In no small way, I abhor & I am horrified by dolls & puppets. I feel that they easily come to life & that they have a hold over their handlers. I find the art of puppetry to be suspect, sinister & slightly sickening. Such is the case of Wayland Flowers & his puppet- Madame, who was far more famous than her creator.
Preparing for this post Indeed, I was shocked to find that there is little biographical information available about Flowers while Google reveals that Madame still retains a following.
Wayland Flowers began to practice puppetry at an early age in his native Georgia. In the 1960s, Flowers moved to NYC, where he was an assistant puppeteer for kiddie's television shows. He also developed Madame, an adults-only puppet, a freakish & flamboyant old fag hag in garish gowns, tiaras, & rhinestones.
Flowers performed with Madame in cabarets & gay bars, where her acerbic & camp observations about sex, men, & life, gave Flowers a following that led to frequent TV appearances on variety & talk shows.
By the late 1960s, Flowers & Madame had become regulars on my favorite show Laugh-In, at the time, the #1 show, known for its cutting-edge topical humor that challenged network censorship. Flowers was able to perform a coded campy gay perspective parlayed through his puppet.
Since Vaudeville raunchy old ladies have been a staple of ribald comedy, able to use sarcasm,the double entendre & sexual innuendo & still be perceived as amusing rather than offensive, probably because old women were thought to be past any serious sexual stuff.
Flowers could take this humor even farther, with an an old lady who was not only ugly, pretending to be a great beauty, because Madame was wood & wire.
Flowers gave prime-time TV the attitudes of gay men taking the first baby steps of gay liberation, a point of view that could have have been regarded as pointedly offensive to mainstream audiences, without having to do any censoring.
In the1970s, Wayland Flowers &Madame appeared frequently on TV, as the hosts of Solid Gold & on Hollywood Squares. After a decade of guest appearances, they replaced gay Paul Lynde, as the center square. Flowers & Madame were in the center square on the last episode of Hollywood Squares in June 1980. Peter Marshall asked Madame the final game question of the series: "Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert & Strauss lived in the same place. Where did they all live?" Madame: "At the YMCA!"
In the 1980s, the puppet/human relationship took a very peculiar turn in Flowers's career. Madame got her own sitcom- Madame's Place, in which she played the lead role, interacting with the other actors as if she were human. Flowers was nowhere to be seen. His work as Madame’s voice was the only evidence of his presence & wasn't given credit. Madame, as I always suspected, seemed to take over, overshadowing Flowers until he became literally & figuratively invisible. As a result very little attention was drawn to his personal life. The public did not seem to notice when Flowers died in Hollywood at 48 years old, in1988, a victim of the HIV epidemic. Madame was buried with him.