Thursday, April 12, 2012

Finding Madame

My new favourite obsession is Madame, a sassy-talking old lady puppet from the 1970s and 1980s. Madame was the brainchild of Wayland Flowers, who was a skilled puppeteer rather than a ventriloquist - something which he had Madame say at the start of their routine "Wayland's no ventriloquist and I'm no fuckin' dummy!" However, once Madame started talking, all eyes quickly fell on her, and Flowers became almost invisible. Bedecked in her "fuzzy" (a boa with a life of its own) and her summer diamonds ("some are diamonds, some are not"), Madame's party piece was to let down her hair from the bun it was tied up in, halfway through the act, in a bizarre display of frenzied shaking and contorting. As I said, Wayland Flowers was a skilled puppeteer.

In the 1970s and 1980s gay men were largely absent from American mainstream culture, although gay humour will always find a way - and one way that this was achieved was to have women standing in for gay men - particularly older women who were no longer attractive (although they still saw themselves as desirable and were insatiably desirous of men). The Golden Girls were a good example of this, and here's Madame with Bea Arthur (another Madame), singing "A good man is hard to find" while exchanging potshots with one another (and fighting over Rock Hudson - naturally).

Madame's larger-than-life personality was based on campy movie stars like Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson and particularly Rosalind Russell in Aunt Mame. Much later, Karen from Will and Grace also channelled Madame (and in one episode where she catches sight of her aged face in the mirror, Karen retorts that she should have Wayland Flowers' hand up her ass). Madame was a wise-cracking mistress of the double entendre, and while her tv appearances were reasonably "clean", her stage shows cheerfully threw around four-letter words for shock effect. The 1980s were perhaps the last decade of "light entertainment", where audiences would still politely sit through puppet performances - and I recall many variety shows on Saturday afternoons with Keith Harris and Orville (although I'd much have preferred Madame). Even with a puppet as sharp and "adult" as Madame, I'd be surprised if she'd be allowed to entertain today's more demanding audiences on tv.

When Paul Lynde left the panel show Hollywood Squares, Flowers and Madame set up residence in the centre square - the place reserved for the celebrity with the wittiest barbs. Sample question: "Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss lived in the same place. Where was it?" Madame's answer: "At the YMCA!"

Madame also appeared as a regular on 1980s pop show Solid Gold, interviewing, insulting (and at times flirting outrageously) with singers and providing the links between ad breaks: "We'll be right back with more great music so don't you dare move. I'm not moving either because, well... I think I'm having a STROKE!" Here's a typical escalating exchange she had with Marty Harty:

"Hindenberg nose!"
"Chicken lips!"
"Chicken legs!"
"Chicken eyes!"
"Chicken neck!"

In 1982 Madame appeared in her own sitcom "Madame's Place" which starred a young Corey Feldman and was notable for featuring a "talkshow" portion where Madame interviewed the likes of William Shatner. She also featured along with several other of Wayland's puppets in a tv special called Madame in Manhattan. This included Crazy Mary (special skill - getting herself stuck to the floor in a most unusual way), Shirley (Madame's dresser) and Jiffy (a prostitute from Harlem). The show features much of the stage act, but then goes slightly surreal as Madame and Wayland start waltzing around Battery Park together (on a very windy day), and finally there's a sequence where Wayland tucks Madame up in bed and tells her that she's very special to him: "I was teased a lot as a child, I was different, I was sensitive. But I had a grandmother who raised me, protected me, and taught me to believe in dreams. She died when I was young. I cried a lot. By myself. Then one day, there you were, needing me just as much as I needed you." Then he sings "Someone to watch over me" to her. It's a rare moment of Wayland taking centre stage, and it could have come across as schmaltzy and silly, but somehow it doesn't. A camp outlook on life is often developed as part of a coping strategy, because life can be very cruel to those of us who are "different and sensitive". Camp allows you to make a joke out of less than desirable circumstances, being passed over, getting old, being bullied or laughed at. Wayland's coping strategy just became externalised more than most - he laughed first and laughed loudest and longest.

Wayland died of AIDS-related complications in 1988, aged only 48. And I know Madame was with him all the way to the end.

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