Nate Chura is senior tennis pro at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and covers the U.S. Open for WNYC.
Monday night, after the American Museum of Natural History closed its doors to the general public, a group of around 300 invited guests drank wine and mingled among dinosaur fossils at a benefit for Friends In Deed on the museum’s fourth floor.
The highlight of the evening was “A Little Jurassic Treasure Hunt.” The 12-clue treasure hunt was conceived by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Friends In Deed board member Anthony Rapp said that Sondheim volunteered to devise the hunt for the 20th anniversary of the non-profit crisis center for life-threatening illness.
“He’s the grandmaster of the puzzles,” said Rapp.
Upon arrival, guests received large, top-secret, wax-sealed, taupe-colored folders. One side of the folder instructed participants not to open his or her envelope until precisely 7:30 P.M. The envelope’s flip side displayed a floor plan of the museum’s three designated rooms for the hunt: the Primitive Mammals room, the Ornithischian Dinosaurs room and the Saurischian Dinosaurs room.
Guests were broken up into 23 teams of roughly 12 people over cocktails preceding the hunt. At the appointed time, the envelopes were opened and the puzzlement began.
WNYC was embedded into one of the teams with Clark Winter, an artist from Manhattan. He explained the object of the game.
“We’ve been given a list of clues and we’re trying to figure out how to attach these clues to certain dinosaurs,” said Winter. “Not that any of us are dinosaurs. We’re just trying to figure it all out.”
“This is more fun than Halloween,” said Jeffery Frankel, another guest who was visiting from San Francisco.
Inside the envelope there were 12 clues on six cards. The clues were the same for everyone in attendance.
Half were written clues like, “The largest bone-headed dinosaur ever found.” The other half were pictorial images of selected dinosaur fossils found within the boundaries of the hunt. The object was to fill in the blanks below each clue with the creature’s name (a la “Wheel of Fortune.”)
Among many complicating factors was the condition that creatures could be identified by either their scientific Greek or Latin names, or their slang street name.
For instance, is it a Giant Wombat or a Phascolonus?
Figuring that out was exponentially more difficult when you weren’t sure you were even looking at the correct fossil to begin with. The number of specimens that look alike in the museum’s permanent exhibit are staggering.
Bambi Putnam, who was also on the hunt, said although Sondheim may be better known for creating the music and lyrics for “A Little Night Music,” among other Broadway plays, he’s also famous for creating treasure hunts.
“He does this about every 10 or 15 years, these sort of treasure hunts,” said Putnam. “Not necessarily right here, but we’ve been told they’re really fun.”
Mike Nichols, who directed “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Closer,” was frequently spotted pacing from one dinosaur hall to the other in search of clues. At one point Sarah Jessica Parker, who along with her husband Matthew Broderick had hosted the benefit, raced past us frantically.
“Have you got a lot of them?” shouted Clark Winter.
“I’m not going to answer,” Parker replied.
“Oh, come on!” Winter pleaded. “How can you hold back tonight?”
After pausing to jot down some Greek, Parker was off again on the hunt.
Getting the right answers was only part of completing Sondheim’s challenge.
Each of the 12 clues was ciphered by four numbers. Once an answer was obtained, the coded letters had to be rearranged in their proper order. After all the clues were answered correctly, the re-ordered letters had to then be successfully transferred to form the final clue, which was a sentence that led to the ultimate treasure: “Listen to the legend of the dinosaur in the mammal theatre.”
Unfortunately, the team we tagged along with missed discovering the treasure by a whisker. And so we missed out on the winnings: a Motorola Droid and a two-night stay at Diamond Mills Hotel in Saugerties. (Team 18 got that prize, after deciphering Sondheim’s cryptic message successfully.)
Sondheim opted not to speak with anyone from the press for the evening. But moments before the hunt began, Winter asked the composer if there was any advice he could pass onto a friend who was wrestling with her commitment to being an artist.
“Put a show on,” Sondheim told him. “Write something. Put it on. Write something. Put it on. Write something. Put it on. Everybody gets discouraged. Just go do it. Write something. Put it on. Write something. Put it on.”
Check out images from the scavenger hunt below.