On The Road: Do You Know The Way To San Jose???

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Pure Show Biz
The San Francisco Gate
Joel Selvin
Sunday, February 1, 2004

Bette Midler’s short-lived 2000 CBS sitcom “Bette” may not have worked out, but she continues to make movies — she’s in this summer’s remake of “The Stepford Wives.” Her record career never set the world on fire, but she earned a Grammy nod for her latest CD, a tribute to Rosemary Clooney that finds her collaborating with former musical director Barry Manilow for the first time since the start of their careers.

But it’s onstage, in front of an audience, that Midler, 58, is free to be herself, unrestricted by the demands of a medium, the expectations of an audience, or even the boundaries of good taste. She’s happy doing what she does best.

“All these new girls are so trashy,” Midler tells the audience at her new “Kiss My Brass” touring show. “And do I get a thank-you note?”

Back on the boards after a four-year absence, (Midler named the show after her new horn section — her first ever), the Divine One has staged the new production in a 19th century Coney Island of her mind.

“It’s got freaks of nature, death-defying stunts, all that kind of thing, ” she says in a late-night call from Washington, D.C., where the tour played Jan. 23. “It’s got a beautiful set, beautiful clothes, gorgeous lighting. It’s full of laughs and tears, what everybody wants. It goes along like a bat out of hell. … It’s the same act with more gee-gaws,” she says. “It’s always been the same thing — a mix of different styles of music that I love, various jokes, terrible, whatever, some dancing. The stages keep getting bigger, but it’s all the same thing.”

Midler’s last tour not only broke the box-office record at the Radio City Music Hall, but it also ushered in the dawn of the new millennium in Las Vegas. Having long ago risen from the subterranean depths of Manhattan’s gay bathhouses as a camp sensation, Midler has become the greatest star of the contemporary concert stage, the most exalted practition- er of pure show business still working, the last person to sing a song on TV for Johnny Carson.

The seeds of “Brass,” Midler’s grandest venture yet, were sown when it was pointed out to her by a set designer that a thread running through all her work was water. “I hadn’t noticed,” she says. “But, indeed, a lot of things I have done have taken place by the sea. I had that big movie, ‘Beaches,’ and all those ‘Shiver Me Timbers’ songs that I always loved.”

That cunning set designer was Michael Cotten, who began his career 30 years ago in San Francisco painting sets and designing props for wacky theatrical rockers the Tubes. He also played synthesizer in the band, but preferred calling himself a machine operator rather than a musician. He showed Midler photographs of Coney Island taken around the First World War, and she began to research the subject.

“The thing that was so magical about the material that I collected,” she says, “is that many (sources) said that (Coney Island) caused a great upheaval among all sorts of classes of people. The people who had jobs in factories would become different people. They would get on the train and throw their clothes off and they would be entirely different people. I thought that was such a wonderful metaphor. I didn’t want people to take their clothes off. I wanted the idea that they had been renewed, or that they had gotten a little refreshment after all they’d been through.

“Those are the intellectual reasons behind it, but basically it’s just a good old-fashioned show,” Midler says. “It’s got a lot going on. It’s highly entertaining. It’s a real effort. It’s not like we skimped on anything — we really did try. I think the audience knows that. I think they really appreciate that, even though it’s an arena experience, it’s a very beautiful arena experience. It’s not just flash pots and blazing lights. It has ideas and it has gags and jokes and some movement to it. I really do think they appreciate it. The other night — I was stunned — they rushed the stage. And these are my peeps, these are not 15-year-olds. These are people who’ve lived some.”

The three-time Grammy winner spoke out earlier this month when she found out that she had again been nominated for a Grammy, and that her nominated album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” was up against the last live recording by the great ’50s pop vocalist Clooney herself, who died of cancer in 2002. Midler pondered aloud the prospect of having her nomination withdrawn, but discussed the issue with the record’s producer, Manilow.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry. Tony Bennett always wins,’ ” Midler says.

The Clooney tribute album reunites Midler with Manilow, who served as her accompanist and musical director all those years ago at the Continental Baths and went on to produce her first two albums before he became a household name himself. And the dream reteaming album was — apparently literally — Manilow’s vision.

“He called me up and said he had this dream,” Midler says. “I hadn’t spoken with him in a long time. We’d had a little bit of a falling out. When he called me, I was so happy. I really adore him — I think he’s just a riot. I know him like nobody knows him. When we were kids on the road together, we really had some very hilarious adventures. So we were there at the beginning of both of our careers. I guess he has a soft spot in his heart for me. I certainly do for him.”

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