The comfy, blue-cushioned chairs that have lined the floor for a decade are gone from the Wausau School District Planetarium at Wausau West High School. They’re now up for sale to the public. And the space that was the planetarium for more than 40 years is unrecognizable, currently in the throes of a complete ground-to-ceiling update.
Most notably gone is the massive, iconic 1968 workhorse star projector, which would rise mightily from the floor of the theater for a show, filling the dome’s dark surface with “stars” so realistic they seemed to twinkle.
The remodel includes adding a newer, high-resolution digital projector, making the planetarium one of the top smaller venues in the state of Wisconsin. While planetarium director Chris Janssen is thrilled about the upgrade, it was tough letting go of the classic projector. “It was a very, very hard decision to pull it out,” says Janssen. “Optical stars are gorgeous.”
He wanted to be sure. So, for a couple of months, Janssen did blind tests on customers, teachers and students. “I asked them if they could tell if the stars were digital or optical. Sixty percent of them couldn’t tell and I knew we were on the right track.”
What’s in store, he says, will be phenomenal.
The facility has become a local darling, ever since Janssen started a pilot program in 2014 offer planetarium shows to the public—for example a PG-13 rated program about constellations and ancient mythology. The theater even was a setting for at least one wedding proposal.
One thing led to another and the stars aligned, so to speak, starting last year when the Walter Alexander Foundation of Wausau approached the school district hoping to fund a community-based project. The district asked staff for ideas and Janssen proposed the modernization and upgrade to the planetarium. This was chosen for the grant.
“We believe a lot of our mission is to promote education,” says Dr. Fredrick Prehn, who sits on the foundation’s board. “We were really impressed with him [Janssen] and he has this vision… This can really inspire students here as well as other districts and other organizations. It’s going to be an expanded educational opportunity.”
Prehn has a personal connection to the planetarium. His father sat on the school board when Wausau West was built in the 1960s, he says. “My father said, ‘We mandated two things: That one, they had a pool at John Muir, because the west side needed one; and that the city have a planetarium.’”
Janssen's plans for adding a better star projector expanded into a total planetarium overhaul using $230,000 from the foundation grant and approximately $100,000 from the district to improve accessibility to the theater.
“It was a symbiosis of three things,” Janssen says, “People's interest (community and classes), the leadership of the school district, and my expertise.” Previously a teacher, Janssen since 2014 has been the full-time planetarium director—the first time a staff has been devoted solely to the facility.
The old planetarium had a non-tilted dome and a flat floor. “You had to look up at an unnatural angle,” Janssen says. The new room will be angled with raised seating and an arched dome. “Normally the domes are tilted to 10°” says Janssen. “I wanted 12°, which the company had never done before on a dome this small. So we now have the highest tilted Astro-tech small planetarium dome in the world.”
Seating decreased from 54 to 44, “but before there were 19 seats that were not really good,” Janssen says. “The room is configured in some spots within inches to optimize every last drop and penny of space.”
The new dome and seating arrangement will make people feel like they’re actually in space, Janssen says. Plus, the new sound system “is going to kick butt.”
Annually the planetarium has about 15,000 visitors and Janssen expects this number to increase significantly when people experience the new theater.
Since he was a kid, Janssen has been captivated by space. When talking with him or going to the planetarium, it’s easy to get drawn into his contagious love of astronomy. “Stars are innately tied deep within us,” he says. “Whether it’s a newspaper story or a NASA project or a rocket launch, there is something that is pure and deep within us.”
Shows will be similar to what has been presented in the past but with better viewing and with better resolution. The new and improved planetarium should be ready to open in October.