THE RICHEST BARNYARD PHILOSOPHER IN SHOW BUSINESS

ANNE MACDERMOT October 6 1962

THE RICHEST BARNYARD PHILOSOPHER IN SHOW BUSINESS

ANNE MACDERMOT October 6 1962

THE RICHEST BARNYARD PHILOSOPHER IN SHOW BUSINESS

DIIDIUE^DO is Père Gédéon, an old Quebec DUO 11 * LOO roué who earns $100,000 a year with an earthy TV and night-club routine. Out of character (which he seldom is) Gédéon is Doris Lussier, a learned and reserved refugee from Laval

University

ANNE MACDERMOT

THE BIGGEST, MOST PROFITABLE inside joke in the country is a pipe-sucking, teeth-picking, whisky-loving old roué from a hillbilly backwater of French Canada. He's Père Gédéon—Père Gédéon of the Plouffe family, a television series; Père Gédéon of The Town Above, another television series; Père Gédéon of half the night-club stages between Montreal and Edmundston, New Brunswick. The insiders, the people who never fail to get the joke and. apparently, will never tire of seeing it, are almost all the people in French Canada who own television sets. To them, this canny hick from the Beauce country—crude but sophisticated, kind hut bitterly litigious, sixty-nine yet afflicted with all the itches of a young man—represents the things that have always been funniest in themselves and their province.

Off stage. Père Gédéon is a courtly forty-three-year-old ex-economics professor named Doris Fussier. Fussier is him-

self a native of the Beauce, less than 100 miles southeast of Quebec City, where some say the practice of giving girls' names to boys arose because parents had such big families they ran out of boys' names.

As for Père Gédéon, he had no name at first. He was only an impromptu stunt Fussier performed at Quebec City cocktail parties. Yet, in less than a decade, Gédéon has made Fussier one of Canada's richest comic entertainers. Thanks to Père Gédéon—his creator always refers to him in the third person—Fussier is almost a millionaire, in real estate at least. He has invested more than $750,000. chiefly in a garage, three apartment houses and a Montreal tavern. And every Saturday night from now until next spring he is booked to play clubs in Ontario. Quebec and New' Brunswick. He gets $2,000 a week on the night-club circuit and. in one year, playing in Montreal alone, he earned $100.000.

But if night-club work is profitable it was television that made Père Gédéon the “national” character he's become in French Canada and on October 25, for the eighth consecutive year, he'll be back again in something like eighty percent of Quebec viewers' living rooms. This time—instead of a weekly family series like the Plouffes and its successor the Chevaliers and its English counterpart The Town Above—the show will consist of seven separate one-hour stories. And this time it wall be frankly designed to exploit the popularity of Père Gédéon; it's called Fe Petit Monde du Père Gédéon. Most of the main characters w'ho were invented by writer Roger Femel in for the earlier series will appear in Fe Petit Monde but, for the first time, Femelin will also introduce some of Père Gédéon’s thirteen children. In the past, as the cunning mentor of his younger brother's family, Père Gédéon has only talked about his own absent brood.

Whatever the innovations in Fe Petit Monde, one thing is sure to stay the same; Père Gédéon, almost alone among comic characters on North American television, seems to be impervious to overexposure. Fussier says Gédéon has aged four years in the last eight, but his viewers know that Gédéon doesn't get older; he just gets more and more like himself every year.

Théophile, a Quebec City plumber, is nominally the head of the Plouffe family and tends to look down on his older brother from the country. But Gédéon is easily the most popular Plouffe and obviously the brains of the family. He owms a good farm, a slice of woods anil a house in Quebec City. He prospers, Fussier says, “because he’s smart.”

Fussier and Femclin, who have known each other for twenty years, share Gédéon in a unique way. It was Femelin who gave the old man his name and has always told him exactly what to say on television; Fussier never ad libs. But it was Fussier who invented Gédéon and brought him as a finished character to Femelin’s Plouffe family in 1954. “Femelin knew Gédéon through myself,” Fussier says. “I rent the character to Femelin for TV. Then 1 take him back for the night clubs.” Fussier writes his own rambling shaggy-dog monologues for the night clubs and he sticks to his owm scripts almost as faithfully as he does to Lemelin’s. It doesn’t seem to matter to Gédéon who writes his lines. He’s Père Gédéon on television and Père Gédéon in a night club, only in a club he is, in Fussier’s w'ords, “a little more Rabelaisian.”

GEDEON’S EMBELLISHMENTS

Gédéon looks almost frail. He walks with a stoop, with one eye half-closed. He’s shy one upper tooth and his hair bursts in white sprouts just north of his ears, from under a broad-brimmed, tilted-back hat. His mustache is slightly smaller than a clothes whisk; his pocket watch is slightly bigger than an orange. Père Gédéon, like all the older men of Fussier’s Beauce country, carries his pipe tobacco in a pig's bladder. If he's not talking he’s dragging on his bent pipe. If he is talking, he’s still dragging on his pipe, or packing it.

Fussier says Gédéon is “very joyous, always having

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BARNYARD PHILOSOPHER

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The weaknesses of Père Gédéon: wine, women and court action

his eye on a belle creature." ( If le bon Dieu created anything better, Gédéon likes to say. He's keeping them for Himself.) Gédéon also likes whisky blanc and lawyers. At least once a year he’s involved in a court case, preferably over a petty land dispute. He teases, but never offends, the curé. He was probably the first French Canadian over sixty-five to dance to rock 'n' roll music and. though he hasn't done it publicly yet. he can certainly do The Twist because, as Lussier says. Père Gédéon can do anything and go anywhere.

He's been to the Vatican to see the pope about a Plouffe nephew, Brother Alexandre, a Dominican priest who should have been made a bishop, but wasn't. He's been to Paris and the Folies Bergères, where he was overjoyed to see so many créatures in one place but puzzled to find everybody spoke such poor French. He's even been to Toronto and the Royal York Hotel yvhere he was puzzled to find nobody spoke any French at all.

The French that Gédéon speaks is a guttural patois, marked by throatclearing "h's” where they don’t belong. usually at the beginning of words. It's a throyvback to the language of the Normandy families yvho first settled the Beauce district. Nowadays. all French Canadians enjoy hearing it mimicked well and nobody mimics it better than Doris Lussier.

Lussier’s country has been called the closest thing in Canada to the kind of hillbilly patch AI Capp satirizes in l.’il Abner. It's flanked by Maine on the east and the Eastern Townships on the west. Split by the Chaudière River, it is scraggy, somewhat desolate, beaded with lakes, oddly beautiful. The Beauce has always been cut off from the settlements along the St. Lawrence and from the main stream of Quebec’s commerce. By horse or foot. Quebec city was days away and. at the best of times, swampland barred the route. But the pasture land was good and the people of the Beauce didn’t go to the capital any more than they had to

Beauce people developed their own local belief’s; no dancing—or the devil, wearing gloves to hide the fire in his hands, would come and take away the town coquette. They had their own ghosts w ho were seen as flashing lights beside tombstones and usually timed their appearance for the benefit of a drunk driving home in his buggy. Only two years ago. Beauce villagers will tell you. a squirrel, possessed by a dead man’s spirit, led the man's nephew to a hollow' tree on his land where the boy found $3.000 stuffed in a jam jar. Most Beauce towns still have a fortuneteller.

In this backwoods valley, Lussier says, the people have learned for themselves how to enjoy life. "They drink heavily—it may be the heaviestdrinking part of Quebec.” The Beauce is probably the best maple syrup district in Canada and undoubtedly has

the best sugaring-off parties. Families there are big, even by Quebec's standards. Père Gédéon's family of thirteen is not uncommonly large and Lussier himself is one of eleven brothers, sisters. half-brothers and half-sisters.

Lussier, as Lussier (not Gédéon), is no longer recognizable as a barefoot boy from the hills. His conversation suggests the academic life he left behind at Laval and something about the way he uses his hands hints at life in the theatre. He is tall, sandv-hair-

ed. long-legged, athletic-looking (in his university days he played practice tennis with Pancho Gonzales. Bobbv Riggs and Pancho Segura when they came to Quebec City for Davis Cup competition). His manners are courtly, polished, even suave, but when he laughs, he laughs loudly like a true man of the Beauce. With his wife, whom he met in the Beauce when they were both eight, and their two boys, he lives in a bungalow on St. Denis Street on Montreal island.

Many of Lussier’s followers are as intrigued by his own history as they are by Père Gédéon’s intricate adventures. They wonder what happened to the university career he sacrificed to Gédéon when he was thirty-five and whether he'll ever go back to it.

Lussier's father was a copper miner who died of cancer when Doris was three. The boy lived with relatives and for six summers during his teens he worked in the bush to earn enough to put himself through Quebec Semi-

nary. It was from the farmers and lumbermen he met in those summers that he learned much of the ribaldry he would later use to flesh out Père Gédéon's monologues.

At Laval University, Lussier paid his own way, working as a librarian and faculty waiter. For twelve years he was private secretary to Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, Laval’s former dean of social sciences, "a man to whom 1 owe everything—the greatest influence of my life." Lussier became a member of a bright-eyed group of intellectuals that revolved around the dean. René Lévesque, now Quebec's resources minister, was another. So was Jean Marchand, now president of the Confederation of National Syndicates, and Eugene Bussière, secretary of the Quebec Arts Council, and Maurice Lamontagne. Liberal party economist. Lussier graduated with a BA. then earned a master's degree in social sciences and joined Laval’s staff as professor of the philosophy of economics. He seemed to be well on the way to a distinguished academic career. I hen. he quit.

His decision came as a surprise to many of the people who knew Lussier at Laval. Others say he had always been an actor. No one had ever had to coax him to slip into one of his Beauce country monologues. He was known as a reliable entertainer at parties and. by the early fifties, he was playing an old Beauce farmer on Quebec City's first television show. Le Monde Vu de la Terrasse. He would chat with a newspaperman about the world passing below the terrace. Jacques Normand, probably Quebec's top straight comedian, knew Lussier in those days and says the professor was brilliant from the moment he tried the Beauce dialect on television. The farmer, Normand says, was “a Doris composition, made by his own hands out of Beauce clay. He is really a caricature of the people Lussier knew, but he loves him."

In 1954, Lussier recalls, he w'as at Roger Lemelin's house when Lemelin said, "Why don't you stop that show and come and play on my program? You're losing money.”

Lemelin’s program, of course, was the television soap opera, the Plouffc family, easily the most popular show in French network history, and pretty popular in its English translation too. Lussier agreed and Lemelin quickly wrote a family uncle into the Plouffc family script and named him Père Gédéon. After one winter of traveling between his duties to the Plouffes in Montreal and to Laval in Quebec City, Lussier talked over his future with Father Lévesque and Maurice Lamontagne. They convinced him his future lay with Père Gédéon and in the fall he packed up his family, crated his books and moved to Montreal.

Regarding his decision to quit the academic career he had worked so hard to achieve, Lussier says gently. "It’s my own damn business.” There's little doubt that he enjoyed life at Laval; there’s no doubt he enjoys playing the amiable sage of the Plouffes. Lussier still has his university books and he tries to keep up with events in his old field, but a collection of dictionaries, books of quotations and works by modern Ameri-

can humorists is slowly shouldering aside the university quarterlies. He has three files of notes for monologue ideas.

“He'll never go back to teaching,” says Lemelin. “Doris is a born actor."

Two years ago the University of Montreal asked Lussier to give a course in economics. He refused. But even without teaching and even, in fact, without Père Gédéon, Lussier has careers on his mind. He sounds like Gcdcon boasting about a cow when he tlcscribcs his tavern in Montreal — “the most beautiful tavern in Canada.” He knows of no other tavern where people make reservations for tables. He calls it Chez l’Père Gédéon. The tavern is strictly a drinking place. It has no restaurant and no show,

though occasionally Lussier appears there as Gédéon.

Finally, the accidental creator of Quebec's most perfect politician harbors a few political ambitions of his own. He worked in the last provincial election for Liberal candidate René Lévesque, who was elected, and in the federal election for Maurice Lamontagne, who was not. He is a member of the Quebec Liberals’ political commission. He says he is tempted to run himself and that fairly soon, like so many of the temptations that assail Père Gcdcon, this one may prove too strong for him.

But whatever he ends up doing, Lussier says, “1 only hope 1 feel like the old man feels when I reach his age.” ★

Père Gédéon: family man and intellectual