Smile Politely

Big Bird is big fun at the planetarium

I grew up without air conditioning. We didn’t have so much as a window unit. My sister and I slept, bedroom windows wide open, with a box fan resting on the sill. I learned how to stop every muscle in my body at bedtime. I focused my entire imagination on the feeling of cold. I pictured snow. I held onto the memory of winter, of shivering to the core while I rubbed my numb feet back to life. When day came, my mother would flip the fans so they faced the outside, sucking the stifling air from the main rooms and pushing it out. We’d have something light to eat for breakfast, run around with the neighbor kids for a while, and declare it too hot for anything but swimming.

My sister and I, along with the other kids in the neighborhood, were pool rats. We swam from morning til night. We dove for change to buy ice cream and dared each other to jump, headfirst, off the intimidating high dive. Crystal Lake Pool was ours. We lived there. 

As a child, I had blonde hair the color of sweet corn tassels. My skin was golden brown (after its early red tones faded) from the month of June, straight through the first weekend in September. Now, older, wiser, and more self-conscious, I avoid the sun and the revealing attire of summer. The freedom of youth has been replaced with the self-scorning habits of adulthood. I haven’t worn shorts since my early twenties; now I “dress to accent the narrowest part of my waist.” I preserve my skin and avoid wrinkles by slathering my face with moisturizer with SPF and donning sunglasses in the car.

The problem with this Irish girl’s freckle-reducing tactics is that I fear I could become too boring to the energetic children in my life. I don’t like being outside because bugs are icky, and I’m far too pale for prolonged sun exposure. Sitting in our air conditioned bedroom with my husband, remembering how hard our childhoods blew … that’s what I call good fun. The eight-and-under crowd is less enthused. 

But what can I do? Indoor activities for kids can be vehicles for mind-sapping drivel. I’m not rich; I’m not athletic; and I can’t just shove food into every child’s face until she likes me. (I mean, I could…) So I’ve become a regular at Staerkel Planetarium. It’s affordable, educational, entertaining, and, most importantly, air conditioned. There’s a rotation of lovely shows, all of which are cool and informative. Fun for the whole family!

I asked a few parent-friends to come with me because, as a woman pushing thirty, it is truly sad for me to attend a children’s show at the planetarium alone. Right off the bat, I know I’m in for a good time. My friend Martha and her daughter, Alba (three years old), have just come from the pool and Alba smells awesome. She smells like chlorine, and any self-respecting pool rat will tell you that that’s the best smell of summer. 

Jessica arrives late (the worst part of summer: road construction) with her step-daughter, Makayla (eight years old). Before Big Bird makes his introduction, Dave, the show operator, gives us a chance to practice participating in a planetarium show. We practice pointing, counting, and singing. Dave tells us how being at the planetarium is a lot like being at the movie theater (the lights go down; there’s a screen; it can be dangerous to wander around…), and the teacher inside of me smiles. He’s modeling and using guided practice. These kids are in good hands.

When Big Bird finally says, “Hello,” I expect these kids to go ape. They respond with murmurs — murmurs of recognition. They clap softly, after their parents, when Elmo arrives. They hum with mild-mannered interest when Hu Hu Zhu, the Chinese monster, arrives. The American bird and monster welcome him with huge voices and gigantic interest. The kids pick their noses and whisper about ice cream and the potty.

The best aspect of this show, from an educational standpoint, is the way information is dispensed. Elmo and his new friend use their imaginations to get to the moon (which, we all know, is the most fuel-efficient way). When they arrive, donning astronaut helmets, Elmo asks Hu Hu Zhu what the helmets are for. Hu Hu Zhu explains that there is no air on the moon and the helmets allow them to breathe. The youngsters speculate about what kinds of things they can do on the moon. When Hu Hu Zhu tries to fly a kite on the moon, he soon realizes that, without air, there is no wind; without wind, he can’t fly his kite. They’ve already established that the helmets are necessary, and why, but they review. It’s basic lesson plan format.

In another fun moment, Elmo remarks how beautiful the moon is from where they are. I hear a couple of kids make sounds of recognition; they know that’s not the moon, but they don’t yell out in the middle of the show. (There have been clear audience-participation moments, and this is not one of them.) Hu Hu Zhu explains that what they see is Earth. Elmo realizes that “our home is up in the sky, just like the stars.” 

When the new friends stand in the middle of Sesame Street, they talk about the North Star and how to find it. They imagine themselves in China, where they can see the same star. Big Bird suggests they call it their “Friendship Star.” That way, when Hu Hu Zhu goes back to China, they’ll all know that they are under one sky. It’s a romantic notion and one that has been used by many people. It’s comforting, simple, and universal.

In all, this little adventure takes just over half an hour. It’s the perfect amount of time for the target audience (I’d say two–eight years old). There’s comedy, science, and some basic Chinese phrases. At the end of the show, Dave reviews how to find the Big Dipper and North Star. He points out a few astrological sights and asks the kids to help him find various shapes and letters in the sky. 

I had a lot of fun revisiting my childhood show (seeing Mr. Hooper’s Store made me gasp as a flood of memories rushed over me). My young companion, Makayla, exclaimed that, “It felt like we were going in a circle. But we weren’t.” And I realized that the tricks at the planetarium are simple, but effective. It really did feel like we were twirling through space, hurdling toward the moon. I think that’s worth a fiver.


You can see One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure on either the next few Tuesdays (1 p.m.) or Thursdays (10 p.m.) at the Skaerkel Planetarium.

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