Independent Press Telegram
April 2, 1972
She’s 5-feet, 1-inch high, downright homely, absolutely dizzy, and rarer than a homemade honeybun. She’s crazyÂ Bette Midler (one syllable, just plain “8et” and she’s got a star-bent tiger by the tail and can’t let go. You’ve seen her on all the talk shows, and you’re going to be hearing a lot more.
Showbiz crystal-ball gazers say she’s going to be the biggest thing since Streisand. Up from the stygian depths of New York’s steamy, seamy night spas, Bette is emerging like a nymphet Lorelei, singing and tempting her eclectic audiences right onto the comfortable-rare rocks of laughter and sentimentality. No matter where this deliciously irisance creature performs, she leaves her fans standing and screaming for more of her special, zany brand of entertainment.
Where Bette has performed is even more unusual than where she was born, which was Honolulu.
Honolulu? “Yeah, 1 know, me and Don Ho,” shrugs this zaftig waif. “I left my family in Hawaii, came to New YorkÂ and started singing. I got the role of Tzeitel in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ but after that nothing much happened.
Until this nut, Stephen Ostrow, came along and asked: ‘Honey, I just hired the chic Richard Orbach to redecorate the Continental Health Club, and I’m thinking of putting in entertainment.
How would you like to sing in the baths?’ Do you believe him? The baths! As in Turkish! As in boys!
Sure. Sure, I said, what’ve I got to lose? It’s better than being a go-go girl in a Broadway bar, which is what I was doing at the time. So here 1 am, but I swear, it’s my last time here in ‘the tubs.’ It’s time I started singing for the audience with clothes on.”
Bette Midler is always threatening to leave “the tubs,” which is how she refers to the baths. This little Jewish Jeanette MacDonald has made more farewell appearances at the Continental Baths than the famous Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad ever made at the old Metropolitan Opera House. Her fans won’t let her go. “Actually, playing to this … do I dare call this place a house? . . has been the best experience in the world. I mean, you have to be good to keep the guys fascinated. Gawd! The moment I bore them, well, they could go upstairs and … uh … shower?”
Bette giggles and grimaces and lights a cigarette all at the same time, like another famous Bette. “But they areÂ loyal. Loy-u-yul! I played more glamorous places than a steam bath. I had a two-week booking at the Downstairs atÂ the Upstairs, and the guy who owned the joint was in love with me. What he really loved was my fans. They came in droves and practically stood on the tables cheering. My two-week gig turned into ten weeks.
“Listen, you think the baths are the pits?” (This is Midler jargon for “the worst.”) “Next week I’m playing in Raleigh, N. C, in a place called the Frog and The Nightgown. Who do you think lives in there?
“I did seven Johnny Carsons and I’m going to Las Vegas on the same bill with him in April. I can’t wait. Imagine Miss M in Vegas? I think it’s the Sahara, I’m not certain. I’m also cutting my first album with Atlantic Records,Â but it won’t be out in time for my concert at Carnegie Hall. That’s on April 19. Another first. The first timeÂ anyone has ever played the revered Halls or Carnegie without having made it big on records. From the steam baths straight to Carnegie Hall. Can you dig it?
“My family can’t take this scene. They are freaked by all of it. I think they wanted me to become a social worker or something. They came from Paterson, New’ Jersey, originally.
My mother still talks about High Street. We were the cleaning establishment Midlers. My mother’s biggest claim to fame is that she learned English in high school from Allen Ginsberg’s father. I was an ugly, fat, little JewishÂ girl who had problems. I was miserable. I kept trying to be like everyone else, but on me, nothing worked. One dayÂ I just decided to be myself. So I became this freak who sings in the tubs. Now, I dunno, it’s a whole other world.
“Gawd, I don’t know how long I’ve been here. It seems like forever, but I know it can’t be, ’cause I’m still soÂ young. Ver-r-y young, have you got that? Tonight is my last night, really. I mean it. No, it’s the lousy sound thatÂ makes my voice bounce off the tile walls. It’s just â€” well, I’m on my way, and, like Thomas Wolfe, I feel youÂ can’t go home again. Listen, you better get outta here. I’ve gotta dress for my final ‘farewell performance,’ andÂ besides, my rear can’t take this seat any longer.”
Startled from the spell her rattle-tattle New York jargon has cast on me, I jump to my feet and realize that this entire conversation has taken place with Crazy Bette Midler sitting on the John. The only empty seat in the house.
In a city where night clubs are shutting down faster than a row of stand-up dominoes can tumble, there are 3,000Â people waiting to get into the Continental Baths to see the freaky Miss M. Inside, the huge lower floor features aÂ dance floor, snack bar, no booze, living room, swimming pool and a tiny stage.
The crowd resembles a baggie filled with water – contained but giddy and intractable in its enthusiasm to fillÂ every inch of available space. Everyone is friendly, chatty and terribly helpful finding room for roots, elbows, Yoga bent knees and their “rears,” to quote Bette.
Most of the audience is on the floor and half of it is dressed only in towels. The only reason anyone is dressedÂ at all is that when Bette sings, ladies are invited. There are even celebrities in the crowd, for word is out that she’s the best show in town. Men wander in from the steam room upstairs and rub wet elbows with chorus girls, Andy Warhol superstars and reporters from Women’s Wear Daily, who are doing a two-page layout on Miss M.
It’s a circus, with all the acts in the sideshow.
The lights lower.Silence settles. In the dark, off to the side, a door slowly, insidiously opens. A lovable Zasu Pitts appears and the crowd goes wild. A tight-fitting Garbo cloche is pulled down over her brow, pinching her eyes into glittering green Venetian blinds from which stars are shooting like emeralds. She shuffles over the rolling half-nude bodies uttering long moans that sound like vobine pleas for peace: “Ooooooohhhh, oh.ohohoh.”
She sags into her mike, a vision of scrambled caricatures of past comediennes. Cass Daley, Charlotte Greenwood, Zasu Pitts, Martha Raye, Fanny Brice, Kaye Ballard – she resembles them all.
With perfect timing, she accepts the bravos thrown from the crowd and begins her song, “You Gotta Have Friends.” The applause echoes like thunder off the walls. She does have friends. Now a new vision of personalities tumblesÂ to mind: Streisand, Laura Nyro, Joe Cocker, Bessie Smith. (Yes, even ]oe Cocker, because she is spastic, oftenÂ seizure-ridden while singing.)
Bette is that talented. And outrageous.
“Oh! Oh! You’re all mad. M-aaa-d, I say. Gawd, it’s steamier than usual tonight. Wait ’til Mario Thomas and her sister Terry play this room. Way-i-t.” She has shed her chubby fur and pulled off the Garbo hat. Her hair is redÂ as a pomegranate, parted down the middle, a swirling mass of frizzed boop-a-doop curls surrounding her grotesquelyÂ beautiful-ugly face.
Her lantern jaw glides into a smile with the ease of a bulldozer pushing sand. When she smiles, the crowd smiles.Â You can’t help yourself. She wears humility and vulnerability as nattily as she wears her funky Forties clothes.
Shedding her puff-sleeved, shoulder-padded, pink and cherry printed satin jacket, she wipes her damp forehead. She is a ganglia of nerve ends which can’t stop twitching, clenching, jerking, moving. Always moving. She is deep into a number. The trashy old bubble-gum hit of the late Fifties, “Do You Wanna Dance?”
But Miss M sings it in a soft, sexy, bossa nova style, throwing out knowing smiles to the men in towels.. Her black velvet skirt is slit to the waist. Hubba-Hubba… Her bosom is formidable â€” two lovely melons slung bralessly into a swath of tie-dyed chiffon with a life of their own.
She moves fiercely on tiny feet strapped into the highest platform wedgies since Carmen Miranda. Then she disappears for a second and returns to lay the audience low with a Carmen Miranda impression on the naughty old song “Marijuana.” Finishing, she sheds her tutti-frutti hat and suddenly she’s the Andrews Sisters reviving “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Her energy and talent is so expansive, she turns into all three â€” Patti, Maxine and Laverne – all at once. ThenÂ back into the blues with a new Joni Mitchell song. Many facets, all dazzling. The crowd goes wild. A man in aÂ towel almost falls down on Helen Gurley Brown, who has been digging from the sidelines. Some of the men in the crowd look like those Cosmopolitan girls. Nobody cares.
One boy gets so carried away his towel falls off and he stands there, unshattered in his nudity. The crowd does notÂ faint. They join in friendly laughter. That’s what Bette Midler does to her audience. The boy clutches his towel and says “With Bette Midler, the world can overcome anything. Anything.”
Today, the tubs. Tomorrow, the world. . .