Star Light. Star Bright.
Photographs Courtesy of Star Barn Planetarium
They say the best things in life are free, and one of those things is hiding in plain sight in the middle of Cave Creek.
It’s not uncommon for cars to stop in the middle of a semi-paved residential road to stare at a white domed structure. This Cave Creek curiosity is the Star Barn Planetarium. It’s nothing short of a thriving testimony to the grandeur of our nighttime skies, and a labor of love for one determined, passionate man.
“I’m the happy idiot that built it and runs it,” founder Ronald Walker jokingly says.
One of only two planetariums in the state, the Star Barn replicates Arizona’s night sky with stunning exactness. The projector apparatus in the middle of the domed Star Barn is the star of the show, reproducing about 6,000 individual stars.
The Star Barn projector was originally assembled and installed in 1976 at Scobee Planetarium in San Antonio, Texas. In 2008, the planetarium was transitioning to the video projection model. Ronald got word about the unwanted machine from a friend and went to Texas to check it out.
The old Scobee Minolta projector went to auction and was accepting bids. Ronald knew that he could never afford a contraption that originally cost the taxpayers of Texas half a million dollars. Still, Ronald’s friend kept pushing him to bid on it.
“I said there’s no way, but fine. I bid a penny on the dollar, and come Monday morning, I got a call that I won the bid,” Ronald explains.
He was giddy, dumbfounded and in shock, but there was a catch. He was informed that he had two weeks to come pick up his new pride and joy. He drove a truck to San Antonio, took it apart and brought the projector to its new home in Arizona.
The last show the projector gave at the Scobee Planetarium was June 13, 2008. The first show the projector gave here at the Star Barn was June 13, 2014. Ronald calls it a beautiful coincidence.
The projector is a museum-grade optical mechanical projection machine. It reproduces the night sky anywhere on Earth, any time 25,000 years into the past or future.
In 5,000 planetarium years, nothing will be off by more than one degree. That’s how accurate the reproduction and placement of the night sky is with this projector.
If you build it, they will come. He finally got the building permit for the planetarium structure and started constructing the dome in December 2011.
It took 169 bags of cement for the foundation, and six coats of mud to even and smooth the dome out. With the unwavering help of friends and neighbors, the planetarium itself took about two years to build.
At 72, Ronald is refreshingly still young at heart and mind. The dedication, motivation and physical energy needed to take on do-it-yourself planetarium construction from scratch are nothing short of extraordinary.
Ronald Walker has one goal; he wants to share this planetarium to the world. “When people say, ‘Why did you this?’ I still wonder. It’s just something I had to do,” he says.
From the original 12 people who showed up on that first day he decided to put on a star show, the Star Barn has grown to be a unique Cave Creek experience that awes all ages throughout the calendar year.
The planetarium’s events are all narrated by Ronald himself. He doesn’t just show you the stars; he explains the where, why and how. His curated shows are light hearted and informative, and you’ll come out of the barn smarter than when you walked in. The entire presentation and atmosphere is cathartic.
The production is also accompanied by a soundscape of music intertwined with the lights. It’s calming and peaceful—not to mention Ronald is pretty funny as well.
The planetarium typically holds 25-35 people and is routinely sold out. Perfectly tilted chairs and sofas strategically placed inside the dome make the experience comfortable.
“A planetarium is better than the all-sky movie style videos shown today. It’s more accurate, and if you walk outside you can see the exact same thing you’re seeing when inside the Star Barn, at the exact same time,” Ronald explains.
This is the ultimate organic, word-of-mouth gathering. You’ll feel a human connection with the night sky and the other Star Barn visitors. It’s an experience that I won’t soon forget.
This is Ronald Walker’s calling. The mission of the Star Barn Planetarium is to open people’s eyes. Mission accomplished.