Bette Midler: Rare Footage of The Divine Miss M Performing at the Continental Baths
by Richard Metzger
Although for myself, I can’t even comprehend not liking Bette Midler–for me it was love at first sight–I am told that she is an acquired taste; and one that my darling wife–who has great taste in music and everything else, I hasten to add–has not acquired. This morning, I was blasting her first LP, The Divine Miss M from 1972 while Tara was running errands–I haven’t heard it in years–and it simply knocked me out. Produced by Barry Manilow, Ahmet Ertegun and the Grammy-award winning producer Joel Dorn, with a crack set of session musicians and back-up singers like Cissy Houston and Melissa Manchester, The Divine Miss M is nothing less than the unveiling of a very major talent on the world, as Midler’s 40+ years at the top of her profession attest to. She didn’t write any of the songs, but trust me, she owns them all. She’s one of those people who just oozes talent and concerning the quality of her voice and its incredible power, well, she belongs in that smallest circle of all singing, all dancing, all acting diva divas, like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and the great Broadway talents like Ethel Merman. She’s got the lungs, no two ways about it.
This morning I was poking around the Internet reading about Bette Midler’s early career and there are a lot of interesting things I discovered, especially for those of you reading this who think of her more as the Midler-of-the-road songstress of From A Distance, than the raunchy, brassy young broad she started her career as.
The short story is that she was a talkative Jewish chick with a BIG personality who grew up in a mostly Asian neighborhood in Honolulu, who was probably dying to get out of there from an early age. She moved to New York in 1965 at the age of 20 and by 1967 she was playing the small role of Tzeitel in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof, with Zero Mostel, Maria Karnilova, Bea Arthur and other notables.
Midler really came into her own, however, in the cabaret of the Continental Baths, a pioneering gay bathhouse where gay and straight culture mixed in the 70s. An Aretha Franklin album hit Midler like a bolt from the blue and she decided to become a singer, mixing campy classics like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Leader of the Pack” with her wacky thrift store fashion sense, quirky personality and dirty jokes. A friend suggested that she might want to consider launching her unconventional stage show at an unconventional place and so Midler took up a residency at the Continental Baths, playing next to a waterfall to an audience consisting of bath house patrons wearing nothing but white towels around their waists and “chic” straight couples looking for an unusual night out.
It was here that Midler’s brassy “fag hag” persona (“I am the last of the truly tacky women”) took shape and it was imperative that she do everything she could to capture the attention of the Continental Baths clientele: after all, there was basically a Dionysian orgy going on all around her. When Midler opened her mouth, the orgy parted like the Red Sea. Her musical director for her formative years was the aforementioned Manilow, who would perform, it has been said, wearing only a towel himself, as he sat at his piano.
While this underground residency was going on, Midler was performing regularly on mainstream talkshows like David Frost’s, Merv Griffin’s and even the super straight (but unfailingly sweet) Mike Douglas’ show. Where her star really rose, though, was when Johnny Carson took Midler on as a sort of protege. She appeared on The Tonight Show quite regularly for 18 months and opened for Carson in Las Vegas. By the time The Divine Miss M came out, she was already a known quantity and Midler went on to win a Grammy that year, the album selling nearly a million copies.
Bette Midler is an important figure in the history of gay rights in this country. Not for any one thing that she did, more for what she stood for. When her show came to town, it was an excuse for her gay fans to come out in force, dress up and get their freak on, at a time there would have been few opportunities to do so in most American cities. With her big personality and “trash with flash” Midler became a rallying point for young gay men of the 70s, not in a political sense, but a cultural sense, Midler injecting sassy gay sensibilities into the mainstream via her megawatt talents.
Here are links to some clips of the Divine Bette performing at the Baths. Considering the scarcity of consumer video cameras at that time, it’s a wonder that any visual records of Midler’s performances there exist at all, but here they are, thank you to the glory of YouTube. The best two clips, “Marahuana” and “Fat Stuff” are not embeddable. “Fat Stuff” has a lot of stage banter. (I liked one of the YouTube comments: “Wow, this was back when you had to be talented to have a career!” Too true, too true”¦)