This is the story of a Boston icon, the Mugar Omni Theater.
This is also the story of a family, the Rivers clan of Sharon.
Both just turned 25. And both began, you might say, when a woman named Mary Jane Dodge stepped into a hot tub in Florida in the mid-1980s.
Dodge was one of the early pioneers of a new type of large-format film called IMAX, and she was in Florida to watch the filming of a space shuttle launch. That night, she went for a dip in the hotel hot tub and found a surprise hidden among the bubbles.
“I didn’t even see him,’’ she recalled. “This head just popped up, and I said, ‘Are you Roger Nichols?’ ’’
The man she recognized happened to be the director of the Museum of Science in Boston, and he, along with several museum administrators, had been brought to Florida by the IMAX people to show off the new technology as they filmed the launch. Nichols was intrigued. After hearing Dodge enthuse about it, he was sold. She had just helped create an IMAX theater at a Denver museum, and he decided to hire her to do the same at the Boston museum.
IMAX is a big process: huge cameras, huge projectors, huge screens. And constructing a theater is a huge investment, with a lot that can go wrong. So one of the first things Dodge did was hire a young woman to be her chief projectionist from an IMAX theatre in Seattle. Her name was Cherie Larson.
Larson’s first task was to train the staff on the IMAX equipment. One staff member was young Joe Rivers, who worked in the museum’s audiovisual department. He came around the projection room a lot, sometimes because he had to, sometimes just because.
Something was happening between them, but neither was sure what it was. They had the same birthday, which was a nice coincidence, and she remembers being in an elevator with him once and he had a guitar with him. The elevator attendant asked him if he would play something. He said he didn’t play elevator music. She liked that.
One day, she asked Rivers if he would show her around the area. As soon as he could, he took a day off and drove her out to Concord and Lexington and Nantasket Beach, then to dinner.
“I wasn’t sure if it was a date,’’ she said. “Then he asked me out for Saturday night. And he brought flowers.’’
Their relationship, and the Omni Theater, blossomed in ways that no one could anticipate. The theater opened in March 1987 to huge fanfare. Rivers and Larson were the opening night projectionists, performers of sorts in the open glass room, “The Bubble,’’ where visitors could watch them load the massive spools of film.
The Omni Theater was an instant sensation. It was the first IMAX screen in New England, and remains the only one to use the ultra-immersive 180-degree Omni dome screen. It sold out every show for months; 400,000 people came to see its first movie, “The Dream is Alive,’’ about the space shuttle Challenger. It was the film they had been making in Florida.
Larson and Rivers were soon engaged, then married. A few years later, they had a son, Eric, and then a daughter, Jacqueline.
Like many children in the Boston area, the Rivers children grew up going to the Omni Theater, but their connection was a bit different. They were nursed in the back rooms as a recording of Leonard Nimoy’s voice boomed through 50 speakers, explaining the technology and throwing in the fact that “he grew up three blocks from here’’ in the West End.
But that was all a long time ago. Eric has just turned 21. Jacqueline just got her driver’s license. And on March 21, 17 million visitors later, the Mugar Omni Theater turned 25.
“It feels like it’s my grown-up baby that went on its own way,’’ said Cherie Larson Rivers, who has since left the museum but continues to work as an IMAX consultant.
But Joe Rivers is still at the Museum of Science, still in the audiovisual department, and though his work is mostly elsewhere in the museum, he still finds time to swing by the Omni Theater, just because.
One afternoon last week, as school groups were streaming in for a showing of a film about dolphins, Rivers ducked in a side door and sat in the back of the theater to see something he has not seen in years, a short film called “The New England Time Capsule.’’
The five-minute clip, created for the 1987 opening of the theater, was played before Omni features for years before being retired. Recently, the museum dug it out again for the 25th anniversary. It features an original score by John Williams and the Boston Pops, and immerses viewers in 1980s Boston, with stomach-dropping aerial footage of the city and a Roger Clemens fastball coming directly into the camera.
As the footage raced along the old Central Artery to a screeching halt in Storrow Drive traffic, the audience in the theater last week squealed with laughter. And so did Rivers. He has always loved watching the audience react to the film; in the early days, the staff used to come in just to watch their faces.
“The essence of New England is in the way we look at things,’’ the narrator said as the film ended. “And in sharing that vision, we celebrate where we’ve come from and where we’re going.’’
Rivers snuck out quietly and made his way down the “musical staircase’’ that plays a note with each step. He was feeling happy. He was feeling nostalgic. And he was having a hard time believing it had been 25 years.
“My daughter came in recently with her boyfriend,’’ he said, his voice clearly stumbling over the “boy’’ part. “She showed him around like she owns the place.’’
She does not. But she definitely owes it.