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There was a producer on "The Merv Griffin Show" named Les Sinclair who had a particular fondness for spiritual wacko types: aura readers, New Age cultists, whatever new oddball happened to be coming down the pike. During my first day working for Merv as a talent coordinator/segment producer in 1985-86, Les began discussing some crystal spinner dude and asked if I would handle the pre-interview with this individual. Unbenounced to me, when Les made this sort of inquiry, you were supposed to suddenly remember an urgent appointment down the hall and make a run for it. As I was yet to receive this memo, I instead answered, "Sure."
Well, Les took this to somehow mean that I was as into this crap as he was, and I was his new man. Every nut job with a sales pitch was thereafter my guest. "Oh, and that fellow who tracks rainbows using asparagus, have Ray handle that one," Les would say. Lovely. And since the show was having some trouble getting the top names by this point in its run, gypsies and snake charmers were becoming like family. There would be a couple of new crazies on every week spouting outrageous theories about how we humans were all just, you know, water-carrying magnifying glasses or something. I had to talk to 'em all and struggle to act as if what they were saying made perfect sense. ("Yes, of course, microwave ovens are simply unicorns in disguise. Absolutely. It's so clear now.")
And then I got assigned Ramtha: The Enlightened One.
Ramtha was actually this woman named J.Z. Knight who had attracted a shockingly large and devoted following by claiming to have been inhabited by some ancient "spiritual entity" while minding her own business in the kitchen of her Tacoma, Washington home in 1977. Proving there is a sucker born every minute, she was able to make a comfortable living "channeling" Ramtha at seminars, via her Ramtha School of Enlightenment and through the sale of tapes, books and accessories. The purported Ramtha she was channeling was a 35,000-year-old spirit warrior who had abandoned his Army way back when and vowed to return from the deep past at some point to, you know, chill with a bowl of ice cream and a little TV or whatever.
Ramtha is still around, by the way, and even has his/her own Website. Those enlightened entities sure learn quickly the ways of mass marketing and modern technology.
I cannot stress strongly enough how completely ridiculous this all seemed to me. But Les assured me this was serious business, that Ramtha was "the real deal" and that if Ramtha agreed to be channeled through J.Z. we were in for "a helluva show."
"What do you mean, 'If Ramtha agrees to be channeled through J.Z.'?" I asked Les.
"Oh, the timing has to be absolutely right or Ramtha won't appear; J.Z. is only the spiritual medium through which Ramtha appears in our world," Les replied without a trace of a smile.
Funny, but I had a strong suspicion that Ramtha was going to think a national television appearance might just be a good time to emerge. To my skeptical mind, this was such a crock that I couldn't believe Merv was actually going to go through with the interview. I mean, it was tough enough to find an audience with guests who existed in the current millennium, much less 33,000 B.C. But Les, ever the True Believer, had talked Merv into it. And now it was time to do the pre-interview by phone.
"Does Ramtha come out for pre-interviews or only the real thing?" I asked Les.
"Well, that's a good question," he said. "Give it your best shot, be patient, and hope for the best. But remember: she'll do the interview first as J.Z. and then as Ramtha. They're two completely different people, you know."
So I'm doing the interview. The woman on the other end of the line sounds relatively normal, mild-mannered and sane even. And then I ask her if she can tap Ramtha on the shoulder and see if maybe he'd consider coming to the phone.
"All right," Knight says.
For the next minute or so, I encounter total silence on the receiver. She suddenly then starts blithering in tongues and making gutteral, husky noises like someone in the throes of seizure. My first thought was that she sounded uncannily like Linda Blair's character Regan in "The Exorcist" when the devil was speaking through her. This Knight lady clearly had studied at the feet of the master, I thought.
Finally, this suddenly masculine voice shouts, "Indeed!".
"Oh, um, hi Ramtha," I say sheepishly.
"Hellllo," the voice bellows.
I wasn't freaked out so much as incredulous that I was supposed to buy that this woman was anything but a bad actress. But it was their popcycle stand, and I pressed on with the line of questioning Les had instructed.
"Why have you decided to return to our world now Ramtha?" I asked.
"Because...It is necessary to heal that which is called society. I have come to show you how to make that which is called peace."
I was doing my best to avoid that which is called laughing hysterically. After about 15 minutes of this, I tell Ramtha he can go back to bed now or whatever and see if he can put J.Z. back on. He does -- and just at that moment, it strikes me as suddenly odd that a 35,000-year-old guy without any communications savvy would so easily understand how to conduct a telephone interview. It was evidently just another facet of the miracle that was Ramtha.
In the meeting with Merv before the show, I warn him that this is just all sorts of weird and that he might want to think twice about the whole Ramtha thing, that the lady is clearly bonkers and quite possibly delusional to boot.
"Oh that's perfect!" Merv assures me. "Delusion makes wonderful TV."
As the audience files in for the Ramtha show taping, I notice a commotion out front and go to check it out. The line for entrance was still wrapping around the block even though the theater was nearly full. A lot of people weren't going to be getting in. A look of concern crossed Les' face as he looked to police the situation. Extra security had to be called in as people lined up and denied entrance were screaming and chanting. It looked like the beginnings of a riot. But the extra security finally was able to restore order.
It was time for J.Z. Knight to come out. Merv introduces her. The crowd, all evidently Ramtha-ites, gave her a raucous standing ovation. As she took her seat next to Merv, Knight lowered her hands and the crowd grew instantly silent and seated. It was eerie. I looked at some of my co-workers standing nearby, and all carried an expression of fear, as if we'd just crashed a cult gathering and we were the only ones who had been denied The Answer.
Merv asks Knight all of ther proper question about how all of this happened, why she was chosen, what she thinks it means, blah blah blah blah blah. And then Merv summons Ramtha to appear. As soon as he does, Knight closes her eyes, begins rocking back and forth and emits a low humming sound. This continues for -- no joke -- more than three minutes. You don't know how long 180 seconds can be until you see it played out before your eyes as dead air time. Merv looked totally uncomfortable, alternately looking at the control booth and at the rocking guest beside him, once shrugging while making eye contact with the producer as if to ask, "What now?"
Finally, at right about the 3 1/2-minute mark, Knight opens her eyes, bolts upright, springs to her feet, thrusts her right fist in the air and screams, "INDEED!!!!!!!!!!"
On cue, the audience rose as one, thrusts fists in the air and answered, "INDEED!!!!!!!!!!"
For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to inhabit a mental institution. For these people, this woman was God. To me, she was a transparent opportunist. But at that moment, she owned the world -- on TV, preaching to a roomful of spellbound followers. Merv, for his part, was flabbergasted. His body language said it all: his face looking at Knight/Ramtha, his torso leaning as far back in his chair as it would go.
Merv asked all of the same questions I did and got pretty much the same answers, with every phrase preceded by "That which is called..." (or maybe it was "That which is gall..."). I saw Les immediately after the show and he appeared crestfallen, admitting to me, "I think Merv had to have felt embarrassed by that. Oh God, this is a disaster..."
But Les needn't have worried. An hour later, at a meeting just prior to the second show taping, Merv was positively giddy. "Wow, I thought she was going to weave back and forth like that for an hour. I didn't know what to do. But ****, it was great television. Great television!"
And that's why I had little choice but to love the guy, enlightened entity that he was.