In The Know
Bette Midler: The New Taste
The curtain goes up in New York’s Minskoff Theatre, and the anticipatory audience sees a huge fishnet strung hammock like across the stage. Suddenly an equally large clam comes sliding down, settling into the middle of the net. It slowly opens and out pops Bette Midler, wrapÂped in a Dorothy Lamour sarong, to begin her latest act, the “Clams on the Half Shell Revue.”
The opening of Bette Midler’s newest triumphant theatre enÂgagement is, unintentionally, more appropriate than camp. She’s been in her own personal shell for nearly 18 months, makÂing no personal appearances, filming no TV shows, turning down major movie offers and Broadway shows and, most unÂsettling of all to her fans, not even planning a new album to follow her Golden biggies The Divine Miss M and Bette Midler.
After her meteoric rise, the long layoff came as a surprise. By 1971, within a year of her creÂation of “The Divine Miss M” at New York’s Continental Baths, a gay sex-and-sauna spa, Bette had established a cult following to rival those of Streisand and Minnelli. By 1972, her following had grown to national proporÂtions, her first album was on its way to becoming a Gold record, she was doing guest stints on television specials and filling theatres with one-woman shows.
She was as unique and exotic in 1972 as Barbra Streisand had been in 1962. Like Streisand, she revived old favorites (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “In The Mood, “) and stylized popular songs in a startlingly new way.
And she was filling a vacuum left by Streisand’s rise to HolÂlywood superstardom. “Barbra’s become so la-de-da sophistiÂcated since she went Hollywood,” says a disgruntled former fan. “Bette’s a girl you feel you can still reach out and touch,”
Her proximity to the Streisand legend led most of her admirers to expect she would take essenÂtially the same route: star in a hit Broadway show, make some spectacular television specials, then move on to movies and lastÂing legendary stardom, with or without “la-de-da sophisticaÂtion.” But after her sensational engagement at the Palace theatre in New York in late 1973 (for which she won a Tony Award) she all but disappeared. Why? Everybody has a differÂent theory, or so it seems. A close friend says, “Her success terÂrified Bette, it came much too fast. She had no idea how to handle it. She couldn’t decide what to do next, so she did nothÂing.”
Robb Baker, whose book Bette Midler was just published by Popular Library, says “She didn’t want to repeat herself, as far as she was concerned, her Palace show was about as far as she could go in that direction. She wanted to do some serious actÂing or cut an important record, or something. But she left it up to Aaron Russo, her manager, to find her something, well, suitable, and he didn’t. So now, with the Minskoff thing, she’s back where she started, and no one really knows where she goes from there.”
Midler’s publicist, Candy Leigh, sees the whole thing differently. “She was just exhausted. She hadn’t had a vacaÂtion for five years. She simply needed the rest.”
But Bette’s own attempts to find out who and what she is have been no small problem. Her creation, the Divine Miss M, is one-third Carmen Miranda, one-third drag queen and oneÂ-third Bette Midler, but she’s happiest when the percentages shift.
“My Schaefer Concert in Central Park was a real knockÂout for me,” she says. “I was dressed normally. That was really the happiest night of my life because I found out that I didn’t have to hide, that they would take me for what I was. Once you eliminate the fear that you can do it, then you are free. And I am very nearly free.”
But not quite. Though she has discarded the Divine Miss M, she has replaced it with Dolores Halopena and her Clams on the Half Shell Revue. And rather than forgoing gimmicks and far-out costumes, her Minskoff act is nothing if not the gaudiest extravaganza she has yet proÂduced.
“What Bette has to realize,” says Craig Zadan, a writer who has followed her career from its beginnings, “is that she is good enough to do without all those gimmicks. Sure, they got her to the top, but you can’t stay there being a freak, Streisand sure knew that.”
Although her Minskoff show would seem a step backward in her march toward a respectable acting career, there is a method to Midler’s madness. The show indisputably reestablishes her as a major star (its opening day ticket sales of $200,000 set an all-Âtime record) and, as all performÂers know, the top is the best place to be if you want to break new ground. At last, Bette seems ready. “She’s finally found a script that she likes,” sighs Candy Leigh. “It’s not set, of course, but we hope she’ll do it – it’s a straight comedy.”
Which would mean she’s fiÂnally come full circle from the gay baths.