Road Trip Stop 1: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California.

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Photo by Eva Luedin / CC BY 2.0

I'm taking a road trip to points of interest in Southern California! The trip is being underwritten by Buick LaCrosse, which has also kindly provided me with the use of a Buick LaCrosse to drive during the tour. My first stop is the Griffith Observatory, in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.

The most important thing I learned on my recent visit to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles was this: If you have a 12-year-old daughter, don't say "moo" in the planetarium. Mine was mortified, even when I pointed out that I had the decorum to recite the famous one-word line from Rebel Without a Cause before the show had started. That just made things worse, she pointed out, because it meant the lights were on and people could see us. Fortunately, once the program commenced, my daughter became so caught up by the heavenly bodies projected on the dome that she forgot all about it.

I learned a few other things that day, too, thanks to a terrific 20-minute movie about the history of the observatory that was shown in the new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater located in its basement. Narrated by Mr. Nimoy himself, the film explained that the observatory owed its existence to a gentleman by the name of Griffith J Griffith. After coming to the United States as a young man in the late 1800s, Mr. Griffith had amassed a fortune in silver mining and began buying up huge swaths of land in Los Angeles, making him even richer. To thank the people of LA, he donated 3,000 acres to the city of LA for the purpose of establishing a world-class park (as it indeed has become).

In the film, Mr. Griffith is glowingly portrayed as a genial benefactor with a twinkle in his eye and a whimsical mustache on his lip. But when I got home and Googled Mr. Griffith, I found out some thing about him that Mr. Nimoy understandably left out.

In 1903, a besotted Mr. Griffith (a sneak-drinker who handily polished off two quarts of whiskey per day) tried to kill his wife by shooting her in the face. She survived by jerking her head at the last possible moment, but the bullet went through an eye, leaving her disfigured and half-blind. Thanks to a dream team of defense lawyers, Mr. Griffith served just one year in prison, where he whiled away his sentence making burlap sacks in the San Quentin jute mill.

In 1912, a universally-despised Mr. Griffith offered the City of LA $100,000 to build an observatory on the top of Mount Hollywood (it used to be called Mount Griffith until he went to the slammer) but the city council refused, accusing Mr. Griffith of attempting to bribe his way back into polite society. Undaunted in his efforts to go down in history as a kindly philanthropist, Mr. Griffith established a trust fund for the purpose of building the observatory (and the nearby Greek Theatre) after his death, which the city happily made use of to build both structures. Today a splendid statue of Mr. Griffith stands in the park named after him. In one hand he is not holding a pistol, and in the other hand he is not holding a bottle of whiskey.

The observatory was built on Mt. Hollywood in 1935, and is an architectural marvel of majestic grandeur that overlooks the city. It was completely renovated from 2002-2006 yet retains its classic magnificence because all the new space is located underneath the original structure. The impressive Focault pendulum with its 240-pound brass ball (take that, Alec Baldwin!), Hugo Ballin's awe-inspiring murals (dubbed "Griffith Observatory's greatest artistic treasure"), the solar system lawn model, and the Astronomers Monument continue to enrich civilization now as they did 75 years ago.