MIAMI—Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and host of the PBS program Star Hustler, was rushed to an area hospital Monday after collapsing from hyperventilation on the set of his popular astronomy-themed show.
Over-excitement brought on by the exceptional brilliance, rareness and favorable viewing position of the Hale-Bopp comet, described by Horkheimer as "the single most incredible celestial phenomenon of this century," is believed to be the cause.
"Jack loves astronomy with all his heart," Star Hustler producer Eileen Franks said. "But this is a case of a man who just loved too much."
According to witnesses, Horkheimer became increasingly manic while taping a Star Hustler episode about the comet, describing the beauty and magnificence of Hale-Bopp with flailing arm gestures and staccato bursts of superlatives. Increasingly red-faced and gulping for air, Horkheimer's voice reached a fever pitch as he related the "staggering, shimmering majesty of this unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime, heavenly radiance!"
The portly host, wide-eyed with near-orgasmic delight, his jowls visibly vibrating with excitement, cried out, "Hale-Bopp is expected to be the most widely viewed comet in the entire history of humankind! Do not miss out on this history-making, epoch-defining, momentous cosmic visitor from the stars!" Clutching his throat, he then fell off a blue-screen-projected backdrop of a ring of Saturn, plummeting 25 feet to the floor of the sound stage below.
Horkheimer's famed Member's Only jacket was not damaged in the incident, sources said.
Horkheimer is currently receiving oxygen treatment at Dade County Hospital. Though he is listed in stable condition, doctors stress that he is not out of danger at this time. To minimize the risk of relapse, he is being kept in a locked room under strict orders not to be allowed to observe the night sky between 9:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. through April 21, when viewing conditions are considered most favorable.
"Every time he regains consciousness, he mutters, 'Greetings, star-gazers!' and starts ranting about the comet again," Dr. Hargrove Lowell said. "I've never seen a person with such a high metabolic rate in all my life. We're trying to keep him sedated, but we've had to administer massive doses of Thorazine just to keep him down."
Added Lowell: "God help us if there's an unexpected supernova, and he hears about it on CNN. He'd be a goner, for sure."
According to Star Hustler's producer, the show will remain on hiatus until Horkheimer's health is restored. When Horkheimer does return, the program will no longer feature the usual effects of him "jumping" from planet to planet, "beaming in" at each episode's opening, or "zooming" from star map to star map at light speed.
A planned blue-screen superimposition effect depicting Horkheimer "riding" the tail of Hale-Bopp like a bucking bronco has also been cancelled.
"I should have known something was wrong," Franks said. "This whole week he's been acting strange. He even invented a dance he called the 'Hale-Bopp-A-Lu-Bop" and performed it on the air. I found that disturbing."
"At one point during the taping of that last show," Franks said, "Jack became so animated that he actually screamed at the camera, urging audience members to get up out of their seats and go look at the comet 'right the hell now!' It's not like Jack to use such language. He clearly was not himself."
Though Horkheimer's collapse is largely due to physical stress, psychological factors may have also played a role.
"I believe Mr. Horkheimer has enormous subconscious resentment that the most significant astronomical find in years was made by two amateur astronomers and not by him," said noted psychiatrist Dr. Eli Wasserbaum, who recently visited Horkheimer in the hospital. "He blames himself and is tormented by guilt that he was not watching when the comet appeared. During my visit, over and over, in a half-conscious murmur, he kept saying, 'Why didn't I keep looking up? Why didn't I keep looking up?'"
Friends and relatives remain confident that Horkheimer will pull through. "Jack's a fighter," longtime neighbor Bob Raemisch said. "That man has never backed down from a struggle in his entire life. He's a rock among men, I tell you."