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.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Video & Recap: Madeline at the Metropolitan Room

Most of the cast. From left: Betancourt, Larsen, Harada, Leritz, Feltman, Hall, WVM, Shapiro, Burke, Copeland, Willison. Not pictured: Rice, Cohen, Ross, Cubeta.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I’m told that I looked like a little kid playing with shiny new toys during every number of our tribute show, “Gone Too Soon: The Music of Madeline Kahn,” at New York’s Metropolitan Room on Saturday afternoon. You can’t really see that in the video that I’m posting here — the light was pretty dim where I sat — but you can certainly see why I was so happy. One talented performer after another came out and dazzled us on the Met Room stage.

Some of these people I’ve know for years — others I’d just met. I knew that all of them were first-rate. Yet even my absolute confidence in them didn’t quite prepare me for just how wonderful they were.

In a note to me after the show, Ann Harada reflected on the “gallantry” and “vulnerability” of performers — and observed that “It was also glaringly apparent that Madeline attracted ridiculously difficult material.” But these people are pros. You can see for yourself, by watching the video, here.

Ann Harada. To see the complete video, click here.

The show was born on a cold spring night, when Peter Napolitano, Janice Hall, and Adam B. Shapiro and I sat in the theater at Urban Stages. Peter was brainstorming, coming up with ideas to help me promote Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life. “Have you thought about doing a cabaret show?” Peter asked.

No, I had not. Bear in mind that, in that little quartet, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a MAC Award, that honor bestowed on the best of New York’s cabaret scene. (Peter has three.) But in that instant, our show took on a life of its own.

Much to my satisfaction, we wound up at the Met Room, where I’ve enjoyed several shows (including those of Peter, Janice, and Adam). All of us like the room — it has good karma, I think. Producer Joseph Macchia was looking to fill a slot in his “Gone Too Soon” series, so in we walked. Within a few days, we were lining up performers and coming up with material.

Adam, keeping a grippe on my book.

Fittingly, the show started off with Adam, who’s been with the show since its inception. (His enthusiasm actually helped persuade me that this thing could work!) He paid tribute to the performance that first gave Madeline the idea that she might go into show business. Adam is such an irrepressibly joyful performer, and I’m fully convinced that he can do anything.

Actor–choreographer–producer Lawrence Leritz was next, charming us all with a little number from Kiss Me, Kate, in which Madeline made her New York stage debut fifty years ago. For Saturday’s show, as for our presentation at the Drama Book Shop in June, Lawrence proved himself stalwart, holding my hand through every storm. Little wonder I call him Megastar.

Lawrence: Make that Mr. Megastar.

Janice had been preparing “Das Chicago Song” for a long time — she was ready to sing it at my book party in May, but somehow that didn’t happen. In a way, I was glad that she waited until now to sing it. With the song’s composer, Madeline’s dear friend Michael Cohen, on piano, the number was a revelation to us all. And the combination of Michael, Madeline, Kurt Weill, and Janice is tailor-made for me. If I didn’t have a copy of my narration in hand, I’d have been speechless.

Janice: Don’t ask why.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Soprano Rosa Betancourt has impressed me every time I’ve heard her — notably as Musetta in La Bohème, with Fort Worth Opera in 2013. I knew she could bring wit and personality to her number, all the while maintaining a glorious lyric line. She more than lived up to my expectations, and our music director, Jeff Cubeta, accompanied her beautifully. As Joyce Di Donato says so often, it’s always fun to see a non-opera audience respond to opera when it’s done well.

Rosa: The girl can’t help it.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

For the next set, Jeff ceded the piano bench to the legendary Steve Ross, “The Crown Prince of Cabaret,” who joined our cast less than 48 hours before. For his friends Joan Copeland and Walter Willison, he played three numbers from the show they did with Madeline, Two by Two.

I can now say I’ve done a show with Steve Ross. Amazing.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Joan turned 93 a few days before our Drama Book Shop event, and on that evening she had taken a friend and me aside to sing her big solo from Two by Two, word- and note-perfect, just for us. It was pure magic — and a real gift to be able to share that magic with more people on Saturday. Probably few actors will ever rival her distinguished career (with “roles too numerous to mention,” as she said in her program bio) — and not many actors will rival the joy she finds onstage.

One of the most remarkable people I’ve met.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I’d heard Walter sing “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You” before, and then as on Saturday it’s a stunning interpretation, imbued with tremendous feeling and glorious vocalism. Yeah, he didn’t get a Tony nomination for this show only because he stood up to Danny Kaye: he got it because he’s good.

Walter: I do not know a day I did not love to hear him sing this song.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

Madeline’s Act I solo from Two by Two was cut during tryouts and had never (to our knowledge) been performed publicly in New York at any point in the ensuing 45 years. As conceived originally, she would have sung it to Joan. So Walter called Joan back to the stage and sang “Getting Married to a Person” (which he’d learned only at five o’clock that morning!). I treasure the way they interact — and now, more than seven years after I started writing the book, I can say I’ve heard Madeline’s lost song.

Walter & Joan: Like family, after all this time.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Hanna Burke is a favorite and frequent participant in the “Gone Too Soon” series, as well as a devoted Madeline fan. Now that I’ve seen what she can do with one of the lady’s most famous numbers — evocative of Madeline and yet somehow her own — I can’t wait to hear more. She’s talking about a one-woman show of Madeline’s material, but she and I agree that it would be wiser not to use the title Madeline came up with when thinking about her own one-woman show: Kahn-cepts.

Hanna: Just happy to see her.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

My darling Ann Harada took the stage next with a number from At Long Last Love, an irresistible interpretation that took such care with the words that she even chose a dress to match the lyrics. Sometimes I wonder how such a huge voice can come out of such a tiny person, but Ann has tremendous control over her instrument. She rattled the rafters and caressed our ears, and she even threw in a little Lili von Shtupp for good measure.

Ann: Who knows how she does what she does?
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

The winner of this year’s MetroStar competition, Minda Larsen, gave us a number from She Loves Me, gorgeously combining sweetness and intelligence — not an easy thing. Because of some computer malfunctions, I had to assemble the program for the show several times — and just before the show started, we realized that I’d left out Minda. I felt terrible, and even worse when I heard her wonderful performance. A former finalist in the Lotte Lenya Competition with a limpid lyric soprano, she’s obviously my kind of people.

Minda: Sheer loveliness.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

In a variety of roles in the Unauthorized! parody musical series, Julie Feltman has persuaded me that her voice can do almost anything. That’s precisely what’s required of the number she sang from On the Twentieth Century, which involves what the critic Walter Kerr described as “gutter coloratura,” ranging from basso growls to piercing shrieks, with plenty of ornaments. Julie is also a fearless comedian, and she tore into this song with abandon.

News Flash: Beautiful woman loses mind …

… sings coloratura.
Julie Feltman.
Photos Weatherford (above), Lopinto (below).

There’s a special satisfaction to seeing Sarah Rice, the original Johanna from Sweeney Todd — the first show I saw in New York. Her sly wit and radiant soprano are so well-suited to popular music from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, so I knew she’d excel in the Irving Berlin number she chose. You’ll see she’s wearing a cast on her arm — you’ll never guess how it got there. But it precluded her sharing another talent, playing the theremin. She’s learning the theme from Young Frankenstein, so maybe we’ll get the chance, some day soon.

Sarah: Source of surprises.
Screencap from video.

When I told friends what the penultimate number on the program would be, and who would be singing it, they nearly exploded. I understood why. For hardcore fans (and who among us is not?), this was an occasion nearly as significant as Patti LuPone taking on Gypsy. Ann and Adam joined Sarah onstage for one more example of Madeline’s “ridiculously difficult” repertoire, and I was ecstatic. Perfect characterizations by all — I get the feeling that Sarah has sung at more than a few weddings in her time — and three glorious voices.

Today is for Sarah — and Ann — and Adam.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

We concluded with a singalong. Confession time: I don’t sing at all. So I slipped to the back while the rest of the cast sang out, and the audience joined in. It was a fun way to end the show, and a useful reminder that Madeline’s legacy is alive and well — if only we pick it up and run with it.

For me, the highlight of the afternoon that you can’t see in the video was the rapturous expression on Joan Copeland’s face, whenever anyone sang. She was in her element on Saturday, connecting with an audience as only she can, reuniting with old friends and making new ones. And she loved the music. That means a great deal to me.

Peter Napolitano, Joan Copeland, Steve Ross.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

And I owe it all to Peter Napolitano. He had a dream, he made it mine, and then he made it a reality. At times it was a hard slog to get there — more work and infinitely more stress than I’d anticipated. (At one point, I observed that I don’t have the temperament for this line of work. In the gentlest, kindest way possible, Peter replied, “No, you probably don’t.”) But through it all, I knew that with this lineup of talent, we would have a terrific show, and ultimately it really was worth it.

Now that it’s over, several of us have remarked that we can sense Madeline smiling. The show is just one more demonstration that the book — and Madeline herself — have taken me in directions I never could have imagined.

The author. Who'd a-thunk it?

If for some reason you have made it all the way to the bottom of this page without clicking on the link and watching the video, here it is again. Right HERE.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

When Madeline Met Santa

A reader has reminded me that I didn’t follow through on my promise to share this picture. We originally planned to include it in Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, but when the time came to pick and choose, we found ourselves with more photos from Madeline’s childhood than we could use — and other photos from that period struck us as more revealing.

So here it is at last: “Madalin Wolfson,” as she called herself at the time, with Santa Claus. She liked the picture so much that she sent it out as a Christmas card in the 1990s, when she was co-starring on the show Cosby. And yes, this Santa is black. Like most white children in those days, Madeline would almost certainly have seen only white Santas — until this moment.

While Madeline wasn’t quite a “red-diaper baby,” her mother was politically active in left-wing causes for several years, and she was immensely proud of having met the singer Paul Robeson at a benefit concert. Presumably Madeline met Santa at a political event of some sort, on a holiday break from Manumit, the Pennsylvania boarding school to which her mother had sent her a few months before.

Though Paula Kahn and Madeline remained lifelong liberals, the rabble-rousing activities don’t seem to have lasted long: for one thing, it was the nature of left-wing causes in the 1940s to focus on socialism, not stardom, and stardom was very much Paula’s priority at the time, as it would be for most of the rest of her life. And because taking care of Paula would become Madeline’s priority, she seldom took part in politics.

We’ll never know what went through Madeline’s mind in 1965, when she applied for a teaching job with the New York City schools, and dutifully marked “No” in response to the question whether she or any members of her family had ever been members of the Communist or Socialist Party — and on her application she didn’t even mention Manumit, a progressive school (scandalously so, depending on whom you asked) associated with decidedly left-wing views on race, labor, and social justice.

Madeline was lonely at Manumit, and when we reached out to the alumni, not one had any memory of her there. Her father had walked out a few years earlier, and Paula’s subsequent move to New York City from Boston meant cutting Madeline off from everyone she knew. She’d hardly had time to make friends before she was uprooted once again and shipped off to Pennsylvania. But now, for the holidays, she was reunited with her mother — and she got to meet Santa Claus. And so the picture is not least a document of a single happy moment in an often-painful childhood.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

‘The Music of Madeline Kahn’ at the Metropolitan Room

It’s show time!

On Saturday, September 12, New York City’s Metropolitan Room will present “The Music of Madeline Kahn” as part of its “Gone Too Soon” series. Produced by Joseph Macchia and directed by Peter Napolitano, the tribute will feature music from just about every phase of Madeline’s career. I’ll be the host, and afterward I’ll be signing copies of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life.

So far, the cast includes several of Madeline’s colleagues:

Walter Willison and Joan Copeland, co-stars of Two by Two, the Richard Rodgers–Martin Charnin musical in which Madeline had a featured role (1970–71).

Michael Cohen, music director of the revues Madeline performed at the Upstairs at the Downstairs club (1965–67). He’s also the composer of the brilliant Weill parody, “Das Chicago Song.”

Lawrence Leritz, who started as a Madeline fan and later worked with her when he guest-starred on Cosby (1999).

We’ll also feature performers inspired by Madeline. From Broadway, Ann Harada, of Avenue Q, Cinderella, and TV’s Smash; and Sarah Rice, the original Joanna in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

From opera, sopranos Janice Hall and Rosa Betancourt.

And from cabaret, Adam Shapiro, Hanna Burke, Minda Larsen, and Julie Feltman. Our music director is Jeff Cubeta.

Doors open at 3:30, and the show starts at 4:00. The Met Room is a terrific venue, and you can make your reservation by clicking on this link or by calling (212) 206-0440.

Friday, May 29, 2015

‘Being the Music,’ a Panel Discussion at Drama Book Shop June 11

The main floor of the Drama Book Shop.

New York City’s Drama Book Shop will host a panel discussion on the life and career of Madeline Kahn, June 11, beginning at 6:00. We’ve got a spectacular lineup, including

Robert Klein, Madeline’s most frequent co-star, beginning with New Faces of 1968 (though he’d known her a couple of years already) and continuing through The Sisters Rosensweig and Mixed Nuts to a guest shot on Cosby, with multiple stops in between.

Jonathan Lynn, the writer and director of Clue, the only one of Madeline’s most popular movies that comes close to capturing her true character (minus the multiple marriages and murders).

A battalion of seasoned veterans of the war that was Two by Two, including lyricist Martin Charnin and co-stars Joan Copeland and Walter Willison, who earned a Tony nomination for standing up to the show’s tyrannical star, Danny Kaye.

Lee Roy Reams, the Broadway legend who directed Madeline in a touring production of Hello, Dolly!, and whom Madeline credited with helping her to understand how to play Gorgeous Teitelbaum in The Sisters Rosensweig. “When I put on the Chanel suit, I feel just like Dolly on the ramp!” she told him. (And if you didn’t know that Madeline played Dolly — well, you need to read the book.)

Maddie Corman, who played Madeline’s niece and George C. Scott’s daughter in the sitcom Mr. President. If we’re lucky, Maddie will do her flawless impression of Madeline, and she’ll also give us an idea what it was like to work with Madeline in television.

and Lawrence Leritz, the director–choreographer–dancer whose guest shot on Cosby provided him with valuable insight into Madeline’s personality. Lawrence started out as a fan of Two by Two, which led to a revealing conversation with Madeline.

That lineup is subject to change — but even in the audience I’m expecting to see more of Madeline’s friends and colleagues.

I’ll moderate, and I’ll also be available to sign your copy of the book after we wrap up the conversation, around 7:00.

The Drama Book Shop is located at 250 West 40th Street, and the phone number is (212) 944-0595. Expect me to talk about this event a lot in the days to come.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

No Copies of Madeline Kahn’s Biography Found in bin Laden Compound, Analysts Say

The bin Laden compound was notably free of movie-star biographies, analysts say.

WASHINGTON -- According to recently declassified papers released this week by the Office of the Director of U.S. National Intelligence, Osama bin Laden’s collection of English-language books at his Abbottabad compound did not include any copies of William V. Madison’s Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life (University Press of Mississippi, 2015).

Four years after the raid that led to bin Laden’s death, intelligence experts analyzing materials seized by U.S. Navy SEALs have noted that the al Qaida leader’s reading interests focused primarily on U.S. foreign policy, international relations, and Islam, but not on biographies of Oscar-nominated comedic actresses from the last third of the twentieth century. Even bin Laden’s personal correspondence, stored in his computer files, shows little mention of the beloved star of Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon.

Intelligence analysts discuss their findings.

“Especially after he realized that her name is spelled K-A-H-N and not K-H-A-N, bin Laden doesn’t seem to have given any thought to the late actress,” Maj. Gen. Fred G. Corey told a reporter. U.S. intelligence sources believe bin Laden had serious reservations about a Jewish woman from New York City who had a sense of humor and who frequently appeared in public without a veil, “except briefly in that scene from Clue,” Corey said. “I’m also given to understand that Ms. Kahn was unmarried for most of her life, and when she did marry, she did so without regard to her estimated value in goats.”

Dr. Carl Becker of the Institute for Advanced Concepts agrees. “Madeline Kahn’s behavior was not that of a woman whom bin Laden would admire or want to read about — and that’s a good thing,” Becker explained. “It’s not going too far to say that reading Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life means standing up for freedom and decency.”

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Book: How to Get It, What to Do with It

What well-dressed shelves are wearing this season.
Photo by Lawrence Leritz.

Officially, May 1 was the publication date for Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life — though several days earlier I began hearing reports of sightings of the book in some stores in New York, and the distributors for the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites managed to deliver several copies well before the dawn of May 1. My “author copies” — a term of art, meaning just what you think it means — arrived on my doorstep April 22, and I nearly tripped over them as I dashed out of my apartment.

At long last, almost seven years to the day since I started this project, I opened a box and found ten copies of Madeline’s story. Yes, I cried. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Chances are that you haven’t been waiting quite so long to get your copy, but there’s a very real chance that you don’t have a copy yet. How to get one? There are several ways.

First, you really can order the book online, either in the electronic or in the print edition, from Amazon (where we’re the top-selling new release in theater biographies) and from Barnes & Noble; the electronic edition is also available from some other dealers. If you prefer hardcover books, you can also ask for Being the Music at your local bookstore, and if they don’t have it in stock, you can ask them to order it for you. Independent bookstores love to order books for customers — and often they’re just about as speedy as online services. If you’re in the United States, your favorite bookseller can order directly from the publisher, the University Press of Mississippi; in the United Kingdom, booksellers can order copies through the Roundhouse Group.

Once you’ve gotten a copy of the book, the next step is to read it. If at all possible, the next step is to derive enjoyment from it. And then, if you have anything nice to say about the book — tell your friends, and post reviews on the book’s Amazon and B&N pages. If you’ve got a blog and you review the book, please let me know (either here or on the book’s Facebook page). Douglass K. Daniel of the Associated Press has reviewed the book already — but why should he have all the fun?

However, if you don’t like the book, then I hope you will do me the very great courtesy of telling nobody at all. Really. It will be our secret. Thank you.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was first to get her copy autographed by the author, backstage after a performance of The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Madeline’s Biography, Serving All Your Mother’s Day Needs

Somebody else’s mother:
Paula Kahn played Gilda Radner’s mother in this sketch
with Elliot Gould on Saturday Night Live in 1976.

As Mother’s Day approaches, you are probably asking yourself whether Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life is a suitable gift for your mother. I am pleased to help you answer that question.

Does your mother like biographies of single women who worked hard to build a successful career? Does your mother like books about movies and theater? Does your mother like books about singers? Does your mother like books in which dashing sex symbols like Kevin Kline, Burt Reynolds, and Gene Wilder take part? If so, you can give your mom this book with the inscription, “Dear Mom, I know you’re going to love this!”

Do you have a good relationship with your mother? If so, you can give her this book with this inscription, “Dear Mom, Aren’t you glad this isn’t our story?” Because Madeline’s relationship with her own mother was often quite difficult.

Do you have a difficult relationship with your mother? If so, you can give her this book with an inscription along the lines of, “Dear Mom, Let’s clean up our act, so that we don’t wind up in a book like this one!”

Do you have a truly terrible relationship with your mother? If so, don’t give her a copy of the book — she doesn’t deserve it. Instead, you can play your own variation of a game that Paula Kahn sometimes played on Madeline. Send her a card, and enclose several bills with a note saying, “Ma, please pay these for me.”

The playbill for Paula’s one-woman show.
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Great Moments in a Biographer’s Career

WVM with Mitch Teich.
This and photo below by Stefan Walasz©.

In Milwaukee this week, I was interviewed by Mitch Teich, the executive producer and co-host of “Lake Effect” on WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio. A couple of months earlier, the publicist from University Press of Mississippi had sent Mitch an advance copy of the book, bound galley proofs — and because Mitch happened to have his copy in the studio, I was able for the very first time to hold the book in my own two hands.

I confess that, seven years after I started this project, I got a little verklempt.

Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life has been printed and bound, and is now in the warehouse, which means that it will be shipping soon. I’ll be sure to let you know when Mitch’s interview with me is scheduled to air on “Lake Effect”; among many other topics, we talked about Madeline’s work with one of Milwaukee’s favorite sons, Gene Wilder. I hope you’ll enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed rambling on and on.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part V

As Alice Gold in Judy Berlin.

To get a real sense of what Madeline was capable of onscreen, from goofiness to heartbreak, from jubilant singing to painful silence, we’re left with two movies. One was a respectable success at the time of its release but is often overlooked today; the other is still looking for its rightful audience. Both are brilliant tributes to a remarkable artist.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Gene Wilder’s directorial debut has its flaws, but it succeeds absolutely at one of its primary goals: providing good roles for actors Wilder loved, and Madeline first among them. He’d marveled at her talent ever since Blazing Saddles, when he hung around the set to watch Madeline sing “I’m Tired.” After the shoot was finished, “I told Mel that if the movie were just her one number, it would be worth the price of admission,” Wilder says, and he immediately began to think of her for the movie he was writing at the time — Young Frankenstein. And his experience on that picture was so rewarding that he determined to write parts especially for Madeline and Marty Feldman in Smarter Brother, declaring that he couldn’t make the movie without them. Dom DeLuise is on board, too, as a deliriously duplicitous opera singer.

To add to the fun of working with her friends, the movie was filmed in England — where Madeline had never been. Before shooting started, she took advantage of the trip to make her first visit to Europe.

An opera singer at last: Madeline in costume for the Ballo sequence of Smarter Brother.
This seems to have been a favorite photo; she kept several copies in her personal collection.

Madeline plays Jenny Hill, who can tell the truth only when she’s sexually aroused: obviously not a case for Sherlock, who tricks his brother Sigi into taking over. Jenny is a music-hall artiste and opera singer, affording Madeline several opportunities to sing, and affording Wilder many times over the kind of pleasure he felt while listening to her “I’m Tired.” Really, Smarter Brother is almost stealthily a musical comedy, and Madeline even gets a shot at Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. (The performance falls apart, much as Verdi’s Trovatore does in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.) Jenny is a remarkably juicy role, and for Wilder, “the beauty of Madeline’s performance was that she could sing English music hall and opera, plus do comedy and drama … all equally well,” he says. “She could, occasionally, do comedy and drama at the same time.” No single movie better presents the range of Madeline’s gifts.

Her onscreen chemistry with Wilder is exceptionally strong here. It’s easy enough to understand why he didn’t write for her again — she’d have been miscast in his next film, The World’s Greatest Lover, and later comic roles went to the woman he married, Gilda Radner. Yet one also sees that both stars might have shone brighter, if only they’d worked together more often.

The man and his muse, in a publicity still.

Judy Berlin. In Eric Mendelsohn’s first feature as writer–director, Madeline at last found a movie role that went beyond the “sketches” or “bits” that she complained of for so long. She plays Alice Gold, a Long Island housewife who, during a solar eclipse, begins to see her own life more clearly. Madeline set aside many of her hang-ups for the movie, the first and only independent film of her career, and she abandoned some of her usual safeguards: for one, Judy Berlin is shot in black-and-white, which she had always found unflattering, and for another, she plays a far-from-glamorous, un-sexy, middle-aged mother and wife. Yet her sympathy for Alice Gold is unmistakable — remarkably so, from an unmarried, childless actress — and as she wanders about her neighborhood in sneakers and a down jacket, she’s irresistibly cute and, in her emotional fragility, quite beautiful after all.

It’s exquisite work, tracing a gossamer thread between comedy and tragedy, and Jeffrey Seckendorff’s cinematography catches the luminosity of Madeline’s face and the minute flickers of her emotion. She’s completely submerged in the character. In many ways, the role is a summation of Madeline’s career, combining the lessons she’d learned in earlier work with the instincts and experience life gave her. By now, she knew how to find the sympathetic heart of a woman who might otherwise seem shallow, annoying, or ridiculous. While one of her least-known performances, Alice Gold is one of her very finest, and it should have been the prelude to a new era in her work. You leave the movie wondering what might have been.

Today, Mendelsohn wonders whether his first movie was truly worthy of her. “I was such an amateur, and she was such a pro,” he says. “When she died, I felt as if I had let down all the people who expected one kind of thing from her, and that her last offering had to be my paltry film.” But the one thing Madeline wanted was to defy moviegoers’ expectations of her, and Mendelsohn helped her to do it. Her friend David Marshall Grant remembers that she told him, “I’m so glad that happened before I died.”

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part IV

With Falk in Cheap Detective.


The Cheap Detective. Neil Simon’s second spoof of classic movies has been neglected in favor of its predecessor, Murder by Death, but it’s great fun, with many of the same assets: a terrific cast, Peter Falk’s loving impression of Bogart, snappy dialogue, and an amusing plot that makes sense even if you don’t know the movies it’s based on. As a wily femme fatale, Madeline’s character is so duplicitous she can’t remember her own aliases, and she changes her hair color so often that, by the end of the picture, she’s a fright. What really marks her performance, though, is her eyes, nervously darting as if she knows she’ll be unmasked at any second. She works beautifully with Falk, and she has fun scenes, too, with favorites Dom DeLuise and (briefly) Eileen Brennan.

With Reynolds in At Long Last Love.

At Long Last Love. Director Peter Bogdanovich and co-star Cybill Shepherd refer to this musical comedy as “the debacle,” but when you watch the recently released Blu-Ray edit, you may not understand why the movie has such a terrible reputation. True, the ostensible leads, Shepherd and Burt Reynolds, aren’t world-class singers, but she’s got a perfectly pleasant voice, and he’s fun to watch when he dances, a natural athlete goofing around. Musically, the biggest problem may be that we spend so much time hearing the songs — Cole Porter hits and rarities — sung by the same four voices; technically, the long takes and “live” singing created innumerable headaches for cast and crew, but they delivered some marvels for the audience.

Madeline had other worries, too. Always anxious about her looks, she found it intimidating to play opposite Shepherd, one of the most celebrated beauties of the day; she feared, too, that Bogdanovich favored Shepherd, his lover at the time, and that her own scenes might suffer as a result. Ultimately, however, the movie offers a wonderful showcase for her musical talents. Watch the opening scene (cut from the original release), as Madeline drunkenly staggers through her apartment, singing “Down in the Dumps (On the Ninetieth Floor)” — in one unbroken take. She sings several of her numbers in lower keys than you’d expect (making “Find Me a Primitive Man” somewhat disappointing), but this is one of her two most extensive singing roles onscreen. At Long Last Love brings Madeline as close as she ever got to the kind of lavish Hollywood musical that, had she been born a little earlier, might have been her calling card.

In the background, the movie launched Madeline’s friendships with Reynolds and with Eileen Brennan, and it brought her association with Bogdanovich to a close. That’s a shame, not least because he had planned to produce a solo record album for her, and to cast her in another musical, based on the songs of Rodgers & Hart.


As Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.

You’re not likely to read these articles if you haven’t already had your interest whetted by What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Blazing Saddles , Young Frankenstein, and Clue: the big five that have done more than any others to establish Madeline in the popular imagination. If you haven’t seen any of the Big Five, you need to catch up.

Madeline’s two other collaborations with Brooks, the Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety and History of the World, Part I, are a little less known. From a Madeline fan’s perspective, History is remarkable primarily as her final movie with Brooks, for the bawdiness of her role (crude even by his standards), and for Brooks’ belated realization (“after I saw the picture 30 times,” he says) that he “forgot to give her and Gregory Hines a musical number.”

With Hines in History.

High Anxiety contains Madeline’s most substantial role in a Brooks movie — she made such a big impression that we may forget how little screen time she has in the three other pictures, and Victoria Brisbane is also the most nuanced character he wrote for her. In one scene, she plays the most overtly Jewish character of her career before The Sisters Rosensweig (basically the wife of Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man), and this is the only movie she made with Brooks in which she’s not the object of a penis joke. It’s worth wondering whether he wrote the role of Victoria in response to Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, in which Madeline plays another damsel in distress who discovers her own heroic qualities — and true love — while solving a mystery. Unlike Wilder, however, Brooks didn’t give her a song, taking the sole musical number for himself. Trivia: High Anxiety is also the only film in which we see Madeline drive a car.

As Victoria Brisbane in High Anxiety.
Hitchcock himself praised Madeline’s performance.

Coming Soon: The Not-To-Be-Missed.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part III

With Ben Affleck in Wanted: The Perfect Guy.

By the mid-1980s, Madeline Kahn worried that she’d never work again. Two television series, Oh Madeline and Mr. President, had been cancelled, and while shooting the pilot for a third, Chameleon, Madeline was so unhappy that she tried to get out of her contract — but no network picked up the show. Now that she was in her 40s, movie offers dwindled, Mel Brooks stopped working with her, and Clue flopped. Though she’d always been careful with money, her mother never was, and Madeline had assumed full financial responsibility for Paula Kahn beginning in 1976. Madeline needed work — and income — to support her mother.

Now she began to reassess many of her career strategies, and she took increasing interest in voiceover work. Her voice had always been her single greatest asset as a performer, and her appearance her single greatest source of anxiety: animated movies held out an elegant solution. I haven’t rated them here: if you want to watch My Little Pony, you’re welcome to. Madeline had fun making that picture, but she’s used to better advantage in An American Tail, offering a variation on her patented German accent in a screenplay by Tony Geiss, the lyricist who wrote “Das Chicago Song” for her. Best of all is A Bug’s Life. As the faded beauty, Gypsy, Madeline offers a delicate characterization that would have suited her well in a live-action picture.

Mama, I’m pretty: Gypsy.

Mostly, Madeline looked for work in television. She maintained her refusal to take guest-starring roles on sitcoms, which she didn’t consider special enough, and this is why we don’t see her in programs where she might have shone: Cheers, Taxi, Murphy Brown, and Evening Shade, to name a few. In the 1990s, guest appearances on other series led to some delightful, highly recommended work: single episodes of Avonlea, Lucky Luke, and Monkey House (which contains one of her finest performances). Beyond this, Madeline made television commercials, which she hadn’t done since the 1960s, and a few TV movies. In these projects, she knew she would still be considered a star. One TV movie would earn her a Daytime Emmy. But others — well, see for yourself. I’ve ranked them from worst to best.


Yes, this movie is available for your own home video library.

For Love Alone: The Ivana Trump Story. The stinker of the lot, based on a roman à clef by Mrs. Trump herself, who shows up in a brief cameo. The actors do their best, but the script is terrible; Madeline manages to create her character, a conniving gossip columnist, mainly by adroit use of her eyeglasses. Looking eerily like Edna Mode of The Incredibles, she’s like an owl spying on mice in a garden.

With Lemmon in For Richer, for Poorer.

For Richer, for Poorer. Madeline jumped at the chance to work with Jack Lemmon, a brilliant actor who also made his co-stars look good and sometimes steered them to award nominations: Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Gilford, Tony Curtis. In the early 1990s, she was also eager to show her solidarity with the homeless — but the script uses her character, Billie, primarily as a plot device, and she’s never credible for an instant. The first of two TV movies in which she co-starred with Jonathan Silverman without ever appearing onscreen with him. And the second was …

Neil Simon’s London Suite. A mix of comedy and drama featuring a cast drawn mostly from NBC sitcoms, this movie points the way to the kind of role that likely would have dominated Madeline’s career as she matured: the priggish matron who lets her hair down. (See also Mixed Nuts and many episodes of Cosby.) It’s not a great part, but she finds a good deal of comedy and an undercurrent of vulnerability as a woman who shops compulsively rather than confront her grief and loneliness after the death of her husband. Richard Mulligan is awful as her love interest, a badly written role, though he gets farther with Madeline than he did in Harvey, so many years before.

With Mulligan in London Suite.

Harvey. Jimmy Stewart returned to his signature role in Mary Chase’s comedy so many times that he started running out of actresses to play his sister: Helen Hayes told him to stop calling her, he confessed to Rex Reed in an interview. Hayes and Stewart had just come from a short-lived New York revival when they starred in this Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation, directed by Fielder Cook, (who also directed From the Mixed-up Files). Madeline’s role, that of Nurse Ruth Kelly, is drastically cut down, but she plays the character as written: we sense the romantic subplot between her and the doctor — Richard Mulligan again — even though we don’t see it played out. The big appeal, for her fans, is seeing her share substantial scenes with Hayes and Stewart, two of the best-loved actors America ever produced.

With Stewart in Harvey.

Wanted: The Perfect Guy. The best of Madeline’s TV movies is the shortest. Madeline won a Daytime Emmy for this ABC After-School Special, a light comedy that shows her at her least zany. Really, Madeline’s role is probably the least comic one in the picture, an exceptional rarity for her. She plays a working single mom whose well-meaning son (a young, very raw Ben Affleck) meddles in her personal life by writing a singles ad for her. In quick strokes Madeline conveys loneliness, weariness, and tenderness for her son, while employing a few tricks we’ve seen in other, very different characters: she tends to chatter, for example, like Trixie Delight in Paper Moon and Gorgeous Teitelbaum in The Sisters Rosensweig, but less from desperation than from a relentless attempt to communicate with a teenage boy who may or may not heed a word she says. Madeline won the Daytime Emmy for her role in Perfect Guy, opposite tough competition: LeVar Burton, Ruth Buzzi, Adolph Caesar, and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman).

Directed by Catlin Adams and written by Mary P. Willis — among the very few women directors and writers with whom Madeline ever worked — Wanted: The Perfect Guy was shot around Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, still a dangerous neighborhood at the time, as well as the scene (about a year after the movie aired) of one of the most violent riots in the city’s recent history. Look for a quick cameo from Melanie Mayron (as a kindred spirit to her own Melissa Steadman from thirtysomething) and some fabulous wardrobe choices inspired by pop stars from Lauper to Springsteen. One other bit of trivia: while shooting the movie, Affleck stayed with his mother’s half-sister — who also put me up on some of my earliest visits to New York. Presumably we used the same guest room, though not at the same time. (We’ve never met, and he didn’t respond to my requests for an interview.)

Ben was such a nice boy. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Coming Soon: Neglected Treasures, the Classics, and the Not-to-be-Missed.