruska,
and Jim Rostirolla. [Its risky listing names this way, so
email us if you have
an addition! In fact, if you have other memories for this history,
send them on as well.]
Brewer, author of a new book, "Eclipse", spoke at the
Feb, 14, 1979 meeting in preparation for the cosmic event of the
century, the Feb. 26 solar eclipse. Another standing room only
crowd was on hand, many of whom were also interested in joining
"The Friends" expedition to the town of Goldendale,
Washington, right in the path of totality. Member Bill Kelso made
all the arrangements for the 90 people who signed up for the trip
- accommodations in the town, such as sleeping on a gym floor
in the school (rising at 2:10 a.m. even though reveille was at
3:00 and totality wasnt until 8:15) with bus transportation
to Observatory Hill, and The Friends own pancake breakfast
after the event with Neil Beck as chef. For two days prior to
the eclipse (Saturday and Sunday) there were astronomers lecturing
at the Middle School, continuous showings of NASA space and astronomy
films, and eclipse workshops on the hour. The people of Goldendale
were dedicated to a "Total Experience of the Eclipse".
There wasnt a motel room to be had and so in the spirit
of the occasion, people took guests into their homes, planned
public dinners and did all they could to help. The Methodist Church
ladies got busy making pies!
That morning there was a low cloud bank to the east that, in the
words of Bill Kelso, eventually bracketed the Sun at totality
like a scene from a Cecil B. DeMille movie. For the over 2,000
people with passes to Observatory Hill, the eclipse was spectacular.
The shouting, the beauty, the glory of it, the genuine joy of
being together there on the hill, it seemed much more than the
Moon passing between Earth and Sun - the greatest Friends field
1 and 2 were launched to the outer planets and in 1979 just 5
public shows on the Voyager missions, "Voyagers to Jupiter
and Beyond", added another $278 to the planetarium funds.
Astronomy has always had a stake in the celebration of Christmas
because of the story of the star. The 1979, Christmas star shows
were well attended, as there was a lot more publicity than usual,
and the story of Willard Geer Planetarium shows actually showed
up in a newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!
In 1980 Mount St. Helens cast a definite pall on Astronomy Week
activities and canceled some trips to Eastern Washington for star
parties, although "The Friends" managed trips to Stampede
Pass that worked out well. This also was the year that some scientists
working out of Berkeley announced that the great extinction of
the dinosaurs was likely the result of an asteroid at least 6
miles in diameter having struck the Earth in the Yucatan 65 million
years ago. Those who lived through the St. Helens eruption had
little trouble understanding the plausibility or the ramifications
of an asteroid-extinction theory.
year 1981 saw the maiden voyage of space shuttle Columbia and
it looked as though the sky was no longer the limit - everyone
was celebrating. The "International Planetarium Society"
proposed showing support for US space presence by having planetarium
visitors sign a petition that would reach from the surface of
Earth to the edge of space or 5 x 106 inches at two inches per
name. The Friends considered sending them 83 feet worth of names!
In one year, from September 1985 to June 1986 expenditures for
the planetarium paid for by BCC and The Friends totaled $8,768.
Purchased were: a $2,000 projector system displaying creation
of the solar system; $100 worth of Apple Lab computer programs
for astronomy classes; a new $600 dinosaur show; planetarium brochures
for $1,500; $500 slides including all the new Uranus flyby shots;
a Nikon F3 photographic system for $1,292; Comet Halley flyers
and teachers guides for $100; $500 worth of components on
the aging star projector; and $300 for the Uranus flyby coverage.
Member Sid Swartz set up all the equipment and hung the new draperies
(cost?) without charge for labor. The Friends sold T-shirts and
sweatshirts with our club logo in 1981 and 82 and then again in
1985-86 with a picture of Halley's Comet, all to make money for
improvements were planned for the Spitz star projector after calling
Company to learn that new stars could be drilled into it for
only $14.95 a shot and that they had clusters of stars that could
be fitted into a ¼-inch hole. Right away everyone began
thinking about what stars they missed on the dome - M31 and that
star in the Water-jar, and so on.
Unfortunately, in September 1987 the planetarium was no longer
available for public show productions, so for the first time the
holidays went by without "Guiding Star" or Santa shows.
Dr. Geers dream wasnt ended exactly. New classes of
students would visit the planetarium and public could still enjoy
astronomy classes in the planetarium.
February 1989 "The Friends" had changed to become the
"Eastside Astronomical Society", now meeting at the
Puget Power Auditorium on 104th, in downtown Bellevue. It had
a movie theater-sized screen for videos, slides and opaque projectors
and best of all, it was free. After meetings, we could go to the
hill at nearby Kelsey Creek Park to have star parties. The fantastic
viewing system and screen were great, offering many options that
werent available back at the beloved planetarium. So the
relocation away from meeting at the BCC planetarium went, for
the most part, smoothly.
The Friends met happily at Puget Power until one day there was
some sort of coup with a power synergism of gas and electricity.
The new head of the company had the seats and theater system torn
out of the auditorium so it could became rather a large empty
hall with nothing but some chairs and a couple tables. It seemed
even more appalling than being booted out of the planetarium because
of the physical devastation of the environs and loss of ambiance
that was involved.
that one December meeting, the next meeting, in January 1998,
was held at Spiritridge Elementary School library, part of the
Bellevue School District, in the eastern part of Bellevue. After
the charms of a planetarium and the elegance of Puget Powers
lost auditorium, it took some time to become inured, but at least
for the first time, refreshments could be served. Somehow it seemed
suitable to meet in a public school because of the nature of the
"...to share a common interest in increasing the
understanding and appreciation of astronomy within the community"
Many of the members had taught, or were teaching astronomy to
students, and some of those lessons and lectures were at Spiritridge
The organization continues to have close ties to Spiritridge,
but due to scheduling difficulties, the September 2002 meeting
was moved to Newport Way Library, and, since the Fall of 2003,
meetings have been located at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue.
here for directions.
have had featured guest speakers, presentations on astronomy-related
computer software, the showing of video programs, slide-show presentations,
lively discussions - and a book drawing. Newcomers are always
There are currently about 135 regular members who sporadically
come to meetings because they belong in order to get the newsletter.
Members receive a six-page newsletter, which is published ten
times a year (July and August are vacation time, as we follow
the student fiscal year). Maybe it should be called the "Armchair
Astronomers"! The newsletter is non-provincial in order to
keep members abreast of the latest news in astronomy and space.
Among the readership are members of the University of Washington
Astronomy and Physics Departments.
Star parties have been held at nearby Kelsey Creek Park in Bellevue,
at Stampede Pass, Tiger Mountain, the Cougar Mountain Nike site
and Hans Jensen Park, though most of these suffer from too many
tall trees these days. Many of the members attend the three-day
Annual Table Mountain Star Party in Eastern Washington held in
late July or early August. Currently, star
parties are held at the Lake Hills Greenbelt Park - Phantom
Lake site about every other month.
a diverse group, mostly from within the Eastside area of Seattle,
members range from professional educators to aerospace engineers;
from amateur observers to freelance photographers. If you have
any interest in astronomy or space, we heartily welcome you, to
join us, and share in the excitement of discovery, and wonder
of exploring, our amazing universe.