BootLeg Betty

BetteBack October 25, 1973: Bette: there is only one Miss M…

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Zoo World
October 25, 1973

7-1-2012 6-28-31 PM

There’s a “Divine Miss M,” and there’s a Bette Midler, two distinct but converging persons.

Sample dialogue:
The Divine: (on stage, in full drag, in an icy Amphitheatre) “Chilly, Chillay! I’m freezing my tits off in LA.! ”

Bette Midler: (walking into a press conference held in Beverly Hills’ poshest restaurant, with a panting press corps, beaded by the formidable Rona Barrett), stopping, looking around and saying: SO?

There’s been reams of copy written about the Midler chest and chunkiness, but nothing at all written about her absolutely beautiful legs. Typical; the top flash shows, the solid bottom, the foundation doesn’t. She’s too smart for that. The foundation of the Midler mystique is of course, the voice with the amazing head tones, and the work, the endless work that goes into being “The Divine.”

This particular day, after her smash opening, Bette’s being mass-interviewed at The Bistro, Beverly Hills’ answer to a Tennessee Williams‘ stage set, all wicker and lace. Bette, who could probably be a Williams heroine, seems to fit right in this aura of opulent decadence. Clad in a white jumpsuit, with bright orange hair, she’s less plump than one would think from her pictures and a great deal less Midler than one would think. No more than 5’1”, she exudes consideration and wanting to know people. She stops at the table to say hello, and is asked if we can talk to her for awhile. “Sure, but after lunch. Food first, then talking.” That’s the real Midler.

The ”Divine” is typified by the two people on either side of me, one the fashion editor of a LA daily newspaper, and the other, the feature editor of a gay magazine. And they both love her. As do I.

Bette Midler is just about everything which she appears to be – outspoken and right on top of what is happening in the music scene. She’s bright, bubbly and takes her life (as a star) as somewhat more then not too much. Says Bette: “I was very anxious to get to the city (New York). I didn’t notice that there was anything wrong with it. The first month that I was here was when they had the blackout.

“I thought it was fabulous.” So goes Bette. She takes things calmly and in a perspective unique to her. “And,” she added, “right after that, in January, the subway went on strike. And I was living down here and I had to go up to 119th Street to get to work every day. I was working at Columbia University – typing. So it was like this incredible hassle. But I just thought it was a lark.

‘”The first four years I was here (in New York),” she added “I thought the city was just unbelievable, but now I’m getting a little tired. It’s hard on an older person. I mean if you’re not 19 you might as well forget it.”

“What I want is to be a bisexual fantasy. I want to be the most loved, the most desired woman on this earth,” says Bette and she very nearly is. Specializing in what she calls, “low-rent-retro-rock-n-roll” she’s all things to all people. The secret of the success of “The Divine?” Bette Midler says, “The Divine Miss M is terrifically entertaining. I’m like an old movie people go to just to be entertained, just to be happy. They love it because they can forget their troubles. It’s something people can just enjoy. Bette Midler is much more real.” And she is. Ordering double salad, posing for pictures with Rona Barrett, just like a movie fan, and just chatting about with everyone.

This is definitely my last tour,” she says, “it’s just too hard.” When asked where does she go from here, Bette points to her head and says, “From where? I go everywhere. I’ve got a lot of musical trips to do. I live from minute to minute. From M to M, so to speak. With all the things I had to do, the show itself is not all I wanted it to be, it’s the same old dreck I did on the last tour.”

“I always sang but never seriously,” Bette continued. “I figured that the best way to get into the theatre was in a musical comedy, because it was the easiest nut to crack. I mean if you don’t have a lot of credit in serious or classical acting, they won’t even look at you. And I didn’t have training when I came to the city. It was all instinct and guts.

“I mean I wasn’t disciplined or trained or anything like that. I mean I had no idea of what I was doing. I was just elbowing my way into the wing. I was so in love with it. So I figured I’d get a job to support myself and learn while I earn.”

Bette adds that she fell in love with the theatre at the very beginning, that there wasn’t ever a second thought about what she wanted to do. “I just fell in love with the theatre when I was 16,” Bette added. “And I thought that if I had to have a career in the theatre the way to do it was to get a job on the Now York stage. I mean they don’t have much theatre in Chicago or Cleveland. See, I figured it was the only place to go so I came. I learned enough about the scene when I was in that show to know it would be very difficult to make a life in the theatre, especially the way the theatre is these days.”

But Bette now is a pop star. A superstar, whatever . . . She has arrived at the top and there is no doubt that she belongs there. “The stature of the pop star used to fascinate me,” she continued. “I just couldn’t figure out how these people got themselves into that position…

“I used to listen to the radio a lot, but always AM. Before rock and roll it was mostly white music. I didn’t get into rhythm and blues until later on in rock and roll, like the early ‘60’s. I loved the groups and I loved straight ahead rock and roll – The Coasters and the DelVikings and the Skyliners. I wasn’t a collector. I was an observer. I’ve always been an observer.

‘That’s really my thing. I watch things, then I twist it around to get another view, then give It back to them and make them see it in another way that they never saw before ‘cos they were so busy taking it seriously. I can’t take any of it seriously. You work as hard as you can, but no matter how brilliant you think it is, there is always going to be someone that’s going to look at it cockeyed and turn it around for you. That’s what I get from the theatre of the ridiculous – the sardonic side of it. What good is it if you can’t giggle at it, ‘cos in the long run that’s all it is.”

‘Talking about her upcoming TV special, Bette says: “I really want to do a shabby show, a really sleazy, tacky, shabby show. But the agency and the network are a bit conservative. They want Johnny Mann, they want the Ding-A-Lings, I want sleaze, I want sequins. All that. We’ll see how it works out.” Told Norman Lear would love to produce the show, Bette thought it would be a good idea. “I love the set for ‘All In The Family, it’s shabby. Really Shabby!” To a passing reference to Neil Diamond and the way he does his concerts, Bette mused, “he’s doing the score to ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘ now isn’t he? Couldn’t get past the title page.”

After the press gathering, it was time far the Johnny Carson show taping. The usually blasé studio audience got up on their feet and have both the real and the stage Miss M one of the first standing ovations seen in Burbank. She was magnificent on the show, as has been all week in L.A. She finally talked about her age 27, and showed the absolutely startling vulnerability which helps to make the Midler mystique.

“It wasn’t easy being a Jewish kid in a Samoan neighborhood,” Bette said of her childhood in Honolulu. Even more revealing, she said her father has not seen her perform. “He’s not ready for it. He even makes me cover up at dinner.” She told Johnny Carson as she told us earlier, she’s still the same Bette. She still rides the subways, “still schlepping. When all those people run after you, it’s hard to remember who you are.”

But Bette adds that Hawaii isn’t all that bad. “I’m really not sure about all those things you say about Hawaii. Entertainment-wise, I think Ron Jacobs and one of the Kingston Trio too, he was there. I don’t know. I really don’t know if that is the truth, but it is true that a lot at great entertainers come out of there. A lot of them are imitators. You know, I’m an imitator in a way too. I don’t really mimic, though. I have really good ears. I just mimic any old thing and it comes out me.

“I don’t trust this business – any area of it. You can’t trust it because it changes. It’s a constant state of flux and you can be here today and gone tomorrow, I don’t want to get so hung up in it that when the block finally comes crashing down I can’t pick myself up and go on to something else – in some other area of show business. ‘I can always go back to theatre, because I can. I think I’m going to, too.”

She talk about the schizophrenia of being the “Divine” and Bette: “The ‘Divine’ has been part of my life for 3·4 years I had to kill her off.” Maybe so, but as Bette calls herself, ‘Ranrona Paranoia,” there seems to be good reason for it. She even has two voices in regular speech, the ‘”Divine’s” strident, shrill skill shrieks and Bette Midler’s soft voice. By this time, of course, it’s time for “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” on TV and time to leave for the concert.

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Bette points out, was done for the Burt Bacharach show. “It was great fun,” Bette pointed out. “I didn’t remember any of the parts ‘cos I’ve sung the melody all these months. So Barry and I redid all parts, each part one on top of each other, and it was great. It was a great experience, ‘cos I never thought I could do that. I never thought my ears were that good, ‘cos it’s really tricky. Those harmonies are very hard. I don’t know how those girls did it – I don’t know how the Andrews Sisters did it.”

At the concert, Bette totally disappear. The “Divine” takes over. A charismatic cynosure that catapults, camps and puts on the gamiest show this side of the massage parlors.

Scratching her crotch, it’s time to open the show with a couple of slams at two very vulnerable targets, Helen Reddy and Karen Carpenter (who incidentally have hit records of songs Bette sings much better), “I can’t believe I’m on the same stage where Karen Carpenter got her drums banged” and ”Ms. Reddy, huh? She should be singing ‘I Am Woman.’ Who could tell? ”

The boys in the front rows love it, the line in “Am I Blue?” which goes “am I gay?” get an undercurrent affirmative titter that’s deafening Then she sings Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and every woman in the audience is glad National Organization for Women has adopted it as an anthem. Two hours of dazzling entertainment leading to Bette’s 4th and 5th standing ovations of the day and she’s gone.

What’s ahead for Bette? “She’s going to appear at the Palace,” says Candy Leigh, of Tomorrow Today, her press relations lady. “Amsel, who did her album jacket is painting her picture to hang in the lobby. I think they’re taking Judy Garland’s picture down.” Bette’s dream of the future? “I would love to do an animated cartoon.” Somewhere between lies and very rocky road.

Bette had the two remaining Andrews Sisters backstage to thank them for the material of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Patti Andrews was heard to say of Bette, shaking her herd, “she’s certainly different.”

In answers to a question about what kind of men she liked, Bette seemed stumped, the reporter tried to help her, “you know, Bette, what kind of men do you go out with on Saturday night?” It was not the “Divine” who answered, it was the chesty Jewish kid from Honolulu who said, “I don’t go out on Saturday nights, I’ve always been working.”

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