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Wayland Flowers and Madame

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

Wayland Flowers and Madame

Readers may not recognize the name of entertainer Wayland Flowers. But they'll probably know Madame, the sassy puppet he created and voiced for more than 20 years. A cougar before the term was coined, Madame's gift of double entendre and her cackling laughter made her a Las Vegas headliner and popular television guest in the 1970s and '80s.

Flowers was just 48 when he died in 1988 from AIDS-related cancer after collapsing on stage. But Madame lives on, thanks to his gifted puppetry paired with biting humor and skilled storytelling.

"There was only one Wayland Flowers, that's for sure," said Marlena Shell, his last manager and the administrator of his estate. "He was so cutting edge."

Flowers created multiple characters, but it was the "craggy old hussy" Madame that brought him fame, The Associated Press said in his obituary. Madame's glamorous look, featuring shimmering gowns and furs, is based on movie stars such as Gloria Swanson, according to www.retrojunk.com and other websites.

It's unclear if any real person inspired her personality. In a 2007 tribute to gay rights pioneer Margo MacGregor, the D.C. magazine Metro Weekly said MacGregor may have inspired Flowers. ''I've seen the puppet and Wayland Flowers' routine [and] I don't doubt it at all," one of her longtime friends said. "Even some of the stuff in his routine –– he had one where Madame meets Frank Sinatra, and Margo just idolized Frank Sinatra."

Shell theorizes that Flowers, whose father was killed during World War II, may have based the character on the all-female household in which he was raised. (Flowers' mother found his show too racy and only saw him perform live one time, Shell said.) Most likely, she said, Madame was a piece of Flowers himself. He was among "the first openly gay entertainers and helped pave the way for many others to come," according to a March 2013 article on The Advocate website.

"Wayland was a true genius. He managed to touch on so many relevant issues while making us laugh," said Vincent Anthony, executive director of Georgia's Center for Puppetry Arts, which has a Madame puppet on display.

Madame almost never left Flowers' hand, Anthony recalled.

"I remember him performing in Atlanta and going out afterwards and pulling Madame out from nowhere and making the entire crowd outside a restaurant laugh," he said.

Flowers always opened his performances with Madame making the announcement, "He's no ventriloquist and I'm no f---ing dummy." He liked to close with "If you look down and see confetti, you know that the parade has passed you by."

Speaking through Madame allowed Flowers to be a little darker than other comedians of the era. "A puppet can get away with anything where a human can't, even today," Shell said.

One of Flowers' gifts was making Madame appear real. She'd appear to play the piano, then lean over and put her hand under her chin. When Flowers' would twist Madame's head and fix her black eyes at a subject, "it really seemed as if she were staring at you," Shell said. "People would say, 'I can't believe I spent 45 minutes talking to a puppet.'"

The New York Times called Flowers "a ventriloquist." Not so, said Shell. Flowers never disguised the fact that he was giving Madame her voice. Flowers described himself as "an illusionist" in one interview. "I'm right out there on stage beside Madame, but within two or three minutes it seems that I disappear," he said.

Flowers and Madame appeared on television for the first time in the 1960s on The Andy Williams Show. They even had their own sitcom, Madame's Place, which ran for one season in 1982. Jay Leno was one of the young comics who appeared on the show, and Corey Feldman had a recurring role as Buzzy, a nosy kid neighbor. Debbie Reynolds and William Shatner appeared in a skit that featured Madame as a talk show host.

The show, which ran five days a week, came on around 11 p.m. in most markets because "it was racy at that time," Shell said. "There weren't any curse words, just the double entendres he used. They considered him a blue comic. Today, that would be on in the early evening."

But most people probably know them from their longtime run in the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares. They were there when the last show aired in June 1980. The final question on the show, to Madame, was "Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss all lived in the same place. Where did they all live?" Madame's joking answer, according to Flowers' Wikipedia page, was "At the YMCA!" Her second, more serious response was Germany. (The answer is Austria.)

Flowers won two Emmys for his work, one for puppet design and the other for Madame's first TV special, Old is Somebody Else: Aging. Everybody's doing it.

After Flowers died, a "devastated Madame has been in a self- imposed exile for the past several years. 'I stayed in my box for what seemed like an eternity to my many fans, only coming out for the occasional dry martini and foot massage … well a girl can't allow herself go to pot,'" according to the web page www.madameandme.com. (When visitors first go to the site, Madame's voice says, "I love you, Wayland, wherever you are. I think of you every day. It's like you're still inside me."

Most recently, the puppet appeared on Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy and Bravo's Watch What Happens Live! with host Andy Cohen. Shell is working to raise Madame's profile even higher.

"The mystique about her is that people, even today, think she's real. When they write her letters, it's 'Dear Madame,'" Shell said.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."