The Divine Miss M.

Since the death of performer Wayland Flowers in 1988, his over-the-top puppet creation Madame has been seen only sporadically. But with the launch of her new casino tour, Madame is back.



During the 1970s
and '80s, a silver-haired Hollywood diva ruled the
casinos and cabarets, regularly appeared on TV’s
Laugh-In and Hollywood Squares, cracked
bawdy bon mots with high-rated talk-show hosts, and
even starred in her own sitcom, Madame’s

Oh…and she
was a puppet.

Glammed up in
'30s-style gowns, jewelry, and turbans, with a bulbous
heart-shaped chin that rivals Popeye’s (and Quentin
Tarantino’s), Madame was the creation of openly
gay performer Wayland Flowers, who died of AIDS
complications in 1988. After nearly two decades out of the
spotlight, and a couple of years warming up with other
puppeteers, Madame is making an official comeback on
the casino and nightclub circuit with performer Rick
Skye pulling the strings in a production titled
It’s Madame With an E!
recently spoke to Marlena Shell, Flowers’s friend and
manager and the owner of his numerous puppets, including
Madame, Crazy Mary, and Jiffy. Much to our surprise,
we got not only Shell but Madame herself (voiced by
Skye), talking about her comeback, future plans, and
past run-ins with Shari Lewis’s Lamb Chop and the
übercloseted Liberace. Where have you been all these
years, Madame?
Madame: You know how legends are, we never go
away. I was holed up in my Hollywood Hills home for a while.
Did you see Sunset Boulevard, that old tin can
of a movie? I had my butler serving me breakfast in
bed, but you can only do that for so many years. I
missed my audiences and needed to go back to the
stage, so I was clawing my way back up to the top,
that’s all. And I had to change hands and find
someone who was a perfect fit. You don’t
replace a friend so easily.

Marlena, I had read that Madame was buried with
Flowers. Is that true, and how did you come to possess Madame?
Marlena Shell: Oh no, that’s not true. The
Star magazine came up with that story. I was
first Wayland’s friend, then I was his manager, and
in his last year I was his caretaker and he left me
the puppet. I’m also the trustee of his estate
and executor of his will.

What made you decide to enlist Rick Skye to bring
Madame back?
MS: Debbie Reynolds had talked with me about
bringing her back [after Wayland died], but I was very, very
close with Wayland so the loss was… He died in
'88 and I was practically going to a funeral a day. It
was very bad times. Then [years later], I started
hearing about some [Madame] imposters and I was spending
money stopping them, and a friend of mine who’s
a manager said to me, Why don’t you think about
bringing back Madame? I needed someone who had that smart,
quick wit, and Rick had written a new show for us. He took a
lot of Wayland’s punch lines and updated the
story. Also, Rick is a great mimic, and understands
that very thin line in regards to hilarious raunchy
comedy. Wayland was a very smart comic, his timing was
impeccable, and what I learned was that I
didn’t need someone as a puppeteer. Puppetry is
a craft -- you can always learn a craft, but you
can’t learn comedy.

Although this tour marks Madame’s official
comeback, what’s the story with Joe Kovacs, who
brought Madame to life during 2007 in some cabaret
shows and on VH1’s I Love the '70s?
Madame: I tried out a lot of men. Casting-couch

MS: Joe was the third puppeteer that I worked with,
and we just decided to not work together. I met Rick
through my pianist Michael, our musical director. He
said Rick’s a great writer and did his own shows
that were wonderful. So I had already been working with Rick
as a writer and director, and it was an easy segue for
him to do Madame himself. What I also like about
working with Rick is that he’s not trying to make
Madame something else, which the other puppeteers were
doing. They tried to morph Madame into what was
comfortable for them, whereas Rick goes the extra mile
and doesn’t try to morph Madame into anyone but who
she is. And Wayland loved everything about the 1930s
-- Madame’s costumes were always made as if
they came from the '30s, and when I found out Rick is
also into the '30s, that piqued my thought process and
I’m very happy with him. We’ve gotten
great reviews. It honors Wayland, which I wanted to

What else can you tell us about Skye? He really has
Madame’s voice and routine dead-on.
MS: He was on Broadway and All My
. He’s done his own Liza show.
He’s a serious actor. And he also has a great
voice. Wayland had a beautiful, trained voice; his
mother was a piano teacher and worked with him as a child.
Rick also has a great voice and audiences love when he
sings a song -- and we have five or six
[songs] in the show. I think Wayland would be very
proud of me for having picked him.

Tags: Theater