Exclusive Bette Midler Interview
April 23, 1975
By Vito Russo
NEW YORK, NY: Don’t let all the recession-obsessed soothsayers fool you. People are still lining up to see a good show. At around midnight of the evening before tickets went on sale at the Minskoff Theatre for Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue, the line began to form for what turned out to be the largest single day ticket sale in Broadway history. The previous record had been set more than a year ago by Bette Midler at the Palace Theatre. Red Skelton said it when he was told that over 10,000 people had shown up at movie mogul Harry Cohen’s funeral: “Give the people something they want to see and they’ll come out for it.”At a time when people were selling apples on the street corners in Greenwich Village for $1.50 each, I’m convinced now that we do indeed need it now.
It wasn]t always so easy to sell tickets to a Bette Midler concert. There was a time when you could take your pick of any one of 50 empty folding chairs at the basement of the Continental Baths on 74th Street. All you had to do was take a breather from the upstairs activity. The rest of the patrons were 100 feet away, splashing in the pool, oblivious to the fact that the little woman with the red hair would some day command the attention of the entire entertainment industry. Bette Midler would complain weekly that the pool activity andthat goddamn waterfall were cramping her act.
Playing the baths was a new and, believe it or not, daring thing to do in those days. No entertainer with ambition to be anything would consider it. Playing gay-oriented bars and hangouts was the mark of her faltering career. Bette has been knocking around New York since 1965 when she arrived on the money from a bit part in the motion picture Hawaii. She auditions endlessly for Fiddler On The Roof and played Tsietel in it for three years, often spending her late evenings singing in showcase bars and gypsy hangouts in the theatre district. She was working at The Improvisation when she heard about the Continental Baths and its owner, Steve Ostrow, who would give her $50 a night to sing for gay men in towels. It proved to be the turning point in her career, garnering her the attention of the New York press and eventually an auditioned for The Tonight Show. The publicity she got at the time was due as much to the fact that she was singing in a gay bathhouse as the fact that she was shaping up as the hottest thing in music since Barbra Streisand. Critics compared her to Piaf and Garland and waxed ecstatic about the Jewish girl from a Samoan neighborhood in Hawaii who grew up to be the darling of the beautiful people in a decadent New York bathhouse.
Bette was in her element in those days. It is fair to say that the people who saw her then probably saw the best and most exciting work of her career thus far. Every night she took her audience someplace else, enacting all of her fantasies and the fantasies of the audience. They pushed her to the absolute limits of her daring and gave her the kind of support and confidence which made her a star. She sang things at the baths which she has not recorded and has seldom, if ever again, done in concert. There were moments during which she taught her audience sides of herself yet to be revealed to the general public. Also, she got away with more than she could later on. The world wasn’t watching yet and she could afford to be self-indulgent and try out new things on the spot. Low-down songs like “Fat Stuff’ by Seth Allen and “I Need A Little Sugar in My Bowl,”a Bessie Smith favorite, have all but disappeared from her repertoire, along with strokes of genius like “Marijuana” from the film Murder At The Vanities. She’d wrap a pink towel around her head and stick ten cents worth of fake cherries in it and do a Carmen Miranda for 20 minutes. She also developed a resiliency at the baths which served her well later on the road. It made her touch.
The folding chairs began to fill up, and it wasn]t so easy to get a seat anymore. If you were at the baths for fun and games and wanted to catch the show you had to come downstairs an hour early and wait for the seats to be set up so as not to loose out. Mick Jagger showed up. Rex Reed came in a strictly professional capacity for the first time to check things out. The Warhol crowd and the beautiful people began to drift down to rub elbows with the young lovers in towels who held hands throughout the performance. Some of the heterosexual couples didn’t know what to make of it all. A new tour guide agency which sponsored “Mystery Tours” began to make the Continental a surprise stop on the agenda, leading housewives from Dubuque and their nervous husbands down into the steams depths of a subterranean nightclub to be surrounded by men in towels. Incidents were common. A straight woman called a man a drag queen and he threw her in the pool. Fights broke out between straight men and gay men who tossed off their towels and danced nude in front of shocked wives. It was, as we were fond of saying, “a trip.”
It also provided Bette with enough comedy material to last her entire career. She went through it in a weekend. Reverend Troy Perry of the MCC came one Saturday night to make a speech abut the advent of Gay Pride Week. Bette rushed into her dressing room and shouted, “Quick! Gay priest jokes!” Onstage she feigned incredulity.”Whhhaaat is this? Bingo on Friday, Bango on Saturday? They oughta call this dump “Our Lady Of the Vapors.” Tonight she’ll walk on the water in the pool, and tomorrow night he’ll be walking the third flood. Puhleese.” It was a happy family in spite of the chic invaders who grew in number each week. Bette, now appearing occasionally on late-night television, would remain fiercely loyal to the Continental and the gay men in her audience. “Lissen, they gave me a big push and that]ll always be part of me even after I’ve moved on. Me and those guys went somewhere else.”
Move on she did, to pack Carnegie Hall on a late June night in 1972 and to draw almost 100,000 people to Central Park for a Schaefer concert. It was the happiest time of her career to date “I felt like Marilyn Monroe in a newsreel from Korea” Many changes began to take place. After a farewell performance at the Continental Baths which packed over 1,000 people into a space meant for 500, it was clear that she had outgrown the space. She began to work on her first album, a process which took 10 months and three producers due to her unrelenting quest to know every aspect of studio recording. She embarked on a cross-country tour, backing up her material a little so that the people in Buffalo could catch up on the latest dish on Karen Carpenter]s drumming (“It sucks”) and Johnny Carson’s penchant for wives named JoAnn (“He must]ve had a sled named JoAnn when he was a kid”). She paused long enough to politely but firmly decline an invitation to sing for Richard Nixon at the White House but found the time to go to a Chicago suburb and sing “Friends” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” for 70 people at a benefit for George McGovern.
On New Year’s Eve, 1973, at midnight, she rose up from beneath the stage at Lincoln Centers Philharmonic Hall in a diaper, singing “Auld Lang Syne.”
“My dears, are you ready for this! Philharmonic Hall. Heavy on the Danish Modern. From 74th Street to 65th Street in a single year!
They loved it, and rock critic Lillian Roxon said the next day, “1973 is definitely here.”
Once again that year, Bette reminded us that she was loyal and grateful to her gay following by appearing before 17,000 gay men and woman in New York’s Washington Square Park to help celebrate Gay Pride Week. In jeans and a red work shirt, knotted at the waist, she burst upon the stage and drawled, “Lissen, I heard a little bit of this on the radio and it sounded like you people were beating each other up out here so I came to sing a song.” She did two choruses of “Friends” and was carried over the barricades to a waiting car. Her accompanist that day on the piano was Barry Manilow, her longtime musical arranger who heard the proceedings on the radio and decided to join her.
Later that year she was awarded After Dark]s Ruby Award and accepted it with a good-natured smirk, hardly recognizing her old friends from the baths in their tuxedos and black ties. She went on the road again, while her manager planned a limited engagement at the Palace Theatre. It promptly sold out and became the theatrical event of the New York concert season, leaving Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker second and third in the running. For this engagement she was given a special Tony Award. She also received the year’s Grammy Award as the Most Promising Newcomer. It was handed to her, appropriately, by Karen Carpenter. Doubled up with giggles, she kissed Carpenter and said, “Oh, my dears, isn’t this a hoot? Me and Miss Karen. I’m surprised she didn’t hit me over the head with it.”
The Palace stint, in spite of all the publicity and the accolades, was more an emotional and financial success than a musical one. Bette was tired, and her voice was weary from all those nights on the road. On her opening night she raced across the stage in a frantic last burst of energy and effort and tried to make it all work by dint of sheer goodwill. The show was commercial and slick, and it showed. When she said, ‘shit’ it was because she knew that the hipsters form northern New Jersey and the young marrieds from Bayside expected it. It was shock and tits all the way. These people had heard about the trashy lady from the baths and she was giving them what they wanted. If she got upset or bored with what the audience asked of her, she put down last night’s audience. It wasn’t Bette Midler, and it wasn]t even The Divine Miss M. It was what the press told the people to expect, and they loved it. Suddenly they were decadent and”in.”
It wasn’t her fault; she was tired and she was learning not to give all of herself all the time. In a conversation with her longtime friend and comedy writer, Bill Hennessey, I asked if she’d made a conscious decision not to give all of herself every night.
Absolutely. You just can’t do it. Look at Joplin. She attempted to do it all the time and it burned her out. Of course, she did it with the help of drugs, but that only attests to the fact that its an impossible thing for a human person to achieve. I was in the dressing room when Bette would come back dripping wet after playing to ten or fifteen thousand people and say,”Heey, fuck this! I was out there giving my ass and my tits and my soul and I got nothing back,” and she was right. You just can’t keep it up or it’ll kill you.”
The time has come for a vacation. For the past 16 months Bette has been traveling, going to the movies, seeing shows and taking classes in anything that interests her or will help her work. She took tap dancing lessons and attended lectures on animation techniques at the School of Visual Arts. She worked briefly as a presenter on the Grammy Awards show and appeared recently on the Cher special, but for the most part has enjoyed herself and stayed out of the public eye. A few months ago, plans were completed for her return to Broadway. She has been working 12 hours a day with choreographer Joe Layton, readying herself for what promises to be an evening full of surprises. Tony Walton has designed a number of sets which are to form the framework for her different moods and songs, including a barroom scene in which she will perform “Drinking Again.” The show’s run is limited, but plans have already been made to extend it for another six weeks and to take it to Los Angeles when it closes in New York.
The show opens in Philadelphia, and Bette can see me for a brief session on the day she is preparing to leave. When I arrive at her house in Greenwich Village she is in the kitchen in a green velvet bathrobe, making scrambled eggs. She’s just gotten up. I remembered that Richard Amsel had jokingly suggested I ask if she slept in the nude.
“No. I sleep in flannel pajama and two pairs of socks with an electric blanket cause there’s no heat in this house. How are ya?”
I begin to go through the motions of thanking her for the interview, and she says, “Yeah, I know, Vito,” and smiles a little. I know that she’s thinking, if everybody is so sorry for bothering me, then why doesn’t anybody leave me alone? Giving my cigarette the evil eye she called for an ashtray, and we sit at her little dining table while she inhales her scrambled eggs.
“So, how does it feel to be back on Broadway?”
“Well, I’m not there yet, but I’m excited and looking forward to it.”
I ask her in what ways she thinks her music has changed after having had a year off.
“Its not so much my music that’s changed as my perspective on my work. I think it’s changed a little bit. ‘Im not as frightened as I once was, mostly because I don’t have all that much invested in it. I’m not as emotional about it as I once was. I enjoy it a lot more, you know? At least I’ve certainly enjoyed these rehearsals. Generally when I’m in rehearsal I’m a mess, you know, because last time I mostly did a lot of the work myself, organizing the people. Barry Manilow used to do the music and we always had someone come in to do the girls, generally Andre De Shields who came in again this time, but then there was organizing the clothes and where we were gonna to go and what out attitudes were going to be and stuff. It use to drive me nuts. This, however, has been a very much easier thing for me to do. Its like a framework, and I come in and I go out of it and I don’t have to be there all the time. Even if I’m not there, it just chugs along without me, and that’s terrific.”
Trying to get a line on new things in the show, I ask her if her tap dancing lessons will be put to use now.
“No, not me, dear. My girls will do a little dancing and of course I have a few steps as usual, but no heavy dancing.”
We talk awhile about what she’s been doing for a year and the movies and ballets she’s seen. We talk about Funny Lady.
“Oh. I thought the first half was quite marvelous. I liked that.”
Is Barry Manilow involved in this show?
“You mean in it? No. He’s done some music for it, but he won’t be in it. He]s way in Denver now.”
Is the smoke from my cigarette bothering her, and how would she like to talk about the possibility of doing a movie soon?
“Yes, the cigarette bothers me, and no, I don’t know anything about a film. I do have a script which I think is marvelous but nothing definite.
Which I ask her about elaborating on the script she just smiled and shakes hear head. Plowing right ahead, I ask her wouldn]t she like to play Dorothy Parker or Piaf.
“Oh. I’d love to sure” Then a quick change, “Vito, what is the meaning of that earring you wear in your right ear as opposed to the left?”
I tell her it means absolutely nothing, and that it’s only jewelry, which I am getting tired of because it attracts more attention than it’s worth. I also tell her that in case she’s wondering, it’s no an S&M thing with me.
“Yeah, Vito, that’s what they all say.”
So much for our discussion of her film career. What about television, then. Does she plan a special?
“Oh, well, I loved doing the Cher show, but no, I have no plans for a special. Last year ABC wanted to do a television thing with the show at the Palace, live, but I was so tired and when I thought of all those lights and cameras “Oh, I just don’t think I could have borne it. It was too much for me. I barely got through as it was. The Cher show was really wonderful, though. I had a good time doing that. You know, I hadn’t worked for a solid year and here were these people fetching and carrying and patting you and plumping you up and teaching you dance steps and laughing at you saying “Oh, aren’t you just the most wonderful thing that ever walked” and oh, it was wonderful. I mean it/s a whole other world, you know. It has nothing to do with real life.”
I remind her about the old-age skit where she and Cher and Flip Wilson and Elton John played aging rock stars in an old folks’ home.
“That was Elton/s skit all the way. Wow, it was fun. He stole that skit. We were hysterical at Elton absolutely all the time. He was brilliant. I really adore him, first of all because he’s an incredibly funny human being. He loves to laugh. And he puns all the time. He loves puns. Yeah, he;s very much a down-to-earth person and I really love him.”
Wasnâ’t she cutting a single record with Paul Simon?
“Oh, sure, that’s still around. Paul works on it once in a while. He’s a very meticulous person. It’s called “Gone At Last,” and I’ll be doing it in the show. I’ll be doing it with my choir. We’re working with the Michael Powell Ensemble, a gospel group from Harlem. On the record we did it with Jesse Dickson’s group, three women and a man. They’re friends of Paul’s. It has a good gospel feel to it, and i’s a terrific song. Paul wants to work on it until he makes it mind-boggling. He’s a perfectionist that way.
What about the third album she’s cutting now?
“Well, I go in and I cut when I feel like it, but I haven’t really started putting it together yet. Mostly I’m just learning my way around the studio and the producers.”
Will it be on the same label or a new one?
“Oh, same label, dear. My dear, I owe them a hundred and fifty two albums! Well, I owe them two albums a year, so there’s just a little bit of backlog. But they don]t bother me. They go along their merry way. You know, I’m tempted to record this next show live because there are so many good voices in it with Lionel Hampton and all. It would make a really great album.
The room is beginning to fill with the sounds of departure noises, with people arriving to help pack and Bette’s secretary, Patrick Merla, taking calls and messages.
“Is there anything you’d like to say about your musical base? Has it changed? Is it more serious in any way?
Bette is scrunched up in her chair now, massaging a bruised knee where she hurt herself doing a step the other day.
“I think my musical base has broadened, I try not to take anything to seriously. I still have what people call my camp business. My singing has gotten a little better, but I still find myself getting hoarse. I’ve had a little time to listen to new things in the past year and explore different forms. Music is music, you know? And if it livens your life i’s fine. All kinds of music is wonderful to me always has been. Saw a great jazz singer the other night at the Cookery. Helen Humes. You ever see her? You should really go. Shes 61 years old and has a crystal clear voice thats real high and she doesn]t sing anything past 1945. She sings in exactly that idiom and she has the most incredibly phrasing. I’ve heard a lot of dames and guys on record who could do that but not live like she did.”
She remembers suddenly that a mutual friend of ours is back in town from San Francisco and I tell her that hes doing research for a project on Judy Garland.
“Christ, him and everybody else. He]s only one of a hundred people. A friend of mine has all her old TV shows and we watched a lot of them one night. She had a huge following; I guess a lot of people know a lot of things about her. It]s interesting to see the TV things like that because you can see the way she worked. Its amazing. Some of the stuff, like the classic songs she does, are just wonderful, but when she was singing real garbage, like the things people wrote especially for her, I mean it was just such real garbage and she just sailed right through it as if it didn’t matter at all.”
I read an interesting interview with Barbra Streisand the other day and ask Bette’s opinion about Streisand’s saying that she’s done everything and doesn’t have the ambition she used to have. She’s thinking of retiring.
Well, I haven’t achieved what I set out to do yet. But I like to work. I am a fairly ambitious person, and I think I have the talent to create something of lasting value. I haven’t finished up yet. There are all areas of the theatrical arts in my life, I like the theatre and I love movies and dance, I love it all. In terms of]making it,’ I’m not the biggest thing there ever was. That doesn’t bother me. I like the fact that I can draw an audience. I like that people will pay to see me and be pleased or whatever, it makes me very happy. When I’m finished doing what I have to do in this area I will move on to another related form. It’s the doing that’s fun. The work is fun. It’s the going, not the getting there.”
I point out that the world is changing rapidly and that some people can’t cope with it.
“But it’s the way of the world, though, Vito. We’re not the first people to have to go through a crisis. You wouldn’t have wanted to be around during the Black Plague now, Vito, would you? There are always the best of times and the worst of times all the time. It’s part of being on the planet. We haven’t learnt everything yet. I just wish somebody would contact another planet. There’d be so much more to talk about. You know, I take the Smithsonian Magazine and there’s this article in it about this old civilization that’s just been found. I tell this to everybody. It’s on the Danube in Yugoslavia and it’s 7,000 years older than the oldest caveman drawings. I’s intelligently laid out in little trapezoidal areas. (She is drawing little areas on the table with her fingers and is really getting into describing the city in a very fascinating way.) One day these people who lived there just up and left or disappeared. Imagine? So there/s a lot going on we don’t know about.”
Her face is puzzled for a minute and then she says:
“You know, I said something last night to Claudia Dryfus from Newsday about After Dark magazine being a gay magazine. It didn’t even occur to me that it wasnt the right thing to say.”
I tell her that if it was a natural comment, it’s only because there must be something to it.
‘Well, you know, Vito, their editorial policy just kills me! Everything is so wonderful.”
Now I think about her comments in Gay magazine two years ago when asked what she thought of gay liberation. She told Leo Skir, ‘For Christ’s sake, open your mouths; don’t you people get tired of being stepped on?” in the gay issue.
‘Involved. Vito? Involved?”‘
Her eyes are wide in disbelief at my understatement. That she smiles and says:
Really, it’s nice. I absolutely think you should be.”
I ask if she thinks ther’s a gay audience any more than there’s a straight audience.
“I don’t know about that, Vito, I really don’t. I know that there are individuals, but I don’t know if ther’s a group of people who called each other up and say ‘Let’s all meet tonight and we’ll go to see, uh, Shirley Bassey. I just don’t think it happens. It’s not the way it is.
I feel obligated to point out the issue is that performers should let their gay fans know that it’s all right to be whoever you are. I do not point out to her that after a recent screening of Sunday, Bloody Sunday Shirley Bassey said that she had to leave the theatre because seeing two men kiss made her sick to her stomach.
“Oh, hell, Vito, listen. It’s all right for anybody to be who they are. Just as long as they don’t let their dogs shit on the street. Just so they don’t make your life miserable. I don’t think there’s enough time to fritter your life away thinking bad things or venomous thoughts about other people and how they live.”
She is tired from sitting and has to go to Philadelphia in a few hours. My final question is how does Bette Midler want to end up? What happens much later?
“I think I would like to wind up my days in a repertory. I would really, and I’m sort of looking forward to it. You see, I do a lot of studying on my own. Each morning I get up and learn a new little voice or character. I’d like to end up in London, maybe, doing Shakespeare. God forbid . . . truly because I have this great fascination with it and a great love for it at the same time. I think that it’s a good way to die. It’s a good way to end up. I think that people should never stop working no matter how old they are. I think there should be no such thing as retirement. Retirement is the pathway to an early grave. When you lose your work and what interests you, you lose your will to live, and I’m not that kind of person.”
A slow and famous smile creeps across her face. It’s evident she’s thought all these things before.
“I think there are so many paths to take, so many things to learn in this world. I just hope the world is around long enough for me to see as much as I want.”
She is positively preoccupied now by the sense that is it getting late and she has a bus to catch. I make ready to leave, and we chat about the show and Philadelphia and Arthur Bell and the Village Voice and it’s time to leave.
“Take care of yourself, Vito. Love to Bruce. See you here in a few weeks.”
In a few weeks Bette Midler will be back doing what she does best: making her music and doing things that people dream of doing all their lives what she wants, what she loves. Few people have that in this world. Hell, you could sell tickets to something like that.