At the Museum, Hunting Treasure and the Man Who Hid It

There were really two treasure hunts at the American Museum of Natural History on Monday night. City Room failed at both.

One was the treasure hunt with clues by the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. That one sent boldface types who had each paid $1,500 scurrying past Ornithischian dinosaurs, Saurischian dinosaurs and primitive mammals, carrying clue cards that said things like “giant wombat” or “carved beast” or “has an arched snout.” They were supposed to use the clues to find a treasure hidden somewhere in the museum.

The other hunt was for Mr. Sondheim himself, who has a thing for games and puzzles and did cryptic crosswords for New York magazine in the 1960s.

The charity Friends in Deed had promoted the event as “A Little Jurassic Treasure Hunt,” a title that seemed to echo Mr. Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music.” Friends in Deed had promised on its Web site that “the few New York insiders that have been lucky enough to previously participate in Mr. Sondheim’s coveted treasure-games know what an amazing night they are in store for.”

The publicists for the event had added to the story about Mr. Sondheim. “For decades, Stephen Sondheim has famously devised private treasure hunt parties,” read an e-mail from one of the publicists. “In the late 1960s, Sondheim started hosting game nights with friends. They gradually grew in size and complexity.”

But there was more.

“In one of his famed Halloween Hunts, created with Anthony Perkins, the participants arrived at an old brownstone, rang the bell and were invited in by an unknown white-haired lady who was sworn to answer no questions,” the e-mail said. “Tensely, they waited for their next message as she served coffee and cake in silence. Film star Lee Remick was hungry and ate her portion. ‘Stop!’ shouted the group leader. Too late. Rearranged, the icing on the cake would have revealed the map reference of their next rendezvous.”

All this left City Room determined to hunt down every clue, and determined to ask Mr. Sondheim about his legendary treasure hunts of the past.

First, there was a cocktail reception, with the usual lineup of television cameras, photographers and reporters. One of the publicists said that “Steve” would arrive at the top of the hour.

Sure enough, at the top of the hour, the publicist said that he had arrived. A short time later, he said that Mr. Sondheim would walk past the cameras — and past where City Room was standing.

Time passed. City Room saw Mr. Sondheim on the other side of the room, and one of the handlers whisking celebrities past the cameras said, “He decided not to.”

City Room saw him start across the room. City Room followed. He went into another room and around a corner. He smiled, but said he didn’t want to talk then.

“No sneak peeks,” said a woman who was standing next to him. “Security, we can’t have people in here.”

City Room went back to where the cameras were and asked Matthew Broderick if he had spent time at the museum when he was a teenager — helpful to tracking down clues.

“If it was 1975, I’d know where everything was,” he said. “I remember dark dinosaurs and Victorian people walking around.” He looked around at the bright lights and the big room and said, “This is not looking familiar.”

One of the publicists whispered that “Steve” was at the last table by the bar. City Room headed in that direction, introduced himself to Mr. Sondheim and asked about his legendary treasure hunts.

“I’ve only done one,” he said. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

City Room left him to talk about whatever he did want to talk about with someone else. City Room went to talk with Cynthia O’Neal, who founded Friends in Deed with the director Mike Nichols 20 years ago.

“I’ve done one of Steve’s treasure hunts,” she said — about 10 years ago at his house in Connecticut. “He doesn’t do them that often.”

City Room said it was expecting brain-twister clues. “The mind that writes the clues writes the lyrics,” she said.

So what was the prize at that long-ago Connecticut hunt? She said she did not remember, but by now Mr. Sondheim was a few feet away. She walked over and asked. He would answer a question from her.

“It was six bottles of Champagne,” she said when she returned.

Before long the hunt began. The guests were divided into teams. City Room’s team did not win. City Room tracked down no clues — unlike the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, on a different team, who ran by, all but shouting, “We found the wombat.”

“You know what she’s doing,” said one of City Room’s teammates, the television journalist Ron Insana. “She’s doing Rex in the City.”

Another team won, assembling letters from each clue to spell this sentence: “Listen to the legend of the dinosaur in the Mammal Theater.”

That led the team to a freight elevator, where there were prizes. “I got the giant tooth,” said Alexis Sirrakos, a science teacher from Brooklyn.

One was a replica of a T. Rex tooth, something to show her ninth graders at Lyons Community School in East Williamsburg, even though they are studying preparatory biology.

“I’m pleased my science teacher skills didn’t need to be used,” she said, “just my treasure hunting skills.”

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