History of the SMC Planetarium


Santa Monica College's planetarium had its origins in the late 1960s as the dream of Dr. Bruce Young, first Chair of the Earth Science Department, and Gerry Waxman, astronomy instructor. Realizing SMC's need of a planetarium for astronomy education and its potential for service to the community and local schools, they designed a 60-seat theater on the second floor of the newly completed Technology Building. The college purchased a beautiful Minolta MS-8 planetarium projector to project the starry sky onto the theater's 28-foot diameter. Ron Smith served as the first full-time Director of the facility and presented the first planetarium shows in May of 1971.

The planetarium was closed to non-college use during 1977-78.  Jon Hodge was hired as director in September 1979 and public shows and school presentations resumed. The planetarium was again closed at the end of July 1992 for the renovation of the Technology Building and the addition of its 3rd floor. During construction, Friday night astronomy talks and guest lectures continued in a classroom setting with a simple slide projector.

On January 17, 1994, the Northridge Quake produced over $80 million damage to the Santa Monica College campus. The Planetarium and its Minolta projector were severely damaged and unavailable for three and a half more years. Thanks to the earthquake compensation provided by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the generosity of John Drescher, Santa Monica College was able to rebuild its planetarium as one of the finest such facilities in California.

John Drescher Planetarium

John F. "Johnny" Drescher was born January 10, 1911 in Denver, Colorado. He graduated in 1932 from the University of Colorado at Boulder with special honors in electrical engineering.

Johnny moved to Santa Monica in 1938, working as a pilot and aircraft design engineer. During World War II he became a consultant for the War Department, developing an important bomb release mechanism. He held nine patents related to his World War II design work and by 1944 had established his own company, Drescher Engineering, in Santa Monica. During the 1950s and 1960s, his business prospered and the value of his company's property skyrocketed.

A generous millionaire with a modest lifestyle and many friends, Johnny had a long record of community service through the Kiwanis Club, Salvation Army, Red Cross, the YMCA Child Development Center, the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Pepperdine University and Santa Monica College. Johnny also created a six-acre artisans' haven known as "Drescherville" in Santa Monica where he lived a simple life with a pet parakeet and an adopted rat.

In 1996, Johnny donated $530,000 to SMC to help upgrade its rebuilt planetarium with a state-of-the-art Evans & Sutherland Digistar projection system, the first of its kind in California. The Drescher Planetarium, named in Johnny's honor, opened on June 6, 1997.

John Drescher died in Santa Monica on February 8, 2000 at the age of 89. He left a $1.5 million bequest to the college, the largest private donation in Santa Monica College history. The College Board of Trustees renamed SMC's Technology Building -- the largest building on campus and the home of the Drescher Planetarium -- Drescher Hall in honor of Johnny.

Dr. Piedad F. Robertson, former Santa Monica College President, said at the planetarium dedication, "Johnny Drescher was a dear friend to the college and has left a legacy for generations to come."

Tom Donner, Johnny Drescher, and Dr. Piedad Robertson
L to R: Tom Donner, Johnny Drescher, and former SMC President Dr. Piedad F. Robertson at planetarium dedication in 1997

Planetarium Director Jon Hodge passed away in January 2006 after a long illness. Jon is greatly missed by the local astronomy community and a commemorative plaque recalling his service to astronomy education is displayed outside the planetarium entrance.  At the end of 2005, just before his passing, Jon was honored by having an asteroid named after him. More information on asteroid 18117 Jonhodge.

With much foresight, Jon arranged to continue our school programs by bringing Griffith Observatory colleague, Jim Mahon on board at SMC. Jim is an experienced amateur astronomer and astronomy educator and remains on staff here at SMC and at Griffith Observatory as both a telescope demonstrator and occasional lecturer, and in the past occasionally served as a 100-inch telescope operator at Mt. Wilson Observatory.  

In a previous life, Jim was a manufacturing engineer and department manager at the manufacturer of the NASA Space Shuttle Main Engine, so his lifelong fascination with space exploration is backed by nuts and bolts experience helping construct and maintain the space shuttle, one of the most complex pieces of machinery humans have ever built. Jim now serves as Senior Lecturer at Drescher Planetarium.

As we have moved to online virtual programs with the Covid 19 crisis, Sarah Vincent, an experienced astronomy outreach educator on the staff of Griffith Observatory, has come on board as an Associate Lecturer at Drescher Planetarium and brings a new range of experience to the table.