Tour Tidbettes and More…Thanks Kathy!

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Photo: Barbara Sussman

Winning Bette
Monday, December 08, 2003
Margaret Quamme

While planning her latest concert tour, Bette Midler was inspired by a PBS documentary.

“I was talking to a friend of mine before we started, and he pointed out that almost everything I talked about or sang about was something to do with the sea,” she said recently from Los Angeles, where she was preparing for the tour.

“And he asked me if I’d ever seen any pictures of old Coney Island, and I actually hadn’t.”

So he showed her a Ric Burns documentary about the New York amusement
park. “It was beautifully lit up — really a magical place,” she said. “When you go to a place like that, you throw off your everyday self and become somebody else. You leave your cares behind, and you play. And that’s what I wanted the show to be.”

The show, with the brazen title “Kiss My Brass,” combines elements of the theater, the circus and the borscht belt.

“I’ve done big shows before, but I think this is the biggest. It certainly has the most moving parts.”

Midler enjoys touring because “You get to see all these places you don’t get to see otherwise. I hate to say that it’s cultural anthropology, but in a way it is. I have a lot of curiosity about the way people live.”

Among the songs she expects to perform are several from her new recording, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.

“I don’t often have an album I can promote with a tour,” she said. “I’m usually a day late and a dollar short.”

The compact disc was put together by Barry Manilow, her arranger and accompanist in the 1960s and early ’70s.

He initially called to tell her about a dream he’d had.

“Usually, when somebody says something like that to you, you think, `Oh, please,’ ” Midler said. “But I hadn’t heard from him in so long that I wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Upon hearing that he had dreamed about her making an album of Clooney
tunes from the 1950s, Midler hesitated.

She worried that, because Clooney died only last year, the family wouldn’t approve.

She also feared that she didn’t have the voice for the songs, such as On a Slow Boat to China.

“It’s a doorway into another world, another time,” Midler said. “It’s a kind of reflected truth that leaves the bad bits out.”

Yet she couldn’t resist when Manilow suggested that she sing with a big band — and that he arrange the music.

“Arrangement is a real art,” she said. “It’s fallen by the wayside in the last 30 or 40 years. People don’t write stuff out much anymore, unless they’re doing sweetening for a record.”

She attributes the success of the new album to the closet fans of American standards — those who “love this music but are afraid that people will think they’re not cool.”

Before she began preparing for her tour, Midler was finishing work on a remake of The Stepford Wives — to be released in the summer.

She referred to the latest version as “a comedy with creepy overtones.”

“It’s really old-style Hollywood,” she said. “It even has waltzing in it.”

She plays Bobbie, the outrageous and outspoken best friend of the heroine (Nicole Kidman).

“Bobbie’s such a doll. I am Miss Makeover in this movie.”

Midler, 58, lives in New York with her husband and daughter, having moved back from Los Angeles in 1994.

While on the West Coast, she worked with an environmental group involved in cleaning up canyons.

So, upon her return to New York, she founded the New York Restoration Project (www.nyrp. org), which cleans and develops parks and community gardens in the five boroughs — and which recently started building the first boathouse on the Harlem River in 100 years.

Her “new favorite book” reflects her opinion about the American lack of respect for the environment: Domestic Manners of the Americans, popular in Britain when first published in 1832, offers a lively, uninhibited description of an Englishwoman who experiences the Midwest.

“It’s a riot,” Midler said of the volume by Fanny Trollope. “She really dumps on Cincinnati. She says they were slaughtering their pigs in the streams.

“When I read that book, I thought: `Those are my people! Those are the people I keep picking up after!’ “

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