Today is the birthday of Wayland Flowers (1939-1988). I got an earful from the makers of a ventriloquism documentary a few months back when I opined that Flowers was unjustly excluded from their story. Not having watched him in action for over two decades, I’d forgotten that he wasn’t a vent, but a puppeteer. Because he was always on stage with his creations, the visual impression was similar to a ventriloquist, but he generally didn’t speak himself at his appearances, and he made no attempt to provide an illusion that he wasn’t supplying the puppet’s speech. This technique worked very well on television, because they could just cut to a close-up of the puppet and we wouldn’t see Flowers at all.
His most famous creation (by a wide margin) was “Madame”, a hilarious old pistol of a broad with some kind of vague show biz past and a wicked sense of humor. While Flowers had developed the character in the 60s, it was really during the 2nd half of the 1970s that the pair seemed to be ubiquitous on television variety hours and game shows: especially Hollywood Squares. They were regulars on a 1975 summer replacement series called Keep on Truckin’ . In 1982, Flowers had his own syndicated sit com Madame’s Place.
Sadly, Flowers was taken at age 48 of AIDS related cancer. But there is a legacy! Check it out: In this 1980 clip from Solid Gold, Dionne Warwick does a pretty excellent job feeding lines to Madame:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc