Guest blog: From Star Hustler to Star Gazers, by Dean Regas

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, September 16, 2011

Welcome to my 100th blog! This is a day for anniversaries: 100 blogs and 29 years to the day since I joined the staff of Astronomy magazine! And to celebrate, I am taking the day off. Instead of writing something original, I am presenting you with a guest blog by Astronomy magazine contributor, Cincinnati Observatory Center astronomer, and TV’s new Star Gazer, Dean Regas. Dean has written a nice account of the TV show that he is taking the helm of now, remembering the late Jack Horkheimer and the Star Hustler show. We’ll return with a second account by Dean in a few weeks that will detail plans for the new show as it moves forward. Enjoy!

Credit: Dean Regas
Credit: Dean Regas
From Star Hustler to Star Gazers:Behind the scenes from an iconic astronomy program
By Dean Regas

Jack Horkheimer, champion of backyard astronomers, saluted television viewers (and the universe) nightly from 1976 until 2010 with his inimitably delivered catch phrase, “Keep looking up!” The bite-sized TV program Star Gazer (or Star Hustler, as it was originally known) developed a cult following due to Jack’s ability to make the wonders of space accessible through his lovably eccentric yet conversational manner of speaking — along with special effects that have his image flipping, flying, and soaring through the galaxy. Who hasn’t stumbled upon Jack sitting on a beam of light and pointing out highlights of the sky late at night when you least expected to learn about astronomy? It is the only weekly television series devoted to naked-eye astronomy, and the delightfully kitschy Star Gazer now airs on more than 200 stations worldwide.

After Horkheimer passed away in August 2010, his producers at WPBT2 in Miami, Florida, wanted to continue the show. When I heard that Star Gazer was looking for a new host, I jumped at the chance. But, I asked myself, what qualifications did I have to step into the Star Gazer’s moon boots? Had I ever stood in space and guided viewers through the heavens from such a lofty perch? Had I ever experienced the special effects of flying from planet to planet?  Nevertheless, I sent in my résumé and was granted the opportunity last November to film eight episodes as a sort of extended audition. I would soon be standing on Jack’s light beam and highlighting the jewels of the night sky for the viewing public. 

Two weeks before flying from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Miami, Florida, to film, Star Gazer’s writer and producer for the past 30 years, Bill Dishong, sent me the eight scripts. For each week of the year, Bill wrote two versions of Star Gazer – one 5 minutes long and the other 1 minute long. I read, reread, and almost memorized all of the scripts and practiced at home for hours in front of the mirror. But nothing prepared me for being on the set.

I reported to the studio on a Monday morning for my first day of filming. Bill and I went over the scripts again and made last-minute edits and wording changes. We quickly discovered that my speech pattern differs wildly from Jack’s, but who could ever hope to imitate Jack’s singular inflection? I didn’t even try. Then we went into the control room and ran through the scripts again, this time inserting the graphics and timing the special effects.

Next, I reported to the makeup room and quickly started feeling like a TV star.  I actually had a makeup question, “Why did Jack Horkheimer wear a toupee during the program?” He didn’t hide his baldness away from Star Gazer, but I learned that the hairpiece was an absolute necessity on the set. Without it, his head blended into the background of the superimposed sky and made his forehead simply disappear. To avoid that, the toupee became standard equipment.

After makeup, I walked over to the studio and stepped in front of the galactic green screen. I quickly discovered that everything is done on the fly. As I read my lines through a teleprompter, the producers in the studio added in the special effects, including flying my image in and out of frame and onto the light beam. Much like a meteorologist, I could see all of the effects happening around me on a TV screen while I was talking — except then my image somersaulted out of the frame, Star Gazer-style! It was a lot to juggle, and a few times I pointed the wrong way to the wrong objects. The green screen was more like a green hole where everything was backward. Eventually, I started to relax in front of the camera and had fun. Right after I really nailed a segment of the show, Director Misbell Vargas-Leal chimed in from the control booth, “Sorry, let’s do it again. Oh, don’t worry Dean. The issue wasn’t you. Saturn was late.”

When we finished all of the standing shots, the crew wheeled out the “Green Chair.”  This is the chair that dissolved into the green screen background and allows the Star Gazer to sit on a beam of light among the stars. And, of course, once I sat down, the directors flew me onto the beam and flipped me off into space again — just for fun. 

Noticing my nervousness in the beginning, Stage Manager Keith Lester tried to loosen me up between takes with Jack Horkheimer anecdotes. Once, Jack was at a conference when an elderly woman came up to him and held his hand tenderly. “Oh, it’s so good to see you,” she said. With deep concern in her eyes she added, “I pray for you every time you’re on television.” “Oh, why’s that?” Jack asked cautiously. “I just pray that you don’t get lost in space with all that flipping and flying you do. But then you always come back on next week and I know you’re safe.” I guess the special effects of the show are believable to some viewers.

After sharing a laugh about Jack’s well-meaning fan, I found my groove and finished my first shoot. On Tuesday, we repeated the same process (minus some of my first-day jitters) and recorded all eight shows. After a final editing with some post-production flourishes, WPBT fed the programs by satellite to television stations around the globe, and Bill Dishong posted all of the videos on www.jackstargazer.com and YouTube. My first eight episodes aired in December 2010.

I must have had the right stuff for the job because, over the next 9 months, I returned to Miami five more times to film Star Gazer episodes as guest host. Other hosts filled in for the other 4 months, including amateur astronomer Ed Romano and the director of the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium in Gainesville, Florida, James Albury. On August 9, I filmed the final classic Star Gazer program. After 35 years, WPBT will design and produce a revamped version called Star Gazers that will feature two co-hosts delivering the same great tips for the backyard astronomer. And I got one of the jobs! I’m now a permanent host of Star Gazers and will be joined by James Albury on a PBS station near you. The new Star Gazers program will debut October 3 all around the country. The program is free to use and will air on the same times and channels as the old show. If your local PBS station doesn’t broadcast Star Gazer, send them a letter or email to request the new show. Later in the month, I’ll share a sneak peak of the new program, but in the meantime … “Keep looking up!”

Dean Regas is the outreach astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory and blogs at: http://www.cincinnatiobservatory.org/deanspace.html. You can reach him at dean@cincinnatiobservatory.org.

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