Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Ladies and Gentlemen, We Interrupt This Program to Bring You... Richelieu!"

It seems my brand of insanity runs in the family. My brother Steven relates a dream he had back in January 2001:

Had a very strange dream the other night. It concerned a long-established tradition on network TV that went back to the early days of television. Some character called Richelieu somehow got a toehold in broadcasting doing a type of vaudeville magician/pantomime act to the accompaniment of a tune that I remember from Captain Kangaroo. He never really did any tricks or spoke, just sort of a "nothing up my sleeve" posing and dance routine. He always dressed in a cheap tux, standing grinning (or, more accurately, leering) in the spotlight on a darkened stage. He looked like an especially seedy version of Salvador Dali, wore white gloves and carried a dandy's cane. Richelieu removed his silk tophat before every performance, setting it on a small round table draped with velvet.

The thing is, he became such a great hit in the early 50's, when even test patterns were considered entertainment, that, eventually, he was able to spontaneously go live on the air at his whim, even if it meant interrupting regular programming. He was something of a Svengali personality, so had managed to get an almost cult following. What Richelieu wanted, Richelieu got. As TV progressed, he remained sort of an archaic holdover from the "good old days," garnering appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Tonight Show, and, later on, the David Letterman Show (albeit unaware that he was only booked for comedic effect). His breaks into live programming became less and less in the late eighties, and there was a time during the nineties when most people that even remembered him thought that he had died (he somehow never seemed to appear much older, though, than he had in the fifties). No network had ever refused him live air time, though. Anyone making so much as a disparaging remark disappeared without a trace from the broadcast world. Such was the power of Richelieu.

Then, just recently [January 2001], during the Presidential inauguration preliminaries, the old familiar backboard appeared on the screen. Still the same one used fifty years ago. A fuzzy gray-toned air brushed affair that showed a velvet covered table, with top hat, gloves and cane illuminated by a soft light, with the word "Richelieu" superimposed in the same script font as the old Desilu "I Love Lucy." Grainy audio of the announcer that used to introduce the Andy Griffith Show: "Ladies and Gentlemen... Richelieu!!!" And there he was, as greasy and unsavory as always, leering to the cameras as he pulled at his sleeves, did a bit of softshoe, brandished his cane, and did a few feints of almost performing a trick or two. Richelieu was in command again. His "performances," if you could call them that, went on anywhere from almost half an hour to an hour. And the same inane music kept playing in the background. Always soft lighting, and looking as if the whole affair was shot through muslin, giving a nondescript appearance to the scene.

At the end of his performance--Richelieu simply performed until he decided to end it with a bow--a modern interrupt screen and announcer came on saying, "We now return you to our regular programming." This happened to be CBS in the dream, so the next shot was of a disgruntled Dan Rather shaking his head as he quipped to a White House reporter, "Scott Pelley, I thought we had seen the last of Richelieu during Eisenhower's administration!" Switch to camera shot of Scott Pelley standing in front of the White House frozen in horror, not uttering a word. When the studio shot returned, the camera pulled back to reveal, impossibly, an enraged Richelieu, inexplicably drenched, looking as if he had just climbed out of a swimming pool, standing at Dan Rather's side. His face was contorted with a greasy, maniacal snarl. For once, Rather seemed at a total loss for words, and began stammering. Richelieu slowly turned his head to the camera, almost willing it to zoom to a close-up of himself. The camera obeyed. He slowly brought one hand up in front of his face, dramatically tugged at the sleeve with his other gloved hand, and gave a dirty little laugh. Sound of a stunned Dan Rather as the camera showed him now drenched. Rather just sat there sobbing, then staggered to his feet, visibly shaken, and stumbled off camera -- he was never seen nor mentioned again at CBS.

(Interesting "alternate history" end to the career of Dan Rather. The "1950s Richelieu TV screen" picture is a joint effort of my brother and myself.)

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Blogger The Tetrast said...

Considering Richelieu's staying power on television, how long-sighted of you to introduce our, ahem, friend, the ummmm delightful Monsieur Richelieu, to the Internet! And I'm sure that the honorable Monsieur will not take amiss your playful references to him as a "dream."

Saturday, March 25, 2006 5:18:00 PM  

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