I was joined today by Don Wildman, the affable and enthusiastic host of Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum, (Thursdays at 9 pm ET) where he takes viewers across the country and behind the scenes into the vaults of our most venerated institutions in search of fascinating treasures from the past.
It seemed only fitting that Don, who has hosted the popular series for over 15 seasons, arrived today at Michael’s wearing jeans and toting a backpack. This is a man who is in constant pursuit of adventure and discovery–even though a great many of his most intriguing finds are housed within the walls of museums.
Amid a sea of suits and strivers in the dining room, Don’s passion for his work was evident the minute we sat down. “I’m an amateur urban archaeologist,” he said as we settled in at our corner table. “And I’m a history nut. My father was a history teacher and a high school principal. We lived on a teacher’s salary and my childhood was spent visiting battlefields. My father would point and say, ‘That happened over there’ and my imagination went crazy.” Clearly, visiting Gettysburg had a different effect on him than it had on me.
Don’s personal story is just as compelling as those he has been uncovering for viewers these many years. Raised as a Quaker just outside of Philadelphia with four older sisters, Don studied to be an actor at Drama Studio London but found himself drawn to the directing side of things. “I loved the research that went into the plays–learning about the specifics of a time period,” he told me.
After school, he did what many aspiring actors do–and found himself waiting tables in New York. It was the eighties at the height of the city’s restaurant heyday, and he had plenty of stories about encounters while serving the famous and fabulous around town. “I was Claudette Colbert’s favorite waiter at Sel et Poivre,” said Don smiling at the memory. “She and I had a thing.”
The acting thing in New York didn’t work out (“I was a huge Alec Guinness fan. I wanted to be Alec Guinness, but that didn’t wind up happening”) but the hosting thing did. Don moved to Los Angeles and made a critical discovery. “I found myself wanting to tell stories rather than be in the stories,” he explained. He landed the job of hosting Weird Travels, a show about the paranormal, which led to travel and history-related gigs with the same production company. “I was super, super lucky that I fell into something I really like to do,” he told me. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Before Travel Channel, Don served as the intrepid host of History’s adventure series Cities of the Underworld, where he explored hundreds of mysterious tunnels, catacombs, crypts and bunker systems beneath more than forty cities and regions around the globe. On ESPN’s Men’s Journal, Don paddled wild rivers in Chile and scaled towering mountains in Oregon.
In 2011, he hosted the three-part historical investigation series Filthy Cities–a joint venture between Discovery Channel and BBC, which landed him on the slopes of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, delving into the infamous tragedy of Pompeii.
These days, Don is one busy guy. He just got the green light for 13 single-topic special episodes of Mysteries at the Museum, where he will go out in the field on assignment in search of answers about the past in interesting locales. “The shows circle back to the kinds of things I’ve done previously outdoors and on location.”
Earlier this year, he hosted five Mysteries at the Museum specials tied to specific historical events including the sinking of the Titanic, for which he scuba-dived in the icy waters where the ocean liner sank in 1912. For another installment, Don investigated what really happened at Alcatraz during the infamous prison break of 1962.
Upcoming specials will explore Custer’s Last Stand, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, searching for vampires in Transylvania and the escape of John Wilkes Booth. All will begin airing later this year. “It’s very gratifying and fun to be able to shape these iconic stories,” said Don. “[The producers] drop me into these situations as an ‘everyman,’ not an expert. I’m there as a guide to show viewers what it’s like to make these amazing discoveries.”
He told me he really loves working with various experts on particular subjects or events. “It great being able to interview writers like Michael Kauffman [who wrote on book on John Wilkes Booth] and spend days with them.”
Since Don is such a passionate supporter of museums, I had to ask him what he thought about the current threats to NEA funding and related programs. “Many people don’t understand the museum business and the huge economic role it plays in our society. Museums are taken for granted. Almost every museum is struggling to support the enormous work that they do. They are an economy magnet that generates money for cities. Supporting them is a no-brainer,” he said.
The current administration has placed funding “under threat” and it is a “struggle” to keep the messaging for support front and center, said Don, who is a staunch supporter of The American Alliance of Museums, which sponsors Museum Advocacy Day every year. “When you walk the halls of congress and presenting the case about how important it is to support museums to members of congress they get it.” Well, at least some do.
On Mysteries at the Museum, Don is preaching to the choir and is happy to do so. The ratings for the show are at an all-time high. “Like the best things in life, it’s been a nice slow build to a real success.” In addition the longtime and faithful adult viewers, the show has become a haven for families amid a sea of controversial and eyebrow-raising programming.
“It’s appointment television,” he said. “It’s one of the few things you can watch and not have to apologize to your children for.” In fact, more kids are watching than ever before and are among Mysteries at the Museum’s most devoted viewers. Don, who lives in Westchester, is a frequent visitor to a fifth grade class at a local elementary school (the sound engineer on his show has a kid in the class). Students “have a whole shrine to the show” and love to dazzle Don with their knowledge of history.
“The first time I visited, I asked them if they knew how their town got its name. When I went back, they all had things they wanted to teach me about the Indian tribe and the history behind it.”
He’s more than happy to spend time with the kids to nurture their love of museums and the rich history to be learned from visiting the country’s institutions and encourages them to submit questions for the show through his Facebook page. “I should have been a teacher,” he said. “Two of my sisters are elementary school teachers. It’s in our blood. I’m a teacher too, I just don’t give quizzes.”
Here’s today’s rundown:
1. Author Holly Peterson (It Happens in the Hamptons) celebrating with a table full of pals including ABC News’ Juju Chang, Ali Wentworth, Susan Mercandetti, Kathy Ohearn, Tammy Haddad and author Leslie Bennetts
2. Donny Deutsch and Meryl Poster
3. Andrew Stein
4. Peter Brown and Shirley Lord
5. Herb Siegel
6. Montel Williams
7. Steven Haft
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia
9. Barry Frey
10. Avenue magazine EIC Michael Gross
11. Esther Newberg
12. Francine Lefrak
14. PR maven Susan Magrino and author Jane Heller
15. Alan Patricof
16. Nick Verbitsky
17. Jane Hartley
18. LAK PR’s CEO Lisa Linden
20. Joan Gelman
22. The Early Show: Beverly Camhe; Act Two: Euan Rellie, who was nice enough to introduce me to Bloomberg’s George Smith Alexander and Sonali Basak
23. Drew Schiff
24. Don Wildman, Travel Channel’s director of communications and talent relations Caryn Davidson Schlossberg and yours truly
25. Stu Zakim and Emmy guru Richard Licata with The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, handicapping the upcoming Emmy race
27. Kay Pick
29. The Wall Street Journal’s Teri Agins and PR maven Maury Rogoff. I stopped by the table to say hello and recap Billions’ breathtaking finale that aired on Sunday. These fellow fans and I can’t wait for Season 3 in 2018!
81. Town & Country’s Vicky Ward
Faces in the Crowd: Kira Semler and Vi Huse in from New Jersey enjoying their monthly champagne lunch at the bar. Cheers!
[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.]