Hilarie Mukavitz – As a child, I had an experience of déjà vu as I watched Mel Brooks movies with my father. I knew I had seen the woman who played Lili von Shtupp somewhere before. Eventually I made the connection. “Oh yeah, Grover’s friend!” Madeline Kahn is remembered mostly as a comedic actress, but she actually got her start as a singer.
She was born Madeline Wolfson in Boston on September 29, 1942. Following in the footsteps of her actress mother, Madeline was involved in theater in school and got a drama scholarship to go to Hofstra University. As a summer job, Madeline worked as a singing waitress. One customer requested that she learn the aria “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly. “I just learned that one aria and a few others and then one thing led to another and I studied that, and I discovered that I could sing that, sort of, that way.” Eventually she would sing “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide for Leonard Bernstein’s 50th birthday party, and the role of Musetta in La Boheme. Sadly there is no recording of Madeline as Musetta, but there is one of her in Candide which is included on our playlist.
Once she started performing professionally, Madeline changed her last name from Wolfson to Kahn, her mother’s maiden name. Her first major role was as Ryan O’Neal’s fiancée in What’s Up Doc? She’d work again with O’Neal the following year as Trixie in the Oscar-winning Paper Moon.
We really didn’t get to see Kahn’s comedic genius until she started working with Mel Brooks. Her first role was parodying Marlene Dietrich when she played Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles. Madeline could pull off being totally gorgeous, and hysterically funny, without playing dumb. She was also a good team player. Mel Brooks initially wanted Madeline to play Inga in Young Frankenstein, a role that eventually went to Teri Garr. Madeline insisted she’d be much funnier in the smaller role of the fiancée.
Madeline Kahn’s path crossed (possibly for the first time) with Jim Henson and the Muppets in 1976. Madeline was host of Saturday Night Live during the first (and only) season when the Muppets were featured regularly on the show.
Madeline hosted Episode 209 of The Muppet Show. Her unique brand of silliness and ability to relate well to the Muppets, made her a great fit. My favorite Madeline Kahn scene in the show is when she performed the “Happy Girl Meets a Monster” sketch with the Muppet named Doglion. The Happy Girl character is relentlessly cheerful and positive no matter how destructive and horrible the monster is, ultimately making the monster feel bad and making him shrink. The sketch had been done before on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show with two Muppets.
However, probably Madeline’s most memorable Muppet moments were in a series of inserts she recorded for Sesame Street in 1978. Most were really brief such as saying the word “me” as it appears over her head and counting to 20 with her “twin.” The highlight was when she sang “Sing After Me” with Grover. One thing I didn’t notice when I was a child is that Grover is flirting with Madeline! The song also gave Miss Kahn the opportunity to show off her operatic soprano.
In 1979 Madeline made a cameo in The Muppet Movie as Telly Savalas’ lisping girlfriend during the El Sleezo scene. In 1981 Madeline returned to Sesame Street in a scene where she and Richard Hunt (in a rare Muppet-less onscreen role) appear as birdwatchers who are seeking out Big Bird. In 1986 she appeared in the celebrity version of “Put Down the Duckie”while balancing a rubber duckie on top of her head. Her final appearance on Sesame Street was in 1994 as the Commissioner of Fun and Games.
Madeline Kahn continued to make movies throughout the 80s and 90s. Mostly comedic roles, but occasionally she’d do a dramatic role such as Martha Mitchell in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Her final role was as Bill Cosby’s neighbor on his TV series Cosby. Madeline Kahn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1999, and died in December of that year.
Madeline Kahn was an incredibly talented actress and singer. The Muppets gave her the opportunity to shine. Enjoy most of Madeline’s Muppet Show and Sesame Street performances here on our Muppet Mindset playlist.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org