KMB II Interview: San Jose

Better Midler’s valentine to old-style entertaining
By Jon Matsumoto
Special to the Mercury News

A Bette Midler performance isn’t just a concert; it’s an event. And the current “Kiss My Brass” tour is probably her most lavish show yet. Which is quite an accomplishment, since the Divine Miss M has been wowing audiences since launching her solo career in the early ’70s.

The show, which touches down Saturday at HP Pavilion at San Jose, radiates the carnival-like atmosphere of Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century. The audience will see big stage sets, elaborate props, fancy costumes and even a few “death-defying” stunts.

“There are a lot of laughs, as well,” Midler says in a telephone interview. “It’s a little blue because I’m notoriously bawdy. So it’s kind of got a little bit of everything.”

The 59-year-old performer says she’s part of a vanishing breed of entertainer — one capable of crafting a sassy show that’s full of camp, humor, theatricality and music.

“It’s a form of entertainment that a lot of people aren’t interested in doing, because it’s an old form, and most people just don’t know how to do it anymore,” Midler says. “I’m one of the few that still does it. That’s part of why wives and moms bring their kids to the show, because they want them to experience this form before it disappears altogether.”

“Kiss My Brass,” Midler’s first tour to feature a brass section in the band, embraces her old hits as well as material from her current album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” It was Barry Manilow’s idea for her to record songs popularized by Clooney. Manilow was Midler’s piano player, musical director and arranger in the early ’70s.

“Barry came to me with the idea,” she explains. “We both thought she was a great vocalist. He made it so easy for me. He had all the arrangements done even before I agreed to do it. It only took about a week to record. That was the shortest, happiest musical experience I have ever had.”

Midler knew Clooney, who died in 2002 at the age of 74.

“I met her on a number of occasions,” Midler says. “She kind of took me under her wing a little bit. I just adored her. I thought she was the most gracious, lovely lady. Her voice was still beautiful up until the end. When Barry asked me to do this project, I was a little nervous, because I didn’t want to say, `Well, look at me! I can sing this stuff, too.’ I did want to honor her memory.”

Midler says her shows these days corral a diverse crowd — young and old, gay and straight, though it was a gay audience that first embraced her about 35 years ago. By 1972, she was a national sensation after releasing the hit album “The Divine Miss M” and appearing on the cover of Newsweek.

Her star continued to rise as she moved into acting in films. Her performance in “The Rose” (1979) earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress. The role was loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin.

A career slump in the early ’80s triggered a period of depression and heavy drinking, but Midler was back on top during the second half of that decade with roles in the hit films “Ruthless People” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” She also scored the hit singles “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance.” Though she appeared earlier this year in the film “The Stepford Wives” with Nicole Kidman, Midler says she rarely gets major movie offers anymore.

“I make my living on the stage and with recordings, and I have so many other interests,” she says.

Much of her time is spent at home in New York, working for various community causes. She has been active in supporting the environment, children’s musical education and the community garden and park movements. She also has been heavily involved in AIDS causes.

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