THE MANY PHASES OF JACK HORKHEIMER

Miami Herald, The (FL)
September 19, 1982
Author: MICHAEL BROWNING Herald Staff Writer


He is a mosaic of a man, made up of many bright, scattered pieces.

Nothing about him is whole cloth.

His father wanted him to be an athlete. His mother wished him a priest.

Instead he is a sickly fellow, and a fallen-away Catholic. He tried to commit suicide at age 12. He is a former disc jockey and nightclub entertainer, a jazz organist who hasn't touched a keyboard in five years. He is an ex-drama student who threatened to sue his university if one of his plays weren't put on. Though he runs the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and hosts a statewide TV show on stargazing, his scientific credentials are negligible: He freely admits he has never taken an accredited astronomy course in his life.

He came to Miami 18 years ago, to die. On his way to the grave, he has become one of the most famous people in town.

Fidgety, flamboyant, he is Foley Arthur Horkheimer, better known as Jack Horkheimer, still better known as The Star Hustler. "Jack" is his old night club stage name. A few close friends are permitted to call him "His Horkiness."

He has been lying low for the past six months, recovering from one of the worst personal and professional disasters in a life full of hard knocks. His "End of the World Party" held last March was a ruinous thing: A quiet nocturne of stargazing turned into a screaming, bloody brawl in which scores of people were beaten or stabbed and robbed.

He survived that particular Doomsday, but it still puzzles him. Today he wonders just where he went wrong, where he crossed the line between education and entertainment. Perhaps it had to happen. Horkheimer is, first and last, a popularizer. That means dealing with people; and people, he has learned, can be very ugly.

But he is recovering, recouping his losses. "Keep looking up," is his motto, the words he uses at the end of every "Star Hustler" episode. Public embarrassment and private despair are things he has faced before.

He is 44, born June 11, 1938, in Randolph, Wis. He is single, never married. He is a mass of infirmities. He is afraid of crowds, afraid of heights. In fact his acrophobia is so severe that he won't climb the ladder to the catwalk inside his own planetarium dome. Until recent surgery he was nearly blind in one eye. He is allergic to any number of things and has to wear rubber gloves and a long-sleeved smock when gardening. His worst ailment, the one that has cumbered and curtailed his whole life, is bronchiectasis, a degenerative lung disease. He coughs, turns red, gasps and inhales a steroid- based spray every so often. He has to perform daily exercises and visits a hospital frequently to clear out his lungs on an Intermittent Positive Pressure Breathing (IPPB) machine. Nonetheless he is a chain smoker of Marlboro Golden Lights. "I don't inhale," he excuses himself. "And I'll go for a month without them sometimes."

He needn't work. Since his father's death in 1975 he has been financially well off. He collects old Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals, owns three or four telescopes, has a house in Kendall.

Yet he drives his dad's old car, a dark green 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood -- a curious loyalty, since he never got along with his father. The car is rusting away in places, but Horkheimer can't bear to part with it.

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 Mot & 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.

His father was the mayor of Randolph for 24 years, a tough go-getter who ran a profitable publishing firm and who wanted Horkheimer to excel in sports. The elder Horkheimer was a gregarious, exuberant man, a natural politician who made friends with everybody but his own son, whom he used as a caddy when playing golf.

"I was always a failure in my father's eyes," the Star Hustler admits. "He wanted me to be an athlete and, because of my lungs, I could never hack it. I tried football, baseball, basketball, swimming. God, I tried everything. I nearly died. They thought I had asthma, but I can tell you this: Until I was 18 years old, I didn't know what it was to be without pain." His parents took him from one hospital to another, chasing a cure. Horkheimer was put in a lead-lined room and bombarded with X- rays. He developed radiation sickness. All his hair fell out.

His family, Horkheimer says, was "more Catholic than the Pope." He grew up surrounded by the golden, heaven-bent panoply of the Roman church, with its incense and beeswax candles, its cassocks and starched surplices. He can still recite snippets from the Baltimore Catechism, along with other Catholic arcana like the Guardian Angel prayer of children:

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God's love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side
To light, to guard, to rule and to guide.
Amen.

He was a miserable child. He believed his lung disease was a punishment from God and that his own father was ashamed of him. By the time he reached the eighth grade he wanted to die, but knew that suicide was a mortal sin and he would go to hell.

"So I made a pact with God. I prayed and said I would sit outside in the rain at night, and if God wanted to give me pneumonia, I'd die and it wouldn't be a sin," he said. "I got pneumonia all right: Double pneumonia. But I didn't die."

He attended a Jesuit prep school, Edmund Campion -- "I didn't want to. I did it to please my father." There he became interested in music, playing the organ. The main reason he wanted to play the organ was to get a job doing it during the summer, in order to avoid working at his father's publishing house, where he was paid a dollar a day.

He also became a disc jockey at Campion's radio station, WVOC, "The Voice of Campion." He laughs. " 'The Voice Of Cruelty,' we called it." His show was called "Horky's Hits and Highlights."

While he was still 15, he got a job playing the organ at the Lake Geneva Motel. He was only an adequate musician: nervous, skinny, dreaming of Richard Strauss and playing for Happy Hour crowds of noisy drunks. "I never considered myself good enough to make a living at it," Horkheimer says.

At 18 he reached a nervous crisis. It is something he has never publicly discussed before. He spent five months in a mental hospital in Milwaukee.

"I was on the verge of suicide again. It was a lot of things: my illness, my family, I was losing my religion. A doctor persuaded me to enter the hospital," Horkheimer said. "The only reason I am telling you this, is that maybe there's some young person out there with a similar problem who could profit from my experience. I know what depression is, and I know it can be gotten through."

Since that time, Horkheimer has periodically taken anti- depressant drugs to combat his fits of melancholy.

In 1958, after dropping out of Marquette University and the Honolulu School of Fine Arts in Hawaii, he ended up at Purdue, in Lafayette, Ind. He began as a premed student, but switched to drama after a year, to his father's intense displeasure. It was at Purdue that his lung condition was first accurately diagnosed.

He stayed at Purdue for six years, three of them as a writer and producer in Purdue's Repertory Theatre, where he wrote a play called If the Shoe Fits, Eat It.

This play caused a small scandal at Purdue, and indeed it contained some pretty raw stuff, for the early '60s. One of its characters was named Busty Betsy. Another said the universe was made of dog dung. Two more were supposed to appear nude on a stage that was outfitted with five toilets on pedestals and a couple of urinals used as flower planters. Some of the Purdue faculty were outraged, calling the play "a most indecent, immoral, lewd, vulgar and crude piece of work." It was finally staged after Horkheimer threatened to sue the university. He took his Bachelor's degree, with distinction, in August 1963. His bronchiectasis was getting worse. In desperation he came South in 1964, hoping that the warm, moist climate of South Florida would soothe his inflamed lungs. He had given up on Catholicism and expected to die soon. He was 26. He had failed at practically everything he set his hand to.

Horkheimer drifted around Miami, living off his parents' money and loathing it. He took a room at the Americana Hotel on Miami Beach and toyed with the idea of opening an experimental theater. He even had a name picked out: "Way Off Broadway and Then Some." But it never panned out.

Ten he met Art Smith, the white-haired chief of the Southern Cross Astronomical Society. Smith, Horkheimer says, changed his life.

"He became like a father to me," he said. "He was closer to me than my real father."

When the $500,000 Space Transit Planetarium opened in 1966, Smith asked Horkheimer to run it. Part of the reason was financial. Horkheimer was an enthusiastic volunteer who would work for nothing. He had nothing to live for, except the stars and the $150,000 Spitz projector that would make them shine at his command.

And it was in the planetarium that the fragmented man found a certain unity. It was as if the great, lens-shaped dome, 66 1/2 feet across and four stories high, finally focused him. The ex-altar boy, the dramatist, the disc jockey, the musician with weak lungs and the stargazer with weak eyes all came together. The planetarium became his theater, his church, his concert hall, his home. He actually slept there for years, on a rollaway bed in his office.

He worked furiously, assembling a series of remarkable shows, more than 30 of them over the years, mixing sound and light, science and religion, the humorous and the sublime. He and his crew modified the planetarium's equipment to include huge speakers, powerful slide projectors, a battery of lasers and a zoom apparatus that could make planets float down through the starry void like giant, shimmering bubbles.

The effect was, and still is, dazzling. Horkheimer's shows are luminous, kinetic things, full of rapid-fire references to ancient history, mythology and language. In a recent show, "Night of the Vulcan Moon," Horkheimer managed to drag in Stonehenge, Abu Simbel, Pompeii, the Sinai desert and Mr. Spock of Star Trek. Fact rubs shoulders with fantasy. Ideas and images go off like Roman candles. The big Spitz projector wheels silently on its horseshoe mount, twinkling in the center of an encompassing darkness; and everything sparkles and echoes beneath the grand, overarching dome, against a myriad spangling of stars drifting in and out of pale blue clouds.

It is magnificent. But is it science?

Some of it is. Some of it is very engaging claptrap, the kind of entertaining spookiness you'd expect to see on "The Twilight Zone." Horkheimer's show titles flip-flop between the awed and the offhanded. His best-received efforts, Child of the Universe, Long Journey of A Young God and Starbound, betray an almost religious reverence for the heavens. Others are simply comical, like Invaders to Mars and Killer Comet. He is not above capitalizing on science fiction trends, like the flying saucer mania that came on the heels of the film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has done three separate shows on UFO's and refuses to say whether he believes in them or not. "My views change from week to week," he explains.

He will do almost anything to promote a show. At a press conference in 1978 Horkheimer dressed up as the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and served reporters champagne out of silver teapots. He swears it was necessary.

"I soon learned that if you hold a press conference and don't give reporters anything to drink, it will be a very small, very short press conference," he says.

For years he was deliberately eccentric, wearing shaggy- haired wigs, sporting a beard, decking himself out in flowered jackets and granny glasses. "It was a kind of costume. Frankly, I hated it," Horkheimer shakes his head. "I had to do it though, to get people to notice the planetarium."

It is his showmanship that sets Horkheimer apart. He and his planetarium are popular, in the best and the worst sense of the word. He has made science fun, sometimes even funny. No one questions his success. A few question his methods.

"Jack Horkheimer is doing a good job that is respected throughout the profession," said Dr. Joseph Chamberlain, director of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. But Chamberlain added that he does not do laser shows at his planetarium. "I am not the least bit interested in that," he said.

Dr. William Gutsch, who heads New York's Hayden Planetarium, flatly declined to be interviewed when Horkheimer's name was brought up. He gave no reason.

"Dr. Gutsch would prefer that the Hayden Planetarium not be mentioned in connection with such an article," a spokesman said.

This snobbishness doesn't bother Horkheimer. He makes no attempt to magnify his meager formal background in astronomy. Practically everything he knows -- and he knows a lot -- he picked up on his own. He is the archetypal gifted amateur, almost entirely self-taught.

"I can read," he says. "I'm no dummy."

He insists he is perfectly well-qualified for his job.

"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."

Horkheimer is so visible that people tend to forget his planetarium is just an appendix of the Miami Museum of Science, which was founded in 1952. The county pays the museum's rent, its property taxes and its utility bill. Museum President Ken Clifford doesn't mind Horkheimer's flashy style a bit. The planetarium is a gold mine. It costs about $150,000 a year to run, but it takes in much more than that and much of the overage goes to the museum. It stands to clear at least $35,000 this year. "Jack is a showman, a super guy," Clifford says. "He knows how to get people to attend the planetarium. It's the only planetarium in the country that's making money. We have been very pleased with what Jack has been able to do."

Most major planetariums in the country take in only enough to cover expenses: the Adler in Chicago, the Hayden in New York, the Buell in Pittsburgh. Their budgets all run around three- quarters of a million dollars annually -- six times what Horkheimer spends; but they don't make money like Horkheimer does.

From the planetarium Horkheimer has expanded into TV and radio. He does a five minute spot five times a week on radio station WKAT. Since October 1976 he has appeared nightly on Channel 2 as "The Star Hustler." By now he has done over 500 radio spots and over 300 episodes of "Star Hustler." The TV show, a catchy little miscellany of off-the-wall astronomical lore, together with tips on what to watch for in the night sky, is carried by all nine public TV stations in Florida. Horkheimer never appears live. He works five weeks in advance, reading his scripts into a Dictaphone for his secretary to type up and taping them in bunches at the Channel 2 studio. He wrote the introductory jingle himself:

"Some people hustle pool,
Some people hustle cars.
Now here's that man you've heard about,
The one who hustles stars."

He does all this for free. He makes no money from the WKAT spots, or the "Star Hustler" episodes. The royalties from his planetarium shows -- several have been shown at other institutions in the U.S., South America and Europe -- go to the planetarium, not to him. All he gets is his straight salary as planetarium director: $32,000 a year.

But all this, the radio, the TV, the planetarium spectacles, still wasn't enough for Horkheimer. He enjoyed meeting his audiences face to face, almost like the actor who prefers live theater to making movies. One of the quirky things about the "Star Hustler" show was the way Horkheimer would get excited, wave his hands and urge everybody to turn off the TV, get up, go outside and look at the skies.

And sometimes they would. And once, last spring, he wished they hadn't: The curious little groups of skywatchers gathered, flowed together and turned into a roaring, threatening mob.

It was Doomsday. It happend on March 11, 1982. Horkheimer had organized these things many times before: quiet, friendly evenings of stargazing in the open, out at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. People would bring blankets and thermoses and stand in line to look through telescopes furnished by Horkheimer's friends in the Southern Cross Astronomical Society. The occasional lunar eclipse, the annual Perseid meteor shower -- at these, Horkheimer would act as master of ceremonies, introducing the stars and chatting with the people. The events were moderately well-attended, modestly successful. They won friends for the planetarium. They were educational. They were fun.

Horkheimer therefore had no qualms about putting on another skywatch, this one centered around the so-called "alignment" of the planets set to occur in March.

The scientific basis for this planetary lineup was flimsy. In 1974 two scientists, John Gribbin and Stephen Plangemann, wrote a book called The Jupiter Effect, predicting that an alignment of all nine planets on March 10, 1982 would create earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and general terrestrial mayhem. The "alignment" wasn't an alignment at all, but a rough grouping of planets over a 96-degree arc. The book was ridiculed by other scientists and one of the authors, Gribbin, later admitted that his predictions were in error.

"We got our math wrong," Gribbin said. "We blew it and we are sorry."

But Horkheimer still thought it was an attractive idea. Even if the planets didn't quite line up, many of them would be visible at once: a rare thing in itself. Besides, he said, "People love to be scared to death."

So he decided to organize another evening at Crandon Park. He sent out the usual press releases to the newspapers, radio and TV stations. The Miami News' John Keasler, long a friend of Horkheimer's, plugged the event in his popular column. He called it "The End of the World Party." It was all very lighthearted, very innocent. Horkheimer even hoped it would help Miami's image. It would be a lark.

It was a violent, bloody disaster: a vivid embarrassment to Keasler, a frightful evening for Metro police and a personal catastrophe for Horkheimer. He had spent 16 years trying to reach out and touch people with astronomy. That night those people reached back. Horkheimer learned, to his horror, just how far his popularizing had gone.

"I cried about it after it was over," Horkheimer said. "I went through days of horror. I didn't sleep for a week. It was supposed to be a gentle, soft, quiet event. We got burned."

"Everybody thought it was a good idea until it happened," said Keasler. "It was a terrible, shocking thing to me. What happened was, some sons of bitches decided to stick knives in people."

In retrospect it appears Horkheimer made a serious error when he decided to provide music at the gathering. He lined up a local soft-rock band called "Music of the Spheres" and mentioned it in his press release.

On March 6 Keasler quoted Horkheimer in his column: "Bring musical instruments, those who play them. If we go out, we may as well go out dancing." Keasler himself joked: "When the world starts ending, the least we can do is raise hell about it."

But Keasler and Horkheimer weren't the only ones pushing the Doomsday fest. On March 9, again following Horkheimer's news release, The Miami Herald noted that the "best" place to view the planets "will be Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, where the Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium ... will have plenty of powerful telescopes and guides for the public. A rock 'n' roll band, Music of the Spheres, will perform too."

Nevertheless Metro police, who are still investigating the violence that erupted that night on the beach, believe that the thousands of young people who mobbed the park didn't learn about the Doomsday Festival in any newspaper. This wasn't a newspaper crowd. "They told us they heard it on the radio," said officer Homer Grainger, who was at the park that night. "They said they heard it was going to be a free, all-night rock concert." Every local rock radio station contacted has denied billing the Doomsday Fest as a rock concert. The program managers for WWWL, WAXY and WHYI say they didn't mention the event at all. A spokesman for WINZ said he wasn't "absolutely sure" how the station had handled it. A spokesman for WSHE said that the station advertised the festival, but not as a concert.

"Definitely not. We promoted it as a Doomwatch, not as a concert," the spokesman said. "We try to be real careful with our public service announcements."

But somebody wasn't careful enough, to judge from the results. By 2 a.m. on the morning of March 11 the Rickenbacker Causeway was clogged with traffic all the way across Biscayne Bay. A boozy, smoke-gladdened mob of more than 3,000 young people descended on Crandon Park, where only two startled policemen were manning the night shift. They rammed an exit gate with a four-wheeler and knocked it down. They swarmed across the two huge parking lots and poured onto the beach.

"We want a band. We want a band." they howled over the racket of portable radios. When no band appeared -- the Music of the Spheres group was stuck in traffic far back on the Causeway -- they toppled a wooden lifeguard station on the beach and tore it to pieces.

It was 2 a.m. The phone rang at Horkheimer's house. He was home, resting before going out to Crandon Park. He picked up the receiver.

"It was somebody from the astronomical society, out on Key Biscayne. They said: 'The cops are all over the place, Jack.'

"I said: 'What's happening?'

"'My God, it's terrible.'

"'What's happening?'

"Then a cop got on the phone. He said: 'Mr. Horkheimer, they've broken down the gates. There's been bumper-to-bumper traffic on the causeway since midnight.'

" 'Where are they going?'

" 'They're screaming about an all-night rock concert.'

Horkheimer pauses. "That was when I started to get very sick," he says.

The Crandon Park police frantically radioed for reinforcements. One of the approximately 20 off-duty officers called in was Homer Grainger.

"It was a mess, a real mess," Grainger said. "We were damn lucky nobody was killed.

"It was so dark you couldn't tell what was going on. This was not your family crowd. Everybody was drunk, doped out, 'luded out. Everybody was screaming. People were getting their cameras and purses stolen. Somebody would just walk up to them and smash their face in with a pipe and steal their stuff. And in the middle of it there was this gang of Latin youths. And they were stabbing people."

The gang wore a sort of uniform, blue jeans and black jackets. Police have photographs of some of them in action -- the young photographer who took these shots had to run for his life afterwards -- and in one, the face of a youth with a knife appears, blurrily. The gang escaped in the darkness and confusion. Four people were stabbed that night. Dozens more were beaten and robbed. So far, no arrests have been made.

Horkheimer inched across the congested causeway and arrived at 4:15 a.m. He and a small knot of bewildered stargazers huddled by their telescopes at the far south end of Parking Lot No. 2 on Crandon Park. Most of the violence was happening about a third of a mile to the north, on the beach. There was distant shouting, the blare of police bullhorns in the night. Bleeding victims were carried to the police station, then to an emergency first-aid station set up nearby.

"It looked like a battlefield out there," Grainger said. "There was blood all over the station steps. There were people laid out in a row beside the road. They had IV's going, stretchers, the whole bit. It was like a war."

About 5 a.m. the clouds rolled in, obscuring the planets. The sky grew light. Police clad in riot gear began clearing the beach. Slowly the ugly crowd broke up.

"They were yelling at us: 'This is Doomsday, pigs. And you're gonna to be the first to die.' " Grainger said.

Nobody died in the Doomsday debacle, but Horkheimer's reputation took a beating. Six months have passed since that night, but he still gets excited, talking about it.

"My naivete, my incredible naivete." he exclaimed, jabbing the air with both hands. "I wanted to help the city's image. God, what a dumb duck I was."

The unkindest cut of all, he feels, was the way the media treated him after Doomsday. Horkheimer thought he had a special rapport with the media, especially the electronic media. After all, he was practically one of them. He was on TV, too. He had served refreshments to reporters at his press conferences. He had answered their questions about comets and eclipses. He had fed them fluffy filler stories about the stars on slow news days. He had invited local television personalities to narrate his planetarium shows. They were supposed to be his pals, and now they were chewing him up and spitting him out in small pieces. Doomsday had been a bust, and the reporters knew who to blame: the Star Hustler.

"I don't think I talked to the media for a month after that," Horkheimer said.

But time has passed and Horkheimer has rebounded. He always does. By early August the planetarium had earned back all its 1982 expenses. Everything from here on out is pure profit. Horkheimer's latest show, Starbound, is being shown in Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Hamburg, Johannesburg and Armagh, Ireland. It is a big success. A moonwatch held July 6 at the Science Museum during a lunar eclipse turned out quite well. A decently behaved crowd of about 200 showed up to look through the telescopes and the eclipse was very striking; the full moon turned a gratifyingly deep, rusty red, just as Horkheimer predicted it would. On "Star Hustler" he asked people all over Florida to observe the eclipse, write their impressions down and mail them in. They did. He has received hundreds of post cards about the event. One little boy from Deltona sent him a long, admiring letter and wants to become a pen pal.

He is planning a new show for next January, really a series of little shows all thrown into one. He's going to call it "Cosmic Skivvies, or Astronomical Shorts." His good spirits are returning. The press releases are starting to trickle out again.

"I always say my staff and I are the luckiest people in town. We're getting paid for doing what we like to do," says Horkheimer with a tentative little laugh. "We're like the hooker that enjoys her work."

The Star Hustler hustles on.

Section: TROPIC
Page: 6
Copyright (c) 1982 The Miami Herald