A well-tanned Glenn Gould is sitting in his usual spot, on a bench in front of CBC headquarters on Front Street in Toronto. I decide to join him for a few minutes, hoping for a few pearls of wisdom. Gould only stares but has nothing to say. The iconic musical genius is completely motionless. I tell him I am preparing to interview Ralph Benmergui, who is making his way back to the CBC airwaves, after a 13-year absence.
I make a few last-minute edits to my list of questions, flatten my hair and take a few deep breaths. I then stand up and look one last time at my stoic bronzed mentor. He is still silent and frozen, giving the great Marcel Marceau a run for his money. In an attempt at humour I say, “Mr. Gould, not that you don’t deserve the rest, but you might want to get up and circle the building just to avoid possible blood clotting.”
His face finally creases with a half smile and he says, “Give my best to Ralph.”
I always enjoy walking into the architecturally savvy CBC atrium. I have been a guest on more than a few shows here over the years. I have lectured at TV and film school half a dozen times. I have stopped by to interview such luminaries as Don Cherry, Ron MacLean – and even chatted up the king of duct tape, Red Green. Admittedly, I have also stopped by the atrium to loiter my way through a harsh winter storm or two.
But today I am here to welcome back and document the return of Benmergui to CBC’s airwaves.
Not wasting any time, I take out my pocket radio and turn to CBC Radio One, hoping to catch the tail end of his first show back. As I work my way through the FM dial, I finally hear the inimitable smoky, nasal resonance of the Gemini-nominated host. He is just wrapping up a phone call from a woman from Western Canada. Before the call ends she says, “We missed hearing your voice Ralph, I hope you come back for good.”
No doubt this is a sentiment echoed by many Canadians who have followed Benmergui’s ascendancy from reserved, tentative host to pithy, master of his craft.
But never mind how the listeners feel, the real question is: How does Ralph feel to be back here, back in the building where he cut his teeth as co-host of CBC’s flagship news magazine Midday? To be back in the building where he fell flat on his face, enduring an almost apocalyptic media storm, as Friday Night! with Ralph Benmergui fell to the wayside, after one season. Back in the building where he garnered five Gemini nominations and countless accolades for his perspicacious interviewing ability.
At last, Benmergui appears, jetting out through the security turnstiles like a spry rookie. He wears the complex emotions of the prodigal son, who has partaken in life’s many earthly splendours, learned his lessons and returned home a better man. He puts his cell in his pocket and walks over to me, shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and warmly smiles.
We walk together to the lower level and grab a table at a nearby Starbucks. I ask him how it felt when CBC called him to guest host on Fresh Air, their popular weekend radio program. “Being back behind the microphone felt great,” Benmergui says. “So strange though to be back in this place where I spent so much of my life,” Benmergui confides.
Over the span of 35 years in broadcasting, Benmergui has seen it all: the hype, the hustle, the hoopla, the false promises and the fickle and ugly underbelly of an industry that will steal your soul and make no apology for it. Benmergui has weathered the storm – in fact he has weathered a cadre of high-impact weather systems. And he is here to tell the story. Even better, he has found peace.
He credits much of his new-found serenity to his recent move to Hamilton, Ont. “Change is never easy but it has been good. The Jewish community in Hamilton has welcomed my family and me with open arms. The hospitality of this hard-working town has been incredible,” he says.
Shortly after arriving in Hamilton, Benmergui was offered to lead spiritual workshops at Anshe Shalom, the oldest Reform shul in Canada. “Spirituality and Judaism are two big components of my life. To be able to guide and inspire the spiritual journey of other Jews is a privilege and an honour,” says Benmergui with a solemn look in his eye.
Benmergui has found a refractive lens for his Judaism in the arms of Jewish Renewal, a movement which endeavours to reinvigorate modern Judaism with kabbalistic, chassidic and musical practices.
One of its central ideas is that we need a new definition of productivity, efficiency and rationality. Jewish Renewal says that institutions and social practices should be judged efficient or productive not only to the extent that they maximize wealth and power, but also to the extent that they maximize our capacities to be loving and caring, ethically/ecologically sensitive, towards other human beings and the universe.
I shake hands with him and thank him for allowing me to spend some time with him on his first day back at the Mother Corp. He insists on walking me from the downstairs food court, right to the main entrance. He asks me if I need a drink or something for the ride home, as if we are standing in his own kitchen, a few feet away from the fridge. He instinctively knows how to make his guest feel at home. Perhaps that is the source of his enduring appeal: Jewish hospitality.
As I make a final push through the double doors of the CBC, to the honking horns of Front Street, I hear him yell from the distance, “Hey, tell Gould to stop whistling at the pretty ladies.”
Ieden Wall is an award-winning producer, TV host and journalist, living in Toronto.