BetteBack: “I would like to be the sanitation commissioner of New York City” ~ Sept. 10, 1973

Show Business: Trash with Flash
Monday, Sept. 10, 1973

The costumes – sequins and satins from the rubbish bins of recent history – suggest a high school prom queen masquerading as a tart. The songs are renovated memories from as far back as the ’20s: rockers like Do You Want to Dance? and Leader of the Pack, smoky laments like Am I Blue?, hubba-hubba novelties like the Andrews Sis ters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The stage presence is an exuberantly self-aware parody of camp nostalgia and vulgarity: “Now here’s another blasto from the pasto! You’re gonna like this one ‘cuz I shake my tits a lot!”

As a formula for a performance by a pop singer, it sounds – well, dubious. The kind of thing that might catch on, say, with a minor cult surrounding some blatantly hip homosexual nightclub. Which is exactly what happened to Singer Bette Midler 2½ years ago, when she billed herself as “the divine Miss M” and began doing such an act at Manhattan’s Continental Baths, a gaily liberated Turkish bath that imports outside entertainment on weekends. But since then, Midler has left the Continental Baths far behind, and her brand of “trash with flash,” as she identifies it, has made her a rising pop star of national scope.

Sellout Audience. Her first LP for Atlantic Records has sold 750,000 since its release last November; her second, just completed, will be released in October. Her income from records, concerts and club dates last year was ap proximately a quarter of a million dollars, and is expected to be much more this year. Last week, starting a 32-city tour, she drew a sellout crowd of 10,000 in Columbia, Md., most of whom, by the end of the show, were standing on everything from plastic Spring-O-Lators to rhinestone-studded roller skates to pay her tribute. A few days later, at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, Ill., another sell out audience of 4,500 stamped and roared for nearly three hours for Miss M and her group, the Harlettes.

In Edwardsville, the orange-frizzed, troll-sized (5 ft. 1 in.) Midler hit the stage like a cartoon of a cyclone. “She’s here,” she assured her audience. “The divine Miss M is here.” Actually, she was here, there and all over the stage at once – leaping, squatting, strutting, eyes popping, cakewalking at treble speed, as if she were strobe-lit from the inside. Midler has, as the French say, a world on her balcony, and it threatened to topple right out of her purple satin slip as she flounced across the stage to snipe at a mix-up by her band with dime store hauteur: “This act is shabbay, I’m telling you; tray shabbay!”

Midler has been compared to everything from Dorothy Parker in drag to the entire chorus line of beruffled hippos in Fantasia, and she shows traces of a dozen other singers: Streisand’s nose and extraordinary head tones, Garland’s saturation emotions and devoted homosexual following, Fanny Brice’s waifish vulnerability, Joplin’s floozy eleganza in attire and her tendency to egg audiences on to hysteria. But Miss M’s secret is that she is not really like those others: she is acting like them. “I just try to have a good time and let the audience in on the secret,” she says. “It’s like giving a party and I am the Grande Hostesse. I always wanted to be Gertrude Stein and have a salon.”

“Bette looks at her act as if it were a scene from a play,” notes ex-Harlette Gail Kantor, and she stages it as carefully as any director. She chooses all her own material, which Arranger Barry Manilow then revs up to Midler’s energy level–a level, notes a friend, “about that of World War II.” Most of her patter, seemingly so spontaneous, is carefully drafted with the aid of gag writers. “If I am really cooking, I cook,” she explains, “but if I’m not, it is very important to give the semblance of cooking. That’s what an act is.”

Very Helen Morgan. Offstage, in her velvet-and chintz-laden Greenwich Village apartment, the self-styled “last of the real tacky ladies” is nothing of the sort. Bette (pronounced Bet) Midler is a nearly homely, exceedingly bright jeans-and-T-shirted young woman. The “divine” will not, of course, discuss her age, but Midler is approximately 30. She was born in Honolulu, where her father was a house painter employed by the Navy. “I was an ugly, fat little Jewish girl with problems,” she recounts. “I kept trying to be like everybody else, but on me nothing worked.”
After a year as a drama major at the University of Hawaii, she got a bit part in the film Hawaii and used the profits to pay her way to New York. Supporting herself by selling ladies’ gloves in a Manhattan department store, she took (and still takes) lessons in everything–voice, dance, piano, acrobatics, acting. She spent three years on Broadway in the chorus and later as the daughter Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof, singing after the show in small showcase nightclubs. “She started out very serious and dramatic, very Helen Morgan,” says Talent Manager Bill Hennessey, one of her former comedy writers and a close friend. “Once she went to the Baths, the divine Miss M came to the surface.”

“The more outrageous I was, the more they liked it,” says Midler. “It loosened me up.” Able mimic Midler also learned to dish it out in the bathhouse customers’ own argot, and today, her homosexual in-jokes seem to amuse everybody. Even with straight audiences, she can limp-wrist a laugh with a precisely dropped “Bitch!”

Since the divine Miss M is so completely a creation of Midler’s, the question arises: When will it become an idea whose time has passed? Will Midler move on to a more straightforward singing career? To dramatic acting? So far, she has confined herself to the sort of cryptic hint that she dropped to a New Year‘s Eve concert audience in New York. “I hope you stay with me, even when I don’t always do what you want me to,” she said. “Next year you won’t even recognize me.” A St. Louis reporter asked her last week where she would like to be a year from now. Miss M replied, “I would like to be the sanitation commissioner of New York City.”

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