THE D A I LY H E R A LD
Bette Midier Making Her Place As T Vs Multi-Media Experience
In A Time Of Unlikelies Bette Emerges As Something Else
By TOM WALES
The Washington Post
February 20, 1972
NEW YORK – “Did youÂ think I was going to be odd?”Â asks BettÂ» (she says, “Bet”)Â Midler.
“I’m not, am I? Do I lookÂ awful? Do you think I’mÂ schizzy?”
These are tough questionsÂ for an interviewer, sitting inÂ her New York grey apartment,
d r i n k i n g grapefruitÂ juice. Bette is curled into anÂ overstuffed chair that is covered wit an American flagÂ and asking her live-in boyfriend and her backup bassÂ player Michael if he hasÂ melted her third coffee pot ofÂ the year by leaving it on theÂ burner too long.
In a time of unlikelies and aÂ city of grotesques, Bette Midler is still something else.
She’s avant. Singing andÂ vamping and leaping about aÂ few square feet of stage space,Â she just completed her secondÂ smash engagement at Manhattan’s t r e n d y Downstairs at the Upstairs. TheÂ new darling of the JohnnyÂ Carson Show ( “c r a zy BetteÂ Midler is with us tonight, Johnny will say), she opensÂ on the bill with Carson in LasÂ Vegas this April.
She is a tiny 5 feet 1, andÂ her spastically expressiveÂ face is too big for her body, but Richard Avedon has justÂ photographed her adoringlyÂ for Vogue. Atlantic RecordsÂ has signed her to a contract.Â At the Downstairs,Â where she is introduced asÂ “The Divine Miss M,” sheÂ tells audiences “I’m everything you don’t want your little girl to become” and lapses into her own middle jive toÂ express reactions. “It’s theÂ pits,” currently her favoriteÂ phrase, means, roughly, “It ‘sÂ the worst.”
“I never expected to go thisÂ far eve r ,” she says. “I mean,Â I wanted to, but now that IÂ have to do it, it’s just a wholeÂ other story.”
Onstage, it’s manic-depressive time, as she plummetsÂ from an incredible imitationÂ of all three Andrews SistersÂ at once, singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of CompanyÂ B,” to a solitary, ’70s “Superstar.” Her repertoire has alsoÂ included “Sh-boom” and “DoÂ You Wanna Dance?” and aÂ number called “Marijuana,”Â began but not finished in anÂ obscure 30’s movie musical.
When she sings that one,Â she’s a licentious Carmen Miranda. When she sings “Empty Bed Blues,” she’s a whiteÂ Bessie Smith. But in her braless, ripped and filmy blouse, in a skirt slit up to here, inÂ her too much lipstick andÂ hubba-hubba rouge, Bette is notÂ mere camp or Miss Nostalgia.Â She’s a multi-media experience.
“I sort of have sung off andÂ on most of my life,” sheÂ says, huddled into a comer atÂ a seafood restaurant and poiing at the 12 clams her manager has permitted her forÂ lunch. “But three years ago,Â when I first heard ArethaÂ Franklin, I said, ‘Ah! That’sÂ what it’s about!’ ”
Even without her makeupÂ and with a funny knit hatÂ pulled down over her ears,
she is theater. Her hands andÂ ?-ms pose in mock surpriseÂ it a compliment; her eyes
come out from behind theirÂ natural squint and light up.
There are gasps, jumps shouts and a medley of movieÂ musical swoons.
Born, of all places, in Hawaii, she worked at her father’s pineapple plant as a kid.
“We all did â€” my two sistersÂ and I. One sister has sinceÂ passed away. One is homeÂ getting a master’s in speechÂ therapy, and my brother isÂ mentally retarded. A hot family, honey. A hot family.
They’ve seen me on TV. MyÂ father can’t handle it live. ItÂ disturbs him. My motherÂ thinks it’s all wonderful. MyÂ father just thinks it’s theÂ pits.”
She left Hawaii in 1965 andÂ got the role of Tzeitel inÂ “Fiddler on the Roof.” AfterÂ two years of that, she becameÂ a go-go dancer at a crummyÂ Manhattan club..
Miscellaneous singing followed that, but “never withÂ the vengeance” of now, untilÂ she was booked into a gay spaÂ in mid-Manhattan. “That wasÂ a hoot.” Soon after, she wonÂ a spot in the Carson show,Â where the fact that the spaÂ was gay was clearly avoided.
“Well, what was I supposedÂ to say â€” ‘I sing for 500 faggots every Saturday night,Â what’s-it-to-ya?’ They weren’t ready for that.”
She acknowledges a largeÂ gay following but says theÂ constituency is really a broadÂ cross-section. “You’ve neverÂ seen such a group like I get.Â They’re old and young andÂ straight and gay and freaksÂ and poor and rich. I say,Â ‘What a re you doing here?’ IÂ don’t know exactly what it is,Â you know, but they like beingÂ there. Some of them comeÂ back â€” you wouldn’t buhleeve!
“And sometimes theyÂ fight each other. Conventioneers will come in and theyÂ don’t know they’re supposedÂ to sit there and listen. OtherÂ people come in who’ve paidÂ their money and can’t affordÂ to go out more than once aÂ month and just practicallyÂ beat the pants off these people who are not listening andÂ they go sh! sh! sh! sh! andÂ then the conventioneers stopÂ and listen and they all become one big happy familyÂ and they say, “Oh, look she’s
wunnuhhfuli: Oh, look atÂ her.”
Bette’s fever pitching onÂ stage can send the crowdedÂ room into fury. One night sheÂ feared her actor friend BudÂ Cort (“Brewster McCloud“)Â was going to crown a truckÂ driver with a beer bottle becaue he wouldn’t shut up.
“When something like thatÂ happens, I think, they’re gonna crash the stage and I’ll beÂ the victim.” Another night,Â loyalists were literally dancing on the tables â€” a feat,Â considering the tables areÂ about eight inches in diameter. How could anybody danceÂ on them?
“Darling,” sheÂ says, pushing out an arm,Â “those children can dance onÂ the head of a pin.”
It’s not just the New YorkÂ super-chic who have latchedÂ onto Bette, but what, indeed, Â do others think when they seeÂ this explosive creature withÂ electrocuted hair flailing i n t o “Chattanooga ChooChoo?” “I think they loveÂ me,” is the confident answer.
“They love me in Chicago. IÂ played Mister Kelly’s there aÂ lot. The only people who areÂ frightened of me are peopleÂ who feel threatened by anything out of their own natureÂ or every day experience.”
She jumps up because she’sÂ late for a singing lesson.Â Maurice, bearded and fat andÂ a singing teacher if thereÂ ever was one, is not glad toÂ see her.
“You! You’re late! I’mÂ through with you! You’re aÂ pain in the a..” She kissesÂ him and says she’ll see himÂ on Wednesday. During theÂ short walk to her apartment,Â she stops to kick a phoneÂ truck. ” I t ‘s the first one I’veÂ seen in months!”
The phone company, enemyÂ of all New Yorkers, took outÂ her phone too soon and now,Â because of a strike, won’t putÂ in a new one. She hates them.
And New York! It’s the pitsÂ to her. Inside her apartment,Â we are both coughing â€” what
causes it? ” It ‘s the a i r ,” sheÂ says, closing a window. WeÂ stop coughing.
“I’m paranoid to beginÂ with,” she says, withdrawingÂ into the chair, surrrounded byÂ pots of plants. “I make myÂ living doing who I am, andÂ who I am is a lot different from a lot of people. So occasionally when all this tensionÂ starts building up in me IÂ start thinking they’ll comeÂ and cart me away. In order toÂ keep from freaking out, IÂ transcend it. I rise above it.
Physically and mentally both.Â I say, ‘Now you just stopÂ that! Now you just stop that!Â Now don’t you be paranoid!Â And t h ai I say, ‘Ahhhhh, I’mÂ above it all, above it all.’ ”
She plays an Andrews sisters record and Boogie Woogies to it. Then she plays aÂ new Laura Nyro album andÂ gyrates to that. She is a littleÂ of every past decade butÂ loves the early ’60s best. “IÂ think we should go back andÂ do the ’60s over.
“I guess I’m silly enoughÂ and old fashioned enough toÂ want to be known as an artist, as a singer, as a greatÂ singer.