BetteBack Interview: That Crazy Bette Midler ~ February 20, 1972

Bette Midier Making Her Place As T Vs Multi-Media Experience
In A Time Of Unlikelies Bette Emerges As Something Else
The Washington Post
February 20, 1972

NEW YORK – “Did you think I was going to be odd?” asks Bett» (she says, “Bet”) Midler.

“I’m not, am I? Do I look awful? Do you think I’m schizzy?”

These are tough questions for an interviewer, sitting in her New York grey apartment,
d r i n k i n g grapefruit juice. Bette is curled into an overstuffed chair that is covered wit an American flag and asking her live-in boyfriend and her backup bass player Michael if he has melted her third coffee pot of the year by leaving it on the burner too long.

In a time of unlikelies and a city of grotesques, Bette Midler is still something else.

She’s avant. Singing and vamping and leaping about a few square feet of stage space, she just completed her second smash engagement at Manhattan’s t r e n d y Downstairs at the Upstairs. The new darling of the Johnny Carson Show ( “c r a zy Bette Midler is with us tonight, Johnny will say), she opens on the bill with Carson in Las Vegas this April.

She is a tiny 5 feet 1, and her spastically expressive face is too big for her body, but Richard Avedon has just photographed her adoringly for Vogue. Atlantic Records has signed her to a contract. At the Downstairs, where she is introduced as “The Divine Miss M,” she tells audiences “I’m everything you don’t want your little girl to become” and lapses into her own middle jive to express reactions. “It’s the pits,” currently her favorite phrase, means, roughly, “It ‘s the worst.”

“I never expected to go this far eve r ,” she says. “I mean, I wanted to, but now that I have to do it, it’s just a whole other story.”

Onstage, it’s manic-depressive time, as she plummets from an incredible imitation of all three Andrews Sisters at once, singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” to a solitary, ’70s “Superstar.” Her repertoire has also included “Sh-boom” and “Do You Wanna Dance?” and a number called “Marijuana,” began but not finished in an obscure 30’s movie musical.

When she sings that one, she’s a licentious Carmen Miranda. When she sings “Empty Bed Blues,” she’s a white Bessie Smith. But in her braless, ripped and filmy blouse, in a skirt slit up to here, in her too much lipstick and hubba-hubba rouge, Bette is not mere camp or Miss Nostalgia. She’s a multi-media experience.

“I sort of have sung off and on most of my life,” she says, huddled into a comer at a seafood restaurant and poiing at the 12 clams her manager has permitted her for lunch. “But three years ago, when I first heard Aretha Franklin, I said, ‘Ah! That’s what it’s about!’ ”

Even without her makeup and with a funny knit hat pulled down over her ears,
she is theater. Her hands and ?-ms pose in mock surprise it a compliment; her eyes
come out from behind their natural squint and light up.

There are gasps, jumps shouts and a medley of movie musical swoons.

Born, of all places, in Hawaii, she worked at her father’s pineapple plant as a kid.

“We all did – my two sisters and I. One sister has since passed away. One is home getting a master’s in speech therapy, and my brother is mentally retarded. A hot family, honey. A hot family.

They’ve seen me on TV. My father can’t handle it live. It disturbs him. My mother thinks it’s all wonderful. My father just thinks it’s the pits.”

She left Hawaii in 1965 and got the role of Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” After two years of that, she became a go-go dancer at a crummy Manhattan club..

Miscellaneous singing followed that, but “never with the vengeance” of now, until she was booked into a gay spa in mid-Manhattan. “That was a hoot.” Soon after, she won a spot in the Carson show, where the fact that the spa was gay was clearly avoided.

“Well, what was I supposed to say – ‘I sing for 500 faggots every Saturday night, what’s-it-to-ya?’ They weren’t ready for that.”

She acknowledges a large gay following but says the constituency is really a broad cross-section. “You’ve never seen such a group like I get. They’re old and young and straight and gay and freaks and poor and rich. I say, ‘What a re you doing here?’ I don’t know exactly what it is, you know, but they like being there. Some of them come back – you wouldn’t buhleeve!

“And sometimes they fight each other. Conventioneers will come in and they don’t know they’re supposed to sit there and listen. Other people come in who’ve paid their money and can’t afford to go out more than once a month and just practically beat the pants off these people who are not listening and they go sh! sh! sh! sh! and then the conventioneers stop and listen and they all become one big happy family and they say, “Oh, look she’s
wunnuhhfuli: Oh, look at her.”

Bette’s fever pitching on stage can send the crowded room into fury. One night she feared her actor friend Bud Cort (“Brewster McCloud“) was going to crown a truck driver with a beer bottle becaue he wouldn’t shut up.

“When something like that happens, I think, they’re gonna crash the stage and I’ll be the victim.” Another night, loyalists were literally dancing on the tables – a feat, considering the tables are about eight inches in diameter. How could anybody dance on them?

“Darling,” she says, pushing out an arm, “those children can dance on the head of a pin.”

It’s not just the New York super-chic who have latched onto Bette, but what, indeed,  do others think when they see this explosive creature with electrocuted hair flailing i n t o “Chattanooga ChooChoo?” “I think they love me,” is the confident answer.

“They love me in Chicago. I played Mister Kelly’s there a lot. The only people who are frightened of me are people who feel threatened by anything out of their own nature or every day experience.”

She jumps up because she’s late for a singing lesson. Maurice, bearded and fat and a singing teacher if there ever was one, is not glad to see her.

“You! You’re late! I’m through with you! You’re a pain in the a..” She kisses him and says she’ll see him on Wednesday. During the short walk to her apartment, she stops to kick a phone truck. ” I t ‘s the first one I’ve seen in months!”

The phone company, enemy of all New Yorkers, took out her phone too soon and now, because of a strike, won’t put in a new one. She hates them.
And New York! It’s the pits to her. Inside her apartment, we are both coughing – what
causes it? ” It ‘s the a i r ,” she says, closing a window. We stop coughing.

“I’m paranoid to begin with,” she says, withdrawing into the chair, surrrounded by pots of plants. “I make my living doing who I am, and who I am is a lot different from a lot of people. So occasionally when all this tension starts building up in me I start thinking they’ll come and cart me away. In order to keep from freaking out, I transcend it. I rise above it.

Physically and mentally both. I say, ‘Now you just stop that! Now you just stop that! Now don’t you be paranoid! And t h ai I say, ‘Ahhhhh, I’m above it all, above it all.’ ”
She plays an Andrews sisters record and Boogie Woogies to it. Then she plays a new Laura Nyro album and gyrates to that. She is a little of every past decade but loves the early ’60s best. “I think we should go back and do the ’60s over.

“I guess I’m silly enough and old fashioned enough to want to be known as an artist, as a singer, as a great singer.

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2 thoughts on “BetteBack Interview: That Crazy Bette Midler ~ February 20, 1972

  1. I know that when you’re young and starting out you have to have bold “confidence” and tell everyone how great you are so they’ll take a chance on you … but reading it after all these years, I have to say it’s a little unbecoming! Too bad the writer couldn’t have mixed up all the “I’m amazing, everyone loves me” quotes with other interesting things like the phone company story. LOL Oh well. Whatever she did, it worked, and I’m grateful. 🙂

    1. I just think we all can go back and regret some things we’ve said …. very unbecoming! Bette would probably cringe at these interviews today, but yes, you’re right….in her type of business you have to display a massive amount of confidence, but i think we all can identify what she probably felt within. Also, you have only to go by how the reporter wrote his story….you’re never quite sure if she might be serious or just “putting on” a little. We all know how the written word can be taken so wromgly sometimes…..

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