BetteBack October 2, 1973: A Steaming Night In ‘Sleazy City’ Bette Midler’s Unique Talent Stuns Berkeley Audience

The Stanford Daily
A Steaming Night In ‘Sleazy City’ Bette Midler’s Unique Talent Stuns Berkeley Audience
October 2, 1973


BERKELEY–From the moment she burst onto the Community Theater stage Saturday night Bette Midler captured her audience with a dynamic electricity, establishing a rapport that brought the sellout crowd dancing into the aisles and demanding more from the Divine Miss M in a wild ovation that lasted long after she had left the stage. Midler specializes in a genre of music and stage antics which she describes as “good old American garbage.” She combines camp, comedy, and sexuality, with dynamite stage presence and sheer vocal talent. She holds an audience in the palm of her hand (and various other prominent parts of her anatomy), and loves every minute of it. Saturday’s 8 p.m. concert started promptly at 8:30, but the delay only heightened the current of anticipation in the audience to a frenzy of lethal voltage. Also, it afforded some of Midler’s more picturesque fans an additional half hour to parade around the lobby and down the aisles in their finery. Costumes included fox furpieces, tie-dye frocks, bare midriffs, pearl earrings, sheer black net blouses, and rhinestone-studded platform bootheels – and that was only the fellas. Vamps, flappers, and assorted drag queens sported sleek long dresses, elaborate eye make-up, and the hairstyles of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, topped with sequined pillbox hats or garnished with gaudy artificial flowers.

Sideshow Stifled

But the sideshow ended abruptly when Midler’s 11-man band took its place on stage. The houselights dimmed. The Harlets – three backup vocalists who are later introduced as “the girls you love to grope “–suddenly strike a seductive pose in the leftstage spotlight, clad in vampy halter tops and dark skirts slit to the waistband. The Divine Miss M appears in a flurry of hot pink ostrich feathers, wearing black trousers and a low-slung striped blouse that leaves little to the imagination. As she launches into “Friends,” one is tempted to give odds on who will collapse from exhaustion first – Midler or her wildly enthusiastic audience. And Midler has no intention of slowing the pace, displaying her versatility in a knockout version of Helen Reddy‘s hit “Delta Dawn.” She begins the song quietly, without instrumental backup, building the effect by alternately delivering the honneyed tones of a wide-eyed ingenue and the grinding growl of a sleazy burlesque singer.

Steaming In Berkeley

Between numbers, Midler pauses to gulp liquid refreshment from paper cups concealed inside the grand piano. “It’s steaming tonight in Berkeley,” she jokes, referring to the intensity of the crowd’s reactions as well as to the heat onstage that was fierce enough to melt her makeup. If Midler wasn’t such a dynamic songstress and gutsy stage performer, she could probably make it as a distaff Don Rickles. She plays with her audience, flinging sarcastic insults at the balcony crowd as well as the front-row fans. Most of her verbal torpedoes score direct hits, as she ridicules the “organic” lifestyle of Berkeleyites, and chides the audience . for laughing schoolboyishly at bedroom/bathroom humor. “You’re so cheap,” she declares. “I know all the words, so I’ll just say them one by one and you can laugh to your heart’s content.. . Poppers, anyone?”

Sweaty Artwork

She asks hard-core fans in orchestra seats why they wanted to sit close enough to see her sweating from every pore: “The Divine Miss M is such a work of art you have to be 500 yards away to appreciate it.” Midler ridicules herself, as well as the audience. She introduced a “Filthydelphia Medley” as “one of our most tasteless medleys – it’s tenament music that reeks of American Bandstand ßefore belting out “In The Mood” she explained that the tune was pure Hubba Hubba – a popular phrase of the 40s meaning hot shit.” On this number, the Harlets mimicked various musical instruments in a fine vocal backup. “We busted our buns on this number,” Midler exclaimed. If she was referring to the frenzy in which she and her “girls” cavorted about the stage, they bust much more than their buns. After a brief intermission Barry Manilow, Midler’s talented pianist-arranger, sang three tunes from his recently-released album, with a little help from the Harlets. He was politely received, as most of the audience was busily wondering what Midler could possibly do in the second half of the program to outstrip the beautiful crassness of the first half. And they weren’t disappointed. The Harlets reappeared in “Howard Johnson’s-in-drag” waitress garb, singing a falsetto ditty from The Wizard of Oz. That set the stage for Midler’s entrance, and she shimmered onstage in a pink sequined starlet gown, slit to the navel from both directions. She flaunted a fox pelt and a rainbow-colored boa as she sang “Lullaby of Broadway.” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” the old Andrew’s Sisters hit, allowed Midler and the “girls” to prance about in well choreographed hysteria. Midler remained in perpetual motion throughout several encores of the tune. Brash, Braless Talent The uninhibited gyrations of Midler’s braless breasts provided the main attraction for some members of the audience. But a more “real” element of the Divine Miss M shone from beneath the hard crust of comic camp and crass sexuality. She delivered “Superstar” with a breathless agony and depth absent in Karen Carpenter’s bubble-gum version of the tune. In “Am I Blue” she brought all the exquisite loneliness of the Ethel Waters torch song to life with pure, low notes that spread over the audience like softened butter. She literally ruined the crowd with “I Shall Be Released.” “I came here to give you a giggle and maybe a tear now and then,” Midler said, and as she vocalized the utter loneliness of old age in “Hello In There,” more than a few eyes were moistened. The ‘Real’ Miss M It is too easy to pass over Bette Midler as a phenomenon of the current camp-nostalgia craze, as she and the Harlets strip down to their slips to render “Leader of the Pack” in “more than its entirety.” But only a very real, very talented individual beneath the frizzled red hair and sequins could generate the static excitement that brought the crowd into the aisles for a 10-minute standing ovation on Saturday night.

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