BetteBack September 1973: Bette Midler – She Brings It All Back Home

September 1973

Bette Midler during Bette Midler Opening at The Palace Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Bette Midler during Bette Midler Opening at The Palace Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

SHOWTIME AT THE HIC arena: house lights dim and the last strag­glers are fumbling for their seats as on stage bursts a five-foot female tow­er of power. Orange curls bouncing above elastic features, she is constant animation; dancing, posturing and shimmying her way into another con­cert.

But this September night’s show is more than just another concert. For Bette Midler, formerly of Aiea, the weekend of Sept. 7 and 8 is a public homecoming – a chance to finally strut her stuff for the local folks who’ve watched from afar as her sing­ing career soared like a skyrocket on New Year‘s Eve.

For the girl who made it from the pineapple cannery to the Philhar­monic, that career now includes club dates, national tours, a pair of albums, a Newsweek cover and three upcoming ABC television specials. And, though her smoky voice and out­rageous brand of entertainment are familiar to millions, this is Bette’s first chance to bring it all back home.

“I’m going to pull out all the stops for Honolulu,” says Bette. “I’m going to wear more sequins per square inch than ever before.”

Will she do her New York show for the hometowners?

“Sure – don’t you think they’d like it? But I’ll do my pidgin English number and I think I should do some of those trashy Hawaiian songs ­like Maunawili Boy and When Hila Hattie Does the Hila Hop and The Cockeyed Mayor.”

This will be Hawaiian music as never heard before.

Onstage, the local-girl-made-good is all wild arm-waving and suggestive slinking – a heady mixture of vamp and camp. Dressed in Salvation Army gold lame or gaudy white satin, face painted, as someone has noted, for the last days of the Weimar Republic, she comes on strong: “I’m the last of the tacky women – trash with flash!”

Backed by a quartet of musicians, Bette (pronounced Bet, she says, be­cause that’s the way her mother thought Miss Davis pronounced it) unleashes an electric barrage of songs. From the Andrew Sisters to Leon Rus­sell: rock, blues, swing, oldies but goodies.

“It’s not what you sing that matters,” she’s said. “It’s the fact that you love what you do that makes you hot.”

The Shangri Las, the Dixie Cups, Patti Page; all are recalled. Her abil­ity to recreate the musical mood of days gone by is uncanny. She sings Old Cape Cod and Martin Block and the Make-Believe Ballroom come a­live. Then into Leader of the Pack, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, or two of her biggest hits, Do You Wanna Dance? and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. All woven together with her own brand of raunchy comedy.

The Divine Miss M, as her rabid fans have dubbed her, exudes more New York than Honolulu which is understandable since Fun City has been home for nearly a decade.

“She’s the biggest thing here ever,” exults Wendy Morris, Bette’s New York publicist. “She’s so popular you can hardly get near her concerts. We get ticket requests from all over and people on the street even imitate her – the way she talks and the things she says. She’s so busy, I have to spend all day just taking care of Bette Midler business.”

These days, it seems, nearly every­one has heard of Bette; everyone, that is, but Mayor Frank Fasi. “When we wrote to your mayor about her homecoming,” said Miss Morris, “he wrote back and asked, ‘Who’s she?’ He called her Betty.”

For the cover subject of last month’s Ms. and Playboy on the Scene magazines, it all started right here ­by the battleship-gray waters of Pearl Harbor.

Back in the ’50s, home was the con­verted barracks of Halawa Housing, where funny-looking, frizzy-haired lit­tle Bette found herself one of the only haole kids in gradeschool. Her father was a housepainter for the Navy and, for the six Midlers, life was something less than luxurious.

“Growing up in Hawaii,” she remi­nisced, “I had fancies about the South Seas. But there was no romance, no moon of Manakoora where we lived.”

For three summers she packed pine­apple for Del Monte and, for old times sake, Ms. Morris tried to line up her Honolulu press conference on a packing table, inexplicably at Dole rather than Del Monte.

Whoooooooooomyaaaaaaaaaak came Bette’s roaring hoarse laugh as this reporter told her Dole had declined. Her publicist had forgotten to tell her of this great press agent’s dream.

“Whoooooooooomyaaaaaaaaaaaak, it’s the wildest idea I ever heard of. The greatest! ”

Even in those pine-packin’ days, the life of the celebrity had its appeal. “I used to call people ‘dahling.’ ‘Oh, my deah,’ I would say.” From there, apparently, it was a natural progres­sion into drama and speech at Rad­ford High where she was senior class president.

The acting bug persisted, and after graduating in ’63, she spent a year in drama at the University, then snared her first theatrical job, a bit part as a seasick missionary wife in Miche­ner’s Hawaii. The part was small, but the pay was good, good enough to take her to the Big Apple and a seedy room in the Broadway Central Ho­tel, a move that proved beneficial to her breath control. “I developed a lot of wind,” she said, “running from all manner of strange people.”

Her father was not enthusiastic about her stage career. “He wanted me to be a secretary – I think he still does,” says Bette. “But my mother thinks what I’m doing is great.”

After roaming the village – go-go dancing, waiting tables and working kiddie shows ”“ she found herself in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. For three years Bette sang in the chorus and played Tzeitel, Tevye’s No.1 daughter. Then came restlessness.

“I came to New York to have a career, not to be in one show,” she told the New York Times. “I thought ‘time to move’ and I had a bunch of experiences that related to that move. I was getting very high and I was with people who were brilliant and they were flashing things across my brain. I was getting freaked out on everything that was going on, so I just started singing.”

And taking acting lessons. It was a teacher at these studios who turned her on to the singing job at the Con­tinental Baths, a homosexual health spa and cabaret on Manhattan’s West Side. The “tubs,” as she calls this somewhat unusual hangout for a Jewish girl from Aiea, turned out to be her career catapult.

“I wouldn’t trade a minute of it,” Bette said. “The tubs encouraged me to explore satire and the audience there wouldn’t settle for half-ass. If I’d kept my distance they’d have lost interest because there were too many other things going on in the building that were more fun.”

Making a big splash in the tubs, her popularity pyramided. From fruit stand to supermarket she went, grow­ing into a cult idol of New York’s underground chic – and of national television audiences.

First David Frost, then Johnny Carson began boosting her on their talk-shows. As something of a regular on the Tonight Show, Bette became a heroine of high camp, dressed in tacky black lace, chattering absurdi­ties, singing with the Doc Severinson Orchestra and making occasional ref­erences to life in Hawaii. After a year and a half with Carson & Co., she found herself playing such show­cases as Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, Chicago’s Mr. Kelly’s, Los Angeles’ Troubadour and Upstairs at the Downstairs and the Bitter End in New York City.

She was signed by Atlantic Rec­ords, cutting her first album, The Di­vine Miss M, last year and another this summer. And on New Year’s Eve, she sold out both performances at New York’s Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center. This year, she has embarked on major tours; one earlier this summer, around some of the Western states and another, starting last month, which finally brings her to the HIC stage.

Her sequined tawdriness is some­times left in New York when Bette goes on the road. “I don’t dress up at all in some towns,” she said. “The people couldn’t deal with it. They’d say, ‘What? What?’ In New York, I have a huge following of the most wonderful gay creatures and when we do it, we all do it together, so it’s like an event.”

Her parents (now living in Manoa with son Daniel) have never watched her work in the flesh in her own show, a prospect about which Bette has expressed reservations. “They’ve seen me on TV,” she told the Times interviewer, “but I would never work live in front of my parents. My father would die.”

But Ruth Midler, her mother, has other ideas. Says Mrs. M: “I don’t know about that – we’ll be there.”

And what does Bette think of the jump from audiences wrapped only in towels to those in everything from jeans to jewels?

“I just want to give it to them and if they dig it, they dig it, and if they don’t dig it, they don’t – but it’s scary. I’ve had so much fun up until now. I have had such a good time in this thing.”

But there’s nothing frightening about returning to Honolulu in tri­umph. A heroine’s welcome at the HIC is a far cry from life in Halawa Housing during the ’50s.

And, come concert night. it’s a sure Bette that that elusive moon of Mana­koora will shine brightly for the Divine Miss M.

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