At the end of Geraldo Rivera’s infamous, embarrassing live television special The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, he leveled with his audience. By that point TV viewers had spent almost two hours watching his descent into Chicago’s Lexington Hotel in search of the late gangster’s gold. Broadcast on April 21, 1986, the special was part-Capone biography, part-treasure hunt, part-archeological dig into the decrepit innards of the mobster’s former hideout. Promos likened the objectively pointless expedition to the opening of King Tut’s tomb. At the program’s close, Rivera called for a work stoppage, gathered the construction crew that had tunneled through the chamber and spoke directly to the viewing public: “You know, when we began opening this vault nearly two hours ago, we had no real idea what we’d find inside. As it turns out, we haven’t found very much, at least not yet,” he said. “Our seismic or sonic test must’ve been slightly awry, because we didn’t find the much-heralded hollow spaces that we were led to believe were in there. So, what can I say, I’m sorry.”
What, indeed? Still, Rivera’s confession possessed a weirdly arresting allure. There is, for instance, lovely poetry in “much-heralded hollow spaces”—it calls to mind an underground lair not unlike the twinkling abyss Ralph Ellison hymns in Invisible Man; or the labyrinth of He Walked By Night, the police procedural noir about a thieving flaneur who tiptoes along LA’s subterranean storm drains. Alternately, the phrase can conjure a new shopping mall poised for its grand opening, or the mind of a vapid, good-looking leading man. But such poetic transports ultimately yield to a vision of poetic justice, once you realize that “much-heralded hollow space” is basically a euphemism for the Vaults primetime slot—or the program itself.
In a Mental Floss oral history of the Vaults catastrophe, Rivera summed up the result of that scavenging, in which the crew excavated little more than a few glass bottles and junk: “We were finding nothing but trivial things.” Nevertheless, the show’s surprisingly high ratings showed how well Rivera could sell the spectacle—and could make the American public feign an extended, voyeuristic interest in the life of Al Capone, a vicious gangster who died in 1947, nearly forty years before Geraldo’s big nothing of a suspenseful broadcast.
Richard Simmons has gone, in record time, from being a B-list celebrity has-been to a larger-than-life personality rendered in negative space.
In an odd—and again, not unpoetic—way, the Geraldo-Capone fiasco also pointed to the insatiable vacuity at the heart of the American cult of celebrity. The conspicuous absence of Capone’s riches perversely reminded viewers of the grander emptiness of the whole prime-time pursuit—a profoundly unstable compound of televisual excess and journalistic arrogance. What was really trapped in the underground vaults of the Lexington Hotel was our own shameless craving for a bite-sized piece of celebritist pseudo-history—a cultural void that we then sought to fill, under Geraldo’s breathless guidance, with randomized nostalgia for a gaudy Chicago gangster past that never existed in an unmediated way in the first place.
More than thirty years after that media extravaganza, the top-rated podcast in the country, Missing Richard Simmons, opens a vault of its own, with a wild array of speculations about the personal life of the show’s eponymous exercise guru in the three years since his mysterious disappearance from public life. Since its February 15 premiere, the six-part weekly investigative podcast has become #1 on the iTunes charts. It’s been called “brilliant” by Vulture, and “the best mystery podcast since Serial,” by BuzzFeed. Host Dan Taberski has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, and that stronghold of celebrity-showcase journalism, The Wendy Williams Show to promote it. It’s exceedingly rare for a mere podcast, predicated on nothing more than a celebrity’s absence, to become mainstream cultural fodder. But Missing Richard Simmons is now a veritable pop culture thing. Much like the Rivera special, the podcast is a mystery in the making that obsessively describes itself in-progress. And as with Rivera’s ill-fated excavation, the outcome of all this frenzied speculation is unknown. In an interview published February 28, co-producer Henry Molofsky admitted that the story was evolving and the ending “still up in the air.” It doesn’t really seem to matter, for the program’s narrative purposes, that its central figure fails to participate in the ways that we expect or want. Simmons has declined to be interviewed, which works, strangely, to magnify the aura of his absence; he’s gone, in record time, from being a B-list celebrity has-been to a larger-than-life personality rendered in negative space.
The mystery of it all began in February 2014, when Simmons failed to show up for an exercise class. No real explanation was proffered for his absence, then or now. Positioning itself as a sleuthing pop-cult narrative in the vein of Serial or HBO’s The Jinx, Missing Richard Simmons turns loose Taberski and a slew of Simmons’s other friends and former clients on the quest for the excitable exercise instructor’s real whereabouts.
All the principals in the show voice their concern and bewilderment over Simmons’s out-of-character disappearing act. Some of them suggest Simmons went into hiding after the death of his beloved dalmatian Hattie. Some guess he’s retired from public life due to a persistent knee issue that keeps him from exercising to his full ability. The exercise mogul’s former masseuse and personal assistant alleges he’s been held hostage by his housekeeper, who’s using black magic to control him. (This surmise, of course, has taken on a separate branded life of its own, via a fairytale e-book called King Rich and the Evil Witch.) Taberski investigates claims of elder abuse that the same former employee bruited several years ago. The members of Simmons’s inner circle (his older brother, publicist, housekeeper) claim that he’s fine and just wants to be left alone.
It all sounds gnat-strainingly trivial, but for its loyal listeners, Missing has all of the intrigue of a great documentary. It shares the voyeuristic feel of the 2010 documentary Catfish and the sense of seedy decadence on uncomfortable display in the Maysles brothers classic seventies film Grey Gardens.
Still, unlike Geraldo’s misbegotten network star turn, Missing is not a “much-heralded hollow space.” It deserves its acclaim. It mostly succeeds in rounding out the personality of a man who had become in the public eye a caricature, a Halloween costume, a reliable butt of David Letterman jokes before he withdrew into his Beverly Hills mansion. In Missing’s view, Simmons is an incredibly caring and generous, yet tortured, soul who spent hours on the phone counseling overweight people he’d met, overextending himself to help others, lobbying Congress to bring physical education back in schools. At the same time, though, it includes less-than-flattering stories about Simmons that make him seem more complex than either his over-the-top persona or the caring fitness evangelist beneath its surface.
Our culture staked more and more of its imaginative resources on the emerging faith that celebrity could be manufactured in the absence of the thing itself.
The relevant hollow space here is the one largely occupied by we the listeners. The show presents a familiar laundry list of rumors that attach to the abrupt evacuation of any celebrity from the public eye: the existential fugue state of stardom, various alleged physical ailments, reports of emotional exhaustion. And the hollow space is what ultimately feeds the overarching mystery here: Who knows how this will end? There’s a very strong possibility that listeners will be deprived of any big closing reveal; the show’s various narrative threads may simply fray into nothingness by the time of its conclusion. The big secret behind Simmons’s disappearance might prove to be utterly mundane—as several Simmons insiders are already claiming. With only one episode left (for Stitcher Premium users) we might be seeing a repeat of that vault-opening. Following all the familiar canons of documentary narratives, Taberski’s show seems to be building to an emotional catharsis that may never come to pass.
The fallout of the Vaults fiasco did nothing to arrest our mass culture’s appetite for lavishly produced nothingness. Indeed, Geraldo’s documentary proved prophetic in a way. Come the late 1990s, reality TV plunged fearlessly into Rivera’s sacred hollow space. Alongside the reality boom, our culture staked more and more of its imaginative resources on the emerging faith that celebrity could be manufactured in the absence of the thing itself. And amid this new pseudo-documentarian dispensation, other TV productions have badly failed at delivering the promised narrative goods, with virtually no long-term costs to their already suspect credibility. In 2014, for example, Eaten Alive, broadcast by the Discovery Channel, failed to deliver on the promise in its title, only to have its host eaten alive in a metaphoric—but brand-extending!—way, via ravenous social media vultures.
After the release of the penultimate episode this past Wednesday, it’s clear that this whole dogged investigation may leave us just as confused as ever—and Richard Simmons just as missing. In episode one, Taberski began Missing Richard Simmons with an acknowledgement of his own possible failure, saying, “[Simmons] may never talk to me. He may sue me or publicly excoriate me. But honestly I’m good with all that except for the suing part.” In his essay on the “loser edit,” a reality TV trope, Colson Whitehead explained that “the loser edit is not just the narrative arc of a contestant about to be chopped, or voted off the island, whatever the catchphrase. It is the plausible argument of failure.” In copping to its own plausible failure, Missing Richard Simmons pre-empts the “loser edit,” and the criticism that comes with it, while also hewing to the enthusiastic self-marketing brio that made Simmons a brand name in the first place. So rather than summoning the prime-time flop sweat of Geraldo, the podcast perhaps is poised to join those grand nostalgic set pieces that made up Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies series—neither hollow space nor vault, but a throwback vacuum for pop-cult enthusiasts to get lost in.