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    The Cosmic Saga of Jack Horkheimer, Television Star Hustler

    At the start of every episode of Jack Horkheimer’s landmark three-decade weekly public television series about naked eye astronomy, the announcer’s introduction was a poem.

    Some people hustle pool,
    Some people hustle cars,
    Now here’s that man you’ve heard about,
    The man who hustles stars?

    After walking down a starbeam to the trippy sounds of an electronic rendition of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, Jack – amateur astronomer, celestial candy striper, accidental video artist, star hustler – would stand in front of his star-map, beaming, and chortle his signature opening line: “Greetings, greetings, fellow star gazers!”

    More advanced video technologies would later allow Jack to do his weatherman-as-astronomer thing while sitting on top of a planetary ring. The zaniest ham and cheesiest poet in television astronomy history, that hustler name fit him like a (well-tailored) cheap suit.

    Jack Horkheimer’s introduction

    Until 1997, that is, when the show’s producers at PBS affiliate WPBT in Miami decided that on the Internet, the word hustler didn’t exactly have the connotations they were going for. To avoid confusion with the adult magazine, the show’s name was changed to Star Gazer.

    Until he died, from a long-time respiratory ailment, on August 20, 2010, Horkheimer kept working – his last episode went up on YouTube just before his death. And even amidst a smattering of personal challenges, contradictions and disasters, he never lost his panache. From childhood, Foley Arthur Horkheimer (his real name) was plagued by bronchiectasis, a chronic and progressive disease of dilated, enlarged bronchi that results from lower respiratory tract infection. With a father who urged him to be an athlete, Jack fell into depression and tried to commit suicide at age 12 by sitting out in the rain to catch pneumonia. He caught double pneumonia, but survived.

    Steroid sprays, daily exercises, hospital visits for sucking on an Intermittent Positive Pressure Breathing (IPPB) machine were all part of his life. Still, he was a chain smoker, Marlboro Golden Lights. “I don’t inhale,” he told an interviewer.

    Before becoming a disc jockey and nightclub jazz organist – a few close friends called him “His Horkiness” – he dabbled in theater, and once threatened to sue his university if one of his plays – a ribald, nudity-laced comedy called “If the Shoe Fits, Eat It” – wasn’t put on (it was). At the age of 26, he moved to Miami from Wisconsin in the hopes that its climate would be more agreeable to his lungs, and that he might succeed at something there.

    In this episode he tackles that persistent myth about Mars

    While toying with the idea of opening an experimental theater company, he met Art Smith, the chief of the Southern Cross Astronomical Society. Smith became a father figure to Jack. When the planetarium opened, Smith asked Jack to work as a volunteer. He took up the job immediately, assembling a team of helpers and carting in huge speakers, slide projectors and lasers; he turned the planetarium’s star shows into theatrical pieces about astronomy, shows with names like “Child of the Universe” and “Mother Won’t Let Me Ride in a Flying Saucer." To promote one of his shows, he came to a press conference dressed up as the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and served reporters champagne out of silver teapots. His local star was rising.

    Though he had never taken an astronomy class, he soon became director of the planetarium. Not that he needed to earn money. A 1982 Miami Herald profile described his flashy-used-car-salesman style, underwritten by a family inheritance:

    He mixes luxury and austerity. Horkheimer dabbles in bonds, has an American Express Gold Card and belongs to the Playboy Club. He wears a $10 electric watch and a ring set with a second-century BC bronze coin from the reign of Ptolemy VI of Egypt. He has a heavy metal plaque embossed with the word “HUSTLER” on his key ring. He drinks only champagne, which he buys 10 cases at a time, in vintages varying from cheap, oversweet Andre to dry, costly Moët & Chandon. He makes champagne cocktails by pouring the bubbly over a lump of sugar laced with Angostura bitters, and laps them up delicately, cat-like, one after another. He enjoys food and dines out at least four nights a week. He owns a large, old, hand-built stereo system whose amplifier is all vacuum tubes, not a single transistor. He admires Shostakovich symphonies and Peggy Lee.

    He doesn’t read newspapers. He has a Kloss widescreen TV with a videotape recorder. Each evening he watches the Channel 4 News with Ralph Renick, the CBS news with Dan Rather, the Nightly Business Report and the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. After that, he usually watches a videotaped movie, sometimes R-rated. He recently screened Private Lessons at a small party at his home. He is inordinately fond of sword-and-sorcery fantasies for children, like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. He throws frequent parties for his planetarium staff at which large quantities of champagne are consumed. He sleeps on an inclined bed, his feet lower than his head, so that the fluid in his lungs will settle to the bottom and not suffocate him. He rests poorly, surrounded by burglar alarms ever since he was robbed at knifepoint in his home on New Year’s Eve 1981.

    In March of 1982, however, his stars came unaligned. What was intended as a relaxed open-air stargazing party, loosely inspired by a schlock science book that predicted the end of the universe, got out of hand when an area rock station promoted it as a sort of an astronomical Woodstock and a “Doomsday” festival. Without any bands to speak of, the gathered masses began to turn one of his stargazing parties into a near-riot. “Arrests and injuries numbered in the hundreds,” reported NNDB, “stabbings and beatings were reported, and though no-one was killed, Horkheimer said he was unable to sleep through the night for a week.”

    Jack kept promoting the stars like a circus hawker, even as the rest of the professional astronomy world disowned him. The head of New York’s Hayden Planetarium declined to be interviewed for that Herald article. “Dr. Gutsch would prefer that the Hayden Planetarium not be mentioned in connection with such an article,” said a spokesman.

    On the Venus-Jupiter Rendezvous

    But Jack didn’t care about the professionals. The kids who might grow up to be professionals were his target audience. “A planetarium is not for scientists. It’s not for the Ph.D.’s,” he says. “It’s for the people. A planetarium is supposed to mediate between the scientists and the public. It’s to teach, to tantalize. Real astronomers aren’t supposed to be running planetariums. It’s living death for them. They’re supposed to be researching.” In the 1980s, Jack’s was reportedly the only planetarium in the country that was turning a profit.

    By 2005, the astronomy community came around to the power of the Star Hustler. Congress gave him a medal. An asteroid belt was named after him. “I was on borrowed time to begin with,” Horkheimer told Astronomy magazine that year. “When I came to Miami, I believed that I maybe had 5 years left to live. I never thought I’d have an expanse of time to dedicate my life to anything. But I thought, if I can turn people on to the stars, eventually some would make the cosmic connection to find out what the universe is all about. For me, turning people on to the stars became my form of priesthood and therapy.”

    The year previous, he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. But until the end, he lived by his closing line, the one he’d use at the end of each episode: “Keep looking up!”

    We will Jack.

    Jack’s final episode of Star Gazer, Aug. 30 – Sept. 5, 2010.

    See more at the Miami Science Museum’s YouTube channel and at his website, http://www.starhustler.com.

    Topics: space, astronomy, television, tv, weirdo, weird, video

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