The audience is colorful, with ladies in prairie skirts and turquoise jewelry and gentlemen in cowboy boots, string ties and an occasional cowboy hat. But up on stage at the Santa Fe (N.Mex.) Festival Theater, the setting is a proper English drawing room where Madeline Kahn is conducting séances in a production of Blithe Spirit. As Madame Arcati, the elderly, eccentric medium who conjures up spirits, Kahn, 40, is thoroughly enjoying the chance to perform a Noël Coward comedy in a small (340-seat) converted armory. “There’s a different feeling in the theater here,” says Kahn. “You aren’t as self-conscious as you would be on Broadway or a big city. You take more risks.”
Audiences and the local critics appreciate her comic inventiveness in the role (“Kahn brings many idiosyncratic touches to her performance,” said the New Mexican). The actress herself contends that the unique surroundings have been an inspiration. “There’s something about this place, a lot of mysterious and primitive stuff going on—faith healing, sorcery, herbal therapy. Santa Fe is beautiful, and I’m moved by what I see and how I feel here.” The setting apparently compensates for the salary—an Actors Equity minimum of $321 per week.
The pay was significantly better for her work in Yellowbeard, this summer’s spoofy pirate film starring Madeline and a cast of thousands, including the Monty Python troupe, Cheech and Chong, Peter Boyle and the late Marty Feldman. “I don’t think my role is anything particularly special,” says Kahn. “I did it because it’s flattering to be one of the few women who work with these guys who are so clever. It’s kind of neat.”
Even neater, she feels, is her debut this September in her first TV series, Madeline, an ABC sitcom about a wife and mother appropriately named Madeline, who is struggling to keep her 10-year marriage from going stale. “The character is a little like me,” the actress explains. “She’s curious. She doesn’t want to die without having done certain things.”
Kahn’s own spirit of adventure dates to her childhood in Boston and New York. The daughter of a garment manufacturer, she was fascinated by music and show business and eventually won a drama scholarship to Long Island’s Hofstra University. While in college, she sang in a nearby German supper club, where she perfected the accent and operatic gusto that later landed her the part of the Teutonic saloon singer in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Subsequent roles in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and History of the World secured Kahn’s reputation as a comic actress, but she believes comedy has crimped her love life. “Men don’t feel comfortable being romantic with a funny woman,” laments Madeline, who has never married and claims no current love.
In any case, her performance schedule has her getting plenty of rest in her “nothing special” rented one-bedroom adobe house (her Manhattan home is six rooms on Park Avenue). However, she is disciplined about taking a daily half-mile swim, one-mile jog, and a workout with a Jane Fonda aerobics tape. Thanks to that routine, perhaps, Kahn has been free of the woes she suffered in 1978 when fatigue and a faltering voice forced her out of the Broadway hit On the Twentieth Century. This time no replacement is likely to be necessary. “The Blithe Spirit role calls for a comic eccentric actress, and I couldn’t find anybody better than Madeline,” says Tom Gardner, the theater’s artistic director. Mel Brooks sums up her talents another way. “Madeline,” he says, “would even be funny late at night in a closed Regal Shoe store, singing and dancing in the aisles.”