Here Comes Bette!
December 17, 1973
By Charles Michener
When I’m out there, I work. If people are paying money, they’re entitled to see an artist work his buns off. I want to do something beautiful that will last forever. Maybe I’ll never do it, and maybe everyone will laugh at me and say, “She’s just a fool.” But I don’t think I am.
It was a Fool’s entrance in the oldest, best sense. Suddenly, at the end of the long shaft of spotlight, Bette Midler was there-skittering across the stage of New York’s fabled Palace Theatre to the band’s fanfare and the huge applause, a tiny, spectacularly busty dress-up of a girl wearing a low-cut, shimmery taxi-dancer dress hiked up on one thigh, an orchid in her frizzed-up, fire-red hair, teetering scarlet platform shoes and a smile as big as a half-moon. As the applause died down, she grabbed the mike, her smile turned serious, and in the sudden hush she sang in a small, breathy voice: “And I am all alone / There is no one here beside me / And my problems have all gone / There is no one to describe me …” Pause . . . then whoosh! She unclipped the mike from its stand, her arms began waving like those of a child just learning to dance, her feet started skittering again, the band picked up the beat and out came a big, wrap-around voice with the refrain, “You gotta have frieeeeeends …” – the words that have become Bette Midler’s rallying cry to a whole new kind of popular-music audience.
Rally them she did – with an all-embracing sweep that is probably broader than that of any singer since Streisand. Straight and gay; aboveground and underground; unisex and due-sex; Middle American and radic-lib; chic and frumpy; escapees from apartments for singles and escapees from retirement homes ”“ they had all turned out last week for the Broadway opening of the one performer on today’s scene they could all share with equal enthusiasm.
They were not disappointed. Tearing from one end of the stage to the other like a frantic hostess trying to make everyone feel welcome, she proceeded to relocate her listeners in a musical landscape that spanned 40 years of American popular song.
From the late ’20s came “Am I Blue?” confided smokily without a trace of condescension or apology. From “the fabulous ’40s” came a show-stopping “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, her most recent hit single, with Bette and her trio of girls, the Harlettes, proving that they could instrumentalize their voices with the best of the seat singers. From the late ’50s and early ’60s a “Philadelphia medley” of “Uptown and “Da Doo Run Run” propelled Bette across the stage in a frenzy of strutting, scampering and shimmying that brought back the pseudo-toughness of “American Bandstand” at its most exhibitionistic. Of more recent vintage was the Helen Reddy hit, “Delta Dawn,” which Bette first turned into a mournful white country lament and then retransformed into a hand-clapping black gospel. And in special honor of her surroundings, she dressed up her version of “Lullaby of Broadway” by sashaying down the instep of a giant shoe-a silver sling-pump.
When Bette wasn’t singing, she was talking – in a patter that ranged from outrageous jokes a la Lenny Bruce (“If Dick Nixon would only do to Pat what he’s done to the country …”) to the kind of palaver delivered from the limp-wristed, hip-out stance that has earned her the sobriquet “The Divine Miss M“: “Whose idea was it to play this dump?… Well, are you ready for low-rent retro rock and roll? . . . I want you aaaall to know from the outset that we really busted our buns on this next one” (wiggling her own).
Burlesque? Parody? Camp? Yes ”“ but only on the surface. For whether’ in song or patter, what galvanized the audience’s tumultuous cheers and laughter was Bette’s ability to reveal an unmistakable vulnerability, a heart-stopping innocence that has been the not-so-secret weapon of every great entertainer from Fanny Brice to Judy Garland to Janis Joplin.
It’s safe to say that not even Garland’s legendary appearances in the great old house ever aroused so much anticipation as Bette Midler’s Palace debut. Scheduled as the climax of a triumphant four-month, 35-city tour that has grossed some $3 million, Bette-at-the-Palace racked up the biggest one-day sale in the history of Broadway (8148,000) when tickets for the three-week engagement went on sale in mid-October. And in recent weeks, the Midler mania was further fueled by the release of Bette’s second album for Atlantic Records – which, by the end of last week, was on the verge of attaining “gold record” status by raking in sales of $1 million. In this age of pseudo-phenomena, Bette Midler is the genuine article – and a surprising one at that. For there is nothing exotic, glamorous or “crazy” about the 5-foot-l, 28-year-old young woman who, when asked offstage about her success, says simply: “I’m taking my vitamins, I’m getting ten hours of sleep, and I’m trying not to take it all too seriously. But if the show’s not perfect, I disintegrate.”
Few performers since the Beatles have been so heralded as the harbinger of a new era”- or analyzed so seriously by the media. In March, the normally sober National Observer called her, in a feature that top-headlined the front page, “probably the brightest, hottest superstar to rise above the pop-music horizon in the ’70s.” In August, Ms. magazine put her on the cover and asked a number of commentators (from artist-playwright Rosalyn Drexler to Yoke One) to answer the question: “Why Bette Midler?’
Why indeed? Is she brilliantly exploiting the nostalgic craze for old songs, old movies, old chic-with dashes of contemporary irony and funkiness thrown in? Is she, like Alice Cooper, Elton John and David Bowie, capitalizing on the trend toward sheer spectacle in rock? Does her parodistic bawdiness feed our lingering hunger for the risquÃ© – as opposed to the pornographic? Is her affectionate, welcome-all style an antidote to the angry, divisive music of the ’60s?
The answer is yes – to all the questions. How else could she have launched herself three years ago by performing regularly on both Johnny Carson’s ‘”Tonight Show” and in the place where she found her first fans – a Manhattan Turkish bath for homosexuals?
At the Continental Baths I was playing to people who are always on the outside looking in. To create the semblance of someone like that can be wonderful. And so I created the character of The Divine Miss M. She’s lust a fantasy, but she’s useful at showing people what that outsider’s perspective is.
It was lust something I felt, something live happening on that stage,” recalls Stephen Ostrow, the proprietor of the Continental Baths, of his first encounter some three years ago with Bette at the Improvisation, a New York night spot that gives aspiring talents a chance to show their stuff. In those days, Bette was only a slight cut above the thousands of other stage-struck girls in New York, waiting for a break. After a stint in the chorus of “Fiddler on the Roof,” she had been elevated to the role of Tevye’s eldest daughter and in her off hours had taken up singing in small showcase clubs. Though it hardly looked like much of a break, she accepted Ostrow’s offer of $50 a night to come to his steamy establishment on weekends and entertain his towel-clad, all-male clientele.
Enter The Divine Miss M. “She first tried out ‘Miss M’ on me,” recalls talent manager William Hennessey who was Bette’s hairdresser in “Fiddle;” and has since traveled with her as a gag writer. “She had another friend then,” says Hennessey, “a dancer named Ben Gillespie, who was a ’30s and ’40s freak, and the three of us used to hang around all the old-movie houses in New York. Afterward Bette would do take-offs of people like Charlotte Greenwood, Martha Raye and Joan Davis.”
Egged on by the boys in the baths (“the tubs,” as Bette called the place), Miss M soon became “divine” – a frizzle – haired burlesque of a little-girl / woman who had rummaged through some dusty theatrical trunk and come up with Spring-o-lator shoes, a black-lace corset and gold lame pedal pushers; who had unearthed a stack of old sheet music and warped 45s, and refurbished such dubious classics as the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” so that they seemed at once hilariously dated yet as fresh and catchy as if they were new; who called anything she didn’t like “the pits,” and described herself as “trash with flash” and “the last of the truly tacky women.”
“It’s easy to say her appeal to homosexuals had a drag-queen aspect,” says Hennessey, “but more basically, they saw her as a non-threatening, breast-feeding mother.” Says Ostrow: “She was always insecure about her background, her lack of musical training, her appearance, the fact that she was Jewish. Without those insecurities, the energy, the talent wouldn’t have been the same.”
Whatever it was, Bette quickly became the reigning cult figure of New York’s restless underground – a cult that went aboveground when she moved to supper clubs like Downstairs at the Upstairs and the Bitter End, and then expanded into a national following when she began appearing regularly on the “Tonight Show.
I was dying to make it big. You know why? Because I wanted to be somebody else. I didn’t know who. Edith Piaf perhaps, I don’t know. Well, it was so much bull … The more of stardom I see, the sillier it gets.
To Johnny Carson, Bette Midler wasn’t merely a bizarre freak show from the underground, buy a major talent with antecedents in the mainstream. “When I first saw her on the show,” he says, “I saw a quality that reminded me very much of Streisand. Bette really grabbed the audience. There was an empathy, a rapport that was hard to equal.”
Since the medium inhibited and confined her during the musical numbers, she achieved her greatest rapport during her rapid-fire chatter with Carson between songs. On her most recent appearance, she talked with Carson about a subject that had been very much on her mind of late – her childhood in, of all places, Honolulu, where she had just the week before made her first homecoming as a star.
CARSON: Last time you were there, you were picking pineapples, you said.
BETTE: NO, putting them in cans. There’s a great difference.
CARSON: Of course.
BETTE: it was a remarkable adventure returning home …
CARSON: Your parents were there [at her two concerts]?
BETTE: NO, one parent was there. My mother came, but my father, oh, he just said, “Oh, I just can’t.” He’s read some things about me, you know, and he’s very conservative. He likes Lawrence Welk. He doesn’t like too much cleavage. In fact, every time I went over there to dinner, he made me safety-pin my dress together … O God, my mother got a charge, though. She kept screaming, “Faaaabulous, faaaabulous” . . . I used to have a lot of trouble when I was living there, you know. ‘Cause I was a Jewish girl growing up in a Samoan neighborhood . . . I left . . . and, you know, the old story about “I’11 show them” . . . I really felt that way and I had a lot of anger built up in me from those years . . .
By the time she got up to sing her second number, no “applause” sign was necessary to spark a thundering ovation from the Carson audience. Standing in the wings, Carson’s next guest, humorist David Steinberg, turned to a visitor and muttered: “She’s the worst thing that can happen to you in show business. It’s like following a moonwalk.”
Both my parents are very strong. There’s nothing wishy-washy about them. My father was a painter for the Navy and we lived in a real funky house, just like the one in that play “The Effect of Gamma Rays.” My father had machinery – all over the place – he had 27 lawn mowers – and my mother always had a stack of sewing up to the ceiling. She named me after Bette Davis, which she thought was pronounced “Bet.” I did too until I got to New York.
They were very strict. I got to go to the movies only if they were musicals, because my mother didn’t want me to see “those things.” I never swore until I was 17. If you said “darn” in our house, you got beaten within an inch of your life. I never had boyfriends until high school, and then I found myself mainly with military kids because a lot of them were nice and smart.
But I never really fit in-even though I was elected senior-class president. I won that by default: you should have seen the other candidate! The truth is that I was just about the only white in an all-Oriental school and most of those kids never said two words to me. So I got buried in studying. I was always the best in English. I had to be the best, because it was all I had.
For all the resentment she later expressed, Bette’s homecoming had all the appearance of a love-in. In a genuine state of panic before her first concert in Honolulu’s International Center, she walked onstage like Little Orphan Annie Returns – to a standing ovation. Two hours later, after another standing ovation that lasted seven minutes, she said to the audience: “I don’t mind telling you I was scared shitless tonight.” Then, looking up at the sky, she closed her eyes and yelled: “God, if you only knew how happy you’ve made me!”
At the next night’s performance, most of Bette’s Radford High class of ’63 showed up to present her with flower leis. Cheering her on from Row C both nights were Bette’s mother, Mrs. Fred Midler, her older sister, Susan, and her younger brother, Daniel. Said a slightly dazed, ecstatic Mrs. Midler: “We always knew she was witty, but we didn’t know she was that witty. I’m so proud of her because she makes so many people happy.” “If Bette were a teen-ager today, she’d be like any other,” said Myrna Ishimoto, a speech teacher who coached Bette to a state championship on the Radford speech squad (her entry was a scene from “The Glass Menagerie”). “But Bette was very creative and active in drama, and in those days drama wasn’t really accepted.”
And how did Bette feel about the “old days”? With characteristic two-mindedness, she approached a class get-together with the laughing half-joke, “Well, I’m now going to a reunion of all the people who couldn’t stand me.” But when it came time to depart, she burst into tears: “I didn’t want to leave so early. I didn’t get a chance to say good-by to Judy and Jane and … Oh, I just wish I could stay.”
I was glad my father didn’t come to see me perform. I would have been afraid to be dirty or gross, afraid that he would walk out or start yelling at me. He’s a good, old-fashioned man. He doesn’t want anyone to think that anyone from his family is cheap. I don’t know why I love to parody all that cheap music and stuff. It’s so dumb. But I have so much fun doing it. And I’m not choosy about particular styles of music. As long as a song’s got a solid tune with good musical changes and words I’1I try it. Basically I think theatrically. I choose a song if I can picture myself singing it, or if I have an idea of what its story or character is about.
It took Ahmet Ertegun, the canny, powerful president of Atlantic Records, only one exposure to Bette’s instincts about songs to be persuaded that here was a talent he had to sign. “She had done the Baths and made a few Carson appearances when friends told me to catch her at the Downstairs at the Upstairs,” says Ertegun. “She was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe that a young person like her could not only understand those old musical styles so well but capture the flavor of the periods and make them a part of herself. It was the wittiest musical performance I’d ever seen. It was striking to see such innate elegance and good taste in someone who superficially appeared not to have elegance or good taste. You know, she never embarrassed onstage,”
Once Ertegun had signed her up, however, difficulties arose. “She posed a great problem,” says Ertegun, “because she didn’t fit into any categories; it’s very hard to make a record that doesn’t fit a category and then find an audience. Also, it was obvious that a lot of her appeal was her onstage magic. So there were lots of different theories as to what to do with her, and her first album was a compromise between people tearing her in different directions. But it’s all come together on the second one.”
Indeed, the newly released album should dispel the most commonly heard criticism of Midler: that her ability as a comic far outstrips her vocal talent. During the past year, she has undertaken vocal coaching, and the payoff is stunning. Backed again by the brilliant arrangements of her pianist and music director, Barry Manilow, she plunges into an astonishing range of new material: a tour de force of “In the Mood,” in which she sings all the vocal parts; an intensely dramatic reading of Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” brought off without an echo of Lotte Lenya; a soaring version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” which stretches interpretive freedom to the outer limits of propriety, and a deeply emotional “I Shall Be Released,” which justifies Bette’s own description of it as my “Gotterdammerung.”
I had a real trauma on this tour in Denver. We were playing out in the middle of God-made country in the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and I felt so helpless against the elements that I thought I had to do this big show-bit thing, you know, shake my tits and be divine. Well it got to the point where I was giving the people only what they expected of The Divine Miss M – but nothing of myself. During the break I sat there and figured it out, and for the next set I took off my make-up, put on my pants and shirt and tried to harmonize with Red Rocks just by being little old me. Miss M is a show-much larger than life. Bette Midler is just a person with a few things to say and a few songs to sing. From now on, I’m going to be Bette Midler.
But what is that? The dramatic lead of the next Mike Nichols film or the raison d’etre for a Broadway musical extravaganza? The biggest recording star of the next few years or the queen of TV specials? Right now, producers, directors, agents and promoters on all fronts are moving in on the pint-size phenomenon like locusts to a money tree.
She is not, however, up for grabs. Her all-protecting manager and the most important man in her life these days, Aaron Russo, is taking great pains to ensure that. A burly, 30-year-old former rock promoter, Russo is involved in every phase of Bette Midler – creatively, financially and romantically – and what he seems to care about most is the person herself. “We’re open to all offers but we’re in no hurry,” says Russo. “I believe in taking things one at a time, and right now it’s just the Palace and probably another album after she gets some rest. She has no financial worries – I’ve invested all of her earnings in gold – and I’m trying to keep her from getting too grand. At heart, you know, Bette Midler’s just a shlepper ”“ a good Jewish girl who happens to have a lot of ability.”
I used to want to be Bette Davis in one of those great ’30s movies where everyone’s wearing furs and drinking Martinis. I used to believe that. But now that it’s beginning to happen, I really don’t think a lot about the theater or movie offers or about the money. I have a small four-room apartment in the Village in New York with a little garden, and I still ride the subway all the time. Marriage? I’m not going to get married. Who’s going to marry me?
It’s the question that Bette Midler asks implicitly in every performance, and the way she answers it is the real secret of her extraordinary appeal ”“ and importance. “Who’s going to marry me?” That great original ugly duckling of the ’60s, Barbra Streisand, asked it first ”“ but Streisand was untouchable: with all that awesome, stylized stage power, the answer was finally irrelevant. And Janis Joplin, more perversely, asked the question too – but with shattering foreknowledge that the answer would inevitably be negative.
Those were different times: For all her sharp-eyed fascination with the past, Bette Midler is really interested in sweeping away the confusion of the present. And in the last number of her show, she demonstrates the gift that only the greatest popular entertainers seem to have – an intuition of what the public has been hungering for without yet realizing it:
“It’s your turn now,” she yells, motioning the audience to rise . . . and magically, without self-consciousness, hundreds of children and parents, adolescents and post-adolescents, grownups and post-grownups, begin swaying back and forth and singing the silly, wonderful words from the trash bin of the early ’60s: “. . . Because we’re going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married . . .geeee, I really love ya . . . Going to the chapel of love. . .”
Who’s going to marry Bette Midler? The answer is clear–everybody.