NEW YORK â€” The gawkers and the talkers showed up an hour before show time, attracted by the ranging searchlights, and one another.
Tuesday night was a triumphant homecoming of sorts. It has been 10 years since Bette Midler played New York, and â€” with an unprecedented 30-show Radio City Music Hall engagement that has broken box-office records â€” her fans are more than ready to take her back.
A red carpet led up to the theater’s entrance, and red-velvet ropes corralled television crews from New York stations, HBO and “Entertainment Tonight.” An Italian TV reporter practiced her intro between energetic bouts of hair-fluffing.
The promise of celebrity sightings â€” limousines disgorging glittering cargo â€” drew a crowd of 100 or more onlookers. But for the better part of an hour, only a fluttering of publicity women was to be seen.
Not until Barbara Hershey, Midler’s co-star in the big-screen weeper “Beaches,” arrived, all smiles and poses, did the evening officially become a star-studded event.
Singer Cyndi Lauper was next, in a fake leopard wrap. Tanned photographer Richard Avedon. Statuesque actress Mercedes Ruehl. “Do I see somebody? It’s an actress with black hair! What’s her name?” said a woman in the lobby, one of aÂ throng of ticket holders whom Radio City employees were trying to shoo to their seats.
Calvin Kleim trooped down the red carpet, as did fellow fashion folks Oscar de la Renta and Carolyn Roehm. Others included Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters. Actor Donald Sutherland, looking ghostly white. Gloria Estefan. Dana Carvey. Mike Myers, k.d. lang. Mary Tyler Moore, her hair cut in a shag.
Regular people, too, made their entrances, as cameras flashed. They felt silly. “We’ll have to watch the news,” one woman joked to her companions.
Regis Philbin and wife Joy. Ahmet and Mica Ertegun (he heads Atlantic Records, which just released Midler’s latest album, “Experience the Divine.”) Hollywood’s Barry Diller (who now heads QVC), and agent-king Mike Ovitz.
“I’m Joan Collins,” announced a lacquer-haired, bejeweled woman with an awning of eyelashes. Maybe she was. Lauren Bacall made the showiest entrance of all, playing to the cameras as she made her way into the hall.
Inside the 5,874-seat hall, which soars three balconies high, audience members stood and craned their necks as if at a wedding, to see who was coming down the aisles. Katherine Helmond (“Soap,” “Who’s the Boss?”) received resounding applause from the crowd of largely well-dressed, middle-aged concertgoers willing to shell out $60 for the orchestra seats.
A celestial Midler â€” in a blonde, not redheaded, phase â€” emerged from a silvery cloud to a standing ovation, one of many she would receive Tuesday night. Tiny, teetering on silver Barbie-doll heels, the 47-year-old diva shouted: “LongÂ time, no see! Gee. I missed you. Time fliesvwhen you’re on Prozac!”
Launching into her first number, with its refrain, “I look good,” Midler called out: “I bet you didn’t expect me to look quite this faaabulous…. I bet you were expecting a beefier person.”
“I’ve been compromised, Disneyized,” she sang. “So rich. So cheap.”
In the 10 years since she has toured (she reportedly becomes nauseated with stage fright) Midler has, as one learns flipping through the $15 glossy souvenir program book: married Harry Kipper, also known as Martin von Haselberg; had aÂ baby, Sophie Frederica Alohilani; adopted a two-mile stretch of highway and made 10 movies. And, as she discloses in a full-page essay that bears her name, she has found that composting is the path to world peace.
As for why Midler launched this nationwide “Experience the Divine” tour â€” which began Aug. 20 in Minneapolis and runs into December â€” well, Midler writes in her program book: “I woke up one morning and yelled out my window â€” I need to fill concert halls to capacity and I need to do it now!”
After wrapping in New York on Oct. 23, the tour will go on to other cities, possibly including Philadelphia.
The raucousness and raunch that bawdy Betle tossed at towel-clad patrons of New York’s gay Continental Baths more than 20 years ago (as Barry Manilow played piano) remains in full force. The ugly duckling from Hawaii can s t i ll laugh at herselfâ€” and her hard-won fame.
“Shall I sing a ballad yet? Time for a ballad?” she keeps asking, referring to those overblown hits (“The Rose,” “Wind Beneath My Wings“) that her fans so love.
And as her three singing, dancing Harlettes start to strip down to pastics during one part of the show, Midler screeches for them to stop: “Girls! Girls! I work for Walt Disney!”
She takes shots at infomercial queen Cher, the shameless Burt and Loni (“Loni finally found another man,” she fake-sobs, beating her breast; “it took â€” weeks!) and Long Island’s Joey Buttafuoco.
“Do you believe there were two women who would sleep with Joey Buttafuoco?” she says, her voice a rising howl of incredulity, “That should be his legal defense.”
Mincing back and forth across the stage nonstop. Midler puts on a high-watlagc show that is part concert, part vaudeville, part burlesque.