From the 1930s to the ‘50s, visitors headed to Lake Geneva’s Riviera ballroom to see such stars as Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole.
This summer, guests can come to Lake Geneva to see the real stars fixed in the heavens above the Riviera.
Former staffers from Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay have announced plans for making the Riviera the site of star-gazing events of the same kind that took place for many years at the observatory.
Yerkes closed last year, and Lake Geneva officials said they are glad to become hosts of the popular astronomical watch parties that once brought crowds of star-gazers to Williams Bay.
Mayor Tom Hartz said he would welcome scientific exploration as a new tourism attraction in the city’s downtown.
“I think it would be spectacular,” Hartz said.
Situated on the Lake Geneva lakefront, the Riviera is a landmark center for tourism and special events that has overlooked Geneva Lake for more than 80 years.
The group bringing star-gazing events there has booked the Rivera’s second-floor ballroom for May 30, June 27, July 25 and Aug. 29. The events will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and will be open the public.
Known as Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), the group broke away from Yerkes Observatory last year after the University of Chicago closed the 122-year-old observatory to the public.
The university has not announced plans for the future of the Williams Bay property.
The group trying to keep Yerkes events alive includes former staffers who worked in education outreach at the observatory. They held regular “star parties” at Yerkes for the general public to learn about astronomy.
Kate Meredith, director of the new group, said the Riviera events will include the same sort of telescope observing, planetarium shows, and other hands-on activities.
Telescopes will be stationed on the Riviera outdoor balcony, and a larger telescope will be positioned on the front lawn, facing Wrigley Drive.
Inside the ballroom, astronomy lovers will be able to watch a stellar show in a portable planetarium and participate in other activities based on each star party theme.
Advance registration is $10 per ticket, or $28 for a family pass for two adults and up to four children under 18. At the door, admission is $12 per ticket or $32 for a family pass.
The Lake Geneva Tourism Commission greeted the new astronomy concept with such enthusiasm that the city commission has allocated $3,800 to help promote the Riviera events.
Organizers initially proposed holding the star-gazing events at the Harbor Shores Hotel in downtown Lake Geneva. That did not pan out, but Harbor Shores manager Tammie Carstensen, who also serves on the city tourism commission, suggested that the Riviera would be a good spot.
“I thought, ‘This is amazing,’ because this is what Lake Geneva needs,” Carstensen said. “So I said, ‘What about the Riv?”
The first star parties May 30 and June 27 will have the theme of black holes, because of the wide public interest created in April by the first photograph of a black hole released by the National Science Foundation.
The third event July 25 will be an observation of the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon.
The final party Aug. 29 will be about space travel in general, although Meredith said there will also be some discussion about Mars, a planet which has also been generating a lot of interest lately.
Carstensen said there is a growing interest in astronomy generally. And there is no other such activity like in Lake Geneva.
“To me, it’s something different for people to do,” she said.
The Riviera is also where tourists catch sightseeing boat rides on Geneva Lake, and where merchants sell gifts and other novelty items, and where wedding parties and other special events take place in the ballroom.
Because of lights in the area, telescopes will focus on larger objects in the night sky, including Saturn and Jupiter, and the Ring Nebula located 2,300 light years from Earth.
Hartz said the city might consider turning its downtown lights off for 15 minutes after dark, just to give everyone a clear view of the sky above during the new star-gazing events.
“It’s not all about us,” he said. “There’s a lot more out there.”