Sunday, July 31, 2011


Star Hustling

I was gobsmacked to realize I haven’t said a word about the passing of Jack Horkheimer, The Star Hustler, in this blog. Whether you watched his little 5-minute PBS show faithfully or just knew of it, you were probably aware the Star Hustler (toward the end, Star porn filters at schools didn't like "hustler" in a website name) turned lots of folks into amateur astronomers, if only in the most casual fashion. Like the dude who wrote to Jack that every time he took the garbage out he now identified a “new” star. That, muchachos, is the very essence of amateur astronomy.

I didn’t know Jack Horkheimer, not really, though I met him at a Mid-South Star Gaze one year. Jack’s Hustler/Gazer character was fun, and he obviously had a great time using that character to show how much fun astronomy can be, but the real Jack Horkheimer was a much more thoughtful and scholarly sort than his onscreen persona would suggest.

He was apparently a man of many interests, including those of an antiquarian nature. Which ain’t my cup of tea at a star party. While I enjoyed his presentation, “The Comet that Killed Cleopatra,” at Mid-South, I ducked out well before the end, just as Jack was getting wound up about Egyptian coinage. The stars were winking on and I wasn’t in the mood for that sort of stuff. But maybe I should have been. Jack Horkheimer was obviously a person who could and would teach you something, maybe something important, every time you listened to him.

Yeah, the Star Hustler shtick was faintly ridiculous with his zany patter and costume and props like the toilet paper rolls Jack called his “OPTO ISOLATORS,” but by the end of every installment of the TV show I’d learned something. Even if you didn’t need his simple advice about naked eye star gazing, Jack kept you up to date on the “what’s up” of the sky, very helpful in the days before instant Internet astro-news. Was Horkheimer’s show as good as the similar The Sky at Night in the UK? Maybe not; there’s only one Patrick Moore. But there was only one Jack Horkheimer, too, and Star Hustler was good, and I loved it.

Mama and li'l Rod...
I have another at least tenuous connection to Star Hustler; one that goes back to before there was a Star Hustler, in fact. I visited the Miami Space Transit Planetarium in 1967 and may even have seen a show done by the man himself. Jack Horkheimer was the Director of the Miami planetarium from its opening and remained in that position till he died. But how the heck did a barefoot hillbilly like little Rod wind up in Miami?

Mama and Daddy and me and, after he came along, my brother, took a vacation almost every June, vacations that were kind of extravagant in a lower middle-class sort of way. We’d jump in the car and head for Florida. Usually for the East Coast and Daytona and Saint Augustine, but sometimes for the west coast and Tampa and all points in-between.

What would we do? We’d hit every tourist attraction we passed: the glass bottom boats of Silver Springs, the Monkey Jungle (where humans are caged and monkeys run wild), and the state’s nascent amusement parks like Six Gun Territory and Pirate’s World, which flourished briefly in those just-before-Disney days.

We always had fun, though Daddy’s mantra, up until our penultimate vacation at least, was “I AIN’T GOT NO MONEY!” We took most of our meals at rest stops, which were clean and nice then and featured plenty of picnic tables and barbeque grills, out of a big cardboard box of victuals Mama brought along. To Daddy, every restaurant we passed was potentially what he called a “clip joint,” a place whose only purpose was to separate him from his dollars. But if I whined enough I might, just might, be able to convince the Old Man to stop at Howard Johnson’s, which I fancied. Once per trip.

Spring 1967 came in, and in that weird time on the cusp of great change, Mama hatched a vacation plan that was a doozie. We’d head for Florida again, yeah, but would keep going till we hit Miami, where we’d board a cruise ship, the S.S. Bahama Star, for Nassau. Looking at the brochures Mama showered us with, it was clear the ship was a little old and a little second string, but still, for our class, this looked like HIGH LIVING. There was only one fly in the ointment.

I was just fixin’ to turn 14 and was feeling more than my share of teenage angst and loneliness. You can get the gory details here and here, but in a very normal teenage way—which I didn’t know was normal, of course—I was convinced NOBODY UNDERSTOOD ME AND I DIDN’T HAVE A FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD. The last thing I felt like doing was going on a long vacation with Mama and Daddy and my little brother. It was much more rewarding to sulk in my room listening to Beatles 65 and reading comic books.

Maybe that was the very reason Mama planned her big vacation. She knew or at least sensed our little nuclear family was soon to fission. Oh, not this year or the next, but soon her little birds would fly. She absolutely loved our family vacations (Daddy did too, though he’d sometimes pretend to be grumpy about them), and I believe she’d decided she wanted to go out with a BANG.

The trouble was getting her elder son, li’l Rod, to cooperate. She must have decided the easiest way to ensure my acquiescence was to BRIBE ME. When I appeared only marginally interested in the cruise ship and Nassau literature she rained on me, she took another tack. Being a surprisingly scientifically literate woman, she let slip that the famous Southern Cross was visible from Nassau. She also had one more brochure to send my way. This one wasn’t about Nassau, but Miami, and, specifically, Miami’s Space Transit Planetarium.

The Southern Cross? Really? Oh, I’d read all about it, but I hardly expected to see this rare and unobtainable wonder. Even at our southerly latitude of 30-degrees north, it was invisible. I imagined seeing it as an adult, maybe in the far distant 21st century, on some kind of a Jungle Jim-like tropical expedition, but right now? Groovy!

As for the planetarium, I had an idea what one was because I liked to watch Rebel without a Cause whenever it was on the late show. I’d even had a toy Spitz Junior planetarium projector to play with for a little while. I knew a big projector flashed stars on a dome’s interior, but that was all I knew. Was that the same as an observatory dome? Was there a telescope inside, too? I hadn’t a clue.

The idea of visiting this or any planetarium didn’t spin me up quite like the thought of seeing Acrux and Mimosa, but it did look interesting. Maybe real interesting. The brochure mentioned the planetarium had a well-stocked gift shop, and, then as now, buying astro-stuff was a powerful inducement. I allowed to Mama that, yeah, her vacation idea sounded like fun, and immediately went back to moping.

Soon enough, school was out, and our trip was at hand. I still thought I’d probably be happier staying home, reading comics, watching Star Trek repeats, and riding my bicycle up to the pool on hot afternoons, but what could I do? Even if I could convince Mama to let me spend a week home alone, I could get right jumpy after just a few hours by myself in the evening.  The idea of spending over a week of nights alone wasn’t very realistic and I knew it. Well, at least there was Crux to look forward to.

Our trip was as uneventful as any trip could be back in the day when daddies eschewed any type of preventive maintenance on their vehicles as a waste of money and contrary to their money-saving Depression ethic. You’d think they’d at least have made sure their tires were good, but no. We and everybody I knew were always having flat tires on vacation. Thankfully, our car trouble happened early, and Daddy’s 1962 Ford Galaxie (which I would eventually inherit) even had an air conditioner. We thought we were travelling in style.

The trip was not quite as punishing as those I remember taking as a little kid, motoring through the Everglades with the windows down, fighting heat and mosquitoes, but it was bad enough. Like all 50s – 60s fathers, Daddy was utterly averse to stopping unless we needed gas. I was prepared, having squirreled away several cans of Chek Cola (all we ever got) and plenty of books and Marvel comics for the journey.

After an overnight sojourn that involved a motel with AIR-CONDITIONING, COLOR TV, and a POOL, we were there, Miami, and I was antsy to get to the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, whatever the heck that was. Mama and Daddy insisted, however, that we get a little rest at another motel before boarding the Bahama Star the next morning. We’d do the planetarium on our return. I was awful put out, but the evening was redeemed after our supper at an Eckerd’s drugstore lunch counter in the Miami suburb of Hollywood. This Eckerd’s didn’t just have a huge selection of comic books; they had the yearly Marvel ANNUALS, which I waited breathlessly for each summer. I was all set, I figured, no matter what came.

Strangely, what came was the opposite of what I expected, that the ship would be the big deal and the planetarium a mere flourish at the end. For me, the Bahama Star and Nassau and Crux were almost a total bust. The cruise was OK, but the only two things I really liked about it were the creampuff (first one I’d ever had) I got after supper one night, and the evening they showed the funny – scary Peter Lorre – Vincent Price film, A Comedy of Terrors, in the ship’s lounge.

All in all, it felt to me like cruising might be fun if you were an adult with a wife or girlfriend at your side. An introverted 14 year old stuck in a tiny cabin with the rest of your family? Not so much. Nassau was the same: could be cool if I were a big person on his own, but for a young teen, uh-uh.

How about the Southern Cross? As I said not long back, I wish I knew for sure I saw it, but I am not sure. Even near the latitude of Nassau, Crux is down on the horizon at culmination, and I was always looking through haze and clouds that ringed the blue summer Caribbean. Worse, almost all the ship was brilliantly lit all the time; the only semi-dark area was staked out by necking couples, as I quickly found out to my semi-embarrassment.

I didn’t have the tools I needed to help me see the small constellation the first time, either. I should have brought along my (toy) binoculars, which would have worked a lot better than the Palomar Junior’s 23-mm finder I did bring. My planisphere didn’t show Crux, so I’d traced a star map out of a book I’d found at the library. In daylight, my pencil scrawls seemed perfectly legible as I stood under the sky on the pitching and rolling deck they were as clear as mud. Nevertheless, I saw a star that might have been Acrux a time or two. And one that might have been Alpha Centauri (which they talked about all the time on Lost in Space). Oh, I almost got seasick but didn’t. Neither did Mama or my brother. Daddy got badly seasick, as he always did if he even looked at the ocean.

I had an OK time, I suppose, but wasn’t the least bit sorry when our ship docked in Miami. I was ready to get home and be back to bike riding, swimming, and reading the book I’d bought just before we left, Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates, which was sitting on my nightstand waiting for me. But there was still the planetarium. While Mama and Daddy sounded as if they would be happy to head straight home, too, I was danged if I’d let them off the hook about the Space Transit business, not after they made me ride around in a Bahamian horse drawn surrey with a fringe on top—for hours (it felt like that, anyhow).

I sensed some reluctance, especially on the part of Mama, but the afternoon after we docked, we did locate Miami’s science museum and the promised planetarium. My immediate reaction? The museum was way, way cooler than I expected. The sign outside the planetarium’s big double doors informed us we had 45-minutes before the next show, so I took one more turn through the wonderful exhibits and headed for the gift shop.

They had some cool stuff in that shop including a rack full of astronomy books, one of which was The New Handbook of the Heavens. It was supposed to have come with my Palomar Junior, but was missing; I guessed the original owner had hung onto it or lost it.

Paging through the book in the shop, I saw it had a small chart of the southern sky in the back. If only I’d had that on the ship, dang it. Oh, well. Digging deep in the pockets of my Bermuda shorts, I was relieved to find I still had enough cash in the wake of my Marvel comics orgy to buy the Handbook. Today, Hubert Bernhard, Dorothy Bennett, and Hugh Rice’s book (I bought a second copy a decade ago after the one from Miami went missing) seems antique and written in an overly ornamented style. Back then it was nothing less than a font of wisdom.

Even if the planetarium were a waste of time, The New Handbook of the Heavens made my visit worthwhile. But the planetarium wasn’t a waste. The lights dimmed, the stars came up, and I finally understood what a planetarium is all about. It wasn’t a movie show, it was much deeper; it transported you outside to the stars, even in the daytime, and it could transport you to the stars of anywhere and any when.

Who was the gifted Lecturer who put on this wonderful show, who guided us through the stars? Was it Jack Horkheimer? I have no idea, but I like to think it was. Certainly, the man running the projector had a command of the medium that was masterful. My verdict is, yes, those talented hands at the Spitz Space Transit Projector’s control console were Jack Horkheimer’s. Had to be.

Walking out of the dome, what should I spy clustered in an alcove but TELESCOPES. One of the planetarium staff—it may even have been Mr. Horkheimer for all I know—noticed us admiring the gaggle of Newtonians and stopped to talk. This kindly person suggested we might want to come back after sunset for the BIG PUBLIC VIEWING SESSION that evening. I threw a pleading look at Daddy, but I knew it was “no dice.”

Despite her interest in science fiction and space, Mama hadn’t liked the planetarium from the get-go. Maybe she was just tired, or maybe she was concerned my just turned 9-years-old brother wasn’t exactly having a good time--science never having interested him in the slightest. Whatever the cause, she was clearly READY TO GO, and had been ready to go even before the show started. She and my brother had sat it out in the lobby, and I could see Mama now had that infamous look that spelled “I have had enough.” I knew as well as the Old Man did there was little chance of convincing Mama to stay fifteen more minutes much less three more hours, and that once we left we would most assuredly not be coming back.

So ended what went down in family history as the most wonderful of our wonderful vacations, the vacation of the Bahama Star. When Mama referred to it in the future, I always agreed that, yes, it was our best vacation ever, ever, and I guess it really was.

Mama always wanted more, though, to go on another ocean cruise, maybe after she and Daddy retired. But she got sick, a chronic illness that dragged her down year after year. Then Daddy got sick and was taken from us way too early at the end of the 1980s. Still, Mama dreamed of going cruising again, and I am happy to report she got her wish before she left us.

One summer in the mid-1990s, Mama made up her still stubborn mind that despite her infirmity she was dang sure going on a cruise sponsored by her church, way down to Mexico on a big new ship. Dorothy and I were doubtful about such a thing, but noticed how she perked up when she got out her new set of cruise brochures. Thanks largely to Miss Dorothy’s efforts in getting the documentation Mama needed for a visit to Mexico (she was born way, way out in the country at home, and didn’t even have a birth certificate) she was off. And had a wonderful time.

Jack Horkheimer? He just kept going in his inimitable fashion, never faltering, doing 1,708 five-minute episodes of his TV show, with the last one, “Say Goodbye to the Summer Triangle,” airing shortly after his death in August 2010.

Oh, how I’ll miss Jack’s corny hello, “GREETINGS, GREETINGS FELLOW STAR GAZERS!” and his famous sign-off, “KEEP LOOKING UP!” Star Gazer is still running with guest hosts (a permanent replacement is to be chosen soon), but it just ain’t the same. Above all, Jack Horkheimer brought his wonderful sense of humor to the show, and that was a major reason for its enduring success. Despite the health problems that dogged him his whole life, he never lost that sense of fun, which is amply demonstrated by his self-written epitaph:

“Keep looking up" was my life's admonition;
I can do little else in my present position.

Growing up in Miami, I regularly watched the Star Hustler show on WPBT at station sign-off time. Even though I found his schtick corny as I grew into teenager-hood, I now appreciate what he was aiming for and how original it was at a time well before Bill Nye and the Mythbusters came on the scene. Horkheimer was an astronomy outreach trailblazer. He understood that, the more eyeballs that got glued to the TV screen and the more fannies he got into those planetarium seats, the more likely he'd be to light a spark in some kid's mind. He also recognized that science communicators have to demonstrate enthusiasm for their subject, and that enthusiasm can be contageous. Thanks in large part to his efforts, the Miami Space Transit Planetarium became a haven for us young science geeklets in what was then a pretty barren intellectual landscape. I never met him either, but I surely miss him.
Star Gazer helped me remember my passion for astronomy. The names of the stars and constellations were refreshed for me by that simple and corny PBS bit.

35 years after astronomy became an afterthought I picked up the hobby again to find a totally different world....but those stars are still in the same spots.....and I still arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.
I enjoyed Jack's 5 minute TV spots when I happened across them. I had the pleasure of meeting him and seeing a planetarium show in Miami while on vacation in 1969. I was saddened to hear of his passing. RIP Jack.
Sadly, Jack can never really be replaced, but new permanent co-hosts have been announced: Dean Regas, the outreach astronomer from the Cincinnati Observatory, and Florida astronomer James Albury. I've met Dean on several occasions, and I can say that he is every bit as enthusiastic as Jack was about astronomy. Both Dean and James are worthy choices. Dean Regas Named PBS Star Gazer Co-Host

Cincinnati, Ohio

My wife and I have been to Nassau several times on different cruises. The horse buggy tour is still around ("This is the Parliament house"), and now there's Atlantis which has a cool aquarium exhibit. The ships today are much, much larger; I couldn't imagine traveling on something like the Bahama Star. I wasn't aware of the Miami planetarium, I'll have to be sure to check that out.

A good post, as always.
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