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.