The Divine Miss M.

By Lawrence Ferber

Originally published on Advocate.com December 23 2008 1:00 AM ET

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
Place
.

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!

Advocate.com
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.

Advocate.com: 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
business.

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
do.

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
Children
. 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.

 MADAME REHAB X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

What is the new show like, and how does it compare
to the '70s and '80s routines?
Madame: It’s got songs and traces my whole
life, my backstory -- my days in vaudeville, my movie
years -- it’s got multimedia, I sing songs and
tell stories. I think back then a lot of people were doing
shows like this. Debbie Reynolds, all my old fiends, Lauren
Bacall. Every star had a show like this. But nowadays
people don’t. So we brought this up to 2008
standards with videos and commentary running. A little
harder-edged. It’s hilariously raunchy.

MS: We’re trying to keep her pretty much the
same. We were recently in Texas and in fact the owner
of the club had seen Wayland many times in
Provincetown, which is basically where he started. He was
taken back. Today people will come up to Madame and
whisper in her ear or say, Do you remember in
Provincetown, you and Wayland did this? That to me is
outrageous, thinking that Madame remembers after all these
years. But they do. 

Who’s dirtier -- you or Kiki of Kiki & Herb?
Would you like to collaborate with Kiki?
Madame: I think Kiki must be with a name like that.
I’m just a little cheeky. Cut me a check and
I’ll work with anybody.

How about Lamb Chop?MS: It’s funny. About 18 months before
Wayland’s death, he and Shari Lewis were in a
car accident. He called me up in a panic: "Come pick
me up -- I just had an accident with Lamb Chop!" I think
Shari’s daughter is trying to bring her back,
but Lamb Chop was a totally different character.
Mainly for children, and we don’t allow children to
see our show. Of course, they were on Solid
Gold
for four years and that was for children, so Madame
can be for kids too, but we’re not doing TV at
the moment. We have really an adult show.

Madame: Anyone 21 or older is welcome. I just got
back from Houston on Thanksgiving and we had a lot of
college kids. They loved it.

Are you into younger men, Madame?Madame: Well, they’re into me, actually.
Sometimes two at a time! It’s a little risky at
my age, but if they die, they die.

 MADAME RICK X390 (MARLENA SHELL) | ADVOCATE.COM

In keeping with the new, young generation of LGBTQ
people, do you see Madame being more outrageously gay or
political in her shtick?
MS: Wayland was openly gay, and I think the
reason the gay audience was always our base is that gays
always understood camp. Madame has the same audience
as Madonna, Cher, Bette Midler, or any of the other
women [who understand that sensibility].

Madame: Wayland was way ahead of his time. I
think he deserves an award, a medal. I think all those
people who open the doors do. He was a wonderful
person. I was his mouthpiece a lot of the time, but he
really broke down a lot of walls.

Did Wayland ever meet Liberace?MS: Oh, of course we knew Lee.

Was that awkward?MS: No, Lee was kind of nice, a sweet guy and
also very shy.

So I guess Madame didn’t bring up his affairs…MS: No, but believe me, Lawrence, I know more
than I want to know about that.

Where will the tour take you over the next few months?Madame: We’re going to be doing lots of
casinos but are heading towards TV. We want to go out to
California and visit all my friends -- little Jimmy
Kimmel and little Ellen. All those people.

MS: There are some good possibilities in regard
to her going on TV shows. Of course, years ago she was on
every popular talk show and variety show. Today
it’s a little bit different, but we’re
looking at a few things.

Madame: I would love to appear on that Project
Runway
and have one of them sew up something for
me. They would make a gown, only tiny. They sew and they
sew and sometimes the dress is just so-so. Have you seen
that Christian Siriano? With that little bird on his
head or whatever that is, like a little Tweety Bird
sanctuary. I’d like him to make something for me and
let Carson Kressley fix it. He wants to make me look good
naked? Bring an iron and steam shovel.

Will Madame’s Place be released on DVD?MS: There’s been some talk about it. Wayland
used to hum songs [on the show] a lot, so I think it would
be a very expensive show to bring back today with the
music rights. Possibly once we start making it very
big and have our own TV show again, maybe that’s
when they’ll think of releasing it.

Will there be cameos from Wayland’s other
characters, like Crazy Mary or Jiffy, down the line?
Madame: Yes, absolutely. We’re going to put
Mary in the show very soon. As soon as we get her out of her
suite at Bellevue.

Let’s end with a pressing, important question:
Is there more plastic in Madame or Joan Rivers?
Madame: We have the same doctor! She has
aluminum siding, that’s what it is.

See MadameAndMe.com for more information.