Hightailing It To Hampton


The Virginian Pilot; 3/4/2004

Photo: Spark St. Jude

BETTE MIDLER glared into the audience from the Chrysler Hall stage.

“Nor-folk. V.A.? Well, I’m on a tour of the tackiest towns in the U.S. of A., so here I am. Is the fleet in?”

That was in April 1973, before she was the Divine Miss M … before her numerous Grammy Awards … before “The Rose” … before the acting accolades. Midler returns to the area Saturday when her “Kiss My Brass” show plays at Hampton Coliseum. She returns as a full-fledged diva.

The show, which derives its name from the fact that she has a brass section for the first time, is the largest one she’s taken on the road. It features a Coney Island set with The Divine One descending from the ceiling on a carousel horse. It’s an extravaganza.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she told a New York audience a few weeks ago. “How old is that woman, anyway?”

She’ll be 58 this year and is the mother of 18-year-old Sophia, called Sophie, in honor of her mother’s infamous Sophie Tucker jokes of old.

But Midler, the tacky chanteuse of the 1970s, has not quite mellowed to the point that she’s Mother Teresa. The new show includes, among other things, a return of her mermaid act. In mermaid attire, she will do a send-up of Broadway, including a Bob Fosse “tribute” called ”All that Shad” rather than “All That Jazz.”

“Kiss My Brass” director Richard J. Alexander called Midler an original. “She’s one of the few left.She was determined that this show be new and original, but she knew she had to have the ingredients her fans wanted. She knows she has to do ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ and ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,’ but it was she who came up with the Coney Island idea.”

She predated Janet Jackson by three decades when, at Chrysler Hall, her frantic gyrations resulted in her own “wardrobe malfunction.” Midler never missed a beat.

Her only other local booking was in Williamsburg when The Virginian-Pilot review called her “outrageous and outlandish.”

Midler was born into the only Jewish family in a Samoan neighborhood in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her father was a house painter. Her mother, a devoted movie fan, named her for Bette Davis. She was the president and valedictorian of her high school class and studied drama for one year at the University of Hawaii.

Her life changed when she got a part as an extra in the movie “Hawaii,” starring Julie Andrews. She was the seasick missionary. Next stop was New York City. She got a job typing and filing at Columbia University, sold gloves in a department store and became a go-go dancer at a New Jersey bar before joining the La Mama Acting Group. Eventually, she took over the role of Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway.

So where did the “Divine One” moni ker originate? It was taken from a performer known as The Waterfront Woman at New York’s Theater of the Ridiculous.

“She was very bizarre and wore dresses down to her ankles,” Midler said. “I wanted to be just like her.”

She’s been married to commodities trader Martin Von Hasselberg since 1984.

Not everything has been divine. Her late father, from whom she was estranged, never saw her show. Her sister, Judy, was killed at 35 when a car ran over her in New York City. Her brother was mentally challenged.

She received an Academy Award nomination for her movie debut in “The Rose.” At a crucial point, her career was rescued by an unlikely source – Disney. She won leads in the hits “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People.”

But there were flops, too. “Jinxed” almost ended her career. The tear-jerker “Stella” was a flop and so was “Scenes From a Mall” with Woody Allen. Most harmful was the disaster of “Follow the Boys,” an expensive musical. She turned down the sadistic role in “Misery,” which brought an Academy Award to Kathy Bates.

Her new show is a mixture of comedy and the serious ballads that have become her standards. She does “Hey There,” “C’Mon a-My House” and “Tenderly” from her latest album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” The album represented a reconciliation with Barry Manilow, who worked with her in the early years.

She also knocks Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera from stage: “I opened the door for trashy singers with no taste and big breasts!” She also has zingers for President Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Liza Minnelli, depending on the night.

She’s not as bawdy as she was the last time she was here, but she’s not a little old lady, either. “So rich, and yet so cheap” is her self-evaluation.

“What are we, girls, but waitresses at the banquet of life?” she asked a New York audience. “Where is the gla-moor of this cesspool called life? Only the Divine One is left.”

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