Astrology column: The future is hazy

Times Staff Writer

The scramble is on in the world of astrological forecasting. And the reason is the death of horoscope icon Sydney Omarr last week.

Omarr, whose life was marked by advice from the stars and to the stars, was one of the most famous people to inhabit the horoscope world. His life included fancy dinner parties, whiskey, gambling and a tie to the days past when astrological forecasts still were evolving into standard fare for newspapers.

"We don't have any astrologers these days with that kind of personality," said Jacqueline Bigar, a big name in astrology who counted Omarr as a mentor and friend. "He's like a period piece. It's not something we can replace because the period is over."

But many newspapers are going to have to. For the 94 papers that carried Omarr at his death, there is prime sun sign real estate to be filled. And the question is, who will fill it?

"When a corner opens, you want to be one of the first to get out to the decision-makers" to push your person, said Kathy Kerr, a spokeswoman for Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes popular Canadian astrologer Eugenia Last.

There is a stable full of contenders to fill those newspaper columns, the majority of them women, ranging from former "Peyton Place" actress Joyce Jillson to former paralegal Linda Black, who now lives in the mountains above Cambria with her flock of birds.

Perhaps the most prominent among them is Jillson, who starred in more than 120 episodes of the soapy drama while also pursuing her astrological interests in Los Angeles. During the Reagan administration, she gained notoriety by being singled out as one of the former president's astrological advisors (although the Reagans denied it), which led to reporters camping out on her lawn.

Jillson said she no longer keeps track of how many newspapers her column appears in but estimated the count at more than 400 worldwide. She said writing her astrological forecasts has become more difficult as society has changed and become more complicated to predict.

"We're trying to adapt to the new millennium," she said. "Work is different. Families are different. Relationships are different. You're trying to serve your public but there are so many options now."

Another of the more noted astrologists is Bigar who, like Omarr, grew up in Philadelphia. She began writing a column after accurately predicting the length of a Philadelphia newspaper strike. Then one of the newspapers, the Daily News, hired her when the strike was over. She later switched to the Philadelphia Inquirer and her column now runs in more than 200 newspapers. She said Omarr was her role model and that she often consulted with him about his methods of forecasting.

The field is becoming increasingly crowded with unqualified astrologers, Bigar said, because of the access to the Internet, where there are hundreds of astrological Web sites. "It's really messing up astrology," she said. "It's allowing anyone to put anything they want up on the Internet. That's why newspaper columns hold such a strong position. At least they are in some way certified."

Linda Black, the astrologer from Cambria, lives on 40 acres near the Central California coast. She said the key for most people in choosing an astrology column is finding one with the right feel to it. "If you look at the columns, you'll find one that speaks to you," said Black, who is published in 47 newspapers. "It's like weather reporting. You don't have to have psychic ability. People will attach themselves to a column because they like the style."

Among those entering the field will soon be none other than ... Sydney Omarr. Tribune Media Services, which syndicated Omarr, announced last week that the column will continue under his name but will be written by astrologer Jeraldine Saunders, Omarr's former wife. One of the clauses of the contract with Tribune was that Omarr's column would be passed on to Saunders, a former fashion model and television producer who was married to the famed astrologer for eight months in 1966.

Saunders said she hoped to include Omarr's editorial advisor, Valerie Barbeaux, in the project. "She's been so faithful all these years," Saunders said. "I'd be glad to work with her. If she doesn't, I'll do it alone."

There is precedent for columns and cartoons continuing on after the originators are long gone. The Ann Landers advice column became known as Annie's Mailbox when it was taken over by former assistants after the columnist's death last year. The same is true for Blondie and other cartoons that have continued after their creator's death.

Black, also represented by Tribune, said she suspects many newspapers will continue to run Omarr's column simply because it has his name on it. But she also said Omarr's death throws open the market to everyone in the astrology business. The Times will continue with the Omarr column for the immediate future.

Why all the fuss over a horoscope? They are extremely popular. Industry figures say that 90% of all Americans under 30 know their sun sign and that there are more than 10,000 practicing astrologers in the United States alone. Americans spend more than $200 million annually consulting astrologers.

"It's an easy answer for a pattern-seeking animal like humans," said Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine. "We like to make simple connections between things to explain what is going on in the world. Astrology does connect dots in the world and deals with that favorite topic, ourselves."

As for astrology forecasts appearing in newspapers, that tradition began in 1930 when the London Sunday Express commissioned a horoscope for the newest member of the royal family, Princess Margaret Rose. The public response was so great that it became a regular feature of the paper and soon skipped the Atlantic to the United States. The sun sign format, using the 12 birth symbols, is believed to have been started in 1936 in the New York Post. In the following decades, the columns became as common as comics and crosswords.

Former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said his newspaper resisted astrological forecasts for years, but finally relented after the continued urging of owner Katherine Graham. "I think they're pretty trashy, but people like them," said Bradlee in a 1985 interview. "So, what the heck."

How Omarr's column will do without Omarr remains to be seen. Black said she thought it might be possible for his former staff to write in the astrologer's style. But Glenn Mott, managing editor of the King Features syndicate, said the jury is still out.

"Without him writing, it truly is a different column," he said. "Now that papers have options, I'd think they would be casting around."

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