Celebrity Questar Owners
Sometimes the images of the celebrities we see on the movie screen and on television reveal only a sliver of the actual person. Going a little deeper past their outward appearance, one often finds a rounder character with sometimes surprising traits. The group of television personalities, stage performers, and film stars who enjoyed their Questar telescopes were prime examples of this.
Questar counted the American broadcasting personality Dave Garroway as one of its most colorful owners. Born in 1913, he ascended from a childhood during which he moved thirteen times by the age of fourteen, a failed career as a salesman, and an uncertain future in radio. By the late 1930s, he finished second-to-last in his 24-member class of graduates from NBC’s school for announcers. Once he reached the field, however, Garroway became known for his tenacious pursuit of interesting stories that appeared in unusual places. He later worked his way up to become special events director at KDKA in Pittsburgh by 1941, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Working as a disc jockey on the side during his service in Honolulu, he continued his career in Chicago and eventually rose to prominence on television. In contrast with the authoritative tone that most on-air personalities used, Garroway developed a lighter and more conversational style that lent itself well to the new talk show format that he helped pioneer for television. In 1952, he and his colleagues founded NBC’s Today show, and he served as one of its hosts until 1961.
But his gregarious projection and his beaming smile which seemed to be made just for television masked his deeper struggle with depression. In 1961, Garroway lost his second wife to suicide, which sent him into his own deep state of despair. Numerous false starts that included failed television shows and business ventures in the 1960s and 1970s did not help matters.
As he tried to manage his chronic depression, Garroway’s personal interests—he raced his beloved 1938 SS Jaguar 100 in his spare time, and he enjoyed listening to jazz music—brought him a modicum of serenity. His deep love for astronomy was another source of peace for him, and his Questar telescope was one means to that end.
In his account of witnessing the total solar eclipse at Lake Rudolf in northern Kenya in June 1973, Owen Franken recalled his encounter with Dave Garroway, who had become addicted to chasing solar eclipses. “All you need is one and you’re hooked,” Garroway said to Franken. “It’s as indescribable as sex.” During the event, Garroway stood chest high in the lake with his Questar in order to benefit from the steadier seeing one often gets while looking over water. “All I have to worry about is the crocodiles,” he joked.
In the summer of 1975, Garroway traveled with his Questar at his side throughout Great Britain and Russia on a 25-person observatory tour organized by Sarah Lee Lippincott, an astronomer at Swarthmore College. After meeting each other on the expedition, the two fell in love, and they married in 1980.
Not long after returning home after the tour, Garroway sent his Questar in for service. In its spring 1976 issue of its Questar Observations newsletter, the company included a passage from a letter Garroway wrote thanking Questar for “the exquisite refurbishing of my favorite object d’art.” He continued to say that “I really wish there was another single thing in this old world whose design, function, operation, and servicing policy was the equivalent of Questar’s, but I have never found it for any amount of money.”
But Garroway could never shake his chronic depression, and his Questar telescope also served as an unfortunate prop for the unfolding of his mental deterioration. In an article entitled “Remembering Dave Garroway,” which appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Television Quarterly magazine, playwright and screenwriter Loring Mandel recalled a visit to Garroway’s 10th Street apartment in New York not long after he left the Today show in 1961. “He was obsessive about his Questar telescope,” Mandel wrote. “He insisted that I look at a dollar bill tacked to his mantel from across the room, through the Questar. He described his evenings in Central Park with the Questar, prone on the ground and looking into the apartment windows above Fifth Avenue with the kind of magnification meant to view the planets. His personality seemed to have congealed into eccentricity.”
Only two years after marrying Sarah Lee Lippincott, Dave Garroway succumbed to his mental illness and committed suicide in 1982. He was 69 years old.
Over time, a network of television personalities came to own Questar telescopes. Like Dave Garroway, Hugh Downs (1921-2020) built his career as a conversational television host in Chicago during the early 1950s. A year after Garroway left the Today show, Downs co-hosted the program until 1971.
Whether by means of that connection or his own action, he eventually became a Questar owner, too. His telescope was but one indication of his deep interest in science and in astronomy in particular. Over the course of his life, Downs served as an elected member of the National Academy of Science, the board chair of the National Space Society and its predecessor, the National Space Institute. Asteroid 71000 Hughdowns is named in his honor.
Durward Kirby (1911-2000), another television personality, received his Questar telescope as a gift from the humorist and television entertainer Garry Moore (1915-1993).
The connections between Kirby, Moore, and Garroway are suggestive: in addition to his frequent appearances on Moore’s shows between 1950 and 1968, Kirby worked as a staff announcer for NBC’s Red Skelton Show, which the network began airing as the replacement for Garroway at Large in December 1951. Not long after that, Dave Garroway moved to New York to begin work on the Today show.
Other Television Celebrities
Outside of this circle of television professionals, another celebrated Questar client likely put the idea of owning one into the mind of one of his colleagues. Ed McMahan (1923-2009), Johnny Carson’s longtime sidekick on The Tonight Show, eventually acquired a Questar himself.
And perhaps with more interest in keeping an eye on celebrity stars on the ground rather than on stars in the sky, Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) owned a Questar telescope.
Many other less notable persons who lived in urban settings bought the fine instruments made in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Over the years, as longtime Questar associate Rodger Gordon notes, Questar sold more instruments to owners in New York City than anywhere else. Perhaps their small size made their telescopes well suited for storage in tight city dwellings, and perhaps their excellent portability made them equally well suited for frequent trips to the countryside. But, as Gordon suggested, since most apartment buildings in New York do not allow access to the roof, one can only speculate on what these individuals might have been doing with their Questars in town.
Johnny Carson may not have limited himself to recommending the Questar telescope only to his colleague Ed McMahan. Another frequent guest on Carson’s talk show was James Randi (1928-2020), the magician who used the stage name “The Amazing Randi.” In addition to his entertainment performances, Randi also worked extensively to challenge pseudoscientific, paranormal, and supernatural claims—he called them “woo-woo”—and he helped found the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation.
In her article entitled “‘An Honest Liar’ Lifts the Curtain on Some Amazing Randi Secrets,” Los Angeles Times staff writer Amy Kaufman wrote of the time that Randi met his partner, José Alvarez. At the Fort Lauderdale Public Library in 1986, Randi was doing research for an art project when Alvarez spotted him looking at books containing astrophotography. The two began talking, and before long Randi invited Alverez over to his house to look through his Questar. “So I went to his place, and he’d calibrated the telescope so that I could see Saturn with the rings,” Alvarez later said. “Then Saturn left the viewfinder, and I said, ‘It moved.’ Randi said, ‘No, the Earth moved.’ And at that moment I thought, ‘I want to get to know this man more.’”
Film actor Marlon Brando (1924-2004) was yet another celebrity client of Questar Corporation. In addition to his widely acclaimed film acting, Brando was also an amateur ham radio operator with call signs in both the United States and Tahiti. In an effort to guard his privacy, he listed himself as Martin Brandeaux in Federal Communications Commission records.
Almost four years after Brando’s death, word circulated on amateur astronomy discussion forums that Marlon Brando’s Questar Seven, which he was reported to have purchased in 1986, had appeared for sale on eBay for $25,000. Included in the package was the telescope, all of its accessories, and the supporting paperwork that proved Brando was its owner.
After he won an Emmy Award for his special effects work on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, American cinematographer Stephen Burum is reported to have received a Questar telescope as a birthday gift from director Francis Ford Coppola after both completed work on Rumble Fish (1983).
The next year, Burum worked as cinematographer for the steamy thriller Body Double (1984), which was produced and directed by Brian De Palma. Who else but Burum would have thought to put a Questar telescope into the hands of the character Jake Scully, who was played by Craig Wasson? Perhaps even using his very own Questar as a prop, Burum filmed scenes depicting Jake using the precision telescope to see what he was perhaps better off not seeing in another neighboring house.
Burum went on to earn credits for St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), The Untouchables (1987), Hoffa (1992), Mission: Impossible (1996), and many other films.
Episodes in Long Range Surveillance
More than a decade before Body Double hit movie theaters, another Questar made a cameo appearance in another film. In The Mechanic (1972), Charles Branson plays the professional assassin Arthur Bishop, who teams up with Steve McKenna, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, to carry out hit jobs for underworld employers. One tool that Bishop uses for his surveillance work is a Standard Questar.
Beyond the movies, Questar telescopes served a real-world purpose during a number of episodes in long-range surveillance. In the early 1990s, the company in New Hope looked back at over a decade of just a few instances where its telescopes played key roles in everything from intelligence operations to space missions. In the April 1992 issues of Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines, Questar wrote that, “when the world’s most demanding customers take a Questar, you can be sure they evaluated all the issues: Performance, Durability, Portability, Convenience. They could not find a better telescope.”
Only a handful of operations that involved the use of a Questar telescope are publicly known. In a promotional booklet entitled “Surveillance Systems” that it published in the early 1990s, Questar let on to a few of them. During the June 1985 takeover of TWA Flight 847, one hijacker was photographed with the help of a Questar telescope two kilometers away. At a distance of 25 kilometers in Nicaragua, intelligence operatives identified illicit cargo being offloaded from a freighter in 1986. And leading up to Desert Storm, which began in August 1990, a Questar SZ 180 surveillance lens was used to take the video images of a SCUD missile launcher in Kuwait that were later presented to the United Nations as justification for the military action.
In 1994, the Central Intelligence Agency would make use of a Questar in Sudan to gather intelligence on the Marxist-Leninist political terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a Venezuelan who was otherwise known as Carlos the Jackal. In her book Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins, Annie Jacobsen described the team’s photographic equipment. One piece included a potentially custom-built Questar instrument whose reported proportions—a focal length of 4000mm, a diameter of two feet, and an overall weight of 140 pounds—were unusually large.
One day, Cofer Black, the chief of station for the CIA in Khartoum, told Billy Waugh, one of the CIA’s men who was watching Sanchez, that he wanted an image of their surveillance target “that was really, really close,” as Jacobsen writes. Obliging him, Waugh proceeded to photograph the Jackal’s teeth. “He happened to have a toothpick in his mouth,” Waugh recalled later. After developing the film, he showed his station chief the image. “What the hell is this?” Black asked. “It’s a toothpick balanced between Carlos the Jackal’s teeth,” replied Waugh. Black simply chuckled before returning to his other work.
Waugh and his teammates continued to gather countless images as associates of the Jackal visited him at his apartment. “It was a parade of bad guys,” Waugh remembered, one that he helped document for the benefit of the CIA’s counterterrorist operations.
Ultimately, French operatives captured Carlos the Jackal in August 1994. The CIA’s role in the mission remained entirely hidden for years.
As time transitioned from the 1980s into the 1990s, Questar entered a markedly different era. Developments in the marketplace for optical instruments that had been underway for years continued to challenge the company. The question became how Questar, which had been operating since 1950, would position itself for the years ahead of it.
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1 “Dave Garroway,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Garroway, accessed March 23, 2021.
2 “Dave Garroway,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Garroway, accessed March 23, 2021.
3 “Dave Garroway,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Garroway, accessed March 23, 2021.
4 Owen D. Franken, “A Photographer’s Notes—Kenya, 1973,” MIT Technology Review, October-November 1973, 68, https://archive.org/details/MIT-Technology-Review-1973-10/page/n74/mode/1up, accessed November 27, 2021.
5 Don Trombino, “Astronomy in East and West,” Sky and Telescope, January 1976, 16-22; “Dave Garroway,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Garroway, accessed March 23, 2021; “Sarah Lee Lippincott,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Lee_Lippincott, accessed March 23, 2021.
6 Questar Corporation, Questar Observations (Spring 1976).
7 Loring Mandel, “Remembering Dave Garroway,” Television Quarterly, Winter 2004, 17, https://www.americanradiohistory.com/Archive-Television-Quarterly/TVQ-2004-Winter.pdf, accessed December 12, 2019.
8 “Dave Garroway,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Garroway, accessed March 23, 2021.
9 “Hugh Downs,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Downs, accessed March 21, 2021; “Dave Garroway,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Garroway, accessed March 23, 2021.
10 Rodger Gordon, letter to the editor, Lehigh Valley Express-Times, December 28, 2012, https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/opinion/2012/12/letter_we_could_use_more_astro.html, accessed April 29, 2020.
11 “Hugh Downs,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Downs, accessed March 21, 2021.
12 Rodger Gordon, letter to the editor, Lehigh Valley Express-Times, December 28, 2012, https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/opinion/2012/12/letter_we_could_use_more_astro.html, accessed April 29, 2020; online forum posting, Questar Users Group, December 2, 2008, https://groups.io/g/Questar/message/17368, accessed August 15, 2020.
13 “Durward Kirby,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durward_Kirby, accessed March 23, 2021; Loring Mandel, “Remembering Dave Garroway,” Television Quarterly, Winter 2004, 14, https://www.americanradiohistory.com/Archive-Television-Quarterly/TVQ-2004-Winter.pdf, accessed December 12, 2019; Gary R. Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 161.
14 Rodger Gordon, letter to the editor, Lehigh Valley Express-Times, December 28, 2012, https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/opinion/2012/12/letter_we_could_use_more_astro.html, accessed April 29, 2020.
15 Rodger Gordon, letter to the editor, Lehigh Valley Express-Times, December 28, 2012, https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/opinion/2012/12/letter_we_could_use_more_astro.html, accessed April 29, 2020; Rodger Gordon to the author, September 23, 2020.
16 Rodger Gordon to the author, September 23, 2020.
17 “James Randi,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi, accessed March 23, 2021.
18 Amy Kaufman, “‘An Honest Liar’ lifts the curtain on some Amazing Randi secrets,” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-amazing-randi-20150307-story.html, accessed August 15, 2020.
19 Herb Drill, “Marguerite Braymer, 85, Questar Corp. co-founder,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 1, 1996, R4, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/21814542/the_philadelphia_inquirer/, accessed October 8, 2019.
20 “Marlon Brando,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlon_Brando, accessed March 23, 2021.
21 Online forum posting, Cloudy Nights, March 28, 2010, https://www.cloudynights.com/topic/264716-expensive-questar-seven-on-ebay, accessed October 8, 2019; online forum posting, Astronomical Society of Southern New England, March 30, 2010, https://assne.org/board/viewtopic.php?t=2279, accessed December 5, 2019.
22 “Stephen H. Burum,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_H._Burum, accessed March 23, 2021.
23 frebie, online forum posting, Cloudy Nights, May 17, 2016, https://www.cloudynights.com/topic/400151-the-questar-in-film/?p=7222233, accessed February 18, 2020.
24 Body Double, directed by Brian De Palma (1984).
25 “Stephen H. Burum,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_H._Burum, accessed April 29, 2021.
26 The Mechanic, directed by Michael Winner (1972).
27 Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, April 1992, inside front cover; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Astronomy, April 1992, 84.
28 Questar Corporation, “Surveillance Systems,” n.d.
29 Annie Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019), 312.
30 Annie Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019), 313.
31 Annie Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019), 313.
32 Annie Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019), 315.