Wayland Flowers Archives Recently Discovered
by Steve Desroches
“I’m an illusionist. I’m right out there on stage beside Madame, but within two or three minutes it seems that I disappear.” – Wayland Flowers
That’s how the famed puppeteer often described his performances with the iconic puppet, an act that in large part began here in Provincetown. And it’s in part what made a Wayland Flowers and Madame show pure genius, as indeed very quickly it felt like a solo endeavor with the brassy broad with an ostrich feather boa in the spotlight. What started as a raunchy, late night, explicitly gay show, eventually morphed into a pop culture phenomenon, landing Flowers and Madame on shows like Hollywood Squares and Solid Gold and earning the respect of celebrity royalty like Bea Arthur, Bette Davis, and more. But when Flowers died at the age of 48 in 1988 from AIDS, there was a fear from those who loved him that his legacy would fade and that homophobia and ignorance around HIV and AIDS would eclipse his significant contributions to entertainment in general and LGBTQ culture.
Shy, quiet, and reserved by nature, in some ways Flowers was happy to let Madame do all the talking, using the puppet as armor. And dying so young with still so much more to accomplish, a life cut short in a time of such huge loss for the LGBTQ community, his own legacy felt in peril as so much was left unsaid. But a recent discovery reveals that indeed there is a rich archive of Flowers’ work that, as it’s unpacked, illustrates an incredible historical record of the pioneering puppeteer. Several years ago, Ken Horgan, who along with his husband Scott Bente, owns the Pilgrim House, bought the rights to Madame, as his entertainment venue is where Flowers performed for years in the old Madeira Room. As he was closing the deal in New York City with Marlena Schell, Flowers’ dear friend and longtime manager, she mentioned numerous boxes and materials that she’d packed away shortly after his death and hadn’t looked at since, unsure what was in them. It turned out to be a treasure trove of artifacts, memorabilia, and personal papers that document Flowers’ iconic career and personal life.
“Every time we open a box we’re like ‘holy sh*t,’” says Horgan. “We just can’t believe what we’re finding. Every box we open we just can’t believe it.”
One box contains the original plaster mold used to create Madame as well as early prototypes and sketches, as Flowers developed the design. Others hold original Hollywood Squares scripts with handwritten edits by Flowers. There’s also original art work by Flowers, hundreds of photographs of Madame with celebrity friends, tour schedules, and of course, original and intact Madame puppets and her costumes, as well as other creations like Crazy Mary from his nightclub act and Baby Smedley from his collaboration with Marlo Thomas on the 1974 television special Free to Be…You and Me. All of this and Horgan has only gone through a fraction of the materials packed away for almost 35 years.
All of it is rare, as most of the materials were thought to be lost by historians and researchers working on various projects about Flowers or LGBTQ culture or puppetry, in general. While some artifacts were collected in real time, like the permanent exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta or the items at David Copperfield’s International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas (he considered Flowers a fellow illusionist), an attempt to craft an idea of who Flowers was as a person has been hobbled by the lack of source materials. The sheer volume of this identified archive solves that problem.
Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries is the large volume of materials related to Flowers’ time in Provincetown. Flowers first played Provincetown in the summer of 1972 at the Pilgrim House and would come to the Cape tip almost every season until his death. It was in Provincetown that his popularity took off. Prior to that, he was a hit in the gay clubs of New York City, which led to his booking in Provincetown. But here he had an audience from all over the country, largely gay, but not exclusively. Personally, Flowers also felt at home here, developing close friendships and relationships, and enjoying a locale where neither he nor his material had to stay in the closet. Photos and posters document his time here, but what is really a thrill are the boxes of video tapes that capture Flowers’ nightclub act, including numerous recordings of his performances in Provincetown. Before now, finding video of his adults-only show was rare, with known copies limited to him performing in New York City and West Hollywood. The tapes, which include performances elsewhere in the country, too, are currently being restored and digitized. Audiences this summer in Provincetown will get to see some of the highlights of the old shows in the Madeira Room as Horgan plans to feature clips prior to the start of live shows, including a revival of Madame, who will be brought to life this summer by puppeteer Joe Kovacs, who Horgan has hired for the show Madame: Alive. The archival materials are helping greatly to keep the core spirit of the original magic of Wayland Flowers and Madame, as there is so much of Flowers’ own writing to help craft and fine tune the show.
“I think what is most valuable is a box of handwritten jokes on index cards,” says Horgan. “It’s years worth of jokes. There’s also handwritten jokes on bar napkins. It’s endless. Amazing.”
For more information about the upcoming Madame: Alive show, call 508.487.6424 or visit pilgrimhouseptown.com.