The Return of a Provincetown Icon
by Steve Desroches
The showroom at the Pilgrim House is quiet. It’s mid-afternoon on a Wednesday and the light streams in through the doors on a pleasant September 1st, the calm before the remnants of Hurricane Ida would blow through. A sparkle of turquoise sequins dots the blackness of the raised stage as a purple feather swirls when the air filters kick on, all artifacts of the drag shows that delight audiences into the fall. Perhaps those orphaned pieces of glamour came from Paige Turner, the drag creation of Daniel Kelley, who’s been putting on the glitz all summer long at the Pilgrim House with the show Joyride. But at this particular moment it’s the Showbiz Spitfire’s other half, New-York-City-based actor Matt W. Cody, who’s soon to take to the stage.
Cody flashes a big smile as he begins to unzip a large duffle bag out of which comes none other than the American entertainment icon Madame, the puppet that, along with her creator Wayland Flowers, took the country by storm 50 years ago. And starting this week, one of the most famous puppets in the world is getting a reboot. Madame with Cody at the helm takes to the spotlight again in Madame: Alive!
There really is no other place than Provincetown to host this revival, as it was here that Wayland Flowers and Madame received the boost they needed for super stardom. Having moved to New York City from his native Georgia in 1963, where he struggled as an actor, but began to show promise as a puppeteer, Flowers developed various puppet characters in the 1960s, including Madame, who, outside of bars and clubs, hadn’t officially made her debut until 1971 when she appeared in the off-Broadway show Kumquats, which was billed as “the world’s first erotic puppet show.”
In the summer of 1972, Wayland Flowers and Madame were booked to perform as an opening act at the Pilgrim House, but they quickly eclipsed the headliners and eventually got top billing. From the chatter of the largely LGBTQ+ crowd the two returned to New York City as celebrities, but played Provincetown most every summer from then until Flowers’ death from AIDS in 1988.
Testament to the talent of Flowers, and the pure genius of Madame’s design, the image of the brassy broad still elicits smiles all these years later. That in part was the catalyst for a new venture between Pilgrim House owners Ken Horgan and Scott Bente and Marlena Shell, Flowers’ longtime manager and close friend who inherited his estate. They created Madame Entertainment, a new company that will oversee the reintroduction of Madame in a variety of ways starting with Madame: Alive! and hopefully going on to act as an incubator of new talent. Indeed part of the magic of Madame is that she seems to be a living and breathing being, but of course she is not. That’s where Cody comes in. He, along with costumer Lorraine Lewis and musical director Mike Flanagan, will bring Madame back to life.
Cody has clear memories of Madame from when he was a little boy growing up in Wisconsin, and in particular of a big laugh he shared with his father generated by the grand dame. “It was about 1980, I think and Wayland and Madame were the center square on Hollywood Squares,” says Cody. “There was a buzzer that would go off when the contestant was out of time, and on this show when it went off Madame pretended she farted. I was only six, so of course I thought it was hilarious. But my Dad also thought it was really, really funny. As a kid you always remember what your parents laughed at. In a way it confirms what as a kid you already knew, that this was hilarious.”
As Cody talks about his life as an actor after years of music composing and conducting, he begins to straighten out Madame’s outfit, a silver lamé and black lace number outfitted with ostrich feathers and rhinestones. He slides his arm up inside the puppet flipping it right side up, sliding his thumb into the jaw and the rest of his fingers in Madame’s phallic nose. Cody takes the two black metallic rods that control the puppet’s hands and suddenly, actually quite suddenly, “it” becomes “she” as Cody controls the movements that are classically Madame and give her that uncanny sense of being a real person.
“Oh hello there, sorry I’m late darling, I was downstairs with my fiancée,” says Madame. “Fiancée is French for the guy I’m f*cking.”
True to form, and the role of Madame’s puppeteer, Cody manages to fully create the character and then lift it out of himself to an inanimate object. As an actor he’s done an extensive amount of voice-over work. And he’s studied every clip he can find of Wayland Flowers and Madame, defining the character voice as somewhere between Lauren Bacall in High Point Coffee commercials in the 1970s and Dame Mae Whitty in the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes. He admits to doing a deep dive into the character. Getting the cadence and quirks of the voice is crucial and “getting the music of Madame” right is central to the success of the show. But there’s more, too. Wayland Flowers and Madame’s stage show was nothing like what you saw on shows like Hollywood Squares, Solid Gold, or even on their own sitcom Madame’s Place. Live, the show was delightfully blue in its material and most definitely openly gay for its time. Cody notes that Flowers and Madame occupied that same in-between space on television that Rip Taylor, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Paul Lynde did, where if you got it you got it, if you didn’t you didn’t. In Madame: Alive!. the central character is very aware its 2021 and will speak of days gone by and what she’s up to now with a decidedly queer, and comedic, bent.
“It’s the art of it, finding the intersection of you and the character,” says Cody, as Madame shakes her head in agreement and scratches underneath her turban. “It’s 2021 and Madame is alive and kicking.”
Madame: Alive! plays at the Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St., Thursday, September 9 through Saturday, September 11 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, September 14 through Thursday, September 16 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($35) are available at the box office and online at pilgrimhouseptown.com.