February 6, 1972
NEW YORK â€” “Did you think I was going to be odd?” asks Bette (she says. “Bet”) Midler. “I’m not, am I? Do I look awful? Do you think I’m schizzy?”
These are tough questions for an interviewer, sitting in her New York grey apartment, drinking grapefruit juice.
Bette is curled into an overstuffed chair that is covered with an American flag and asking her live-in boyfriend and her backup bass player Michael if he has melted her third coffee pot of the year by leaving it on the burnerÂ too long.
In a time of unlikelies -and a city of grotesques, Bette Midler is still something else. She’s avant. Singing and vamping and leaping about a few square feet of stage space, she just completed her second smash engagement at Manhattan’s Upstairs At The Downstairs. The new darling of the Johnny Carson Show (“Crazy Bette Midler is with us tonight,” Johnny will say), she opens on the bill with Carson in Las Vegas this April.
She is a tiny 5 feet 1, and her spastically expressive face is too big for her body, but Richard Avedon has just photographed her adoringly for Vogue.
Atlantic records has signed her to a contract and she’s moving away from Bleak W, 72nd Street to the Village. At the Downstairs, where she is introduced as “The Divine Miss M.” she tells audiences “I’m everything you don’t want your little girl to become” and lapses into her own Midler jive to express reactions.
“It’s the pits,” currently her favorite phrase, means, roughly, “It’s the worst.”
“I never expected to go this far ever,” she says. “I mean, I wanted to but now that I have to do it, it’s just a whole other story.”
Onstage, it’s manic-depressive time, as she plummets from an incredible imitation of all three Andrews Sisters at once, singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” to a solitary ’70s “Superstar.”
Her repertoire has also included “Sh-Boom” and “Do You Wanna Dance?” and a number called “Marijuana,” began but not finished in an obscure ’30s movie muscial.
When she sings that one, she’s a licentious Carmen Miranda.
When she sings “Empty Bed Blues,” she’s a white Bessie Smith. But in her braless. ripped and filmy blouse, in a skirt slit up to here, in her too much lipstick and hubba-hubba rouge, she is not mere camp or Miss Nostalgia. She’s a multi-media experience.
“I sort of have sung off and on most of my life,” she says, huddled into a corner at a seafood restaurant and pulling at the 12 clams her manager has permitted her for lunch. “But three years ago, when I first heard Aretha Franklin, I said, ‘Ah! That’s what it’s about!’ ”
Even without her makeup and with a funny knit hat pulled down over her ears, she is theater. Her hands and armsÂ pose in mock surprise at a compliment; her eyes come out from behind their natural squint and light up. There are gasps, jumps, shouts and a medley of movie musical swoons.
Born, of all places, in Hawaii, she worked at her father’s pineapple plant as a kid. “We all did â€” my two sisters and I. One sister has since passed away. One is home getting a master’s in speech therapy, and my brother is mentally retarded. A hot family, honey. A hot family. They’ve seen me on TV. My father can’t’handle it live. ItÂ disturbs him. My mother thinks it’s all wonderful. My father just thinks it’s the pits”
It’s not just the New York super-chic who have latched onto Bette, but what, indeed, do others think when they see this explosive creature with electrocuted hair flailing into “Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” “I think they love me,” is the confident answer, “They love me in Chicago. I play Mister Kelly’s there a lot. The only people who are frightened of me are people who feel threatened by anything out of their own nature or every day experience.”