Stage And Screen
November 30, 1972
The Divine Miss M.
“”You know what camp is?” the young man asked his elderly companion before Bette Midler came on stage. “Well, she’s camp. But she’s good.”
“A drum roll announced “the divine Miss M.,” and Bette swept down the aisle, through a mob of adoring fans at the Boarding House Theater in San Francisco, where she-opened at a week’s engagement Tuesday night.
:*She wore skin-tight gold lame pedal pushers topped with a black merry widow, trimmed with black ball fringe. Around her neck was a cherry choker, and a gold scarf splashed over her shoulder. She clicked onto the stage in clear plastic springalator shoes with black plastic stiletto heels.
It was a blinding flash awakening for those of us who thought camp was dead. It s been alive and well and living underground with Miss Midler and her legion of admirers.
For Bette Midler, it’s a long way from the Continental Baths to the edge of Nob Hill. But then it was a long way to her show at the Manhattan steam bath from the chorus of ”Fiddter on the Roof.” In Anartica, the tubs were for laundry.
Her discovery by the Neu York smart set got her onto the, David Frost, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, and Mike
Douglas shows, but her past remained mysterious despite all the talk-show talk.
She” says she’s a nice Jewish girl from Hawaii. Her father was a house painter “with an incredible spirit of adventure” which prompted him to move the family from New Jersey to Oahu.
After picking up some money working as a movie extra in Hawaii, she flew off to New York to get into show biz, but ended up typing and filing at Columbia University, and selling gloves at Stern’s department store. She had a fight with a customer and quit.
Miss Midler found work in revues in Caiskill resorts, then got into the chorus of “Fiddler’ and took over the part of Tevye’s daughter Tzeilel. Next came the rock musical “Salvation,”‘ then the Bette Midler solo act, heavy with velvet gowns. Joan Crawford ankle-strap shoes, and emotional renditions of songs from the 1930s and “40s.
Her frenzied singing style knows no period. She is either shouting or cooing; running her fingers through her strawrberry blonde hair or flapping her arms in the air like rubber chickens.
“Tm the last of the truly tacky women,” she assured her audience opening night She flung herself into “You Gotta Have Friends.” joked about her fabulous little hotel called the Gaylord, and softly lisped her way through Bessie Smith‘s “Empty Bed Blues.” Bessie was one of her favorite singers, she said.
She lapsed into her Latin accent, corrected herself with an “0h my dear, stoned again.” and announced her Andrews sister number. Mere mention of Patty. Laverne and Maxine brought cheers from the audience. With a “hubba hubba” tossed over her shouldei. she charged breathlessly through “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
If you can imagine Deanna Durbm imitating Carmen Miranda, you have an approximation of Bette Midler performing. There’s no way to tell whether she has a voice – and besides, she does most of her singing with her elbows.
Miss Midler’s performing is so undisciplined that much of her strength is wasted, but frenzy is what her fans like best. “All right sugar, turn us on,” shouted one across the aisle, ‘from me, a fellow wearing a red and white beanie, a
beard, and black suede high-heel pumps.
“Gimme some grease music,” she ordered her musicians as she dug back into her current period, the early days of rock and roll. “This is from the early ’50s, (applause) when I was impossibly happy. I did the Mashed Potato for all I was worth.”
Getting into what she called her ‘tough shiksa voice” she attacked “Do You Love Me? (Now That I Can Dance)” and followed with a mad version of “Do You Want to Dance.” The audience cheered.
She sped through the 1960s and a salute to “the toughest group in rock and roll, the fabulous Shangri-La’s.” It was a
hilarious parody, complete with motorcycle drones and imaginary weapons: tire irons, switchblade knives, and teasing combs. Miss Midler roared through it to become “the only singer, as far as I know, to get a standing ovation for “The Leader of the Pack.”