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.
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.
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.