BetteBack August 26, 1973: Sensitive Midler a Sure Bet to Continue Ascent as Singing Star

The Sunday Denver Post
August 26, 1973

7-1-2012 6-30-50 PM

IN A WORD, Bette Midler is hot.

Her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” has sold several hundred thousand copies. Her concerts are consistently sold out, she already has signed for three television specials, and they are looking at film scripts for her. Her fans are so loyal it borders on the fanatical, yet many are wondering what is going on.

Aside from all the credits, huzzahs and ballyhoo, just who, what, and (as Ms. magazine put it in a cover story) why is Bette Midler? The who and what are fairly clear cut, so we will start with those.

Her father was a Paterson, N.J., housepainter who decided that the grass was indeed greener in the West, and so moved the entire family to Hawaii. Her mother was an inveterate movie watcher who felt that if Bette was good enough for Ms. Davis it was good enough for her daughter. Ms. Midler the mother pronounce it “Bet,” though, so that’s how it is today.

HAWAII HAS BEEN described as a Pacific paradise but, to a little Jewish girl living in a largely Samoan neighborhood, paradise wasn’t exactly the word. It was a tough neighborhood, with more people against her than for her, but she managed to change that by developing a natural gift as a comedienne. By the time she reached high school, a show-business career was the only choice.

She left Hawaii in 1965, traveling to Los Angeles to be an extra in the movie “Hawaii.” It was a bit part, but it paid more than $300 per week, and by the end of the movie she had managed to save enough of it to move to The Big Time – New York City.

New York City was every bit as hospitable to her as it is to the rest of the aspiring actresses who descend on it each year, which is to say it ignored her completely. She got a room in the old Broadway Central (Would you want YOUR daughter to live in a Broadway Central?), and got a job selling gloves in Stern’s department store.

THE GLOVE DEPARTMENT at Stern’s is no place to make your mark as a great actress, though, so in her off-hours she began making the rounds every aspiring actress makes. She found a few minor roles that did nothing and then, in a real move up, won a spot in the chorus of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She had moved into the spot as Tzeitl, one of Tevye’s daughters.

To get back to the fun, she began singing at a small New York club called the Improvisation, and it was there that the owner of the Continental Baths saw her.

Before we go any further with Bette Midler, a few words about the Continental Baths. Until recently, I am told, it was a men’s Turkish bath, a standard meeting place for New York’s gay crowd, which had all the ambience of a flooded sub basement. The Baths were old, dirty, poorly lit, with peeling paint and slimy walls, and generally unsavory.

In 1968, Steve Ostrow bought the old Mid-Manhattan Health Club and began turning it into a “nice” bath. One thing led to another, and the end result is something like a homosexual Playboy Mansion. There is food, there is dancing, there are places to sleep – it is possible, and evidently not uncommon, for men to come in Friday night and stay until it’s time for work Monday morning.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, Ostrow realized that all the place lacked was live music and women, and he began to arrange a cabaret.

He started out very slowly, and it quickly became obvious that just any act would not be successful there. It would take a performer with a special flair, not just the same old routines, and Bette Midler was exactly right.

She was a real dresser then, with gold lame toreador pants, a corset obviously several sizes too small, and tall spike heels. Most of her clothes came out of some trunk that was packed away in 1942, and she came up with songs to match. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” for heaven’s sake! Words like “sleazy” and “tawdry” were thrown at her, and she admitted it all when she said, “I’m the last of the real tacky ladies.”

Tacky New York took her to its collective tacky heart, and she worked there for a year. “I learned a lot, grew a lot, and it gave me a chance,” she said. It did, indeed. She auditioned for Johnny Carson on the strength of those shows, and it was her appearances on the Carson show that gave her her first national exposure, proving that she could make it outside of New York.

SHE IS CERTAINLY no regional star now. Her first album, “Bette Midler – The Divine Miss M,” has sold several hundreds of thousands of copies all around the country. That album contained as wide a range of material as you are likely to hear on one record. At first I thought that she simply couldn’t make up her mind about what kind of material she wanted to do, but it soon became clear that I was missing the point.

The point is that there is no type of Bette Midler song. As she said, “All music is valid, but a song has to do something to me. I sing the songs I understand.” Consequently, “Chapel of Love” (“a really great song”) can go right next to “Superstar,” a hit by The Carpenters.

That she understands her material is strikingly evident in at least two songs on the album. When Bobby Freeman sang “Do You Want to Dance,” it was fast and frantic, fun but superficial. Bette slows it down, and gives it real depth of feeling. Similarly, “Delta Dawn,” is given the sensitive treatment it deserves by Bette, in contrast to Helen Reddy’s bludgeon job,

HER NEW RELEASE, due in September and called “Bette Midler,” will have more of the same. There will be ballads, bar songs and more of her “low-rent rock ‘n’ roll.” Of particular interest will be her version of “In the Mood,” in which her voice will do all the horn parts. Like half her first record, this will be co-produced by Arif Mardin and her musk director Barry Manilow.

For her appearance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, she’ll be accompanied by Manilow and a band, as well as her backup vocal group, The Harlettes (“my three cocktail waitresses”).

That is, in brief outline, the who and what of Bette Midler. The where and when, again, is Red Rocks, Saturday, Sept. 1.

And why Bette Midler? Because she can sing, because she can pick good material, because she can put on a show that is becoming a legend in its own time, and mostly because she is fun. See you Saturday night.

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