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Keep looking up!

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Jack Horkheimer's father owned a printing shop, and served more than two decades as the mayor of Randolph, Wisconsin, where baby Jack was born.

He was a sickly kid, afflicted with bronchiectasis, a chronic and progressive lower respiratory tract infection, and it made his childhood miserable.

If that's not bad enough, he was raised devoutly Catholic, and felt that the illness was a curse from God. He attempted suicide when he was barely twelve years of age, and after graduating from high school in 1956, he was briefly hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

He worked as a piano player in a hotel bar, and toured with some success as a jazz pianist and organist under the stage name 'Horky' and, later, as 'Jack Foley'.

Horkheimer studied drama at Purdue, hoping to become a playwright, and when his disease grew worse he moved to Miami, where the climate was easier on his lungs. He found a day job to pay the bills, but also volunteered at the Miami Science Museum's planetarium in his spare time.

He'd always been fascinated by the stars, and after three years of volunteer work at the planetarium, he was hired there. Calling on his theater training, he researched, wrote and performed popular lectures to accompany the astronomy projections. His shows, titled "Child of the Universe" and "Mother Won’t Let Me Ride in a Flying Saucer," became very popular, regularly drawing sell-out crowds. 

Despite being entirely self-taught as an astronomer, in 1974 he was promoted to director of the museum's planetarium. He'd already become a local celebrity and TV-friendly science spokesman, and in 1976 he began appearing in short segments for Channel 2, WPBT, the local PBS affiliate. Originally called Star Hustler, and later re-named Star Gazer, the program was syndicated after 1985, airing late in the evening on many stations, or as the last broadcast before signing off.

Broadcast in both one-minute and five-minute weekly episodes, Star Gazer featured Horkheimer strolling among the planets or sitting on a mock-up of Saturn's rings, accompanied by an appropriately spacey all-electronic rendition of Claude Debussy's Arabesque #1.

Perhaps on purpose, part of the show's allure was that it kinda looked like camp. The special effects were TV-cheesy, even for the '70s and '80s, and Horkheimer was pudgy and balding and sometimes wore plaids. Flipping through channels, you might stay with Star Gazer just because it looked weird and silly, but even if you giggled, you'd learn something about the night skies.

Horkheimer's TV walks and talks through the skies centered on naked-eye astronomy — heavenly objects and phenomena that could be observed without a telescope. He told viewers what and where to look up, for the next few nights, to see objects that wouldn't have been visible a week earlier or later, as the galaxy spun further along. He knew and loved the stars, and ended each episode by encouraging everyone (and specifically you) to "Keep looking up!"

In 1982, Horkheimer organized a Miami-area event billed as "The End of the World Party." It was intended as a low-key open-air stargazing party, loosely poking fun at a schlock science book that had predicted the end of the universe.

He'd planned and presented similar events without any problems, but this one was latched onto by an area rock'n'roll station, which hyped it as sort of an astronomical Woodstock, described on air as a "Doomsday" festival.

Predictably in hindsight, a near-riot ensued when no musical bands took the stage. Stabbings and beatings were reported, arrests and injuries, and though no-one was killed, Horkheimer said he was unable to sleep through the night for a week.

Other than that, his life was free from scandal. He never married, and lived alone in a small apartment until his bronchiectasis proved fatal in 2010.

Retitled Star Gazers (plural) and featuring new hosts, the show continues on many PBS stations, but without Horky himself and the passion always in his eyes, it's just not the same.

Horkheimer in space

5/12/2024   

itsdougholland.com
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5 comments:

  1. I was always a PBS fan (no cable now) and I saw Star Gazer many times. I never quite figured it out, but I did deduce that it wasn't camp. There was plenty of real astronomy there.

    Doug, I'm sure you know this, but when you write about stuff you really care about you're a class A professional writer. You managed to tell a pretty sad story (that I'd never heard before) and make it a stunning tribute to Mr Horkheimer. Thank you for writing this and sharing it across time and space. It was masterfully done.

    John

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, John, and you touch on something I'd wanted to say in the article, but snipped out because it sounded like I was making fun of the guy.

      The show kinda looked like camp. The special effects were TV-cheesy, even for the '70s and '80s, and Horky was pudgy and balding and sometimes wore plaids. If you were flipping through channels, you might stay with Star Gazer just because it *looked* weird and silly, but even if you giggled you'd learn something.

      Delete
    2. And thanks again — I've stitched the above into the article.

      Delete
  2. Thank you for a lovely paean to Jack Horkheimer. I so much enjoyed his astronomy vignettes...quirky and insightful. Forgot all about him over the years, and you woke me up to a wonderful memory. Keep looking up, Doug!

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    Replies
    1. It's good to remember him for people who've forgotten! In his look and eagerness to talk about stuff, he reminded me of my pop. :)

      Delete

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