The History and Mystique of Griffith Observatory


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The Griffith Observatory is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Los Angeles. Named after Griffith J. Griffith, the Observatory has never charged its visitors admissions in its history dating back to 1935. It’s been visited tens of millions of times, making it one of L.A.’s most-frequented landmarks.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith was born in Wales but emigrated to the United States, where he became involved in the newspaper industry. Through his experience reporting on the mining industry for San Francisco’s “Alta California” newspaper, he gained the knowledge necessary to become a mining consultant. He earned an enormous fortune through his consulting work, estimated at $1.5 million at the time of his death in 1919. Griffith’s philanthropic activities included bequeathing the money for the Observatory to the city of Los Angeles.

The philanthropist’s interest in astronomy stemmed from 1904 when he visited the observatory at Mount Wilson. At that time, the Mount Wilson telescope was the world’s largest. Griffith was so impressed with what he saw that he was inspired to offer greater access to scientific study to the general public. He first approached the city of L.A. with the idea of an observatory on Mount Hollywood in 1912. Unfortunately, Griffith would pass away before he got to see his vision materialize.

Griffith Observatory has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows throughout the year. The most famous 20th-century film to feature the Observatory in its plot may be the James Dean movie “Rebel Without a Cause,” released in 1955. Because this movie helped establish the Observatory as an L.A. landmark, the grounds now feature a bust of Dean. In 1991, director Stefan Würnitzer filmed the music video for Paula Abdul’s song “Rush Rush” as an homage to “Rebel Without a Cause” with actor Keanu Reeves in the role played by Dean.

Since the 1935 movie “The Phantom Empire” featured the Observatory, dozens of other movies have followed suit. These include 1984's “The Terminator,” 1991's “The Rocketeer,” 2007's “Transformers,” and 2016's  Oscar winning “La La Land.”

The Observatory’s main mission is to educate the public on the physical sciences. For this reason, regular operation of its scientific exhibits takes priority over other uses of the building. However, its spectacular views of the Los Angeles Basin, including the iconic Hollywood sign, make the Observatory a sought-after venue for special events. The Observatory can be rented out for special events on a limited basis.

In 2010, the Griffith Observatory celebrated its 75th anniversary. The telescope at the Griffith Observatory has been peered through by more people than any other telescope on Earth.

Admission to the building and grounds is always free. Griffith Observatory hours are 12 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday – Friday and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The address is 2800 E. Observatory Rd., Los Angeles. Visit www.griffithobservatory.org or call (213) 473-0800 for additional information.

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