The Night Bette Midler & King Kong Made A Huge Splash On Broadway

Broadway World
BWW Exclusive: Jennifer Ashley Tepper’s THE UNTOLD STORIES OF BROADWAY, VOLUME 4- Spotlight on The Minskoff Theatre
By Jennifer Ashley Tepper
March 18, 2021

Bette Midler in Clams On The Half Shell Revue
Bette Midler during Bette Midler’s “Clams On The Half Shell Revue” at Bette Midler’s “Clams On The Half Shell Revue” show in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Earlier this month, Dress Circle Publishing released THE UNTOLD STORIES OF BROADWAY, VOLUME 4, the latest in a series by acclaimed historian and producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper. This landmark multi-volume series tells the stories of all of the theaters on Broadway; the new edition includes the beloved houses the Imperial, Jacobs, Studio 54, Minskoff, Friedman, and Golden, as well as the five Broadway theaters that were destroyed in 1982, changing the course of New York City history.

These invaluable books illuminate Broadway through the eyes of the producers, actors, stage hands, writers, musicians, company managers, dressers, designers, directors, ushers, door people and more who bring the theater to life each night.

Can’t wait to get your hands on it? While you’re waiting for your copy, let BroadwayWorld hold you over with a special sneak peek from a chapter all about the Minskoff Theatre:

The Minskoff Theatre

Did You Know: Bette Midler and King Kong made quite a splash at the Minskoff?

1975: Bette Midler And King Kong

Tony Walton, Director/Scenic Designer/Costume Designer

I did the scenic and costume design for Bette Midler‘s Clams on the Half Shell Revue. We were the fifth show to play a real engagement at the Minskoff.

Our first out-of-town performances for Bette Midler‘s Clams on the Half Shell Revue went very well, so our producer-who was also Bette’s manager-decided that our first preview at the Minskoff could also be our opening night. We had no time in the space, and no “dry tech.” We just loaded in and opened! Because of that, we didn’t know until the opening night performance was happening that all of the air conditioning for the whole theater, not just for the backstage, was coming from the back wall of the stage. So backdrops would be blown forward by the force of the air conditioners! To some degree, we solved that problem by having the backdrops raised off the floor a little bit and allowing space in the wings beside them.

Bette Midler had said to the creative team that she didn’t want to feature any of the songs from her recordings unless someone came up with an idea that was irresistible to her. I had one of those four-o’clock-in-the-morning-ideas and I called her-much too early-and blurted out: “What if you were getting ready for bed in a window of some tacky Broadway hotel and singing a love song, like ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ while getting undressed-and once you begin to slip off your teddy, you could pull down the window shade, which would simultaneously activate the whole hotel drop to descend, behind which the Chrysler Building, in exaggerated art deco, is revealed, with a ten-ton, purple King Kong on top?” She went, “Oh, God.” I said, “You could wake up in its hand and sing to it!” “(The) Moon of Manakoora” lullaby was a song everyone wanted to hear her sing at the time, and it was perfect for that moment.

Bette Midler in Clams On The Half Shell Revue

Bette Midler in Clams On The Half Shell Revue

On opening night-which was, as I mentioned, also our first tech in the Minskoff-we got to this sequence, and the backdrop was descending and throbbing away from the gusts blowing from the air conditioners, and it blew forward right over the stage, over the orchestra pit, and into the audience.

The stagehands came out and desperately tried to pull it back, as it was radically interfering with the arrival of King Kong at the top of the Chrysler Building, and preventing his giant hand-in which Bette Midler appeared to be sleeping-from swinging to the forestage. The stagehands somehow pulled the drop back enough so that we could ultimately see Bette opening her eyes and standing up in the gorilla’s hand as the audience started cheering and cheering. She said, “Oh my. That was extraordinary. My whole life flashed before my eyes. Actually, it was very quick, it was just the good bits.” Then she looked up at King Kong and sang out: “Hello, Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein,” which she would alternate throughout the run with surprise changes of name, like “Bella Abzug, Bella Abzug”-something different every night.

John Guillermin, the British film director, happened to be in the audience, and the reaction to the giant ape sequence was so extreme that he decided to remake King Kong! So we were somewhat blamed for that movie.

The Minskoff was spanking new at the time and when Bette first entered, and she was singing with her beautiful backup Harlettes, she went bopping over to Jerry Minskoff in the front row of the audience and said, “It’s Jerry! Jerry Minskoff, everybody! Thanks so much for the use of the hall, Jerry. It has all the charm and tradition of a Ramada Inn.” The audience went wild, and everyone around him screamed with laughter, so he did too. God knows what he actually thought.

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One thought on “The Night Bette Midler & King Kong Made A Huge Splash On Broadway

  1. I will never forget it! I was lucky enough to be in NYC and get a ticket to the May 1, 1975 show (it kept getting extended). The night was magical and King Kong was a great hit. Waited at the stage door and got to see Bette get into her limo up close. Ahhh, my hippie youth.

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