November 26, 1939– Wayland Flowers:
“Madame uses some dirty words. And there are complaints from time to time, but for the most part audiences aren’t offended because Madame doesn’t use the words for their actual meaning.”
In no small way, I am horrified by dolls and puppets. I feel that they quite easily come to life and that they have a hold over their handlers. I find the art of puppetry to be suspect, sinister and slightly sickening. Such is the case of Wayland Flowers and his puppet Madame, who became far more famous than her creator.
Preparing for this #BornThisDay post, I was shocked to find that there is hardly any biographical information available about Flowers, but Google reveals that Madame still has a huge following with thousands of entries.
Flowers began to practice the art of puppetry at an early age in his native small town in Georgia. In the 1960s, Flowers moved to NYC where he found work as an assistant puppeteer on a kiddie’s television show. It was during that era that Flowers developed Madame, his adults-only puppet, a freakish and flamboyant old fag hag who wears garish gowns and tiaras.
Flowers performed with Madame in cabarets and gay bars. Madam’s acerbic, campy quips about sex, men, and life, provided Flowers with a following that led to frequent television appearances on the variety and talk shows popular in that era.
By the late 1960s, Waylon Flowers And Madame had become regulars on my favorite show Laugh-In (1967-73), at the time it was the top show in the USA, known for its cutting-edge topical humor that constantly challenged the network censorship. Flowers was able to perform a kind of coded campy gay perspective, but it was parlayed through his famous puppet.
Those raunchy old babes of Burlesque and Vaudeville have long been a staple of ribald comedy, using sarcasm, the double entendre and sexual innuendo to make their point, while still being perceived as amusing rather than offensive, probably because elderly women are seen as being past the point any serious sexual stuff.
Flowers would take this brand of humor even farther because Madame was an old lady who was not just ugly pretending to be a great beauty, but because she was made of wood and wire.
Flowers was able to offer prime-time television audiences the attitudes of 1960s and 1970s era gay men, taking their first baby steps towards Gay Liberation, a point of view that could have been regarded as pointedly offensive to mainstream audiences. He was able to do it without having to provide any censoring because the dialogue was coming from a dummy.
In those zany, depraved 1970s and 1980s, Flowers and Madame had even more exposure on television. They hosted the musical variety series Solid Gold (1980-1988) and were semi-permanent guests on The Hollywood Squares (1965-1980). After a decade of guest appearances, they replaced gay comic actor Paul Lynde as the center square. Flowers and Madame were there in the center square on the very last episode of The Hollywood Squares in June 1980. Host Peter Marshall asked Madame the final game question of the series:
“Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss all lived in the same place. Where did they all live?”
“At the YMCA!”
In the 1980s, that odd puppet/human partnership took an even more peculiar turn in Flowers’s career. Madame got her own sitcom, Madame’s Place, where she played the lead role, interacting with the other actors as if she were a human. Flowers was nowhere to be seen. He continued to be Madame’s voice, the only evidence of his presence. He wasn’t even given a credit.
Madame, as I always suspected, had finally taken over, squashing Flowers until he became literally and figuratively invisible. As a result, very little attention was drawn to his personal life. In fact, no one seemed to even notice when Flowers left this world in 1998. He was just 48 years old, taken away by the HIV epidemic. The original Madame is buried with him in a cemetery in his Georgia hometown.