The Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park opened 45 years ago with an unusual tilted-dome theater, the first of its kind in the world, and the museum is marking the anniversary with a festival of movies this weekend.
Typical planetariums in 1973 had domes that were oriented parallel to the ground. Spectators sat in seats arranged in concentric circles around a projector in the center of the floor. The Fleet’s design had its 76-foot-diameter dome tilted at a 25-degree angle, and the seats were tiered, all facing forward.
“The picture wraps around the viewer — above, below and on all sides,” said Eileen Best, the theater’s console technician supervisor and show presenter. “It was a big deal then, and it’s still a big deal.”
Best, who has been at the Fleet for 40 years, laughed as she remembered Newsweek coming out to do a story on the theater when it opened. “They called us the ultimate trip,” she said.
While planning the museum in the late 1960s, officials approached IMAX about showing its large-format films on the tilted-dome ceiling. A fish-eye projection system was developed to overcome the technical difficulties, and it became the model for other dome theaters around the world.
In 2012, the museum completed a multi-million dollar renovation of the theater, replacing the screen— its seams were showing — and the seats and adding a state-of-the-art surround-sound system.
One thing that remains: The films shown there are still films, not digital versions, Best said.
Now known as the Helkoff Giant Dome Theater, it is used for IMAX films, planetarium shows and other educational programming.
This weekend’s film festival will air 16 movies, a different one every hour from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Included are past Fleet favorites that date back as far as 1989’s “To the Limit,” which tracks the performances of an Olympic skier, a top ballerina and a rock climber.
Other films focus on dolphins, volcanoes, national parks, Africa, caves, coral reefs, Jerusalem, monarch butterflies, the deep sea, and the Hubble space telescope — that last one Best’s favorite.
“It’s all about astronomy, which is the main reason I got my job here,” she said.
Festival show times and prices are available on the museum’s website, rhfleet.org.