BY BEVERLY RYAN
March 3, 1973
THE API FIELDHOUSE is large and cold. The ice underfoot, thinly covered with sheets of wood, fends a damp chill to the lofty barn-like interior. Far across the floor there is a-small stage, flanked by still smaller speaker columns. A piano, a set of drums, and some boxy amplifiers topped by guitars sit at the left of the stage, and to the right is a leaning potted palm and three bar stools. Everything looks miniature, like plastic children’s toys, or like the stage setting for a schmaltiy combo in a hokey Hawaiian restaurant.
It is the Bette Midler concert in Troy.
The lights dim as a pencil-thin man in a rented tux bounds across the platform to his piano. (Does he look like the man who sings “You deserve a break today” for MacDonald’s? Well,he is.) The rest of the band members follow, and at the direction of the piano-maestro, they play a few bars of intro music. Three sequin-clad babes, sleazy with tight-curled hair and chewing gum, slink Into formation in front of the stools They are a come-on, hands on hips, teasing, and the audience eats it up. Amid the whistles and catcalls, a vibrant figure wiggles through the blue lights to the mike.
“Wa-a-a-a-l,” her Brooklyn telephone operator’s voice whines at us, “I bet you’re wondering ‘Who is that slut on stage and who are those three cocktail waitresses with her?’ Honey, what you see here is Trash with Flash.” She wriggles hips in clinging black satin pajamas and gives a toss of her head. “Real GAR-BAGE. And I’m glad to see that all the GAR-BAGE in Troy turned out for it.”
Bette Midler has arrived.
THE DIVINE MISS M was born in Hawaii, in time for the era of greased pompadours and sock hops. She is the daughter of transplanted New Jersey Jews in search of Paradise. Out of place and lonely, Bette developed her brazen flashing wit to contrast with the gentle silence of the Orientals who were their neighbors ‘and schoolmates. Later she turned that wit to cynicism, and fled to New York City to indulge her dreams of stardom.
The road was long and winding. Bette has been, at various times, a department store salesgirl, a singing waitress, ‘Tieitl,’ one of the daughters in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the phenomenal star of the homosexual mid-town resort, The Continental Baths. It was at the latter that she perfected the ‘tough ‘n’tacky’ style that is now her own. Her voice and movements are a combination of a Woolworth check-out girl, Janis Joplln, and the inimitable stars of the song-and-dance extravaganzas of the forties. All of this suited Bette to “The Tubs,” as she dubbed The Continental Baths. Some lingering innocence combined with her deliberate tawdry come-on makes her the spitting image of a tough little drag queen. She dresses in lame and toreador pants, clear plastic spike heels and flaming red lipstick. And she sings her
From “The Tubs” she hit the small clubs, a recording contract with Atlantic Records and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Viewers laugh at the Nestle’s Orange Color Capsules frizz of hair and the five-and-dime makeup, at the forties dresses slit thigh-high and the huge plastic rose stuck In her considerable cleavage. But no one laughs when Bette Midler belts
out a tune. She has talent, the talent of a Judy Garland or.a Barbra Streisand; she has a strident brassy voice in the lower bluesy ranges and a sweet, tender sound for the upper notes. And she’s all showgirl.
STRUTTING TO SHOW OFF her outfit, The Divine Miss M launches a veritable flood of insults and abuses. She imitates Laura Nyro, stretching the mime to an abrupt put-down; later she cuts at Karen Carpenter with an unprintable truth. She is hip, and comically sexy, and very pathetic. The audience laughs bravely on cue, squirming a little in their seats,
wondering what is real in this woman.
Then the songs begin â€” an incredibly fast-paced golden gasser, with Bette contorting before us like some female Joe
Cocker, running the length of the platform, jumping and grinding and swinging the mike; next the sensual “Am I Blue?” that exposes the beautiful raw quality of her vocal styling and points up her knack for re-phrasing lyrics into tasty personal comments; back again with the Andrews Sisters’ heel-clicking syncopated version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” complete with choreography and facial expressions by our star plus the Harlettes, her backup group. In between is the endless patter of quips and stories. Bette’s intimate showoff shimmy, her flaunting, jeering nasal voice battering us before she slips back into the music.
The tone coming across during this first half Is mixed; she is hostile yet anxious to please. We ‘wonder if she’ needs the theatricality of her act or if it is indeed part of the personality lurking under red paint and glitter.
BETTE MIDLER’S ACT requires a break.
This one was lengthy and unwieldy, with the lights turned on to forestall hankypanky. The peak that the music had brought us to was rapidly disappearing in the face of hundreds of milling people, talking, laughing, all apparently untouched by the intense depth of vocal performance we had just witnessed.
Nobody was dancing In the aisles; nobody sang along, even to those glorious hits we all remember from our- “American