BetteBack September 29, 1973: Every Gay Blade’s Fantasy

San Francisco Chronicle
September 29, 1973



Predictably enough, Bette Midler‘s return to the Berkeley Community Theater on Thursday night was a veritable concatenation of disorder.

Not riots, you understand. The Divine Miss M. would never STAND for unruly behavior amongst her slavering devotees. They are there to love her and pay court, to be sure, but hardly to attract a spotlight that is hers alone.

Still, the evening was not like any other, on stage or off. To begin with, the show started unpardonably late; 8:48 p.m. for an alleged 8 o’clock curtain. Out in the audience, one bushy-haired lad was howling “C’mon everybody, yell ‘We want Bette!’ C’mon! C’mon!!” No one yelled “We want Bette.” The bushy-haired lad looked around. “What is this …?” he cried. “Is everybody Jewish?”

Rosh Hashanah will do that to people.

Finally, the musicians arrived. Murmurs and gurgles from the near-capacity audience. Then, Barry Manilow, Bette’s pianist, arranger, conductor and, it has been said, the author of her adlibs. Shouts, palsied movements. Then the Harlettes, Bette’s back-up vocal trio and associate poseurs. Screeches, screams.

And then, yes, the Divine Miss M. herself in voluminous black slacks, a zebra-striped blouse, hot orange curly hair, incidental jewelry, red and white carnations on her head and a large orchid at the juncture of her décolletage, which, in Bette’s case, is in the vicinity of her knees.

Well, my dear, you hadda been there. People bounded bout as if on pogo-sticks, terrifying shrieks, yowls and bellows rent the auditorium, mascara ran unashamedly and mothers swept up small children and ran from the auditorium, in horror. The blind saw, the halt leapt from wheelchairs and 300 closet drag queens stripped off their false moustaches and began a mass mince to the tune of “La Cucaracha.”

It was amazing. The Divine swept from one end of the stage to the other, waving giant fans of pink feathers and hurtling along like a rag doll on speed, her various appendages sprawling in four directions simultaneously, her eyes rolling like marbles in a vacuum, her bountiful breasts, which resemble ostrich eggs dropped into a pair of pantyhose, springing up and down like yo-yos. .

“Oh,” she cried in mock melodrama, throwing her hand to her forehead, “‘Gross us out, Miss M., gross us OUT!'”

And so my children, gross us out she did for the ensuing two hours, not counting intermission. Bedlam, chaos, costumes, vamping, torching, joking, mugging, gagging, bumping, grinding, singing, dancing, sweeping and swishing, the living embodiment of every gay blade’s fantasy, Bette Midler turned the Berkeley Community Theater into such a giant campground the National Parks Service should go green with envy.

“Oh, I LOVE working for Bill Graham,” she gushed, “he’s such a BIG man.” She held up the microphone, a tubular one resembling a large, black banana. She smiled slyly. The audience guffawed knowingly. “Oh,” she cooed breathlessly, “we’re going to let ALL the stops out tonight?”

Her songs ranged from one which seemed to be titled “I Swear I’ve Never Had Such Bad Sex Before,” to what she termed a “hubba-hubba” version of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” and the dear ones from her first Atlantic album “Do You Want to Dance,” Hello In There,” “Am I Blue,”‘ “Friends,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Delta Dawn” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

There were only a few things wrong. For one, Bette seems to me in danger of becoming a self-caricature. For another, although she is gong to be a big star for at least the next 30 years, I would guess that her audience is going to wind up near-exclusively homosexual. Which is fine, except that I think it’s an unnecessary limitation of her potential appeal.

And lastly, Barry Manilow has got to go, at least as a featured part of her performance. He is a fine musician, but somewhere along the line someone made the mistake of telling him he could sing. Toward this end, he has a new album out on Bell and treated us to four solo numbers to open the second half.

Manilow, who has his hair done at the Clip and Snip Poodle Salon, apparently thinks he is a potential star. To underscore this hallucination, he has a piano stand-in, like a movie star has a lighting and blocking stand-in. This fellow comes out first and hits several notes on the piano to make sure it’s working. It was.

To open the second half, Manilow swept out on the stage in an all-white Nehru jump-suit. “My name is Barry Manilow,” he gurgled, “and I am the captain of your flight tonight.”

Tell that to the Graf Zeppelin.

His opening number guaranteed instant obscurity and he went downhill from there. The second tune was, incredibly, “Cloudburst,” accompanied by the Harlettes. “Cloudburst” is, of course, the Pointer Sisters‘ hit. For a third-rate singer to come into the Berkeley Community Theater and render “Cloudburst” is approximately equivalent to peddling near-beer in Munich. The third tune was pathetic. The fourth was titled, apparently. “Mama, Can You Hear Me?” Which needs no comment, save mama’s, which is, “Yes, son, and you should wash out your mouth with Black Flag.”

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