Reminder: Donna Maxon ~ “Bette & Barry: Back to the Bathhouse” plays Wednesday and Aug. 15 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre

Mister D: And if I’m not mistaken, our friend Matthew Parker is one of the background singers!

The New York Post
Revisiting Bette’s hot ”˜Bath’
Last Updated: 12:24 AM, July 30, 2012
Posted: 10:35 PM, July 29, 2012

Ask anybody about great but gone music venues in New York, and they’ll go on and on about CBGB, the Fillmore East, Max’s Kansas City and the Savoy Ballroom.

But the Continental Baths? Though it hosted artists as diverse as the New York Dolls, Patti LaBelle and the Manhattan Transfer, it usually goes unmentioned.

Probably because it was a gay bathhouse.

Down in the basement of what was then the Ansonia Hotel, on Broadway and 73rd Street, the Continental teemed with activity – musical and otherwise – from 1968 to 1974.

Its most famous act was a red-haired firecracker named Bette Midler – backed by a young, unknown pianist named Barry Manilow.

On Wednesday, the cabaret show “Bette & Barry: Back to the Bathhouse” revisits the heady nights in 1970 and ’71 when Midler shaped her genre- and era-scrambling repertoire.

For Donna Maxon, 51, a longtime Bettehead and Midler tribute artist (“We’re not called impersonators anymore”), the show is a way to link the star to an especially creative time.
“We do explore other periods that were important to Bette and Barry’s relationship and career,” says Maxon, whose set list includes later Midler hits like “Wind Beneath MyWings.”

“But the show is set at the Continental Baths, and it does focus mostly on that time and that music. For instance, we do a tribute to [1972 album] ”˜The Divine Miss M’ with ”˜Leader of the Pack,’ ”˜Superstar’ and ”˜Delta Dawn.’ ”

By the start of the ’70s, Midler was already well on her way to fame, having appeared in various musicals – including “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway– and on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” But it was at the Continental that she solidified her loyal gay following, earning the nickname “Bathhouse Betty.”

The bawdy humor certainly helped: “I was supposed to sing in Cherry Grove,” Midler said in one of her vintage song intros. “But they couldn’t find room for me in the bushes.”

For Maxon, it’s all gravy.

“I can’t help myself – I love dirty jokes!” she exclaims. “The bathhouse was a good venue for that, and I do some of the Sophie Tucker-style material.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Maxon grew up being told she was a dead-ringer for Midler. She became a corporate trainer, but eventually started dabbling in Midler tributes – which led to her first encounter with the original.

“It was in 1986,” she recalls, “and Disney flew me out to Hollywood so I could be her body double in ”˜Outrageous Fortune.’ When I got to meet her, I was overly chatty, and when I finally took a breath and let her speak, she told me, ”˜Girl, you have a career!’ ”

Things were less obvious for the new show’s other half.

While “Back to the Bathhouse” isn’t the first tribute to the Midler/Manilow collaboration, Maxon says, she suspects it’s probably the only one to feature a drag-king Barry: Fonda Feingold, in a suit and silvery shag ’do.

“I was coerced,” Feingold says, dryly. “Donna seemed to think I look like Barry Manilow, so the next thing you know, I had a wig on.”

Not only that, but the 60-year-old pianist and singer – who met Maxon at their local Staten Island dog run– even warbles some of the crooner’s hits, like “Copacabana.”

“Yeah, gotta do the Barry,” she drawls, playing the part of the long-suffering accompanist to the hilt.

Performing Manilow material acknowledges the role the baths played on Manilow’s résumé: He started as the Continental’s house pianist before partnering with Midler.

It also helps with the show’s flow.

“Donna has a big costume change in the middle of the set, so I get the spotlight for about four minutes,” Feingold says. “I’ve put together a medley that incorporates maybe nine of his songs. And it’s not easy, because the most famous ones tend to be slow.

All the more reason for the audience to relax, have a drink – and maybe loosen up that bath towel.

“Bette & Barry: Back to the Bathhouse” plays Wednesday and Aug. 15 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 W. 42nd St. Tickets, $15, are available at 866-811-4111.

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