BetteBack March 3, 1973: Bawdy, Bodacious Bette

The National Observer
Bawdy, Bodacious Bette
March 3, 1973
By Bill Marvel

7-1-2012 6-35-05 PM

HERE IT IS 7:30 p.m., a whole hour before the Bette Midler concert, and already the lobby in Uihlein Hall is filled up. The 2,300-plus seats were sold out two weeks ago, even though news about the concert was spread mainly by word of mouth and a few spots on top-40 radio. Somebody’s grandmother is standing at the head of the line, chattering across at least two generation gaps to a girl in scruffy blue jeans: “Oh, I’ve watched her on the Johnny Carson show. I didn’t even tell my friends who I’m coming to see.” With derision: “They’ve never heard of her.”

“Look,” says the girl, examining her arms. “I’ve actually got goose bumps. I love this girl. I’m gonna adopt her.”

Goose bumps? Who is Bette Midler, this phenomenon in silver-lame toreador slacks, slithering to old Milwaukee to be born? Other writers have fumbled around in the great, gawdy grab bag that is Miss Midler’s public personality. At one time or another she has been compared to: Janis Joplin, Patti Andrews, Aretha Franklin, Mae West, Laura Nyro, Shirley Temple, Tiny Tim, Grace Slick, Dorothy Lamour, Rita Hayworth, Streisand (of course), Betty Boop, Edith Piaf, Lotte Lenya, Sophie Tucker, Judy Garland ( natch ), and Carmen Miranda.

Voice of the ’70s

But all such comparisons are a pain. Bette Midler is probably the brightest, hottest superstar to rise above the pop-music horizon in the ’70s. Even before her first album, The Divine Miss M, was released by Atlantic records last November, industry seismographs detected a hit. Now more than 100,000 copies have been sold, which is very good for a start.

Last New Year’s Eve the Divine Miss M filled Philharmonic Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center – not just once, but twice. At midnight, with horns, tooting and fireworks crackling out in the streets; she ascended from beneath the stage, diaper-clad, proclaiming 1973 with a banner wrapped around her ample décolletage.

“It’s the boobs,” says the girl in the blue jeans, who turns out to be an art student named Colleen. “I mean, how many girls with boobs like that would go around without a bra?”

Miss M lives up to her advance billing. She comes onstage with her scarlet blouse knotted precariously at the front and a plastic gardenia tucked into her hair. “I’m the last of the truly tacky women,” she announces. “We are embarking on a tour of the tackiest cities of America. And we are starting in your very own town.” Stormy applause and laughter.

A few years ago she was the darling of New York’s Continental Baths. “The Tubs,” as Miss M refers to them, is one of the few really elegant dives left, an oasis of tiled and palmed decadence that looks as though it has been snatched, gay clientele and all, right out of the Satyricon (of Fellini, not of Gaius Petronius ).

The Tonight Show audience tittered – as talk show audiences will do – when Miss M mentioned her apprenticeship at the Baths. But she remains fiercely loyal to “the boys” who used to fill the place up, packed cheek by jowl, to cheer her on. Then, as word spread, a straighter (and richer) clientele began drifting in on week ends to catch this raffish figure with the frizzled orange hair and the outlandish costumes and the repertoire of songs left over from the days of Your Hit Parade and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

“It got picked up by all the chic people as the place to go,” she says, with regret. Soon Bette Midler split, taking with her pianist-arranger Barry Manilow and her backup vocal trio, the Harlettes.

Ah, yes. The Harlettes. They wiggle onstage in low-cut slinky black dresses and red platform shoes as she introduces them. “Three cocktail waitresses, right off the street.”

Does Miss M miss her audience at The Tubs? “No, they follow me around,” she says. A Bette Midler audience in full panoply is something to see: street dudes, floor-length furs, enormous dangling earrings, turbans, really high platform shoes. But nothing can match, can even come close to, Miss M herself. Arms flapping like disengaged crank handles, she undulates across the stage, twists, squats, thrusts out a hip here, a shoulder there, never at rest. A Midler performance is, above all, hard work.

`Aloha’ to Hawaii

“The way I was brought up, I was taught to work,” she says. Her father, a house painter from Paterson, N.J., took the family to Hawaii in hopes of finding paradise. Instead they found a Eurasian neighborhood where Jews were not particularly welcome. Miss M’s first brush with show business came when her mother, a movie buff, named her after Bette Davis. Only Mrs. Midler pronounced it “Bet.” And so it remains. That must have been 28-30 years ago; the Divine Miss M’s age is practically a state secret.

Bette escaped Hawaii by joining the cast of the movie Hawaii and getting shipped to Los Angeles for filming at the studio. She saved practically everything she earned on the picture and within two months had moved to New York. There, for the next five years, she paid her dues, as they say in show biz. She played small clubs in the Village, in off-off-Broadway, in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof, and finally up front as Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitl. But it took The Tubs to bring out the trash that was in her. Trash, as in junk.

For Bette Midler is a strutting, vamping, singing collection of the rags and bones of four decades of American popular music. “We are going to sing all the garbage we know,” she tells her audience. And she means it. She belts out the torch songs from the Thirties, Andrews Sisters swing from the Forties, teeny-bopper laments from the Fifties, and “low-rent retro rock ‘n’ roll” from the Sixties, her performance always at the nexus of high style and high art.

The Mask of an Artist

In the same deadpan spirit in which Andy Warhol transformed the Campbell’s Soup can, she turns a vapid ditty such as “Chapel of Love” into a gorgeous little campy put-on. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” an old Andrews Sisters stalwart, takes on the precision of an abstract painting. “Those girls were so together they could raise their eyebrows in unison,” she says.

With the accuracy of a great actress, she zeroes in on the pathos of a lament such as Ethel Waters’ “Am I Blue?” or John Prine’s moving ballad about old folks, “Hello In There.” In a voice that sounds as if its back were cracked by age, she establishes that special loneliness that sometimes moves in on a wife when her children have grown up and she and her husband have grown apart:

Me and my husband, we don’t talk anymore
He sits and stares out the back door screen. . . .

It is Miss Midler’s way with ballads such as these – and the haunting “Delta Dawn,” in which she sings one breathless chorus of a cappella – that has won over many a critic too stodgy to see what she is about in the more campy numbers. The amount of personal pain she is able to project is astonishing, and names like Helen Morgan, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith come to mind.

“I’ve listened to all their records,” Miss M says. “They led fabulous lives and it came out in their voices and songs. Everybody leaves me with something.”

But something is added, too, and one wonders how much of that pain is a personal burden.

She’s `Up for Grabs’

Miss Midler is as guarded about her life offstage as one would expect, and as she has a right to be. The nearest thing to a personal tragedy is hinted at in the dedication on her album: “This is for Judith.” Judith, her oldest sister, is dead. “She was a photographer,” Miss Midler says. Five other siblings and her parents are still living.

Are the Midler’s a close family? “Uh huh, fairly close. But we’re all strange. You know, individualists.” Her mother, the movie buff, is delighted by Bette’s stardom. Saves clippings and everything. “My father thinks it’s all kind of silly.”

None of the family has seen The Divine Miss M in concert, “and they’re not gonna,” she says. “It would just kill my father.”

Romance? The last reported affair was with Mike Federal, her bass player. But he moved on, and apparently that’s over. “You can tell the world that the Divine Miss M is up for grabs,” she announces, throwing her arms out in a gesture that by its extravagance suggests that she is not all that up for grabs.

The Prime Movers

Above all, Bette Midler wants to be taken as a serious artist. The fooling around, the raunchiness is the mask through which she speaks; her work is just another instance of Twentieth Century art recycling itself, finding new subjects among the artifacts of the past, sometimes among the tackiest – what Bette Midler calls “the pits” – and polishing them up, making them new again.

“I’ve always loved popular music. Popular things are the prime movers,” she says.

“The Seventies is a time for re-evaluation. Everybody is coming out of the fabulous Sixties and they’re just exhausted. Most people are sad and they don’t know why.”

Miss M’s antidote is herself in generous doses. “I tend to go for funky music. I haven’t done Jo Stafford yet, but I will someday. I love Patti Page and her `Old Cape Cod,’ but I only do it when I’m in the Cape Cod area.” She sings a few bars, accurately catching the buttery lilt of Patti Page’s voice.

“I love Teresa Brewer. Actually, ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was instrumental in setting me in my path. I attended The Ridiculous Theatrical Company once in the late 1960s and there was this girl in the cast. They had all these fanciful names and hers was Blackeyed Susan. She was kind of a running-gag character. In one part she was a hooker on the docks, and she came out and recited this endless Robert Service poem that made no sense at all. Then in this 1930s number she came out wrapped in toilet paper with dollar bills taped to her. She was the Statue of Liberty and she sang ‘Wheel of Fortune’.”

Her Control Is Absolute

“I didn’t think I could stand up and sing. But after that. . . .”

From the sentimental to the ridiculous and back again. Miss Midler’s voice projects every shade of meaning in a song, and her face can be read right up to the top balcony. But her greatest instrument is an audience: Her control is absolute, and she can lay a change of mood on 2,300 as if she had wires to their brains. It’s a long way from The Tubs.

Does she sometimes wonder about the apparatus she has set in motion? The manager, the press agent, the thousands of fans who want to hear their favorites over and over, who resist every change in their idol?

“I try not to think of it,” she says. “It’s all very frightening.”

The interview is taking place in Chicago, following the Milwaukee concert. Outside, the shoreline of Lake Michigan is ice-packed. Without her outrageous costume, the plastic gardenia, her makeup, Bette Midler seems closer to her five feet, one inch than on the stage.

Earlier in the day she spent an hour autographing albums at Montgomery Ward, State and Adams streets. The mob was huge and she was gracious. As her manager, store officials, and other supernumeraries hustled her through the crush, people were saying, “She’s so short.”

Forget it. Bette Midler is 10 feet tall. And still growing.

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