BetteBack: Behind The Music

Bubbly Bette Midler‘s career born in a bathhouse
Article from:Chicago Sun-Times Article date:October 29, 2000 Author: CRAIG TOMASHOFF

It seems only fitting that Bette Midler’s career was launched in a bathhouse. After all, both can be pretty steamy. Both require a willingness to let it all hang out, so to speak. And both can run hot and cold.

These days, after a cold spell, Midler is heating up once again with her first TV sitcom, CBS’ “Bette.” Her character is loud, lewd and an eager overachiever. In other words, the show is pretty much autobiographical.

“I got on the path that would lead me to be what I want to be, and I never got off that path,” she says, describing her life and career on VH1’s “Behind the Music.” “I did have that ambition that really practically ate me up alive, that teeth-gnashing thing to get ahead and to be all those things that I had dreamed of being.”

The dreaming began in Honolulu in 1945. Midler was one of four children reared by her father, a civilian painter for the Navy, and her mother. Being a Jewish girl in a Polynesian world, she tried hard to fit in and ended up singing and acting her way through school. Then, at age 20, she decided to move to a new island: Manhattan.

She quickly went from being a go-go dancer to landing a major role in a Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but just when things were starting to look up for the young entertainer, her world crumbled when one of her sisters came to New York to see the play and was killed by a speeding taxi. For the next year, Midler tried to escape the tragedy by leaving “Fiddler” behind, but she was unable to find another acting role. So, rather than wait for something to change her life, she took her life into her own hands and started singing at the Continental Baths in Manhattan.

The 23-year-old began performing for an audience of gay men. “They were the most fabulous audience I’d ever met,” Midler says. “I mean, they were on something. It was all a big, vast experiment for this creature that I was creating.”

The beast was the Divine Miss M, her outrageous, show-stopping alter ego. An appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” brought her a flood of new fans and a deal with Atlantic Records. Her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” was released in 1972 and included her first hit single, a cover of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” She partnered with a manager, Aaron Russo, and soon Midler was a cover girl for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Newsweek.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Russo grew tense as she felt he pushed her harder and harder to succeed. Despite their problems, he landed her the starring role in the film that would prove to be her big acting break, “The Rose” (1979). The story of a self-destructive singer having trouble connecting to her emotionally distant father had many parallels to Midler’s own life-“I related a lot. It was terribly real”-and garnered her awards for both her singing and her acting.

The success came too late to save her relationship with Russo, but another man soon entered her life. She met and married Martin Von Haselberg, perhaps the world’s only commodities broker-performance artist. He was instrumental in reviving Midler’s film career, which had nearly expired when she followed “The Rose” with the appropriately titled “Jinxed” (1982). Von Haselburg suggested that she take a supporting role in the 1986 film “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” a move that put her back on top at age 40.

From films such as “Beaches” (1989) to songs like “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Midler had re-established herself as one of the country’s most versatile entertainers. Her return to the stage in in the HBO special “Diva Las Vegas” also proved that you could take the star out of the raunch, but you couldn’t take the raunch out of the star. And now, with her self-titled CBS sitcom on her resume, the “darling of the bathhouse” has become the Queen of All Media.

“What I chose or what happened to me made me a better human being,” she explains.

The Bette Midler episode of “Behind the Music” airs at 11 a.m. Nov. 8.

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