April 13, 1973
She flounces and minces, coos and shrieks. She is ludicrous and appealingly pathetic. She is a performer, is Bette Midler. That’s Bette as in “bet” – just one syllable.
She’s a killer. She brings out the queens in drag who first started flocking around her at the Continental Baths in the Ansonia Hotel, mid-Manhattan, sitting around in their steaming towels. Then the straights started coming, too, fully togged.
She’s on the verge of making it big, where Barbra Streisand was almost a decade ago. And just as brassy and talented, but with a raucous brand of humor
She’s on a swing of American cities, in concert as they say, her first extended tour with symptoms of big money – she carries a four-piece band led by her arranger,
Barry Manilow, plus a backup vocal trio called the Harlettes.
When the Divine Miss M – self-billed – sashays from the wings, it’s camporama, a put-on leavened with quality.
This night, it’s a high school auditorium, yet, in which she does her stuff. But it’s called the Berkeley Community Theater and looks and is as big as Radio City Music Hall.
“This is the divine one,” she sassily announces, “en personne,” French with a “Joisey” accent. She had just come up from Los Angeles, where she slew them in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, all the Beverly Hillsites with their “sucked-in-cheeks.”
“The auditorium,” rasps Bette, “reeked of Gucci.”
Shrieks in the front row. The freaks dig.
“You will all know,” she announces, “why they call me Miss Divine. All you people who’ve come out of your musty little garrets where you’re all doing macramÃ©.”
THEN SHE SINGS and she bounces and she wails and warbles and whispers – “this is my ‘air de plzza’ medley” – and it’s all wild and frenetic. First, she’s strutting around the stage with her redtressed ringlets flying, a reincarnated Clara Bow, the “It” girl. Then she’s in a smoky spotlight doing a torchy “Am I Blue” straight out of Bessie Smith and ’20s. Then a rocked-up version of the Carpenters – she lumps Trish Nixon and Karen Carpenter in one schmaltzy bag.
By the end of an hour she’s got them, all 3,500, the queers and the straights, up on their feet and bellowing, hands over their heads and waving. It’s a phenomenon.
This is little Bette Midler out of Hawaii via Hoboken (her parents migrated) with pure Brooklynese intonations and solid theatrics. This is little Bette Midler who was Tzeitel, one of Tevya’s daughters, in “Fiddler on the Roof” for three years but wanted to be out there on stage all by herself.
A hard-driving bundle of chutzpah with flying blouse and big mouth. A little girl really, who jiggles and shakes and intermittently belts a song in pure tones just to keep it honest.
“SHE’S A DIFFICULT lady,” says one who has known her since she was a nobody who listened to Aretha Franklin records. “Neurotic, temperamental.” The Divine Miss M does not sit for interviews now.
She’s closing in on 30, but she’s one of those Lotte Lenya types who’ll look the same when she’s 50, with a face built for character lines amid a pushed down nose.
“Do You Want to Dance,” a slowed down and magically effective wail of an old number, is the key to an album about to hit the gold medal (million sales) mark for Atlantic Records.
She’ll make a million for herself one of these days soon, too.