Morgus the Magnificent
New Orleans’s answer to Elvira and Joe Bob Briggs
Editor’s Note: Sid Noel (Sidney Noel Rideau), who created and starred as the character Dr. Momus Alexander Morgus for over six decades, died on Thursday, August 27, 2020, three days prior to this article’s planned publication in the fall 2020 issue of 64 Parishes.
His shaggy hair frames a caveman brow, beastly teeth, and demented stare. Despite his ghoulish glow, Dr. Momus Alexander Morgus endeared himself to generations of New Orleanians. From the instant he materialized on WWL-TV’s The House of Shock horror movie series, Morgus stole the show.
In the sixty-one years since the character’s debut, New Orleans’s perpetual affection for Morgus continues to surprise his creator, Sidney Noel Rideau, professionally known as Sid Noel. The devotion manifested itself again in 2019, when thrilled Morgus fans filled the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans for the eighty-nine-year-old Rideau’s one-man show, An Evening with Sid Noel: Recollections of a Mad Scientist.
A WWL morning radio personality in the 1950s, Rideau debuted as Morgus on January 3, 1959. Always more clown than monster, the egomaniacal Morgus conducted madcap experiments in a French Quarter laboratory atop the city’s old icehouse. “You doctors and scientists out there, have your notebooks ready,” Morgus said when he saw the camera. “This will certainly go down in medical history.” Chopsley—a hulking mute in an executioner’s hood—and E.R.I.C., a skull containing a living brain—assisted Morgus in his scientific quests. “You see, I, Morgus, have a mission,” the doctor explained. “One given to me by a higher order of humanitarians devoted to the preservation and elevation of our planet through science.”
Rideau guarded his true identity for years. “If I do this, I don’t want my name attached in any way,” he insisted before agreeing to do The House of Shock. Of course, Rideau refused to do interviews or release photos of himself out of character. He also wanted the public to believe that Morgus really was a mad scientist in the French Quarter. “He’s a fully developed character who exists not just every week, but in the minds of viewers,” Rideau told Times-Picayune reporter David Cuthbert in 1987. “People almost feel they know him. They follow him the way they follow the Saints.”
When his experiments failed, as they often did, Morgus blamed and berated the long-suffering but forever loyal Chopsley. Tommy George, a six-foot-seven-inch St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office motorcycle officer, was the first and most famous Chopsley. Ed Hoerner, a WWL radio and TV program director in the late ’50s, provided the voice of the equally subservient E.R.I.C.
In New Orleans and, briefly, Detroit, Noel played Morgus for TV stations into the twenty-first century. The character’s original 1959–1961 run at WWL made Morgus a local sensation. A few months after the show’s debut, a group of local teenagers released a tribute song, “Morgus the Magnificent.” Morgus and the Ghouls featured teen singers Frankie Ford, Ronnie Barron, and Jerry Byrne. “We don’t go out to roll and rock, we get our kicks from The House of Shock,” they sang. The recording features a sizzling guitar solo by Mac Rebennack, the future Dr. John.
In 1961, Rideau and WWL parted when the station refused to sign a release for the feature film The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus. In the Cold War–era comedy, the Eastern European–styled nation of Microvania plots to infiltrate the United States via Morgus’s instant people machine. Rideau did his own stunts on a French Quarter rooftop, and an antique hearse featured in a Canal Street chase. There’s also a shimmying cameo by nightclub entertainer Chris Owens. The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus premiered in New Orleans in late 1962, when Rideau was an aspiring actor in New York City.
In 1964, Rideau resurrected Morgus at WJBK-TV in Detroit. Duplicating his earlier work in New Orleans, he hosted horror movies and presented weather reports. Rideau’s dreams of syndicating the Morgus weather spots were dashed when American television broadcasts switched from black and white to color. The 120 weather segments he’d filmed in black and white were suddenly obsolete. In 1965, Rideau and Morgus returned to WWL-TV and radio. “It was like coming back alive again,” he told his Orpheum audience in 2019. Following two years of Morgus Presents at WWL, Morgus hosted Star Trek reruns at WDSU-TV on Saturday afternoons in the early 1970s. “A terrible time slot,” he told the Times-Picayune in 1978. “Golf kept preempting us.” In the unusually candid interview, the then former TV star revealed: “I don’t think I could do it [Morgus] again if somebody offered me a million dollars. I’ve been away from that life for so long. You could never recapture what it was.”
Rideau resurrected Morgus again in January 1987. Morgus Presents, co-starring Chopsley and E.R.I.C., premiered on New Orleans TV station WGNO in Rideau’s original Saturday-night time slot. The Times-Picayune’s Cuthbert landed another interview with the show’s press-shy star. “For those who remember him, no explanation is necessary,” the story begins. “For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.” Being on his laboratory set again, with some crew members who’d worked on the original Morgus episodes, “was like it never ended,” Rideau said. Still, he wondered if he could successfully revive Morgus. “I’ve thrown so many opportunities away,” Rideau said. “I want this to be right. I want to feel that it’s all falling into place.”
Rideau again sought to syndicate Morgus. Although the show found markets in New York City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Little Rock, Wichita, and Albany, it didn’t do well enough for its producer-star to finance more than fifty-two new episodes. The oblivious Morgus lived on. Rideau released the Dr. Morgus Hearse-ry Rhymes CD and The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus in VHS and DVD form. In 2005, repackaged Morgus Presents episodes returned to TV. In 2019, Rideau announced An Evening with Sid Noel: Recollections of a Mad Scientist at the Orpheum. “It will be a biography of two people,” he said. “Morgus and that clown behind him.”
On October 13, 2019, the out-of-costume Rideau looked dapper in his dark jacket, gray slacks and red tie. Standing center stage for nearly an hour, he regaled his frequently laughing, applauding fans.
“Good evening, friends of science,” Rideau began. “We have some history to cover tonight. By the way—if you don’t know the past, it’s so difficult to enjoy the future.”
John Wirt is the author of the New Orleans music biography Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues.