September 11, 1973
Lights dimmed. Ripples of excited hush crackled through the audience like electricity.
The Divine Miss M – Bette Midler – had arrived. The audience with cultish devotion and some with just plain curiosity, was out in full force to make her opening night at the Universal Amphitheater Monday an exercise in excitement.
“I never played the semi-round before,” she quipped from the bowl shaped stage.
She’s sharp, cool, zingy and as quick with her wit as she is with her 1940 choreography and high camp talk.
Bette Midler reminded me of Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and walked across the stage like a character out of a Betty Hoop cartoon.
With all this nostalgia and 1940-50 ricky-ticky tack thrown in, Bette Midler also reminds me of Bette Midler. She is refreshingly herself – and if she takes the best from other performers and molds them to her buxom body, she does it with fantasia flare.
She walked around the stage in her high spike heeled shoes with ankle straps, shook her tousled hair and said, “Just this morning I was demonstrating Vegamatics at Woolworths.”
The crowd ate it up. They gorged themselves on her fast-hitting lines. The excitement power plus pace she sets began with a “Philadelphia Medley” of “two and a half tunes, because you couldn’t stand it if we did three at once,” she told the audience. The medley included the dredges of 1960s rock and roll with “Uptown” and “A Do Run Run A Do Run Run.”
“I’m really out to lunch today folks,” the Divine Miss M related as she crawled under the piano.
If you’re thinking that “In the Mood” never had words, you’re right. Undaunted, Bette Midler launched the new lyrical version and as the person sitting next to me mummered, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone sing the trombone part to a song.”
Next came a version of “Delta Dawn” which makes the current Helen Reddy version – which is number one on national pop charts – sound like an advertisement for Burma Shave. Midler has her stuff together.
Before climbing back into 60s nostalgia and “Music to Bash Your Heads in By,” Miss M sang a convincing “Am I Blue” and a sensitive and moody John Prine composition, “Hello in There.”
Her gown was white with a heart cut out in the center and red droplets – the bleeding heart. And then it was Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” before the intermission lights went up.
Part two began with a slow interlude featuring Barry Manilow on piano. Manilow gathers the material for Bette Midler, turns it into her jingle-jolt style and also serves as musical director on her concert tour.
Out bounded the Harlettes in neb waitress uniforms with pink sequins for “A Lullaby of Broadway.” Joined on stage with the Divine Miss M, “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” snapped into action.
Maxine Andrews – one of the Andrews Sisters whose version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” made money and fame for them in the 40s – was sitting across the aisle from me. She seemed to thoroughly enjoy herself.
The song ended with a smart salute, with the Harlettes opening their waitress dresses to reveal American Flags on the inside. Patriotism forever.
What do you do for an encore when you’ve already sung “Leader of the Pack” (a true 50s scourge) and told the audience your big dream is to be Sanitation Commissioner for New York City while standing on stage in your slip?
You rush into a version of “Chapel of Love” and blow kisses to an audience who is standing on its feet, hands swaying wildly and bodies moving to the music.
The whole thing was bananas. Wonderful bananas.