BetteBack September 12, 1973: Bette Midler on a New Tack

Los Angeles Times
September 12, 1973


Pardon me, I know you’re probably in a rush this morning, but if you have a minute or two free, I could use some help with a couple of problems. They both concern Bette Midler and her new show at the Universal Amphitheater.

You see, I’m supposed to write about rock music and I keep finding these non-rock performers with such impact and power that I find myself occupied a lot with them these days. First, there was Harry Belafonte and then Liza Minnelli and now Bette Midler. I mean, what are my pals going to think?

Actually, Bette has a following among the gang at the Whisky and the Troubadour. After all, it was at the Troubadour that she made her local debut last winter. And she does have songs like “Leader of the Pack” in her repertoire.

But the Troubadour, we all knew, was just a stepping stone. By March, she was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and now she’s at the Universal Amphitheater through Sunday. Despite a couple of hit AM singles and her Troubadour appearance, however, her rise has been so rapid that many in the rock world may have missed her.

For those who did, they shouldn’t let the fact that she is now into the concert world of Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and Henry Mancini keep them from catching up with her at this point.

She’s a strikingly original, vital, even thrilling performer who is able on her best nights, to touch you emotions with both her music and manner. She is, when everything is right, truly the Divine Miss M.

Her show Monday at the Amphitheater drew one of the strongest ovations of the season, greater even than the emotional outpouring at Liza Minnelli’s opening last month at the Greek Theater. But there were some troubling signs in Monday’s show, a fact that brings us to the second problem.

So many of her moves–particularly musical ones–seemed less arresting than in the past (a warning signal that should be noted).

So, I ask you, do I stress how worthwhile she remains? Or do I lament that she seems–for whatever reason–to be wearing thin. Maybe a reconstruction of her past appearances will put things in better perspective.

LAST NOVEMBER: Ah, the first time I saw Miss Midler. A glorious night. She did three sold out performances before wildly cheering audiences at the Boarding House in San Francisco prior to making her Los Angeles debut at the Troubadour.

At the Boarding House, the tiny (5 foot, 1 inch) red haired fireball of energy combined all the gaudy show business exuberance of the 1940’s with a steady stream of funny, exaggerated remarks (referring to herself as “last of the tacky women…trash with flash”) and some highly stylized versions of such varied songs as, “Am I Blue?” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “Leader of the Pack”.

DISPLAY OF ENERGY: Through it all she exhibited a continuous display of energy: arms twirling, body twisting, eyebrows arching and, best of all, a wide, happy rainbow of a smile. Her every move seemed to be in an effort to challenge the audience to enjoy itself, to feel some emotion, to step out from the protective shell that surrounds so many in these troubled, isolated times. Both her music and manner range from the harshly cynical to the unabashed sentimental. The impact was enormous. She was a certain star.

MONDAY NIGHT: Things started off well at the Amphitheater. There was an eager, festive audience on hand–a colorful mix of such Hollywood personalities as Kirk Douglas, Dyan Cannon and Janet Leigh and a large delegation of the glitter ‘n’ rouge crowd. Even the two remaining Andrew Sisters–Pat and Maxine–were there.

Opening with her standard “Friends”, Miss Midler, wearing a low-cut white satin dress with a marvelously tacky heart cut out just below her chest, peppered the audience with her purposefully catty remarks about Los Angeles, the Monday night audience, Karen Carpenter and herself, right on target.

But then, slowly, it began to drift. There wasn’t any particular, alarming moment.

There was, however, a comparison to be made. Miss Midler remained entertaining, but she didn’t touch me emotionally the way she once did.

The most noticeable change was her music. Neither the new material nor the now familiar songs were delivered with the depth, conviction or impact of the past. The only exceptions were the spirited “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Leader of the Pack”. Otherwise, what was once a feast of both music and manner seemed reduced to simply manner.

ALTERED MANNER: And, beneath the flash and frenzy, the manner even seemed altered. Where there was once a certain philosophical stance to her work–an over-whelming desire to make her audiences feel and experience–there now seems simply the goal of entertaining, of succeeding. It all seemed so mechanical at times.

It had been several months and several dozen shows since San Francisco and maybe Miss Midler is easing up or, more probably, she is beginning to feel a certain need for new direction and purpose. She is to valuable a performer to simply “entertain”. There was a certain greatness in her ability to touch audiences and I hope it wasn’t lost along the way.

Besides her rhythm section and the Harlettes vocal trio, she’s backed by an orchestra under the direction of Barry Manilow. The Amphitheater show was produced by Aaron Russo and there are several cute touches, particularly in the costuming.

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