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Prayers, cheers as total eclipse darkens swath of Asia

A total solar eclipse is seen in Indonesia on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Irmansyah)

What does it take to get 75 exhibitors of all kinds in one room?

Not too much. Just up to two minutes and 40 seconds of the moon blocking the sun.

The St. Louis Solar Eclipse Expo this Friday and Saturday at Queeny Park will bring an eclectic mix of people and groups together — astronomers, Girl Scouts, teachers, wild bird lovers, NASA representatives, magicians, mapmakers, meteorologists, amateur radio operators, T-shirt vendors, eye doctors and librarians.

They all have their eye on — wait, let them first put on their protective glasses — the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

“We’ve got so much excitement out there, and we want to show off a little bit,” said Don Ficken, head of the St. Louis Eclipse Task Force. The group has met for two years in anticipation of the event, and now has about 300 members, made up of educators, astronomers, city leaders, business people, and others. The event is free if you preregister, or $3 at the door.

The expo is another chance to get the word out about the eclipse. If Ficken makes a presentation now, he says, maybe two out of 10 people in his audience will say they’ve heard of the eclipse. The expo will also teach people how to view an eclipse safely and give vendors a chance to show what they have to offer, he says.

And there’s a reason to get excited: The last total solar eclipse in St. Louis was in the year 1442 — around the time Cahokia mounds were abandoned.

Friday night will feature a speaker’s panel of eclipse experts, including Mitzi Adams, a solar scientist for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; David Baron, a journalist who has witnessed five total solar eclipses and just wrote a book, “American Eclipse”; meteorologists and astronomy professors.

Saturday’s event will include vendors and several presentations and workshops, including instructions on how to make an eclipse viewer, how to measure light levels, and demonstrations with a mobile planetarium.

Gery Kotthoff, Ficken’s good friend and neighbor in west St. Louis County, also owns a small advertising and marketing firm called Clarion Marketing. He’ll be at the expo, and has been helping Ficken and the towns within the eclipse’s path with marketing advice. “Very few entities have any budget,” he said. He’s also reached out to corporations to tell them the eclipse is a branding opportunity, whether it’s putting a corporate logo on viewing glasses or having them sponsor a booth at a festival. “It’s a nationwide opportunity,” he said. “America’s going to have some great scientists and engineers again, if we can tap into that resource. A lot of corporations are slow to move, unless they can justify and explain why they are spending the money.”

Even magicians are getting in on the eclipse act — literally. Dan Davis is the general manager of Abra-Kid-Abra, a company that provides magicians to perform and teach magic to area kids. Every summer it puts together a new magic show for summer reading programs at libraries and schools. This year, the show has an eclipse theme, teaching about the eclipse in a fun way: A sun magically appears inside a pinhole box and a drawing of the moon starts talking. Abra-Kid-Abra has about 40 shows scheduled this summer before the eclipse and will perform some tricks at the expo. “It’s a silly job, but somebody has to do it,” said Davis.

Joe Lopinot of Highland had worked in health care for more than 35 years when he lost his job. He always loved astronomy and saw the eclipse as a business opportunity, so he started Scopedawg Optics, named for his dog, Odie, who enjoys quietly hanging out while Lopinot explores the skies with his scopes and cameras.

Lopinot sells books, eclipse maps, viewing glasses and other items. He maintains a website where he blogs about anything and everything eclipse. He travels to home and garden shows to stir up interest and sell his wares. He’s fully aware he might be out of a job come Aug. 21. “Right now, I’m just getting through the eclipse and see where things go,” he said. He hopes to open a brick-and-mortar optic shop that sells telescopes, binoculars and cameras.

“If I don’t sell all my glasses, I’m just going to put them in storage another seven years,” he said.

That’s because on April 8, 2024, another total solar eclipse will hit the area. The path will be farther south of St. Louis, but still in Southern Illinois and southeast Missouri.

Totality will be longer than four minutes in some spots, says Ficken, but there will be a much higher chance for clouds that time of year. Still, people will remember what they saw in 2017 and get excited.

“I think there will be no problem convincing people at this point,” he said, “that it’s a big deal.”


The St. Louis Solar Eclipse Expo

When • Doors open at 6 p.m. for Friday’s panel, the panel starts at 7:30 p.m. Expo is 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

Where • Greensfelder Recreation Complex at Queeny Park, 550 Weidman Road in West County.

How much • Free if you register in advance; $3 at the door. Space is limited for the Friday night panel discussion.

More info • www.eclipseexpo.org/

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