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Show Popularizing Astronomy Seen on 200 TV Stations : Instead of Death in Florida, Planetarium's 'Hustler' Found Stardom

January 18, 1987|ANDREA ROWAND | Associated Press

MIAMI — "Some people hustle pool. Some people hustle cars. Then there's that man you've heard about, the one who hustles stars: Jack Horkheimer."

Thus begins each weekly episode of the astronomy show on public television.

Horkheimer didn't come to Florida 22 years ago to create public television's "Star Hustler," broadcast on about 200 stations nationally, and he didn't come to direct the Miami Space Transit Planetarium.

He came here to die.

Has Lung Disease

"I didn't think I would be alive more than a year and a half. I'd been told that by the doctors up north," said Horkheimer, a flamboyant 48-year-old who several times daily inhales a medicated mist to battle his worsening lung disease, bronchiectasis.

The doctors were wrong.

The native of Randolph, Wis., was a child stargazer, former jazz organist, Purdue University drama graduate and playwright. He became the "Star Hustler" and thrived, despite occasional criticism about his lack of scientific credentials and his flashy methods of popularizing his beloved astronomy.

'Excited About the Stars'

"When I get talking with people about astronomy, I get excited," he said, his blue eyes shining. "I get very passionate about it. I wanted people to get excited about the stars.

"We are living in the greatest age of astronomy," added Horkheimer, sitting behind a double desk piled with clutter.

"The period we are living in will go down in history as legend. We're reaching out for the stars. All the questions that have been asked about astronomy for millions of years are being answered."

Horkheimer is the kind of man for whom exclamation points were invented.

Stacks of Fan Mail

"It's a turning point in the history of planet Earth," predicted the "Star Hustler," whose television show just turned 10 years old and went national 18 months ago. At WPBT-TV, which produces the show, Horkheimer gets stacks of fan mail.

And he got thousands of extra letters last year after asking to hear from viewers who had seen Halley's comet in both 1910 and in 1986.

Letters from his International Halley's Second Time Around Comet Club were stashed in a time capsule and buried on the planetarium grounds during Christmas week. Horkheimer hopes it will be opened the next time the comet nears Earth.

Besides the show's success, the planetarium, unlike most, turns a healthy profit.

But, in early 1967, Miami's planetarium was new and not profitable. Arthur P. Smith Jr., now the curator of the planetarium he fathered and for 32 years a board member of the Miami Museum of Science, recruited Horkheimer to help.

"Astronomy can be dull as dust if you stick to textbook lectures," Smith said. "Descriptive astronomy is Jack's strong suit. People are curious and you can teach them, if you sugarcoat the pill.

"Jack has turned this planetarium into one with an international reputation."

It wasn't easy.

Had to Entertain

"I had to compete with everybody in town," Horkheimer said. "First, the sunshine and the ocean. I realized that, in order to be a viable institution, you had to entertain people. I didn't know planetariums weren't supposed to make money."

To get publicity and attract paying visitors, Horkheimer went on radio talk shows. Lots of them. Then he gave daily predawn astronomy lessons on the radio.

He held fancy press conferences, complete with Champagne, to promote his shows. He once dressed up as the Mad Hatter, serving reporters champagne from a silver teapot. Staid colleagues snickered, but politely, Horkheimer said.

He supplied telescopes for stargazing events for the public. There were lectures at elementary schools, high schools, colleges, for associations, almost anywhere he was invited.

Mixes Poetry and Science

He created shows about astronomy that have played in planetariums all over the world, elaborate multimedia shows that mixed slides with poetry, music, philosophy and science.

"I brought together my love of the stars with my background in writing drama and put the two together along with music and produced full sound-track shows," he said. "I was taking what most people thought was a scientific institution, a planetarium, and turning it into a popular place where people brought dates. I kicked a lot of sacred cows."

And then came "Star Hustler"--first in Miami, then statewide, now nationally.

"He has a cult audience all over the country," said Mike Boylan, the production director at WPBT-TV. The "Star Hustler" sells his stars by telling stories about them.

The five stars of Cassiopeia to the ancient Greeks represented a queen on her throne, condemned by the gods for her vanity to spend eternity circling the North Star, Horkheimer explained in a December script urging his audience to watch for that pattern by looking due north.

A Friend in the Skies

But, to Horkheimer, those five stars represent the letter W . The constellation reminds him of a recently deceased friend, Bea Williams, who first sparked his interest in astrology, he tells his viewers.

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