Friday, September 2, 2016

Corresponding with the Fox

Gene Wilder was one of a handful of people I knew I’d have to talk to in order to tell the story of Madeline Kahn, the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning star whom he described to me as his “most talented actress and favorite co-star.”

A lot of fans consider Gene and Madeline one of the all-time-great movie couples. In reality, they made only three pictures together, and in one of those, they don’t share a scene. That’s Blazing Saddles. But Gene was so taken with Madeline that he hung around the set for every single take of her big number, “I’m Tired.”

Afterward, he told Mel Brooks, “If the entire movie is just that one scene, it will be worth the price of admission.” The two immediately started trying to find a part for her in their next movie, Young Frankenstein.

I was keenly aware that, without Gene, I wouldn’t have a book that would be worthy of Madeline herself.

This accounts for some of my eagerness in our first interactions. Something he said when I first wrote to him, led me to believe that he’d be willing to meet face-to-face. So I offered to meet — and Gene’s response nearly exploded out of my laptop. NO, he did not want to see me! He was so skittish that for several nervous minutes I was afraid of losing him altogether.

I wrote back to say that I’d be willing to ask him my questions any way he wanted. Telephone. E-mail. Semaphore. Smoke signals.

He chose e-mail.

As the Fox, outstanding in his field.

At first, Gene seemed a little … terse. He’d write no more than two or three sentences in answer to any question.

Now, my aim in writing my book was to allow the reader to hear voices — not only Madeline’s voice, because I was looking at her first as a singer — but also the voices of the people she worked with. Gene’s answers weren’t what I’d imagined.

Beyond that … was he brushing me off? I picked up his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. And then I understood. This was Gene’s writing style. To the point. Terse, if you will, but in keeping with a man, most of whose writing had been movie scripts.

As I looked over what he’d written to me, and compared it with what he’d said about Madeline in other places, I saw that, so far from brushing me off, he was actually giving me his best material.

I was reminded of one of his early movies, The Little Prince. Gene played the Fox. The Fox can’t be tamed, and he’s very shy. For the first time, I understood: when Gene played the Fox, he was typecast. And so I tried to keep myself at a distance where he’d be comfortable with me. He signed his notes “Gene,” but I never addressed him as “Dear Gene.” Maybe that was a mistake, but it’s too late now to undo it.

Over the years, he continued to give me his best material, always answering me promptly. I seldom had to wait more than an hour for a reply to any of my questions.

He was fastest when I wrote to get his response to Mel Brooks, who insisted, even as I objected, that Gene and Madeline must have had an affair. Quite a few fans still believe this. Madeline herself, Gene had told me, thought it was a good idea. His own stepdaughter believed it to be true. And now Mel — who knew both Madeline and Gene well — told me he couldn’t believe it wasn’t true.

Yet again, Gene’s reply exploded out of my computer. This time in ALL CAPS. NO, he and Madeline never had an affair!

“I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!”

When it came time to solicit endorsements for the back cover of the book, Gene obliged. I wrote to thank him, and I never heard back. His birthday rolled around about six weeks after the book was released; I dropped him a note. I didn’t hear back.

Maybe he didn’t like the book, I thought — despite the evidence that he had liked it. (I promise you, my publisher didn’t put a gun to his head when they asked for his endorsement.) Maybe he figured that my book was finished, and therefore that was the end of it.

Or maybe he was only a little more than a year away from death.

Reading his obituary, I realize that our later correspondence followed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He must have known that each note to me represented a last chance to express his feelings for a dear friend, whom he missed quite painfully.

He was a helluva guy. Gene was very, very ambitious for himself. But he loved his friends. He made them his co-stars. And he did everything he could to make them look as good as possible.

He wrote The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother specifically for Madeline — and Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, and himself. Every one of them gets a chance to shine. You see a similar generosity in the scripts he wrote for Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner, too. This was a man who truly cared about the people he worked with.

If you haven’t seen Smarter Brother, I hope you’ll do so soon. It was the first picture Gene wrote and directed, and he also stars. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a beautiful tribute — to Madeline — to Marty — to Dom — and to Gene himself.

Now, Gene didn’t write a movie for me. But he did what he could to help me. And make no mistake — that, too, was his tribute to Madeline.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Madeline Kahn’s ‘Safe Place’ in Santa Fe

Madeline Kahn as Esperanza, Queen of the Gypsies,
in Lucky Luke,
just one of her projects in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe probably isn’t the first place you associate with Madeline Kahn, the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning star of Blazing Saddles, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, and Clue, who died in 1999. She’s got more obvious connections to Hollywood and Broadway — and if you’re a true maven, you might mention San Francisco, where she filmed High Anxiety and What’s Up, Doc? But while writing her biography, I discovered that Santa Fe was almost a second home, the “safe place” (a phrase used by everyone I spoke with) where she could take artistic risks, reconnect with family, and restore her spirits.

I already knew she’d come to town once. In 1982, a classmate appeared with her at the Santa Fe Festival Theater. Founded by seasoned professionals from Back East — Thomas Gardner, Christopher Beach, and Robert Wojewodski — in the belief that the home of a world-class opera festival could also sustain a theater festival, the Festival Theater would over the course of five seasons welcome established stars (Michael York, Lily Tomlin) and newcomers (Kelsey Grammer) to the Armory on Old Pecos Trail — whenever possible in repertory that challenged them or defied audience expectations of them.

Typecast since college, Madeline found this approach irresistible. She helped with fund-raising and appeared in two productions. The first, Amerika, in the company’s second season, was also Madeline’s first musical since 1978, when she was fired from On the Twentieth Century. That experience shook her; she never performed in another fully staged musical in New York. But with a trusted director, Robert Allan Ackerman, she lent her classically trained voice to the premiere of Yoram Porat’s adaptation of Kafka’s novella, with music by Shlomo Gronich.

“I don’t think Madeline would have done Amerika anywhere but Santa Fe,” Ackerman says, calling her “kind of a frightened person. I think being there made her feel calm and secure. She enjoyed being surrounded by friends who really cared for each other.”

Unlike some theater festivals, the Festival Theater seldom attracted national attention, but Madeline received favorable coverage in the local press. At every performance, co-star Scott Burkholder remembers, “She would take a bow and the audience would go crazy.” Encouraged, Madeline prepared to take more risks the next season, in Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Rather than playing Elvira, the disruptive ghost, Madeline took the role of the addled medium, Madame Arcati. She’d be terrific in the part today, but in 1983, at age 40, “She was actually too young to do it,” Ackerman says. “She certainly had the eccentricity, but it was a different kind of energy.”

“She was kind of all over the place — in a wonderful way,” recalls co-star Victor Garber, her longtime friend. “You never knew what you were going to get.” Moreover, she was wearing old-age makeup — opposite the stunning Amy Irving as Elvira — something else Madeline never would’ve risked where casting directors might see her.

Class act: Backstage at Blithe Spirit
with Amy Irving and Perry Ellis,
who designed the costumes.

For the 1984 season, Madeline couldn’t rejoin the company: production had begun on her first sitcom, Oh Madeline. And in 1985, the Festival Theater folded, ending a brief, fascinating chapter in the history of the city’s performing arts.

But these weren’t Madeline’s first or only stays in Santa Fe. In 1979, she began coming to visit her aunt, Virginia Lewisohn Kahn, who summered here; over the years, Madeline grew closer to her cousins than to other members of a family splintered by multiple divorces. Ginny Kahn recalls that, though she’d followed Madeline’s career faithfully, only in Santa Fe did she realize, “My God, Madeline’s become famous!”

Madeline frequently attended Santa Fe Opera and socialized with singers. According to legend, when a soprano fell ill, Madeline considered stepping into the role of Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. In 1970, Bohème had been the vehicle for her first and only professional operatic engagement; one critic faulted her “educated shrieks.” That she’d even think about returning to Musetta is another indication of how safe her “safe place” seemed.

Later, her college classmate Charles Ludlam staged two productions with Santa Fe Opera, raising the possibility that together they would bring Offenbach’s Grand Duchess of Gerolstein to town. But Ludlam died in 1987, and the project went unrealized.

Madeline’s last job in Santa Fe again took her out of her comfort zone: she guest-starred in a TV series, something she usually avoided. For the Western spoof Lucky Luke, shot at Bonanza Creek Ranch in 1992, Madeline played a Gypsy fortune-teller. With a parrot on her shoulder and a purposefully vague accent, she had a grand time — and effectively paid for another visit with her aunt.

“Santa Fe is beautiful, and I’m moved by what I see and how I feel here,” Madeline once told an interviewer. This city is famed for its effect on musicians, writers, and artists: it works on actors, too. It’s no wonder Madeline kept coming back.

William V. Madison will talk about Madeline and Santa Fe
at Collected Works Bookstore
on Monday, August 29 at 6:00 pm.
Admission is free.

Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse
202 Galisteo St., Santa Fe

With Julie Hagerty in Lucky Luke.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Hanna Burke on “Why Is Everyone Laughing?”

Who is this girl?
Hanna Burke performs “I’m Tired” at the Met Room.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I had never met Hanna Burke before Joseph Macchia, the producer of our “Gone Too Soon” tribute last September, brought her to us. We were told that she had been thinking of putting together her own Madeline-themed cabaret act, and that she wanted to sing “I’m Tired,” Madeline’s signature number from Blazing Saddles. I figured the girl must have either colossal talent or colossal chutzpah, and when she launched into the song during the mic check, the afternoon of our show, I had only to look at the enraptured expression on Joan Copeland’s face to see that Hanna Burke had both talent and chutzpah. “Who is that girl?” Joan wanted — we all wanted — to know. Without slavish imitation, Hanna at once evoked Madeline and made the song her own.

Inspired by meeting Joan, Walter Willison, Michael Cohen, and Lawrence Leritz (all of whom worked with Madeline), Hanna began planning in earnest for her Madeline Kahn act. Indeed, I saw a glimmer of Madeline’s own background. Like Madeline, who began her career by performing at the Upstairs at the Downstairs club, Hanna works at the Metropolitan Room (the setting for our “Gone Too Soon” tribute). Both young women — at roughly the same age — can watch other performers, learning from them. Madeline used to sneak into the Downstairs room to watch solo artists like Mabel Mercer and Joan Rivers, both of whom fascinated her.

Meanwhile, Hanna’s copy of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life grew battered, bristling with Post-It notes to mark its pages, and the show took shape. Calling it “Why Is Everybody Laughing?” (after Madeline’s perpetual question on the set), Hanna unveiled the show on June 24 at Don’t Tell Mama. Now she’s returning to the Metropolitan Room for a second go-round on July 17. This seemed an excellent opportunity to ask who this girl is, and to share her answers with you.

Artiste and author:
Hanna Burke with WVM at Don’t Tell Mama.

Q: How did you come up with the idea to do this show?

HB: Actually, it was from seeing another cabaret at the Metropolitan Room. It was this gentleman who did a tribute to a musical theater composer. It was just this flawless accumulation of songs, stories, very flowing. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen since working at the Metropolitan Room. It really caught my eye, and I thought, “That’s the kind of show I want to do.” I asked myself who do I want to do, and then I thought, Madeline Kahn, of course! It’s kind of a random way to decide it, but when I thought of doing it on Madeline, it completely made sense, and I was shocked that I never thought of it before. I grew up watching her, and mimicked or imitated or memorized all of her lines in movies throughout my childhood, and my adulthood now, too. It was a weird way to get the idea, but once I got it, it made perfect sense.

Q: There are places where your rep intersects, too, aren’t there?

HB: Like Madeline, I started singing operatically. Also, even before that, the reason I’m doing musical theater today, is seeing Young Frankenstein as a musical. Obviously, it was not Madeline [onstage], but seeing that role brought to life in a musical form was the light bulb moment I had, where I realized this was what I wanted to do. Immediately after that, I walked out of the theater and said, “That’s what I want to do.” My parents were like, “Are you sure?”

I went to college and studied operatic singing at first, which was not necessarily on purpose. The school I went to didn’t have a musical theater program. But I think I did want to be trained legit anyway, just because singing opera is the piano of instruments, it’s the basis of all technique. That’s kind of where my voice fit in and has stayed. I don’t do a lot of pop and contemporary stuff. I don’t really work in that kind of — I can fake it real well, but it’s just not where my voice lies. So then I transferred to a musical theater conservatory. The first comedic song that I was assigned — they had kept me doing ballads and legit, because that’s what I was trained in. It was perhaps the same way that Madeline was working at the Upstairs at the Downstairs, or when she met Michael Cohen, she was doing more legit stuff, but at some point he realized that she was hilarious, and she went into that direction. Kind of the same thing happened with me, I was singing serious legit ingénue songs, and then they would see me being silly with classmates. So my teacher said, “Try this,” and he gave me “The Cookie Chase” from Anyone Can Whistle. I listened of course to Madeline’s version of “The Cookie Chase,” and I was very excited that she had done it already.

From then on, they continued to give me more and more comedic stuff, just to see what I could do. It just is what I work in today, is that character acting type of thing.

Also a few semesters later, everybody at school knew that I loved Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn. I could not shut up about it and they were like, “Yes, Hanna, we know.” Not that I ever had mentioned it to teachers, really, I was assigned in an acting class several scenes from The Sisters Rosensweig, and they cast me as Gorgeous. Which was very fun. I wish that I could see the video at Lincoln Center Library. I obviously didn’t have that when I was in L.A. Once I researched it, I found it very exciting that Madeline originated that role. It kind of gave me an idea of how — not that I’m trying to copy her — but an idea of how she played it. I don’t think I did it exactly the way she did, but it was fun to think about that.

Q: Where are you from?

HB: Originally, I am from Maui, Hawaii. Then I grew up for the second half of my grade-school years in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Tough life! Very secluded.

Q: Surrounded by gorgeous scenery your entire life!

HB: Yes. Growing up, I never, ever ever sang or did any type of theater. I played instruments, saxophone and piano. So it was quite a shock to people when I went to college at Oregon State University and became an opera major, when I had never sung in front of anybody in my entire life.

Q: Had you seen opera before?

HB: No. Ridiculous! I have tried several times and never gotten tickets. I need to try more — I just don’t have the time. If you ever are looking at something, please let me know. The irony of my life — two ironies, one that I’m afraid of water, having grown up on islands, and two that I’m an opera major and have never seen an opera. Perhaps that’s just because I went more toward the legit side of musical theater, and I’ve been putting more focus on that. Even though Broadway seems to be more into pop nowadays.

Q: Where was the conservatory?

HB: The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. There’s an L.A. campus and a New York campus; I went to the L.A. campus. I ended up going there because Oregon State didn’t have a musical theater program, and that’s what I really wanted to do. Then I got there and all my teachers were pushing me to get my masters in opera. I was there for three years. Then I went home for a summer and moved to New York after never, ever being here before. I don’t know what I was thinking! I certainly had my meltdown. I had traveled to Europe and other countries and have never had culture shock, until I moved here. That was for a lot of reasons. It was the first time I didn’t have any sort of adult figure or school to fall back on, I was by myself for the first time in a foreign city, with stories that were probably from the ’70s and ’80s that I had heard were terrifying. I describe my experience like snowboarding. The first two days are a disaster, and by the third day you’re fine. By my third day here, I was set, and ready to go.

Q: What are you trying to do with the show?

HB: I think it’s become a way to bring Madeline back, especially for my generation to make her — not relevant, I guess, but almost introducing her or reintroducing her to my generation, because I feel like she got kind of lost in the shuffle. Everybody knows Bernadette Peters and other comedians from the ’70s, but often in my generation I say to people, “Do you know who Madeline Kahn is?” And they say, “I don’t know,” and I say, “She’s Mrs. White in Clue,” and then they go, “Oh, I love Madeline Kahn.” She hasn’t been around for almost 20 years now, but she was such a huge part of my growing up, and she is still funny in today’s terms, absolutely. She really deserves to be brought up and introduced to today’s generations. Also, I just love her. Doing the show, I can’t think of anything more fun.

A Tribute to Madeline Kahn

Sunday, July 17 at 9:30 pm
(Doors open at 9:00)
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10010
For reservations, call 212-206-0440
Or click here.

Friday, April 29, 2016

In Search of ‘Comedy Tonight’

A few years later: Klein on SNL.
There are no pictures floating around the Internet from Comedy Tonight, and precious few of Klein as a young man. (Naturally I couldn’t take pictures off the monitor at the Paley Center — that’s all kinds of wrong in an archive.)

Only at the end of the last episode of Comedy Tonight, on 21 August 1970, did Robert Klein get around to introducing the cast of his show. After eight weeks, this was the first chance viewers had to get to know anything about the regulars, most of whom were relative unknowns. It’s also the first acknowledgment that one co-star, Peter Boyle, starred in a hit movie that year — Joe. When at last Madeline Kahn appears (“Hiya, boss!”), she and Klein canoodle for a long moment, whispering and giggling. The microphones don’t pick up their voices clearly, yet it’s impossible to miss the intimacy they share.

At his insistence, she does “that thing I love”: announcing “The Bobby Klein Show” in a high-pitched Noo Yawk accent and a Sylvester the Cat-style sputtering. Madeline warns the audience, “I have a degree in speech therapy, so I can do this.” (“Tastefully?” Klein inquires. “Well….” Madeline’s voice trails off.) Once she’s finished her truly silly bit of business, Klein announces, “Richard Rodgers saw her do that one night and signed her for his new show, which is called Two by Two, on Broadway this October.”

It had been a long, strange trip. A summer replacement for CBS’ hugely popular Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour — and a forerunner of the “rural purge” that overhauled the network’s programming a short time later — Comedy Tonight strives to be urbane, a smarter Laugh-In, with thematic arrangement of topical satire, delivered in blackout sketches — to the appreciative chortles of a laugh track. The writers and producers, chastened by the example of the Smothers Brothers, on the same network, didn’t want to ruffle anyone’s sensibilities. Apart from Klein’s peerless monologues, the bulk of the material hasn’t aged well.

But it has survived.

Klein nowadays.

No one was more shocked by this news than Klein himself, who believed for decades that all the tapes were destroyed when producer Joe Cates’ basement flooded. Yet the entire series — eight episodes — can be found in the collections of the Paley Center for Media here in New York, and I recently watched some familiar, impossibly young talents who more than earned the canned applause they received.

When Comedy Tonight was announced, only Klein, Madeline, and Peter Boyle had signed up. Newspapers took note that Klein and Madeline had worked together in New Faces of 1968, and that Klein and Boyle had performed Candide together in Corpus Christi, Texas. (No one seemed to remember that Madeline sang Cunegonde in the same concert, conducted by Maurice Peress.) Soon enough, though, the rest of the cast signed up.

Judy Graubart had worked with Madeline at the Upstairs at the Downstairs, and she’d worked with Klein, Boyle, and another cast member, Lynn Lipton, at Second City. Jerry Lacy had just finished playing Bogey in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam on Broadway (and he’d play it again, himself, in Herbert Ross’ film adaptation in 1972) and was a regular on Dark Shadows. Boni Enten was in the original cast of Oh, Calcutta!, and the stunningly beautiful Laura Greene, the only black person in the cast, had starred in Putney Swope. I wasn’t familiar with Marty Barris (not to my taste, once I saw him) or MacIntyre Dixon (quite good), but Barbara Cason’s acerbic delivery has enlivened more shows than I can count.

The series begins (July 5, 1970) by announcing what sort of show it will not be, offering quick-take parodies of Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, Hee-Haw, The Johnny Cash Show, and conventional show-biz variety programs such as “The Bobby Klein Show” (where Madeline, as “the fabulous singer, Miss Connie Lane,” blatantly lip-syncs as she falls behind the audio track). The parodies are pretty mild: Laugh-In and Hee-Haw recognizable mainly thanks to their respective peek-a-boo shutters and fake cornfield, and Graubart dons a Cleaning Woman costume to introduce her guest star (Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, who sings “Spinning Wheel”).

Once that’s out of the way, Klein sings a goodbye song — 15 minutes into the program. Viewers in 1970, unaccustomed to such rule-breaking, must have freaked. “What? It’s over already?”

For the next 45 minutes — and really, for all eight episodes — Comedy Tonight will try to establish what sort of show it will be. Every episode will open with a couple of quick sketches, followed by the ensemble singing Sondheim’s eponymous song; around the middle of the hour, Klein will deliver an extended monologue. Sketches will be organized thematically, with two-part titles (“SPORTS: BASEBALL”) superimposed over a brightly psychedelic background. Sets are minimal, mostly a darkened soundstage. And while the material does remain smarter than most other variety television of the period, you can almost feel the writers’ and performers’ desire to break free.

Graubart the Great as Julia Grownup on The Electric Company.
Minus the emphasis on vocabulary and spelling, many sketches on Comedy Tonight are reminiscent of PBS’s zanier programming from the 1970s, and Julia would have fit right in with Klein & Co.

The first theme, for example, is “SOCIETY: RADICAL CHIC,” and Madeline and Klein play a wealthy couple who are throwing a party for “the poor.” The writing probably wouldn’t have passed muster at Saturday Night Live in its heyday, but it’s worth noting that Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” in a New York magazine essay that had appeared one month before the episode aired — June 8, 1970. Was Middle America supposed even to know what these words meant?

Especially given the Smothers’ experience at CBS, there’s a certain boldness to the frequent appearances of characters dressed as hippies, of characters protesting, of the ensemble performing “The Age of Aquarius” (once correctly, once as a parody of a campaign song for Nelson Rockefeller), and to Oh, Calcutta! itself. A character played by Madeline pickets the all-nude play, describing it as “a blatantly sexist show that treats women as inferiors. …Just tell me why the men’s costumes are different from the women’s!” A two-part study of U.S. Senator Herbert Mildew Dullman (Boyle) mostly mocks political image-making (a consultant immediately renames then-candidate Dullman “Ted”). While there’s no hint of the Senator’s party affiliation — sure, the sketches do qualify as political satire. (Boyle would play a campaign manager in The Candidate two years later.)

But the Vietnam War is never mentioned, not even in a series of sketches (featuring guest star Fred Willard) set in an army headquarters, and the attitude toward hippies is perhaps best encapsulated in an anodyne song, “Summer Is,” performed by almost the entire cast, dressed in Summer of Love outfits — and Boyle, dressed as a cop. The show’s commitment to its own tokenism goes only so far: Greene is scarcely used and doesn’t appear in every episode (though Willie Tyler and his puppet, Lester, are guests a few times). The material is bolder than that of New Faces of 1968, but that’s not saying much.

A dash of surrealism pervades three sketches that find Klein in three cities: Washington, Hollywood, and New York’s Madison Avenue. Walking along a hallway (and the Avenue) he opens doors or runs into various characters that illustrate the foibles of government, moviemaking, and advertising. The satire could go further, but the set-up and execution represent a worthy midpoint between Ernie Kovacs and Monty Python (think of the Argument Clinic). [In the Hollywood sequence, the actor playing a boy director (“I’m 8½!”) is Steven Paul, who grew up to direct Madeline in Slapstick (Of Another Kind).]

When Comedy Tonight succeeds best, it targets the timeless — that which will never change or that which is already finished. The “radical chic” couple reappears as “Beautiful People” (to the strains of the Melanie song), and in this age of the One Percent, their attempts to understand the underprivileged are semi-quaint, semi-refreshing. A series of sketches on one-upping attacks human behavior that predates history. (When Cason tries to make Madeline feel as if she visited only the most ordinary sites in Europe, Barris intervenes and advises her to make up names. Madeline eagerly begins to speak of “the running of the chickens in Sedilla,” while Cason trades her condescension for dismay.)

The recurring character of Klein’s best friend, Peter Chalker (Boyle, in a toupée), will ring true to anyone who’s ever struggled to find something nice to say to a friend who’s in an underwhelming show — or anyone who’s ever performed in an underwhelming show and had to endure the awkward “compliments” and “encouragement.” The routines display some nicely understated character work from Boyle, too.

1970 was a big year for Peter Boyle. He’s seen here in the title role in Joe.

From the August 7 episode, a long series of sketches — presumably the daytime TV shows being watched by a housewife (Graubart) — may have lost some of its relevance only because there are so few lineups any more that resemble the old-time fare of soap operas, old movies, game shows, re-run sitcoms, and a perfunctory news report. In each of the soap operas (including the vampire soap “Strangest Shadows”), the plot is identical: one character doesn’t know the other character is his long-lost relative; one character has only three months to live.

In the August 2 episode, “MAN AGAINST: RESTAURANTS” satirizes the expense and the jockeying for position among diners at an exclusive French restaurant. Dixon and Lipton have come to celebrate an anniversary — it’s been one year since they could afford to eat here — while Madeline’s One Percenter, Poopsie, breezes right past them on the waiting line and has already finished her meal before they can order.

Madeline returns in a later sketch, depicting the restaurant’s floor show: the cabaret star “Fraulein Lotta Anguish.” To a lilting operetta-style melody, Madeline sings of “When times were good in old Vienna.” But fortunes changed — “Ptui, how the market declined!” — and the number turns into a Weill-flavored anthem. “The Danube was blue, and we were, too!” (The fingerprints of Tony Geiss, a staff writer for the show and the lyricist of “Das Chicago Song,” are all over this piece.) When things were rotten in Old Vienna, “Ve ate garbage!” Madeline shrieks, reciting the disgusting food in such detail that a wealthy diner (Klein) ultimately flees the restaurant. Klein has said that this number was his favorite of Madeline’s contributions to Comedy Tonight.

Perhaps the most successful of the topical sketches is “Miss Extremist 1970,” a beauty pageant hosted by Klein. The three finalists are “Miss Violent Overthrow” (Enten), “Miss Women’s Lib” (Barris, in a dress), and the reactionary “Miss Love It or Leave It” (Madeline, in an Uncle Sam costume). “Miss Love It” burns books for recreation and is studying to repeal the law of evolution; when she senses that she’s not going to win this year, she remarks with innocent-seeming menace to the host, “Klein isn’t exactly an American name, is it?”

Finally, I found truly prescient one series of sketches, “TELEVISION: NEWSCASTERS,” which shows a news executive (Boyle) firing his anchors in favor of a more entertaining program. Now the anchor is a standup (Barris), the weather report is a soap opera (“Outlook for Tomorrow”), novelist Jacqueline Susann is the gossip reporter from Washington, and George Jessel reports live from a crime scene. The film Network wouldn’t be released until 1976.

“The number you have dialed is not in service.”
Madeline played the voice of a thermostat in one sketch.

As I say, Comedy Tonight ends with a glimpse of the real-life rapport between Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein, and it’s not the only one: at the end of “Summer Is,” for example, he reclines beside her, and giggling playfully, she drops her hat over his face. Comedy Tonight wasn’t the first time they’d worked together — it wasn’t even the first time they’d appeared on television together — and it certainly wasn’t the last. Klein would be Madeline’s most frequent partner. He would bring her back for a TV special, and together they won acclaim on Broadway in The Sisters Rosensweig. In the film Mixed Nuts, they played unlikely lovers, and if Madeline had survived, Klein would have joined the cast of the show Cosby to play her love interest once again.

The Paley Center just happens to have the Cosby episode in which Klein guest stars, so I followed up Comedy Tonight with the final teaming of Kahn and Klein, “A Very Nice Dance.” He plays a detective on a stakeout in her café; she believes that he’s spending so much time there because he likes her. He does like her — but when the stakeout leads to a bust, she thinks she misunderstood his intentions.

Embarrassed, she sends him away, and only the intervention of Hilton Lucas (Cosby) can bring them together. He plays the record to which he and his wife (Phylicia Rashad) first danced on the night they met, and soon Madeline and Klein are in each other’s arms.

Three decades had passed since New Faces, and they weren’t fresh-faced kids any more. Yet the intimacy had endured. The episode ends with a shot of the whole street dancing — but in the foreground, as they should be — hardly past the front door of Hilton’s house, as if they couldn’t bear to break the spell that began indoors — are Madeline Kahn and her dear friend.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

‘From Broadway to Hollywood’ at the Grove B&N

I’m pleased to announce the first event in Los Angeles (or anywhere else on the West Coast) in connection with Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life: “From Broadway to Hollywood,” a panel discussion on Madeline’s life and work featuring friends and colleagues, moderated by author Eddie Shapiro (Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater). We’ll be at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove on Wednesday, February 10, at 7pm.

Confirmed participants include:

Robert Allan Ackerman, who directed Madeline in a musical adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika and in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Santa Fe Festival Theater in 1982–83.

Maris Clement, a member of the ensemble of On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 Broadway musical that nearly wrecked Madeline’s career (yet earned her a Tony nomination).

Julie Dretzin, a co-star of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, for which Madeline received the Tony for Best Actress in a Play in 1993;

Michael Karm, a co-star of the Broadway musical Two by Two, and also Madeline’s acting coach for her first film roles, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Paper Moon;

J.D. Lobue, director of every episode of the sitcom Oh Madeline, her first foray into series television.

Each of our participants (and, for that matter, Eddie’s interview with Judy Kaye in Nothing Like a Dame) helped me tremendously while I researched the book. They shared memories, filled in blanks, and generally helped me to understand not only what Madeline did, but also why she did it. I began to see Madeline more clearly as a working actor, and also as a person.

Beyond that — they’re all really nice people. So if you’re in the L.A. area — come on by. Admission is free, and there will be a book signing afterward.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Talking about Madeline at the 92nd Street Y

Madeline as Trixie Delight, the film role of which she was proudest —
until she played Alice Gold in Judy Berlin.


On Monday, January 25, at noon, I’ll be at New York City’s 92nd Street Y to join interviewer extraordinaire Valerie Smaldone and three sensational actresses to discuss the life and work of Madeline Kahn. Valerie also acts, and I can hardly think of four women I’d rather talk with about the career of an actress — I expect I’ll learn a lot.

Like Madeline, Barbara Barrie was an Oscar and Tony nominee with a lifetime’s worth of credits when she signed on to co-star in Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin. Working with a young director on his first feature film, in no-frills conditions proved challenging to both actresses. Shooting at night in the cold November weather, Barbara nearly froze: she remembers still shivering even when she got home in the mornings. Her performance went on to earn her an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

Barbara Barrie.

Barbara’s son Aaron plays Madeline’s son in the film — and there’s another family tie, of which I was unaware when I interviewed her for my book: Barbara’s husband, the late Jay Harnick, produced three stage musicals in which Paula Kahn appeared (or claimed to).

Maddie Corman played Madeline’s niece — and George C. Scott’s daughter — in the Fox sitcom Mr. President in 1987–88. As a teenager working with seasoned veterans, she was all eyes and ears on the set, observing and absorbing everything around her. One happy result of her experience: she does a flawless impression of Madeline.

Maddie Corman.

Madeline hadn’t worked with a child actress since Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, and the working relationship she and Maddie set the tone for later relationships with younger colleagues. Madeline never condescended but approached Maddie as a peer, praising her when she did well, even asking, “How did you do that?” when she admired a particular scene.

Like Maddie, Ally Sheedy was a Madeline Kahn fan even before they worked together, and both began acting when they very young. Ally met Madeline when they co-starred in Alan Alda’s Betsy’s Wedding, and they bonded when bad weather prolonged location shooting in North Carolina. They spent hours talking and taking long walks. The all-star cast of Betsy’s Wedding had opinions on how to do everything, which complicated Alda’s attempts to realize his artistic vision — and probably tried his patience, too.

Ally Sheedy.

The movie marked a reunion for Madeline with Julie Bovasso, who (until she was fired, days before opening) directed her in David Rabe’s Boom Boom Room, for which she received her first Tony nomination. Bovasso was an acclaimed acting teacher, and when Madeline decided to take classes with her, Ally went along — affording her an opportunity to contrast Bovasso’s “huge, volcanic” acting style with Madeline’s more intimate approach.

After the panel discussion, I’ll be signing copies of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, and proceeds from book sales will benefit Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. For more information and to order tickets, click here.

Our host, Valerie Smaldone.

Friday, September 25, 2015

When Madeline Met Big Bird

On the set: stage manager, Madeline, Gardner, Big Bird, & Kermit Love.
Photo courtesy of Rob Gardner.

Madeline Kahn appeared on Sesame Street several times, beginning in 1977. “Sing After Me,” her duet with Grover the Muppet, stands as one of her most charming performances, and it reunited her with Tony Geiss, lyricist for “Das Chicago Song,” her signature number from Green Mansions, Upstairs at the Downstairs, and New Faces of 1968. (She would perform Geiss’ material again in Don Bluth’s animated film, An American Tail.) But singing with Grover revealed a persistent problem in Madeline’s work with the Muppets: she tends to look over the puppet’s head, rather than fixing it straight in the ping pong-ball eyes.

That wasn’t a problem for her in 1981, when she appeared as an extremely avid birdwatcher in a few scenes with Big Bird, who (unsurprisingly) towers over her. A few clips from that episode (Number 1576, according to the Muppet Wikia) have appeared online, and they resonate today in ways nobody can have expected, 24 years ago: it turns out that Big Bird really doesn’t like being under constant surveillance.

I sat down recently with Rob Gardner, who was Big Bird’s “valet” during Madeline’s 1981 appearance — by which he means that he took care of the costume, helped Muppeteer Carol Spinney in and out of it, kept fans from plucking its feathers, and sometimes wore it himself, as a stand-in and model in still photos. Though writers didn’t spend much time on the set, Gardner even got to meet Tony Geiss, “a lovely guy” who went out of his way to help the Muppeteers in their work.

In those days Jim Henson was often in England, shooting The Muppet Show, “but I remember when Jim would come in, it was like the pope had arrived.” Tasked one day with spraying the rods that operate Kermit the Frog’s arms, “I was very nervous that I was going to slip and just blacken out Kermit’s face.” Later, Henson complimented one of Gardner’s puppets: “It was just like being blessed!”

Madeline’s fellow birdwatcher, Cedric, is played by the late Richard Hunt, a puppeteer and aspiring actor.

Gardner’s entrée to Sesame Street was an invitation from a puppeteer named — believe it or not — Kermit Love, whom he’d met at a puppet festival in San Luis Obispo in 1977. “There was no promise of a job,” Gardner remembers. “I was just going to come to New York for three months and check things out.” His first day hanging out at the Sesame Street set, the guest star was James Earl Jones. “It was like, Okay, this is great,” Gardner says, and for the next three months, he continued just to hang out. An experienced puppeteer already, he gradually got to know the Sesame Street Muppeteers. Then one day, when Big Bird was scheduled for location shooting all over Manhattan, Kermit Love decided he “didn’t want to get up early in the morning, so they hired me to take care of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus,” Gardner says. It was the start of a four-year gig. “It was magic.”

When Madeline came to shoot Sesame Street, “I didn’t really speak to her,” Gardner says, “because when you’re on set, you don’t want to be a gushing fan. You have to be very quiet. I just remember there was very little rehearsal, but she was just so very charismatic. She has a line where she sees Big Bird for the first time, and she goes, ‘He’s a very, very big bird!’” He laughs. “It had this sexual overtone to it, and it was just wonderful.”

Madeline meets the Canary Brothers.

During the episode, Madeline sings another Tony Geiss number, “Brown Bird in the Cherry Tree,” live on the set to a prerecorded track. She’s joined by the Canary Brothers — Gummo, Zeppo, Curly, and Moe — “little birds on strings, floating around, fluttering around,” Gardner says. “I heard later that she was so enamored of the birds that from the shoot they brought her two little birds to have in her apartment. I’m hoping they were hanging in the window.”

Veteran Madeline watchers will recall that she once told Johnny Carson she had “a phobia of balls coming at my face,” and you can see in the number that she’s not fully prepared for birds coming at her face, either. Yet she does seem to enjoy herself.

“She was absolutely charming,” Gardner says. But I had one important question for this witness to Madeline’s encounter with one of her all-time tallest co-stars: was Madeline really 5 foot 3, as she often claimed?

“Noooooooo,” says Gardner. “She was tiny!”

Gardner and Madeline, with Big Bird and Love.
Photo courtesy of Rob Gardner.

You can watch clips of Madeline’s appearance here and here.