Erie Planetarium History, Part II

Jim Gavio, Director, Yahn Planetarium of Erie

Monday Mar 7th, 2022

Read Erie Planetarium History Part I

From the 1960’s up through the 1990’s, the Erie Planetarium was operated by the Erie School District, Gannon University and the Erie County Historical Society.  At its beginning, a Planetarium committee was formed in order to get the Planetarium properly operating on a regular basis for the public and potentially thousands of kids, some local amateur astronomers and Behrend professors (called lecturers) were recruited to participate. Among other things, the committee developed lesson plans for various aged school children, trained local teachers to give “sky talks” for visitors and maintained a Planetarium budget and schedule.  The Planetarium lecturers also trained new talent to operate the facility.  Since Behrend professors were, and some still to this day are called lecturers, this terminology continued to be used for succeeding employees of the Planetarium until about 1998 when Jim Gavio changed the structure to include a director which oversaw student workers from local colleges and a few volunteers.

One of the original committee members, Louis Balmer, was a chemist at Behrend Center. His name currently exists on a building at the Behrend campus and is part of the School of Humanities & Social Sciences.  Another Behrend lecturer was Gordon Baker.  He was a physicist & responsible for the construction of the first observatory on the Behrend Campus which is still in use.  During the 1960’s, many teachers & community members were trained in giving programs in the Planetarium.  Mr. Richard Windsor was in charge of training and was assisted by Mr. Gordon Baker and Mrs. Falkenhagen who was also from Behrend.  By the time the Planetarium was operating, there were about 20 lecturers ready to go. In the first month of operation the Planetarium had seen over 2000 visitors.

When the Planetarium turned one year old in 1961, there was a celebration. The Planetarium had seen over 17,000 people in one year. The Erie School district would bring as many of their students as possible to this new and exciting Erie attraction.  According to some early brochures, there were 6 public shows every weekend. The showtimes were Friday night, Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. As the decades went on and families became busier, showtimes were reduced to one or two days per weekend.   The cost was originally 25 cents per child and 50 cents per adult.  Show topics included celestial navigation, Native American star stories, meteorites, dinosaurs and more.

In the 1980’s Gloria Rall took over operation of the Planetarium.  She kept the Planetarium running with many public shows and school groups.  Gloria went on to work at other planetariums around the country and was continually active in planetarium circles.

In the early 1990s, Gannon University took over the operation of the Museum & Planetarium.  During this time, the planetarium lecturer was Ray Grabowski.  Gannon University, Ray Grabowski, the local chapter of the National Space Society with leader Ed Longnecker upgraded some electrical systems and special effects in the Planetarium.  Around the mid 1990’s Gannon eliminated its physics department and its classes at the Planetarium. The Planetarium was being held together by some Museum employees and students with the equipment barely functioning properly. There were some discussions about the possibility of repurposing the carriage house for other exhibits and removing the Planetarium.

Baldwin family outside Planetarium
Baldwin family outside planetarium
March 1961 Blossom McBrierLouis Balmer
March 1961- Blossom McBrier & Louis Balmer
Our New Planetarium
Our New Planetarium