Griffith Observatory’s first Director, Dr. Dinsmore Alter, recognized the role the Observatory could play in dispelling the public’s misconceptions about the natural world. These ranged from simple fear of the dark to the belief that celestial events were omens of disaster to confusion between astrology and astronomy. A series of exhibits were therefore created to explain basic sky phenomena with subjects that changed each month. Some titles of early planetarium productions included “Sky of a Winter Evening,” “The Moon, Our Nearest Neighbor,” “Worlds of the Solar Family,” “Eclipses,” and “Trip to the North Pole.” In 1937, Dr. Alter inaugurated the Griffith Observer, which has been published monthly without interruption to the present.
Soon after opening, the Observatory became one of the first such facilities to host regular school visits, beginning a rite of passage for many decades of school children in Los Angeles. When the Observatory closed in 2002 for renovation, 50,000 school children a year were visiting annually for such programs.
By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the Observatory had matured into a popular public monument and tourist attraction. The war would drastically change the activities of the Observatory along with the rest of Los Angeles. Dr. Alter, a colonel, and many other employees of the Observatory were called into service in early 1942, and Dr. Clarence Cleminshaw took over as Acting Director. Soldiers were garrisoned in Griffith Park, and a large air raid siren was set up adjacent to the Observatory. The planetarium did its part by training several squadrons of naval aviators to navigate by the stars.
The Observatory’s wartime schedule was limited to daytime to decrease nighttime traffic for fear that enemy ships and planes could use lighting to target the city. Despite the war, demand to see planetarium shows did not decrease. In fact, the limited schedule caused some shows to sell out as far as ten weeks in advance. Planetarium shows during the war were preceded by 15-minute presentations about the Pacific war zone, which took viewers from Los Angeles to Hawaii and then on to Japan and back to Los Angeles
Upon Alter’s return after World War II, he was cited by the press as believing that a trip to the moon would be possible within the next 100 years. His speculation that space travel was becoming a more realistic prospect had a great effect upon the focus of the Observatory, and planetarium shows changed from an instructional series focused on the basic tenets of astronomy to a dramatically new type of planetarium show, the first of which was called “A Trip To The Moon.” With this new format, Alter introduced a concept that would dominate the Observatory’s focus for the coming decade: space travel.
The efforts of Dr. Alter and his associates also served to legitimize the concept of space exploration by helping to educate and energize an entire generation of visitors. In fact, the presence and favorable reaction of the American Astronomical Society at the premiere of “A Trip to the Moon” marked one of the first times such a distinguished and professional group acknowledged the realistic possibility of traveling into space.
In 1958, at the age of 70, Dr. Alter retired after 23 years as Director of Griffith Observatory. He passed away in June 1968, just about a year before Apollo 11 would validate his prophetic vision of space exploration.