Monday, February 26, 2018

"Secret of the Old Museum,"
with tangents, footnotes & Nimoy

I bought this used book late last year during a day that Sarah and I spent cruising the antiques stores of New Oxford, Pennsylvania. (I think it was from Black Shutter Antiques.) I picked it up mostly because I liked the cover and because it was cheap, which are my modus operandi in buying old books I don't specifically need.

The book is one of the knock-offs of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that blazed through kids' literature in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. As you can see, it's titled Secret of the Old Museum, and it was written by Roy Wandelmaier and published by Troll Associates in 1985.1

Troll tried to hit several different audiences in the mid 1980s with its "The Choice is Yours" books. They fell under several subsets, including Fantastic Adventures, Alien Adventures and Solve it Yourself.2 Secret of the Old Museum was one of four books in the Fantastic Adventures collection. Others were Shipwrecked on Mystery Island, Adventure in the Lost World, and Mystery at Loch Ness, which ties in perfectly with where I'm headed.3

As I said, I bought this book primarily because I liked the cover art, which is by Dick Smolinski. And that gets to me where we're going. The style of the illustration — with mysterious creatures and places and hints of aliens4 and the unknown — reminded me greatly of the TV series In Search of..., and that catapulted me back in time slightly farther than the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

And so I'm going to write a little about In Search of...

The show, hosted by Leonard Nimoy5, originally aired in syndication from 1977 to 1982. I watched plenty of episodes, packed with ancient mysteries, sasquatches and strange disappearances, during that time. But my main memory evokes place; it involves watching it at the house of my friend Michael, who lived across the street from us in Clayton, New Jersey.6 It was a tiny town, far enough from Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore that you felt small and isolated and forgotten about by the rest of the crazy world, connected only by the one-directional TV and radio waves.

When In Search of... came on the air, we still only had five or six channels, and there was, of course, no Internet. So Nimoy's show and the library were the only two places we could really scratch our itch for knowledge about the world's spooky and supernatural mysteries. (Creature Double Feature didn't really count as learning.) The show introduced many from my generation to the Nazca Lines, the Bermuda Triangle, King Tut's curse, Atlantis, the Loch Ness Monster, Stonehenge, Easter Island and much, much more. Certainly, some of those topics have more scientific weight and credibility than others, but the show treated these things even-handedly and encouraged viewers to be skeptical and open-minded.

In a bit of kismet that occurred during the time I've been mulling over and procrastinating about this post7, I discovered a great article on the website We Are The Mutants. And so my foot-dragging has allowed me to share with you "Theory and Conjecture: ‘In Search of…’ and the Golden Age of Paranormal TV." It offers some intelligent perspective and context for the show. Thoughts that are more eloquent than my own. Here are three short excerpts:
In Search of... edited and assembled its pieces with an express eye towards engaging the viewers. Which could mean, quite often, scaring the pants off them or creeping them out! Every uncanny, foreboding, warbly, synth sting from the show is burned into my formative memories. Some of the reenactments definitely cross over from cheesy to genuinely frightening.

In Search of... epitomized a certain mood, more than anything else. That's the sense I get watching it now. Before drones and GPS, before our final and despicable capitulation to the technocratic oligarchy ... the extraordinary was still possible and tangible; it couldn't be bought, and ordinary people might chance upon it on a back road or a dark lake. It was our last collective moment of magic.

The coming of cable in the 1980s, where there were fewer restrictions on programming, diluted the Weirdness of America's television landscape. ... I mentioned at the outset that In Search of... feels like outsider art, and it's not just the Weird topics the show covered or the array of oddballs they interviewed. It's the visual and sonic aesthetic as well: the grainy film stock, those eerie synths, the charmingly amateurish recreations. Try to get something like this on cable television in the mid-to-late '80s and you'd have been absolutely out of luck.
If you said that some of this gives the same vibe that you get from David Southwell and Hookland, I think you'd be correct.

Thanks to inexpensive DVD technology, the In Search of... full-series box set — it's just a quarter per episode! — is now sitting on a shelf here in Dover, 115 miles west of that small town in southern New Jersey where I first experienced it. The journey won't be the same. But I'm looking forward to taking it again. And maybe Sarah will find Nimoy's show just as enjoyable as checking out antiques stores in New Oxford ... and discover a sprinkle of the magic from my youth.

1. More about this paperback: It's 99 pages (though there are several blank pages at the end) and, per the inside front cover, it was once owned by Eric Hoffman, whose third-grade teacher was Mrs. Himes. The first sentence is "It is Sunday afternoon, and you have reached the end of your rope." The last sentence is "You never do find Dr. Walker, but you live a long, simple life with the prehistoric people." There are 30 endings, plus plenty of illustrations, packed into the 99 pages.
2. One of the Solve It Yourself books was Mystery at the Bike Race. (What a boring title!) The premise was: "As you, the reader, work on a newspaper story about your town's annual bicycle race, your suspicions are aroused that something sinister is happening involving the new electronics plant."
3. Assuming I'm going anywhere.
4. OK, it's more than a hint. Blue alien dude has a ray gun.
5. Here are previous posts featuring Leonard Nimoy:
6. Here's a 1981 picture of Michael (left) and me that the world probably does not need. But we can't hide from the past. In addition to occasionally watching In Search Of..., Michael and I rode our bicycles around the neighborhood a lot, made obsessive lists of the Philadelphia Phillies' roster, sang and played air guitar to The Muppet Movie soundtrack, debated whether Star Blazers was better than Battle of the Planets, and generally played outdoors way, way more than we played indoors.
7. The average Papergreat post has an incubation period of one to three weeks. Some take much longer. The oldest post still sitting in my "Drafts" section on Blogger was begun in July 2015.


  1. Now I want to know what the topic of the Lingering Post is...

    1. It's a story I'm supposed to write for a Postcrossing person from Europe. These things take time.