Bette Midler: Bootleg Betty
Exclusive: Bruce Vilanch, Unfiltered
By Guest Writer: Todd Sussman
October 4, 2018
He’s naughty, bawdy, and brash. I love it! He was – and still is – the perfect match to write for Bette Midler. Here, Mr. Vilanch shares the view from his front-row seat with Bette, going all the way back to the early days. Bruce is always insightful and sometimes off-color…and it was my honor to interview him.
Todd: When did you first meet Bette?
Bruce: It was during the Paleozoic period, shortly after the Big Bang. That would make it about 50 years ago – where’s my Xanax? – in Chicago at a club called Mister Kelly’s. She had been on Broadway as the eldest daughter in Fiddler on the Roof and was working on a nightclub act. I was sent to review her. History is made at night!
Todd: After you met her, what was you’re feeling about Bette, and what was your chemistry like?
Bruce: I fell madly in love with her in every possible way. But she already had a portly Jewish boyfriend – her manager, Aaron Russo – and I already had…what was his name again?…so we embarked on a professional collaboration and a deep friendship. We’re still in business and we’re still friends. We get each other, which I guess is what chemistry is.
Todd: I have seen you perform on several occasions, including on a cruise from Greece to Italy. You are brilliant and hilarious! When we first met, Bette’s Las Vegas residency, The Showgirl Must Go On, was in its planning stages. It didn’t have a title yet, and you told me they were considering Oy Vegas (a line Bette delivered in her 1997 Diva Las Vegas concert). Was there ever a title or joke or routine you worked on for Bette that never saw the light of day…that you wish did?
Bruce: There used to be a sketch on SNL called “First Draft Theater,” which was the first draft of famous plays and movies, and every writer in the world has a file full of those, and they all deserve to be done, just so we can release them into the atmosphere and let them die of pollution. Delores DeLago, the Toast of Chicago, the mermaid of your dreams, was conceived as a lounge singer performing at a No Nukes benefit. She was going to come on strapped to a ballistic missile. Too unwieldy. But how does a mermaid get around? A wheelchair was the next best option. A star is borne!
Todd: What about an unused idea for another entertainer?
Bruce: I could never talk Donny and Marie into the “identical twins on their wedding night find themselves in the wrong hotel suite” idea, but perhaps we were all better off. In my show, I talk about jokes we almost told on the Oscars…but didn’t.
Todd: You famously wear a different T-shirt for every occasion. When did that become your thing?
Bruce: When I realized my tits were fabulous. This coincided with my move to Southern California, where no one dresses for anything that doesn’t involve a red carpet. I never counted, but staff tells me I’m up to about five thousand T-shirts, at home and in the home for aged T-shirts, which is a storage bin in Van Nuys. So many of my shirts are so inappropriate, if I even tried to wash them, I would get a frosty note from Rose McGowan.
Bruce: Bette shirts – I saved all the different tour shirts and swag, also in the home. When she played Caesars for two years, she got to take over the Celine Dion store, in rep with Cher and went into a whole line of retail. That has its own storage bin.
Todd: Writing monologues and books, script doctoring, performing stand-up comedy, hosting benefits…you do them all so well! Which do you gravitate to?
Bruce: Gravity gets us all in the end. I’m quite low to the floor even as we speak, and that’s probably because I like doing all of those things! But performing, not necessarily stand-up (more like sit-down). And actual acting is, I suppose, my fave.
Todd: Is there an area in the world of entertainment you haven’t tried yet, but would like to try?
Bruce: Cirque du Soleil, if I could just get my legs around my head like in the old days. Drugs may have been involved.
Todd: You have worked with the greatest talents in Hollywood. How would you describe Bette’s place among them?
Bruce: Her initial persona, which she has never totally shucked in live performance, is Stella Dallas – the outsider looking in. But this Stella knows she’s fabulous and she convinces an audience that they are fabulous just by coming along with her on the ride. And it’s a rollercoaster, hilarious and heartbreaking.
Todd: How has Bette changed, from your perspective, in the last five decades?
Bruce: It’s fun to be trashy when you’re young, but it’s not a good look on a modern woman of a certain age. She no longer dresses like Pandora opened her box and this is the look that was sitting on the bottom. But the spirit of trash shines through. We used to call it the saint beneath the paint. And you will still find her with a rooster on her head, giving you the full Sophie Tucker.
Todd: How has the industry changed since the 70s…and what impact has that had on your work?
Bruce: Shock and snark have become the two bywords. Being explicit in storytelling, using “fuck” as an adjective to punch up every joke, all that stuff made some people stars. They’re not inventive, or even necessarily funny, but they’re Big. Predictably, a wave of sensitivity followed that. Everybody gets offended by everything. Comedians are used to hearing somebody go “Awwww….” in a mournful tone after the most benign reference. It’s tough I tell ya. Now then, these two Jews come out of a lesbian bar…
Todd: Did you see Bette in her Tony Award-winning Hello, Dolly! performance on Broadway?
Bruce: Several times. I mortgaged the house to afford the balcony.
Todd: Are you able to share the last time you spoke with Miss M, and what you discussed?
Bruce: Relocating to Canada, like every other sane person. I hear it snows there.
Todd: Do you have any plans to collaborate with her again?
Bruce: We may buy a hockey team.
Todd: What’s next on your plate?
Bruce: A big wiener.
Todd: What do you like on your wiener?
Bruce: No dressing.
Do you need a good laugh? Don’t miss Bruce’s show, coming to Boca Raton, Florida at the Boca Black Box on October 5, and Aventura, Florida at the Aventura Arts Cultural Center on October 6. Then, A Sign of the Times, a new musical he wrote, opens at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, November 28 through the end of the year. It features all of Petula Clark’s music and a few other items from the 60s. And stay tuned for his all-new book. Visit www.wegotbruce.com
Write to Todd Sussman at Toddaos@aol.com