Daniel Zirpoli, planetarium director

April 03, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Daniel Zirpoli, former director of the Davis Planetarium and the IMAX movie theater at the Maryland Science Center, died Wednesday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, at his home in Phoenix, Ariz., where he had been the executive director of the Arizona Museum of Science and Technology.

He was 47.

Mr. Zirpoli came to the Maryland Science Center in 1974 from the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia before there was a completed planetarium in Baltimore or even an IMAX theater.

"He successfully illustrates that the planetarium is not just an expensive gadget. It is a strong and flexible medium that, if used artfully, can escape from the science-is-boring stigma," said an article in The Evening Sun in 1977, reviewing the planetarium's first show, "Images of Infinity," which Mr. Zirpoli produced.

"Mr. Zirpoli's philosophy is that the planetarium is first and ultimately a theater. Dramas of many varieties, he believes, can be played out under the domed-shaped silver screen, and some future productions may have little to do to with science at all."

Dr. William Gutsch, chairman of the American Museum-Hayden Planetarium in New York City and president of the International Planetarium Society, said, "Dan was well-respected in our business. He understood that good science teaching required that it be packaged in an exciting way, that the universe was a dynamic and exciting place. He was a good showman and


Mr. Zirpoli was described as an "astronomical poet in residence" and made no attempts at concealing his love of science, special effects and music.

"There has always been a lot of art and drama to the planetarium business. 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' has given goose bumps to planetarium audiences for decades," he told The Evening Sun in 1976.

"You see, we don't want people to come and see the planetarium. The planetarium is always going to be here. We want them to come see the show. You don't go to a theater to see the stage, do you?"

In 1987, he realized another achievement when the $4.8 million IMAX theater, which was the 62nd to be built in the world, opened at the Inner Harbor attraction. "I think I was the first person to say, 'Let's have an IMAX in the Science Center,' when I came in 1974," he said in an interview in The Evening Sun.

A native of Haledon, N.J., he earned his bachelor's degree in astronomy from Villanova University in Pennsylvania in 1968 and served for three years as a commissioned officer in the Navy aboard the carriers Essex and Intrepid as a sonar officer. After being discharged, he went to work in Philadelphia at the Fels Planetarium. He earned a master's degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University in 1984.

He left Baltimore in 1987 when he was appointed executive director of the Museum of Science and Technology in Phoenix, leaving that post in 1992.

"He was always searching for a higher sense of science education," recalled his wife, the former Sarah Elmendorf.

"His happiest time was in Baltimore, and he asked that a good part of his ashes be spread there," she said.

Plans for a memorial service in Baltimore are not complete.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a brother, Robert Zirpoli of Austin, Texas; and his parents, Caesar and Eleanor Zirpoli of Kerrville, Tex.

The family suggested memorial donations to the Nature Conservancy, 1815 Northlynn St., Arlington, Va. 22209.

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