The Whole Package
Margaret Wiley, 1949-1999
In talking about Margaret Wiley, it's hard to know where to start: with the performer, that commanding presence whose drop-dead sense of timing invariably left audiences at Esther's Follies weak with laughter and gasping for breath? With the writer, that bawdy satirist who could skewer Tammy Faye Bakker with songs by The Who and deliver 1,001 inspired uses for a Maxi-Pad? With the costumer, the ceaselessly inventive designer of Easter bonnets shaped like cuts of meat and of giant phalluses? With the regal show biz vet, alternately terrorizing and nurturing the dozens of young talents that crossed the Esther's stage? With the dreamer, jumping from sketch scripts to screenplays, decorating to designing, always looking for another way to stretch her talents? With Wiley, you didn't have a one-trick pony; you had a multitude of talents and personalities in one big and big-hearted woman. You had, in castmate Tamara Beland's words, "the whole package." Wiley died unexpectedly on November 2, and in recognition of this exceptional woman and the hundreds of thousands of Austinites whose lives she touched during her 20 years with Esther's, the Chronicle presents these memories of Margaret Wiley from her friends and colleagues at the Follies, as well as a few words celebrating the comedian that have appeared in these pages through the years. A memorial service for Wiley will be held Wednesday, November 17, 7pm, at Esther's Pool, 515 E. Sixth. The public is welcome. Call 320-0553 for more information.
Through our 22 years, Esther's has been lucky to have some indelible personalities in our ranks, whether you call them superstars or prima donnas. None of them could match the sweet bawdiness and complexity of Margaret Wiley. She was my peer, my bane (as director, trying to keep her happy), and my best friend. We went through the wars together. Life could never be calm for Margaret. She was our phoenix, flying to the sun and crashing in flames, rising back with a defiant shriek and that haunting laugh like the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy never had a chance.
I remember one Follies trip to Dallas to play a huge gay-lesbian rally. We were walking down a hallway to the stage in costume, Margaret as Chi Chi, me as Patsy. As we viewed the people passing us, Margaret muttered to me, "They probably think we're drag queens." And I muttered back, "And they're right." Nobody knew why we were laughing so hard.
She had her image to keep up, being a hard-ass tough woman. She had to regularly replenish her Maxi-craft supplies and hit the stores for massive amounts of panty liners. She had the routine down to stop all comments cold and leave everyone in the store staring open-mouthed as she left. No one one-upped Margaret. But the tough image was just a cover-up to her gentler nature -- the pushover who would take hours to help a new comic working on his timing or who would spend all night sewing spangles and satin costumes for the juggler working on her act.
Margaret was never satisfied to sit on her laurels. She wanted to write screenplays, to paint, to create an invention that would make her millions, to take Esther's to Hollywood. Every time I visited her house, she had redecorated, and her dogs had matching outfits to go with her furniture. My six-year-old daughter had the only handsewn Mulan costume in the city last Halloween, and Margaret constantly brought special "gifts" for castmates: crazy earrings, costumes, wigs, and one-of-a-kind goodies from the Chinese gift shops she frequented.
That is the ultimate memory of Margaret I want to retain: the generous all-giving Mother Ginger, with a lot of extra spice. I will always relish playing opposite her in the Cinderella Joke, she as Fairy Godmother to my whiny Cinderella. Flashing impish eyes, she states, "You must be home by midnight or your crotch will turn into a pumpkin." "Don't you mean coach?" I retort. "No, no, no, it's right here in the book, see? "Crotch into pumpki --' oh my. You're right." And with perfect Margaret sly timing, "Welll, -- too late now!"
When Margaret first came to the Follies, the show was quite a bit drabber visually than it is today. We didn't even wear wigs! Margaret had worked at the age of 16 as an exotic dancer in a black strip joint, so we knew right away no one could push this broad around. At the strip joint, her forte was being the funny stripper -- the one with the wigs, joke costumes, and the gimmicks. (These included eating fire and dancing with pythons.) So she introduced us to larger-than-life costumes, props, and big old wigs, and Esther's has been a lot splashier ever since.
Margaret quickly made her mark as a writer and performer. Her first piece was called "The Great Strip-a-thon." Margaret and I were strippers vying for first place in a cheesy strip contest. It's hard to believe in retrospect, but we actually stripped down to pasties and g-strings while undulating like spastic snakes. Jeanne Baxter was Charming Charmaine, the Vanna White of the Strip-a-thon, and most of her time onstage was spent in a vain attempt to shield us with her sheer skirt from the prying eyes of half of Sixth Street plastered against the window.
Drawing on her Russian heritage, Margaret began a series of skits about a Ukrainian family, for whom every slip of the tongue was "bad lock," requiring spells and remedies to remove the jinxes. In one episode, the women of the family call up a spirit who grants them three wishes. As the wishes get more and more mixed-up, the final "special combination wish" leaves the unlucky Yolanka clad not in an Easter hat, but a giant penis costume. The penis costume ended up a useful staple costume of the show from there on out.
Margaret had a good comeback for everything, and her resourcefulness was bottomless. She could always be counted on to come up with a solution to "How do we top this?" Sometimes her solutions were over the top, but she always stretched to the limits what we could and would do to get a laugh.
Of course, it was a great day when Margaret invented "Aunt Edith," the drunk housewife whose crafts made with feminine hygiene products are now Follies history. She had crafts for every occasion, including a Santa beard and a Nativity scene for Christmas. During Desert Storm, Aunt Edith wore camouflage while griping about "riding that cotton camel." I believe it was at that point she devised an entire hunting jacket padded with Kotex. The average male may not have known what to make of this series, but every woman in the audience would laugh until she cried.
Backstage, Margaret was a diva who demanded respect and a tough-as-nails gal with a heart of gold. She could shoot you down in flames with one well-aimed sarcastic barb or make you feel like a million bucks with dulcet words of encouragement. One thing for sure, when you heard that whiskey voice saying, "Move it!" behind you, you got out of the way in a hurry. And you saluted! This is something that her candidates for "Hunk of the Night" quickly learned as well. There was nothing Chi Chi la Bomba hated more than a smart-aleck guy who thought he could be funnier than she was, and those who tried to beat her at her own game she could decimate in a heartbeat. The lucky ones who passed her acid test to become "Hunk of the Night" would have walked off a cliff for her. Many still display the photos of their moment of stardom with Chi Chi as cherished mementoes.
I remember growing up in South Austin, there was a pretty bleak stretch of South Congress on the way to the edge of town as defined by Ben White, littered with liquor stores and auto body repairs and sad-motels-turned-even-sadder-residences. And in the middle of this four-lane despair was a giant, happy sun. A hand-painted building, a smiling sun-god, beaming on all passersby and welcoming the weary home. That sun always gladdened my heart, that a tiny crystal of happiness might be waiting around any corner. I remember how much joy that art gave me; I remember thinking how much joy that art must have given everyone else driving by and especially the souls that called it home. That art, casting joy about with wild abandon, was a real gift to Austin. Years later, I discovered -- but not to my surprise -- Margaret Wiley made that.
Also, I remember one night after a performance of improv with The Hilarions: Gladiators of Comedy, we had all adjourned to the bar next door. We were sitting, drinking, and talking, and a pair of men walked up to Margaret and asked if she was Abilene Red, or some "dancer" name. Margaret died laughing, admitting that she was, and how she had almost forgotten that long-ago chapter of her life. The gentlemen showered her with praise, claiming "when we were straight, we would watch you all the time."
I worked on the Stevie Ray Vaughan video with Margaret, which was a real treat. She made many costumes for [my partner] Rachel [Winfree] and me -- many we still use.
Such a creative force. She is missed.
I was about to audition for Esther's at the cozy little Neches location when I met Margaret. Actually, it felt more like being accosted but without the personal contact. She could do that from a mile away. This day, she was, oh, a good three inches away from me -- whoa! I was hunkered down on the floor of the women's dressing room quickly gathering up my guts when I noticed a cool shadow cast over my back. I turned and it was Margaret. She said (too bad this isn't radio), "So, what makes you think you can work here, huh?" She looked as bad-ass as she sounded, too: like a mix between Bette Davis and a soft-lens Divine. I'm sure I turned a little pale. You gotta understand, folks, she was something! On and off stage. Her presence alone could knock you down. She didn't even have to try.
Oh yes, my reply. Well, first I stood up -- it was like the movie High Noon, only I was Kermit the frog instead of Gary Cooper -- and she was still looming over me. I could have worn stilts and it would not have made a difference. So I said, "Well, I hope you enjoy what I've written. I may not be right for the show. You tell me what you think." That proved to be the best and worst thing I could have said. Next thing I knew, I was hunkered down in my own little dressing nook performing with the cast. And Margaret told me what she thought, what to do, and how to do it from then on. I learned a great deal from her, and in the (mumble) years that I knew her she came to value my opinion also. I always felt honored when she asked for it. She was an enormously inventive and provocative artist. She was quick-witted, quick-tempered, and quick to apologize. In the words of Shakespeare, she was a "Beautiful tyrant," a "Fiend angelical." I knew her and in her own words she was a wounded child. One who depended fiercely on comedy and laughter.
I knew and worked with Margaret for over 12 years at Esther's and there are numerous unforgettable stories. Of course, she was a great performer, wowing audiences every time she took the stage, but I'll mainly remember her for her courage. She would try anything on stage -- and often did. I never knew her once to suffer from stage fright, and she would heap plenty of good-natured contempt on those who would.
Margaret not only demanded a lot of herself onstage, she also demanded a lot of the audience. She wasn't content unless she "killed." An "OK" performance to her was a mediocre performance. She would almost will an audience to laugh louder, to applaud more, to be in her control. She could most assuredly "work" a crowd.
Margaret leaves behind great memories and a lot of grieving friends and fans, but for me she leaves behind lessons. Lessons of comedy, yes, but mainly of courage: To go for it! And if you fail, get off the stage quickly -- and change your jokes.
I am the rookie at Esther's, having logged only nine months to date, yet my experiences with Margaret have run the gamut. Her death has forced me to relive the death of my mother eight years ago. I am doing so because the two of them were very similar, as were our relationships. Our interaction could run as hot as it could cold. When I recently did a solo, Margaret complimented my "Rita Hayworth"-like qualities but was quick to point out my "lack of sexuality in the bump and grind." So with her help, I stood in front of the mirror to practice my hip thrusts. As nurturing as she could be in passing down her expertise, I knew that mediocre performances were not in her vocabulary and could tell by her look if I sucked; if not, she would just tell me. She would often drop by my dressing room to give me trinkets like earrings or belts and to let me borrow a wig. Margaret was the whole package; she was the character from voice to undergarments. She will always be part of the walls at Esther's, where her spirit will always linger.
Margaret was a truly inimitable performer. Like William Dente, with whom she shared an electrifying stage presence, she could rivet an audience with her gaze and, like him, deliver an all-out, over-the-top performance that her fans never forgot.
It's a tribute to her strengths to note that she never allowed physical ailments to interfere with her onstage persona. Her solos only sharpened with time, and in her very last performance she was at the top of her form, leaving audiences helpless with laughter.
The first time I saw Margaret at a Follies rehearsal in '82, she was hot-glueing together costumes and props out of the oddest bits of whatever, amazingly painting them into life. Her food especially looked funny and real, until you got close. Although its illusion quickly revealed its fragility, all an audience ever asks is that it work its magic. Sometimes that can be true with comedians, too.
She reluctantly mentioned her early life; but that's what she left behind when she took the stage. She proudly boasted she was a stripper, where other cast members included snakes and flaming torches. So, of course, she fit right in and created a life at Esther's the way the Follies has created a life in many of us -- an elusive illusion meant to share the happiness neither of us may have, but need to be convinced of, even if only for a moment.
We all know the magic she worked for nearly 20 years: Chi Chi, Aunt Edith, Delores, the Magician's charming assistant. As good or as bad as I ever saw her coming into the theatre, the stage and the audience worked their magic on her the same way she worked hers on them. It was always there, on the stage, bigger than life, that she really lived.
I make the shrine in Esther's lobby, then sit in the candlelight. Tomorrow, we'll have to do a show. Is it harder to laugh now? Very. Do we have to laugh? Of course. That's what laughter and magic and theatre is for. We laugh to live; we live to love; and we love to get to the Light. Even if only for a moment.
And you know that whatever stage, whatever Light, Margaret's Spirit is heading towards tonight, it's flying on wings made of Maxi-pads-- soaring on wind made of laughter. So, yeah, it's hard, but we'll laugh -- not for just an hour -- not for just a day -- not for just a year -- but for Margaret.
margaret wiley, chi chi la bomba, aunt edith, aunt edith’s craft tips, esther’s follies, shannon sedwick, linda wetherby, cindy wood, keith kelly, tamara beland, lyova rosanoff, michael prochoroff, michael caldwell, rachel winfree, william dente