Wayland Parrott Flowers Jr.
November 26, 1939
Dawson, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||October 11, 1988 (aged 48)|
|Resting place||Cedar Hill Cemetery|
|Occupation(s)||Actor, comedian, and puppeteer|
Wayland Parrott Flowers Jr. (November 26, 1939 – October 11, 1988) was an American actor, comedian and puppeteer. Flowers was best known for the comedy act he created with his puppet Madame. His performances as "Wayland Flowers and Madame" were a major national success on stage and on screen in the 1970s and 1980s.
Flowers is frequently cited as a ventriloquist despite the fact that he made no effort to conceal that he was voicing his characters (Madame's infamous opening line was, "You may have noticed Wayland is no ventriloquist and I'm no fuckin' dummy"). He instead preferred to be called an "illusionist," because onlookers tended to focus their attention on his animated puppets, who seemed to do all the talking.
Wayland Parrott Flowers Jr. was born November 26, 1939, in Dawson, Georgia, the second of three children. His father soon shipped off to World War II and was killed, leaving him to be raised in a devoutly religious all-female household, save for his younger brother. There was a neighborhood girl whom he liked to play with dolls with, but this was socially unacceptable for a boy in 1940s Georgia, so he would wrap up the dolls in paper bags, bring them to her house, and they would play in the garage away from prying eyes.
As he reached adulthood, his mother pushed him to go to college, so he spent a year-and-a-half at Young Harris College, transferred to Rollins College, and then dropped out and enlisted in the Coast Guard. While stationed in Connecticut, he traveled to New York City, saw the Broadway productions of Gypsy and West Side Story, and fell in love with the city. He briefly returned to Atlanta, decided he was unhappy there, hitchhiked to New York City with $5 in his pocket, and began living the life of a struggling artist.
Origins of Madame
In a 1982 interview with Armistead Maupin, Flowers remarked that he had never worked with puppets until he landed a job as a puppeteer for Bil Baird's Marionettes show at the 1964 New York World's Fair. In a program created for a memorial at the Center for Puppetry Arts, it was claimed that he had a long history of working with puppets dating back to his early childhood. Regardless, World's Fair coworker Bob Payne noticed Flowers affection for the toys and gave him a puppet which had been created as The Wicked Witch of the West for a production of The Wizard of Oz. He hung her in the closet and found her soulful eyes staring back at him each time he opened the door.
One day, he was sitting in a bar when a doddering little old lady walked in with a little dog on a leash. The bartender picked up the dog and the woman screamed, "Put me down, ya cocksucker!" Flowers was taken aback hearing such language from an old woman, so he struck up a conversation with her and discovered she had been a Ziegfeld girl. He suddenly got the idea to transform the witch into a character loosely patterned after this woman, although he also cited his mother and aunt for inspiring Madame's attitude. (Years after his death, Washington, DC gay icon, waitress and restaurant hostess Margo MacGregor proclaimed herself as the character's inspiration.) Bedecked in fabulous evening wear and "summer diamonds" ("Some are diamonds; some are not"), Madame's look was patterned after movie stars such as Gloria Swanson and Tallulah Bankhead.
When he was between jobs, Flowers began performing street theater for tips, and that's where Madame began her career. If he wanted a drink, he'd go into a bar, prop up the puppet, say, "Buy me a fucking drink," someone would always oblige, and Madame would lipsync to records as Wayland drank. A Greenwich Village bar owner was amused by their antics and offered the duo $20 to sit at her piano and perform, so Wayland quickly concocted an act. He developed double entendres, witty comebacks, and recycled old vaudevillian jokes, which became Madame's schtick. He garnered success in the gay clubs of New York, and eventually debuted Madame Off-Broadway at the Village Gate in 1971's Kumquats, billed as "the world's first erotic puppet show," which also included the "notorious ejaculating Punchinello." The show played 53 performances between November 1971 and January 1972.
His success in New York led him to get booked into The Pilgrim House in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1972, where he continued to perform nearly every season until his death. He was initially booked as a 15-minute opening lounge act, but within a week, he had attracted massive crowds. Madame had been primarily playing to gays, but Wayland found a more diverse audience in Provincetown, where they were treated like major celebrities. "This was an underground act that took root and shot up out of nowhere," Flowers remarked.
Flowers created an elaborate backstory for Madame, which he committed to the page with Gary Simmons in the 1983 book Madame: My Misbegotten Memoirs. In addition to Madame, Flowers featured other puppets in his act that included Crazy Mary (an escapee from Bellevue mental hospital), Jiffy (a Harlem harlot with a heart of brass), Mr. Macklehoney (a crotchety, retired vaudeville comedian), and Michael Honey (a horny old gay man).
Soon after The World's Fair ended, Flowers began dabbling in puppetry on New York television, creating and performing characters on the Aniforms segment of 1965 series The Surprise Show and Captain Kangaroo.
Paul Lynde caught one of his performances in Provincetown and invited Flowers to come to Hollywood, where his career exploded. His first major national TV gig was designing and puppeteering the Baby Smedley puppets (voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas) for the all-star 1974 TV special Free to Be... You and Me, a tie-in with the successful children's album of the same name. According to various sources, he earned a special Emmy Award for his puppets. The same year, Madame appeared in her first TV special for WNEW, Old Is Somebody Else: Aging, Everybody Is Doing It, which garnered Wayland a New York Emmy Award for "Special Use of an Unusual Craft."
In 1975, he and Madame appeared in the sketch comedy show Keep on Truckin'. Debuting as a summer series was enough to prove that the network had little faith in it, but the show was dealt a crippling blow when host Rod Serling died two weeks before the premiere. Serling's segments were removed, and the show lasted a scant four weeks on the air.
The duo soon rebounded as regulars on the 1976 series Andy, a syndicated revival of The Andy Williams Show. This cemented their success, leading to talk show appearances, a small role in the Redd Foxx movie Norman... Is That You?, a long run on the game show Hollywood Squares (replacing Paul Lynde in The Center Square), a featured role on the 1977 revival of Laugh-In, a recurring comedy skit on Solid Gold, TV guest spots, and even regional commercials.
Feeling he could take his act further, he began developing the TV sitcom Madame's Place, which debuted in 1982 and costarred Susan Tolsky, Johnny Haymer, Judy Landers, Corey Feldman and Ty Henderson. The show was serialized, following the day-to-day goings-on of Madame and those closest to her, and featuring celebrities, comedians, and musical acts in a show within a show that she hosted nightly from her mansion. Outside of a shot in the opening credits, Flowers only appeared on-screen once; in "Comedy, Sex, and Pathos," he popped up in drag as inebriated cooking show host Julia Chives.
Production began in August 1982, with the cast and crew working at a breakneck pace to churn out 75 half-hour shows in 26 weeks. In addition to shooting the shows on weekdays, Madame also had a regular gig on Solid Gold, which they'd shoot on Friday nights. It's been alleged that Flowers developed a heavy cocaine habit during the production in an effort to keep up the pace, and that he was often so blitzed that he had to be carried on and off the set of Solid Gold. During an interview on the set of Madame's Place, Armistead Maupin remarked that he'd lost a significant amount of weight. Despite its wide exposure, Madame's Place was initially considered unsuccessful and canceled after one season. However, the show went on to have a long life in daytime reruns on the USA Network.
After the failure of Madame's Place, Flowers kept his Solid Gold gig temporarily, then stepped away from the Hollywood spotlight, focusing more on live venues—but Madame did eventually briefly return to Solid Gold and a revival of The Hollywood Squares.
Flowers was shy and lived vicariously through Madame, who became his constant companion everywhere he went.
Although he has been posthumously cited as one of the first mainstream entertainers who was openly gay, this is untrue. He was well known for performing on the gay circuit, but feared that publicly saying the words "I am gay" would "cost him a million dollars a year." When the Bay Area Reporter's Steve Warren asked about his sexuality in a 1982 interview, Flowers lashed out, asking, "What's the point anyway? Why does everyone have to have a label? I don't know what I am. I've tried everything, although I have my preferences." Further indicating that he struggled with gender dysphoria, Flowers then remarked, "My biggest regret is that I'll never be able to have a baby from my own body, because I'd like to experience that too."
In the years since his death, there have been claims of promiscuity, temperamental behavior, and a snowballing drug habit that led him to alienate friends and associates, but he lived his life outside of the spotlight, which was generally shining on his alter-ego.
In September 1987, Flowers was diagnosed with HIV, but he did not publicly announce his diagnosis and continued to perform. He eventually developed Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer. On September 2, 1988, he collapsed onstage while performing at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. After a brief hospitalization, he returned to his hometown of Dawson, Georgia, where he visited family. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he moved into the hospice Hughes House for palliative care. On October 11, 1988, Flowers died at Hughes House of complications from AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma at the age of 48. His remains were cremated at Grand View Memorial Park & Crematory in Glendale, California, and shipped back to his hometown of Dawson, Georgia, where they were interred at Cedar Hills Cemetery. He went on to be memorialized on The AIDS Quilt, although his name was misspelled as Waylon Flowers.
Following Wayland's death, the Star tabloid reported that Madame was buried with him, a lie that's frequently been repeated. Flowers bequeathed the puppets and his estate to his friend, manager, and ultimately, his caregiver, Marlena Shell.
Debbie Reynolds, a friend of Flowers' who did an impersonation of Madame in her night club act, urged Marlena Shell to let another puppeteer take over soon after Flowers' death, but Shell was too devastated to consider it. Over a decade later, Shell caught wind of impersonators and initially tried to stop them, but ultimately decided to combat them by bringing Madame out of retirement. “I think I waited too long," she remarked, "[but] if I didn’t bring [Madame] back, eventually no one would know who she is.” Shell had been so close to Wayland that she became overprotective of the character and blew through a succession of performers, claiming that they were each trying "to morph Madame into what was comfortable for them," rather than staying true to Flowers' vision.
First was Thom Fountain, the puppeteer for Salem the cat on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who appeared with Madame on a 2003 revival of The Hollywood Squares and at the 25th anniversary of the Center for Puppetry Arts, (where one of the Madame puppets has been permanently on display). Then she hired Jerry Halliday, who featured Madame in his show "Famous Women," which made Shell unhappy because she perceived Madame as a solo headliner.
Next, she hired Joe Kovacs, who spent a year practicing with the puppet and even went to a vocal coach in an attempt to sound more like Flowers before concluding that years of drinking and drugging had lowered Madame's voice. Kovacs debuted the show "It's Madame with an E!" at The Empire Plush Room, a defunct cabaret in San Francisco's York Hotel, in November 2006. The next year, Kovacs appeared with Madame on VH1's I Love the '70s: Volume 2 and the live show "A Comeback from Abroad", which played in San Francisco and New York before he had a falling out with Shell, who hired entertainer Rick Skye to take over. At the same time, Shell sent a cease-and-desist letter to Mark Paquette, a performer who alleged that he was the boyfriend of Flowers and was given the rights to the character. Paquette countered with a $10 million trademark infringement suit against Shell that was later thrown out.
After appearances on several television shows, Skye's performances of "It's Madame with an E!" began November 15, 2008, at Resorts Atlantic City, and later toured the US in 2010. In 2013, Madame found herself on the arm of Gary Holland for a "White Carpet Commentary" in Palm Springs, and the live show "Madame's Back."
Shell made two attempts at crowdfunding, both of which were dismally unsuccessful. In 2012, she proposed the semi-monthly "Madame Show" (AKA "Madame for President"), a YouTube series which was to have featured Madame on the streets of New York, in a studio and on tour. The Kickstarter campaign had a $56K goal but only attained a paltry $345 in pledges. The following year, an IndieGoGo campaign was set up to fund a national tour of "Madame's Back," which fared slightly better but still fell very short, with a $50K goal and $4.855 in pledges.
Several years later, Shell suffered a debilitating stroke and sold Madame's rights to Ken Horgan and his husband, Scott Bente, owners of The Pilgrim House in Provincetown, where Wayland and Madame found their first major taste of success. Shell also provided them boxes of Flowers' belongings that had been packed away for decades, which included lost performances on videotape, scripts, notes, puppets, and much more.
In 2021, Madame made her triumphant return to Provincetown on the arm of Matt W. Cody in "Madame: ALIVE!" Audience members complained that they preferred Kovacs' interpretation of the character. The following year, Horgan pleaded with Kovacs to team up with Madame again, so Kovacs, his life partner, and their cat moved to Provincetown. A new performance of Madame: ALIVE! was staged in July 2022, followed by Madame's Face-for-Radio Holiday Hootenanny in December.
Flowers spent the end of his life in L.A.'s first AIDS hospice, Hughes House, and left money in his will for another to be opened called the Wayland Flowers House. The funds went directly to Hughes House, which was renamed and closed a few months later because its county contract was not renewed, although it was briefly reopened in the early '90s.
Wayland carried numerous Madame puppets on tour with him in case there was a problem or so he could do a quick costume change. In 2015, a puppet that had been in the care of Flowers' former stage manager sold at Julien's Auctions for $12,500. An earlier puppet, who didn't have arms, was featured on a 2022 episode of Antiques Roadshow, and estimated to be valued at $15-$20K.
A third puppet was auctioned off in 1990 by Butterfield's in San Francisco, and sold to an anonymous buyer for $11,000. In 1991, this same puppet went on permanent display at The Museum of Modern Art in a piece by artist Nayland Blake titled "Magic," which featured Madame in an open steamer trunk surrounded by dead flowers.
|1974||Free to Be... You and Me||Baby Smedleys||TV Special|
|1974||Old Is Somebody Else: Aging, Everybody Is Doing It||Madame||TV Special|
|1975||Keep On Truckin'||Madame/Jiffy||4 episodes|
|1976||Andy||Madame/Mr. Mackelhoney/Jiffy||26 episodes|
|1976||Norman... Is That You?||Larry Davenport/Madame||Feature Film|
|1976-1981||The Hollywood Squares||Madame|
|1977||The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast||Madame||Episode: Peter Marshall|
|1977||Disco Fever: 'Saturday Night Fever' Premiere Party||Madame||TV Special|
|1977||The Great American Laugh Off||Madame||TV Special|
|1977||Laugh In||Madame/Jiffy/Crazy Mary||6 Episodes|
|1979||All-Star Secrets||Madame||5 episodes|
|1979||The First Annual Zany Awards||Madame||TV Special|
|1979||Playboy's Roller Disco & Pajama Party||Madame/Jiffy||TV Special|
|1987||The Beatrice Arthur Special||Madame||TV Special|
|1980||All Kindsa Stuff||Madame||TV Special|
|1980||Don Rickles and His Wise Guys||Madame||TV Special|
|1980||Men Who Rate a 10||Madame||TV Special|
|1981||Madame in Manhattan||Madame/Jiffy/Crazy Mary||TV Special|
|1981-1984, 1987||Solid Gold||Madame|
|1982||Madame's Place||Madame/Jiffy/Crazy Mary/Mr. Mackelhoney||Unaired Pilot|
|1982||Madame's Place||Madame/Julia Chives||75 episodes|
|1982||Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade||Madame||TV Special|
|1986-1987||The New Hollywood Squares||Madame|
|2007||An Evening at the Backlot with Wayland and Madame: The Lost Video||Madame/Jiffy/Crazy Mary/Mr. Mackelhoney||Recorded in 1977.|
- AP (October 12, 1988). "Wayland Flowers Dies; Ventriloquist Was 48". The New York Times. Retrieved December 30, 2006.
- Wayland Flowers and Madame, 1977 Uncensored TV
- Wayland Flowers and Madame: An Exhibition Presented by the Center for Puppetry Arts
- Ms. Magazine
- Tell Me About Yourself: How to Interview Anyone, From Your Friends to Famous People
- Wayland Flowers and Madame
- New York Times - Wayland Flowers Dies
- Madame by Armistead Maupin, Interview Magazine, 1982-12: Vol 12 Iss 12
- Montrose Voice, November 4, 1988
- "The Best Little Place on TV" by Steve Warren, Bay Area Reporter, Volume 12, Number 37, 16 September 1982
- Najafi, Yusef (July 26, 2007). "Universal Mother: Saying goodbye to Margo". MetroWeekly. Retrieved June 15, 2023.
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 18, Number 42, 20 October 1988
- 294. KUMQUATS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975
- The Best Plays of 1971-1972
- The Whole Sex Catalogue
- Theatre World, 1971-72
- Wayland Flowers Archives Recently Discovered
- Paradise Palms Celebrity Spotlight: Wayland Flowers
- Internet Archive: Madame: My Misbegotten Memoirs
- Flowers, Wayland (1983). Madame: My Misbegotten Memoirs. Dodd, Mead. ISBN 9780396082347.
- Nevada September-October 1981: Vol 41 Iss 5
- Hatchet 1975-09-22
- TV Party: Aniforms
- Madame and Wayland: Tarts and Flowers
- Kelly's Corner - Madame Returns to Provincetown
- KABC-TV7 (1974) "Free to Be You & Me!" Original Broadcast!!!!
- NY Emmy Awards 19
- Madame for Waterbed Warehouse
- Madame's Place - Episode 44
- Electronic Media 1982-08-26: Vol 1 Iss 13
- True stories of the Fringe
- Find a Death: Wayland Flowers and Madame
- IF: puppet
- Backstage: Madame's coming-out party
- Anderson-Minshall, Diane (March 4, 2013). "Madame's Back and Randy As Ever". The Advocate. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
- US Magazine, March 19, 1990, Letters, Phil Cooper
- Dallas Fort Worth Gay News, Issue 88, 1985/05/11
- Wayland Flowers & Madame interviewed in 1977 by Frank O'Dowd for "Emerald City TV "cable show
- Bits of Memory: Wayland Flowers
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 30, Number 24, 15 June 2000
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 21, Number 48, 27 November 1991
- Jones, Jack (October 12, 1988). "Wayland Flowers; Creator of Risque Puppet Madame". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
- Gilliam, Jerry; Braun, Stephen (October 28, 1988). "AIDS Hospices Bonds Get Tentative OK". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
- "Wayland Flowers Dies; Ventriloquist Was 48". The New York Times. Associated Press. October 12, 1988. Retrieved December 30, 2006.
- Los Angeles County death certificate number 38819045556, registered October 13, 1988 by Donald W. Long, M.D.
- Wilson, Scott (2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3 ed.). McFarland. p. 247. ISBN 978-0-786-47992-4.
- AIDS Memorial Quilt, Block 12
- Ferber, Lawrence (December 23, 2008). "The Divine Miss M." The Advocate. Retrieved November 29, 2013.
- Make 'Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends by Debbie Reynolds
- Madame making return to Vegas
- Puppetry Journal, Fall 2022, Interview: Joe Kovacs
- IMDb Hollywood Squares (TV Series), Episode dated 24 November 2003
- Celebrating 25 years - Center for Puppetry Arts
- Madame’s ready for her risque act
- https://web.archive.org/web/20070313004426/http://www.spincyclenyc.com/theaterdance/060717acomebackfromabroad.php Spin Cycle]
- Will the Real Madame Please Sit Up?
- Resorts Atlantic City website (archived)
- "Tour Dates: "It's Madame with an E"". MadameandMe.com (archived).
- The Old Broad Is Back: White Party ‘Dame’ Madame Speaks to the Independent!
- Madame's Back and Randy as Ever
- Kicktraq - The First Lady of Comedy is Running for President
- Madame Blossoms Again: The Return of a Provincetown Icon
- Madame: ALIVE!,
- Madame Returns to Provincetown
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 18, Number 47, 24 November 1988
- Mario Cecchi Gori
- Lack of Funding Endangers Valley’s Only AIDS Hospice
- Voices That Care: Stories and Encouragements for People With AIDS
- Julien's Auctions, Wayland Flowers Madame Puppet
- Wayland Flowers Madame Puppet, ca. 1972
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 20, Number 27, 5 July 1990
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 20, Number 29, 19 July 1990
- Bay Area Reporter, Volume 21, Number 39, 26 September 1991
- Nayland Blake, Magic, 1990-91
- Goertz, Allie; Prescott, Julia (August 8, 2016). "I Married Marge (with Jeff Martin)" (Podcast). Maximum Fun. Event occurs at 61:28. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
- Spencer, Samuel (May 20, 2022). "'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Season 7, Episode 2 Recap: A Game of Two Snatches". NewsWeek. Retrieved May 20, 2022.