This Is How Wayland Flowers and Madame Made the ’80s So Gay

Wayland Flowers was one of the first openly gay entertainers to find acceptance in mainstream America. In an era when even Paul Lynde was still in the closet, Flowers hid nothing. In fact, he replaced Lynde as center square on TV’s Hollywood Squares game show.

Flowers also died in 1988, at the first crest of the AIDS crisis. Although the disease was infecting gay men for almost 10 years, 1988 also marked the first time President Ronald Reagan uttered the word AIDS in public.

A Place in Gay History

With his outrageous puppet Madame at his side, Flowers brightened the otherwise drab world of late ’70s and early ’80s television. As he often said through her, “he’s no ventriloquist, and I’m no dummy.”

The campy character of Madame is said to have many inspirations: actress Gloria Swanson is clearly one. Another was a fixture of the Washington D.C. gay scene, a restaurant hostess and waitress named Margo MacGregor. It’s easy to see a tip of the hat to bawdy forebears Sophie Tucker and Tallulah Bankhead. Both of those also informed Bette Midler’s early stage persona.

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Flowers was born in Dawson, Georgia and clearly his Madame was something of a faded Southern belle. After refining his act, Flowers’ made a national splash on The Andy Williams Show (where the Osmonds also got their big showbiz break). From there, Flowers became a regular presence on network TV — although it was not unusual for Madame to get more closeups.

Sending Flowers

Other puppets populated Flowers’ act, but none earned Madame’s notoriety. Among them were a Harlem harlot known as Jiffy, a cranky vaudeville vet named Macklehoney and Crazy Mary, a Bellevue mental hospital escapee.

Sometime in the mid-’80s, Flowers was diagnosed with HIV. He continued performing on such TV shows as Solid Gold until he collapsed onstage during a Las Vegas show at Harrah’s casino. Eventually he developed the skin cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma. He visited his hometown and then checked into an AIDS treatment facility. There, at Hughes House hospice center, Flowers died at 48 years old. His remains were cremated and returned to Georgia.

Madame, however, made a return 10 years after Flowers’s death under the guidance of puppeteer Rick Skye. Flowers continues to be remembered through another character he inspired — Waylon Smithers, the always-sunny neighbor on TV’s The Simpsons.

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Published by
Kevin Phinney

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