Kovac's Universal Dream

Sep 26, 2013

If you’ve ever felt the urge to do something other than what’s expected of you, this story is for you.  Frank Kovac worked a factory job by day, but nurtured a passion for astronomy at night.  This is the story of a cloudy night, some glow in the dark paint, and a universal dream.

A gravel lane leads to the Kovac Planetarium in Monaco, Wisconsin.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

Driving down Mud Creek Road in Monaco Wisconsin, you might think you’re headed to a campground.  But in fact the gravel lane leads to Frank Kovac’s hand-made planetarium.

“When they come here, many people ask me where I bought this.  This is something I built.  And it took me many years.”

Frank Kovac’s voice echoes slightly inside the steel-paneled shed where the planetarium sits.  Behind him is the white wooden globe he built, looming like a giant golf ball.  It turns slowly, making a creaking sound. 

“The top mechanical aspect is held up by a heavy spring mechanism”

Kovac explains that his is different from typical planetariums.  Most rely on star projectors that rotate to show the night sky at different times or seasons. 

“In here, I have to roll the globe around the audience to get it ready.”

Instead of moving the image of the stars overhead, the entire globe turns. It’s called a mechanical globe planetarium.   At 22 feet in diameter, it’s the largest one of its kind ever built. 

Kovac Planetarium is the largest of its kind ever built.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

“So every single star you see at night is painted in here.  And that is about 5000 stars.  I painted them with glow paint.”

That’s right, glow in the dark paint.  A simple tool for a celestial effect.   A grid on the inside of the globe helped him map out where individual stars should go, and Kovac then sponge painted the haze of the milky way.

“And of course I had scaffolding up here.  I’ve had people ask me if I felt like Michaelangelo – who did the Sistine Chapel?  And I say well, it wasn’t quite like that.”

Painting the stars took Kovac a year and a half, and the entire building project spanned a decade.  Meanwhile he held down a full-time job at the local paper mill.  Though the shy kid from Chicago had once harbored a dream of being an astrophysicist, Kovac says his math skills were never up to snuff.  After working for several years in a machine shop and spending time in the air force, he took a job at a paper mill in northern Wisconsin, where he knew he could at least have a good view of the stars.   Sometimes he would take groups of boyscouts to view the night sky.

“It was 1996 and I had a group of scouts I did a program for.  It was a beautiful clear day but it clouded over at night. There went the outdoor stargazing.  And that’s when it really came to me – I’m going to build a planetarium where you could learn all about the stars.”

He immediately became obsessed with the idea.  He couldn’t wait to get home from the mill every day so he could work on the planetarium.  One piece of plywood at a time, the mechanical globe took shape, sheltered within a ramshackle shed with nothing but flapping tarps for walls.  But it gradually became more than another side-project.  As the years wore on Frank sank over $150,000 dollars into the project, even refinancing his house to pay the last few bills.

“People say, you mean you’re doing all this for fake stars?  I said well, all planetariums are fake stars. …it’s about trying to make it look accurate.”

But it’s also about something else.  

Frank Kovac says he wasn't sure his idea would even work.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

Dedicating the planetarium to the memory of his father, who taught him to love the night sky, Kovac says he built the planetarium to share it with others.  And with thousands of visitors now flocking here every year, Kovac says it’s been a big change in his life. 

“I was so scared when it came to 2007 because I knew everything was coming together – and then I had to do a show.  I was a very shy person in school.”

He remembers wanting to pass out when he had to read the Gettsyburg address in front of his class.  Now, he’s a pro at these planetarium shows, and doesn’t even use notes as he describes how the universe works.

“If you were to remove this building here and open this globe, you would see that star right here.”

He’s pointing a red laser at the northstar.  It’s not painted straight overhead, but about halfway to the horizon, because northern Wisconsin sits on the 45th parallel.  Inside the dark cocoon of the planetarium, it’s peaceful and the stars surprisingly lifelike.  Kovac can even crank up the crickets for a nighttime feel.  After about half an hour--

“The paint starts to shimmer…and it really gives you the feeling of being outside.” 

Now Kovac says, he loves seeing visitors come away inspired by his project.  Six years into business, Kovac still picks up seasonal jobs in the winter when visitor traffic slows.  But his bold idea seems to have paid off, in more ways than one.