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.