Up Next for Travel Channel Host Don Wildman: Custer’s Last Stand and Transylvanian Vampires

'Lunch' with the enthralled seeker of Mysteries at the Museum

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.

Diane Clehane and Don Wildman

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.

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