A DIVINE RETURN
Bette’s back in Buffalo after 28 years and a vow never to perform here again
By SUSAN LOTEMPIO
Photo: John J.
Put your thinking caps on, baby boomers, and try to remember the winter night in the late ’70s when Bette Midler played Buffalo.
It’s the stuff that local legends are made of.
The date: February 1976.
The place: The New Century Theater (though some concertgoers with fuzzy memories swear it was Kleinhans or Shea’s).
The situation: Seven members of Midler’s touring group were arrested at their Delaware Avenue hotel and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana.
The result: Midler opened her show propped up on a bed at center stage unleashing a rambling diatribe against our boys in blue, especially then-Erie County Sheriff Michael A. Amico. (Some in the audience wondered if she would ever sing a note that night.)
The urban legend that grew out of that concert: Midler swore she would never play Buffalo again.
Apparently, 28 years later, the Divine Miss M has changed her mind since her “Kiss My Brass” tour lands for a one-night performance Tuesday in HSBC Arena.
Will she open the show in a bed? Will members of her touring group get busted again?
Will spiked brownies be passed around the audience and a funny sweet smell fill the air like it did that night so long ago?
The fans filling the arena at 8 p.m. Tuesday are 28 years older. They have gray hair, kids, mortgages and sensible cars. And since they don’t get out to concerts on weeknights much anymore, they wonder how they’ll ever make it to work Wednesday morning.
These folks will pass on the spiked brownies, not so much out of principle but because of the carb count. Still, they are hardcore fans of Bette Midler and they expect her to be as sassy, wacky and loud as ever.
Even if she is 58 years old.
• • •
You have to wonder if Midler still has the stamina she displayed back in ’76, once she got out of that bed.
Here’s how Buffalo Evening News reviewer Dale Anderson described what happened:
It was a “sassy, fun-filled spectacle from the moment Midler in bloomers pops out of the bed singing her old theme song “Friends’ until she belted it out again three hours later in a bicentennial finale in which she appears as the Statue of Liberty.”
In that review, Anderson also mentions delays in the show, temper tantrums back stage and props that wouldn’t work.
Midler performed the legendary King Kong bit, lounge singer Vicki-Eydie made an appearance and the Harlettes sang backup.
That was then.
This is now:
Midler’s December 2003 show, according to the Chicago Tribune, “provided more campy moments than a visit to the Liberace museum in Las Vegas.”
The “Kiss My Brass” tour is Midler’s first in four years, and it’s her first with a brass section. Playing dates in more than 40 cities, she is raking in the bucks. According to the Feb. 28 Billboard, ticket sales for her Seattle and Denver shows pushed her to third and sixth, respectively, in the Top 50 female acts.
No wonder she said to the crowd in Chicago, “Let me say officially, I’m not retiring and you can’t make me.”
• • •
What has Bette Midler been up to since we last saw her? Let’s take a look at some of the highs and lows of her career.
• She’s had several concert tours. “De Tour” in 1982-83, “Experience the Divine Tour” in ’93, and the 32-city “Divine Miss Millennium Tour” in 1999. (Anyone remember even one of those swinging through Buffalo?)
• She’s had many successful albums – “The Rose” and “Beaches” soundtracks, her greatest hits collection “Experience the Divine” and the recent “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” (You can bet a pretty penny she made some bucks off Western New Yorkers in CD sales in the last 28 years.)
• You can also bet that fans around here bought tickets to her many movies. The big hits “First Wives Club,” “Beaches” and “The Rose” immediately come to mind. Let us also not forget “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People.”
• But she’s also had a few duds. If you went to see “Scenes from a Mall” or “Stella” then your idea of fan loyalty goes too far.
• There was that unfortunate television sitcom – the short-lived “Bette” on CBS in 2000. Midler had a more successful TV experience with “Gypsy” (at least the CD was pretty good), but her shining moment on TV was her performance of “One for My Baby” on Johnny Carson’s last appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
• She’s done Broadway, comedy albums and HBO specials. She sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” in 2001 at a memorial rally for victims of Sept. 11.
• Midler’s next movie is a remake of “The Stepford Wives” with Glenn Close, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick that’s due out this summer.
• Since 1997, she’s been the driving force behind the New York Restoration Project, which reclaims and cleans neglected public spaces in Manhattan.
• She’s won Golden Globes, Emmys and Grammys. She’s also had several Oscar nominations.
Not bad for this Hawaii native whose singing career started at the Continental Baths.
• • •
What can fans who paid between $39.30 and $125 (a far cry higher than ticket prices in 1976) expect to see Tuesday night?
Plenty of camp, to be sure. Midler’s grand entrance, according to the Chicago Tribune, involves “descending from above while riding in a white carousel horse. (And) her exit (is) from a carnival “tunnel of love’ in a sleigh the shape of a pair of swans.
“Even the set, a glittering Arabian Nights-themed amusement park that Midler referred to as a “Coney Island of the Mind,’ was characteristically over the top.”
Expect jokes, too. Midler pokes fun at herself with a filmed skit starring Judge Judy, who sentences Midler after subjecting America to her self-titled sitcom, to “apologize to everyone who ever owned or might have owned a television set.”
The Harlettes are on the bill, as is the wheelchair-riding mermaid, Delores Delago.
Unlike 1976, though, there should be no worries about whether Midler will sing.
Reviews from cities where the “Kiss My Brass” tour has already played to packed houses, report that the Divine Miss M is in great voice and belts out of the best of her songbook from “When a Man Loves a Woman” to Rosemary Clooney tunes.
It’s a night to look forward to. And, perhaps, take a nap to prepare for.
Twenty-eight years later, one thing certain: Buffalo is glad to have her back.