How a Radford High grad became ‘the Divine Miss M‘
By Bob Sigall
Sep 28, 2012
Ruth Midler named her baby, born on Dec. 1, 1945, after one of her favorite actresses, Bette Davis. “My mother was a seamstress,” Bette Midler recalls. “She was supportive. She had a tinge of showbiz fever and named me and my sisters after Hollywood icons. My dad, Fred, a painter, was like, ”˜Get a job.’ But that gave me something to fight against. His saving grace was a wicked sense of humor. He was a good provider.”
The Aiea girl worked at the Dole cannery one summer, as many local kids back then did. “I was the chief chunker in a pineapple canning factory. I used to come home smelling like a compote!”
Midler graduated from Radford High School as valedictorian and went on to study acting at the University of Hawaii. In 1965 she landed a bit part in the movie “Hawaii.”
She had to travel to Los Angeles to film one scene and afterward decided to use the money to pursue acting in New York.
In 1967 she landed the role of TzeiÂtel, the eldest daughter, in “Fiddler on the Roof.” She appeared a few times on TV talk shows and worked as a go-go dancer at a bar on Broadway while she continued her acting, dancing and singing lessons.
By chance, Midler heard that the owner of a gay club, the Continental Baths, was looking for a weekend entertainer. The pay was $50 a night. Bette took the job.
“I would stand at the top of a little staircase with a towel round my head,” Midler recalls “and act out whacked-out movie heroines. I wasn’t there long, but I was there long enough to make a splash.”
Eddie Sherman described her as a “wild, young Carmen Miranda with a touch of Mae West.” She dazzled her audience with hits from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her accompanist was a young man named Barry ManiÂlow.
Manilow said he never felt such electricity in a performance. “I found myself laughing hysterically at her jokes, weeping at her ballads, and at the end I was on my feet like everybody else, cheering for her. I had never seen anything like it.” Midler had become the Divine Miss M.
Midler has said that her persona as “the Divine Miss M” is basically “a character that has always had a place in show business, and that’s The Broad. People always love a broad – someone with a sense of humor, someone with a fairly wicked tongue, someone who can belt out a song, someone who takes no guff. When I came up, there wasn’t anyone like that.”
Johnny Carson made her a semiregular on “The Tonight Show.” Atlantic Records released her first album in 1972, called “The Divine Miss M.” The album sold more than 100,000 records its first month and included the hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Midler was nominated for an Academy Award for her first film, “The Rose,” and she won two Golden Globes for her performance. Her 1980 album, “Divine Madness,” went platinum.
Later films included “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People” in 1986, “Outrageous Fortune” in 1987 and “Beaches” in 1988. The soundtrack for “Beaches” contained the No. 1 hit “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which won a Grammy. In 1991 she won a second Grammy for “From a Distance.”
When Johnny Carson retired from the “Tonight Show” in 1992, it was Midler who sang the emotional last song, “One for My Baby and One for the Road,” a fitting finale for the King of Late Night.
Midler says “a lot of people don’t love what they do, and I do. I still love music, and I love, love, love to dance. For most women – I can’t speak for men – I’d say dancing is the key to happiness.”
In June, Midler received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. Midler has an estimated net worth of $175 million. Not bad for a woman who began in Aiea, Radford and Dole Cannery.
Bob Sigall, author of the “Companies We Keep” books, looks through his collection of old photos to tell stories each Friday of Hawaii people, places and companies. Email him at Sigall@Yahoo.com.