NEW ORLEANS — Sidney Noel Rideau, who created and starred as the mad scientist Morgus the Magnificent for more than 60 years, becoming a New Orleans icon, has died of natural causes, according to his daughter Natalie Rideau. He was 90.
Rideau, who went by the stage name Sid Noel, created the mad scientist, Dr. Momus Alexander Morgus, in 1959 on WWL-TV Channel 4 and went on to become a local institution. He would present his televised science experiments in between segments of horror movies. The show would be revived in later years on WDSU, WGNO and in national syndication. It also later aired in reruns on WVUE and Cox Cable.
Just last year, Rideau attracted a sold-out crowd to the Orpheum Theatre for a one-man show recounting his career as Morgus and in local broadcasting.
'Don Quixote in a lab jacket'
Rideau first brought his talents to WWL-TV as Morgus on a program called "The House of Shock." It premiered Jan. 3, 1959, with "Frankenstein" as the movie.
The setting was Dr. Morgus' "lab" above the "old city icehouse," where he updated viewers on his scientfic exploits, in between segments of horror movies. With the help of his loyal, hulking and silent assistant Chopsley (originally played by the late Tommy George) and Eric, the talking skull who served as his foil, Morgus became an instant hit, though his experiments never went quite like he intended.
“One of my favorite characters in literature was Don Quixote, and I decided to create a character that would represent the great quest of doing right in the world and of course the great failures that we all face,” Rideau said in a 1995 interview. “So Morgus became Don Quixote in a lab jacket and Chopsley was Sancho Panza.”
"His main philosophy would be that in every adversity, which he faces weekly - he says in every adversity, you must look for a key to a greater triumph, and that's why he came back every week and did it again and again. He's still looking for that greater triumph," he said.
Dr. Morgus - through his Momus Alexander Morgus Institute and University of Morgus - claimed to have at various times invented the internet, come up with cures for countless medical maladies, pioneered surgical techniques and even calculated the speed of dark. He claimed several of his ideas were pilfered by the Pentagon or other authorities, but were detailed in several books, including "New Hope for the Dead."
"Morgus had crazed eyes, an insufferable ego and a sinister laugh," wrote Angus Lind in a 1981 Times-Picayune article. "He toiiled in his Rube Goldberg laboratory over an ice house in the French Quarter, predicting great success for his experiments while he shuffled electrodes and test tubes. His forte was incompetence."
In creating his character and his TV shows, Rideau was known by colleagues as a perfectionist with a clear vision for the show, though many of his early programs were largely ad-libbed.
There was even a backstory to his name, as Rideau explained to Angus Lind in 1981. Momus was for the god of ridicule; Alexander, the biggest egomaniac in history; and Morgus, a blend of morgue and disgusting.
"Can you imagine somebody giving you a stage to create a character?" Rideau said. "I wanted to sculpture him just like an artist would. It was a real chance to impart some social thought."
'He blew my cover'
Intensely private, Rideau, rarely did interviews as himself or made public appearances. He even preferred that his real name not be used in newspaper stories about the show.
“I never tried to get out in public as myself. I turned down doing commercials and appearances and just didn't want to be recognized,” he said in 1995, recounting how legendary WWL-TV sports anchor Hap Glaudi revealed his secret one night on air at Channel 4.
“I did a commercial as another character and Hap says, ‘You know who that is?’ And of course he blew my cover. He said, ‘That's Sid Noel, he's Morgus,’ and from that day on, my life changed.”
His daughter Natalie said Thursday that, as children, she and her brother had no idea of their father's alter ego. One day her brother spotted a photo of Morgus and asked their parents about it.
"Then it became a family secret, which was part of the fun," Natalie Rideau said.
She added that while her father was so much more than Morgus, he loved creating the character and becoming a part of local history.
"He was such a kind, wise, gentle man with a vivid imagination and a gift for storytelling."
'The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus'
In the early ‘60s, Morgus hosted a daily, five-minute weather show, appearing each weekday with his usual scientific and comedic antics and a brief weather forecast. Titled “The Morgus Board” or “Morgus and the Weather,” the show is fondly remembered for Morgus checking his weather “vein” and wringing out a “humidity rag” to give the current weather conditions.
“The old saying no one ever does anything about the weather is no longer true. Morgus is doing something about it!” the station proclaimed in a 1965 advertisement. “For the wackiest, funniest and all-around strangest weather program on television, make this one a regular habit.”
In 1962, Morgus starred in a full-length feature film, “The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus.” It didn't win any Academy Awards, but it was pure Morgus and fans loved it.
A conflict with WWL management over a scheduled appearance at Pontchartrain Beach to promote the movie ended Morgus’ first run at Channel 4. He left for Detroit, where Morgus did a weather show that was syndicated in several other markets.
'Coming back home'
When he returned to New Orleans, his WWL weather show was revived for a few years before he moved to WDSU in 1970. His Saturday afternoon program there only lasted a year, with Morgus, Chopsley and Eric appearing between “Star Trek” and horror movie segments.
Rideau took a hiatus as Morgus throughout the 1970s and 80s but in 1987, a group of fans calling themselves M.O.R.G.U.S, the Morgusian Order to Revere a Glorious Understanding of Science, helped spark new interest in the "good doctor," and helped bring him back in a new series on WGNO-TV. It also went into national syndication, airing on stations across the country.
“Going back on that set was like a time warp,” Noel told The Times-Picayune before the show premiered in 1987. “I have very mixed emotions about bringing him back. To put something like this together takes more than just turning on the cameras. And very few people have been able to go off and come back successfully.”
The show looked and felt much the same as fans remembered it, although the New Orleans references common in the 1960s and ‘70s programs – chiding local politicians or sending Chopsley to Puglia’s grocery on North Rampart Street near WWL’s studios – were no longer fitting for a national audience. “This has got to play in Peoria, remember. We’re going for a broader appeal,” Noel said.
The revived show aired on stations in New York, Atlanta, Little Rock and Wichita.
Broadcast beginnings: DJ Sid Noel
Rideau began his broadcasting career in radio, first spinning records on WTIX-AM and making appearances as a disc jockey at local dances and parties. His birthday, December 25, 1929, inspired the perfect stage name: Sid Noel.
Before long, Noel joined the staff of WSMB-AM, becoming one of that station’s major on-air stars. He left after a few years to tour the country with vaudeville comedians Olsen and Johnson in their comedy revue, “Hellzapoppin’.”
Noel returned to New Orleans in 1957 for a job at WWL Radio. The station hired him for a morning slot, although he had the unenviable job of replacing the legendary “Dawnbusters” show. The program had been phased out after more than 20 years as one of the city’s most popular shows.
A graduate of Alcee Fortier High School, Rideau attended Loyola University and served eight years in the U.S. Navy Reserve during the Korean War.
In 1995, Noel was inducted into the New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame by the Greater New Orleans Broadcasters Association.
"Uncle Noel" for the children
Throughout the years, Rideau generously used the popularity of the Morgus character to raise funds for local charities and civic causes including Audubon Zoo and WYES-TV, among others.
Ever the storyteller, even when not in costume as Morgus in recent years, Rideau prided himself on using fables to teach life-lessons to children. He patented and manufactured "Uncle Noel's Fun Fables" and a "fable-telling” attraction called The Story Castle. From telephones attached, children listened to The Castle’s audio stories that spread joy and bits of moral education in shopping malls throughout the United States and in Canada.
For the "Fun Fables" he authored and published a K-5 reading program which got parents involved in reading with their children. Rideau also made school visits with his live presentation "Storytelling for Character." He also developed a K-12 “ethics for kids” reading program on the internet as a free supplementary resource for schools. The 52 original stories titled “Fables to Grow On” were incorporated into what became the Internet Story Club of America, Inc. Co-founded and hosted by The New Orleans Public Library, it became an independent, 501c(3) non-profit charity.
His wife of 52 years, Donia, died in 2015. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Robin Rideau.
The family says private memorial services will be held.
In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to The Northshore Humane Society, 20384 Harrison Avenue, Covington, LA 70433, www.northshorehumane.org or the The Humane Society of Louisiana, P. O. Box 740321, New Orleans, LA 70174, www.humanela.org.