The Washington Post
March 12, 1973
You had to be there. Bette Midler stood on the stage of the absolutely packed Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, looked out at the bejeweled, be plumed and bespangled crowed that had risen in a screaming ovation and asked them, “This is the nation’s capitol???”
It was the first Washington appearance for the young, red-haired pop music superstar who has worked her way up to the status of a legend after beginning her singing career in a New York steam bath about two years ago.
Her first album, “The Divine Miss M.,” is a national best-seller and her concert appearances attract a colorful, to say the least, a variety of fanatical fans who range from young to old, gay to straight, blue jeaned to mink coated and back again.
The concert was delayed for 25 minutes while members of the audience surveyed each others elaborate finery, set off firecracker’s and applauded two men in feathers and silks who sallied slowly down the aisle to their front row seats and handed the young star an orchid corsage when she finally entered.
Bette had brought her own flowers, of course, it is one of her many trademarks. Another is the skittering, breast-jiggling strut she does across the stage to the delight to apparently everybody.
As usual her repertoire ranged from ’40s camp like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” to ’60s rock like “Do You Wanna Dance?” her current hit single. The audience reacted with all-purpose abandon: screaming, whooping, stomping, waving their arms and literally dancing in the aisles.
“Oh let ’em dance,” said Miss Midler to an usher who tried to quell the jubilation. The crowd, of course, shouting concurrence.
Miss Midler speculated on what was going on in the minds of her beholders: “I know what you’ve been thinking,” she said. “Oh divinity, where have you been all these months that we’ve been waiting for you here in D.C.?”
“It’s true, it’s true.” yelled someone in the fifth row.
A lot more cheering and several standing ovations came as the evening rollicked along.
In some ways the concert, which sold mere days after it was announced, was a coming out party at (and for) The Kennedy Center. Miss Midler’s references to the gay life brought roars of recognition from many in the audience.
The more loudly dressed seemed especially pleased to be parading their sartorial liberation in the lofty halls of the Kennedy Center, which has not seen a night like this one since it opened.
Not everyone was ecstatic. About 25 people who had been told to hang around until show time when standing room would be available were later informed that the star had decided there could be no standees.
They left in obvious anger.
Plans for a second concert to accommodate the crowds were scrubbed last month when, according to the local promoter, Miss Midler let it be known she would not do two shows in succession.
Fair or not, it was probably a wise decision. Miss Midler’s voice grew hoarse in the first half of the concert, when a slow ballad like “Am I Blue?” seemed to tax it. Even then it showed a remarkable warmth especially striking after the mad comic numbers that preceded it, and most in the audience were hushed into rapt silence.
The comedy songs and the campy songs won the most approval. These included a raunchy one called “Bad Sex” and what Miss M. referred to as her “Philadelphia Medley,” a trio of “trashy” old rock songs.
Like many of her production numbers, which were supported by a small combo and three girls in tight black dresses who chose to be known as “The Harlettes,” it was a frenzied, furious, raucous, rabble-rousing performance.
“I broke my buns on that one.” said Miss M. when it was over.
Then there were more songs, more standing ovations and other expressions of dauntless idolatry.
By the second act, when miss Midler had stripped down from slacks and a shirt to a tight sequined top and even tighter pedal pushers, the audience was beyond simple hysteria. They leaped into the air, climbed onto the seats, and, as Bette sang “Goin’ to the Chapel,” sang and swayed in unison.
They ran down aisles and besieged the stage, jumping and gyrating while Miss Midler continued to demonstrate her dazzling versatility and irrepressible verve.
“I didn’t know there were people like this in D.C.,” she gasped with a hand at her heart. “who woulda thunk?”
After her traditional closing theme song, “Friends,” Miss Midler made her final exit from the stage. The crowd stomped, clapped and shouted “We want Bette” for five additional minutes but she did not return.
A wild night at the Kennedy Center had ended.
You had to be there.