The Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater: the Early Years, and Before

By Greg Bear

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In the late 1960s, when I was seventeen and fresh out of high school, my father arranged with Bill Bridge, a fellow retired Navy officer, to have me audition at the San Diego Air and Space museum in Balboa Park as a weekend lecturer. Bill handed me a script and sent me onto the stage of a small, cozy theater, in one corner of that wonderful old museum--filled with artifacts of San Diego’s aviation history. Major displays included a facsimile Spirit of St. Louis and sixty other aircraft through the Vietnam era, while smaller, delightfully antique science exhibits showcased traveling displays of meteorology used by the Navy in state fairs. There was also a fabulous library packed with books and art and original documents--a reservoir of airplane lore going back decades.

In this primitive science theater, with a 2D solar system display and a rear-projection slide show, I delivered my first science lectures. At first I kept to the script, but within a couple of weeks I was ad-libbing my own shows, putting my own slides on display, and taking hapless tourists and San Diego enthusiasts on cosmic explorations... most of which, I remember, were pretty accurate and reflected my school textbooks and science reading. They were also wildly free-ranging and reflected the influences of a lot of science fiction reading, including Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon. The audiences were pretty supportive and asked a lot of cool questions, and so, by the end of that first summer, I had overcome any lingering shyness about public speaking and established my own style, three to five lectures a day on  weekends and some holidays. To this day, I have no trouble getting up before audiences and ad-libbing.


Fleet Space Theater circa 1973

(Click on each photo for a larger view)

This job was my gate  into the employee lineup for the soon-to-be-built Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater, which began construction in 1972, and promised to be one of the most spectacular theater/planetariums and science museums in the nation. I could hardly wait.

During this idyllic prep period, two fine gentleman who worked the rather sparse and studio-focused LA special effects scene  came into the small planetarium theater and "auditioned" for a place to display their science movie and effects work.  Dennis Muren and Tom Sherman had put together a very nice 16mm film about the solar system and were hoping to sell it to museums, including ours. No luck with the San Diego folks, however. (Dennis and Tom's film was very similar in subject and execution to the first major show placed in the Fleet Space  theater when it was finished, but no spaceships...)


Star Ball

The opening of the completed Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater was an amazing moment both in cinema history and in the history of science museums. The Space Theater itself featured a huge Omnimax projection system--similar to the IMAX system, but meant to be projected onto a hemispheric and tilted theater/planetarium dome. It also showcased a magnificent Spitz Space Transit System star projection system to handle the planetarium functions, supplemented by numerous slide projectors and a multi-channel JBL sound system arranged around the porous dome, to surround the audience both in sound and spectacle.

I was enchanted, and felt myself privileged to be called upon to help run the shows from a large console positioned above, to the left, and behind the audience. Not willing to completely give up my lecture experience, I ad-libbed "spaceship" themed show announcements to call ticket-holders into the theater when it was time for a show. I helped set up and perhaps even write some of the science center exhibit cards.

I also wanted to script new programs for the facilities, but my earnest endeavors met with little interest from the producer/director and his staff. They had their own ambitions!


Colin Cantwell - Moon Set

The first production given this full multi-media treatment was Voyage to the Outer Planets, a tour of the solar system beyond Mars. The script postulated that the futuristic spaceship Delta V (referring to change in velocity) was about to take the entire theater full of patrons on a tour around the outer planets. Mind you, this was in 1973-74, concurrent with the Pioneer probes but before Voyager, and so it all had to be done with special effects--and that task was assigned to Colin Cantwell's Graphic Films. Cantwell had worked on 2001: a Space Odyssey and was assisted by John Dykstra. Both would later move on to Star Wars; but for the time being, their work, showcased on a huge format screen, offered the most technically accurate film experience since 2001 itself.

A fair number of celebrity visitors showed up to experience the Space Theater and Voyage to the Outer Planets. Douglas Trumbull, always interested in new film technology, was given a tour by planetarium director Michael Sullivan and Joseph Herrington. I recall that Stanley Kramer came through one time. Philippe Cousteau also dropped by for a visit. Later, after I was removed from the theater team, I introduced Chuck Jones and his wife Dorothy to the theater's backstage workings.


Delta V Around Pluto

For me, spending those long hours under the star dome, watching and re-watching Voyage¸ made me intimately aware of the spaceship and the planets and moons that made up our circuit of the outer solar system. The model of the ship shown here was equipped with a rotating habitat for the (unseen) voyagers; it was in fact mounted on a record turntable.* The beautiful depictions of moons and planets were made by shaping great oblate spheroids and carefully spray-painting them in technically convincing colors based on telescope photographs.  (In one black and white photo, you can see Jupiter resting under a plastic cover in the background while Cantwell films a Jovian moon.)

I do not know if there's any place in the world today that can replicate this show in its full glory. The Fleet Science Center is  still active and open in Balboa Park.  In 2001, the Spitz starball was replaced by newer projectors. The original Omnimax film projector and its fish-eyed lens  remains, and still projects Imax short subjects, to supplement new planetarium shows.

The original Air and Space Museum, housed in an old 1916 building, burned to the ground in 1978, taking with it a huge collection of San Diego's amazing aerospace history and the lovely little theater where I cut my teeth on public science lectures. I do not know if the moon rock on loan from NASA in the early seventies was still on exhibit when the building caught fire.

Today, a newer Air and Space Museum resides in the Ford Building, another, safer historic structure, and features a larger collection of documents, artwork, and aircraft.


Jupiter and Delta V

After I left the Space Theater, my article on the whole effort appeared in Vertex. Before I left, I drew up a pen and ink depiction of the Delta V for a newspaper ad, and narrated a television ad. My stable of talents included far too many horses, and a far-too-youthful enthusiasm, to make me popular among some of the folks who worked there.

Soon, a lot of them moved on as well. I've kept in touch with several.  And I've told Bill Bridge how important his help was in those early days.

A few years later, Voyager flew by Jupiter and knocked our socks off with the astonishing texture and details of the planet and its system of moons. I attended the JPL Voyager events first as a science fiction writer, part of a group organized by Jerry Pournelle, and then as a journalist working for the San Diego Union-Tribune. The images sent back by Voyager were, of course,  wonderfully new and surprising, and yet very familiar to me.

In my imagination, thanks to my many dozens of hours in the Fleet Space Theater, I had already been there!

These scans are from massive Omnimax frames included in a press kit from the opening days, as well as scans of 8x10 glossies. They give us an excellent glimpse into special effects history, after 2001 and before Star Wars!

*The Delta V made a brief cameo in the 1976 film Futureworld, sequel to Westworld.  It shows up under a plastic dome as part of an architectural rendering of the space journey offered by the Delos amusement park. I don’t know if the turntable still works!

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