Touring Is In Bette Midler’s Blood
January 30, 1976
LOS ANGELES – Then Bette says to Sir Laurence Olivier. ‘If only I could have taken classes. If only you would teach me something.’ And he said, ‘There’s nothing I can leach you. You know it all”
Bette Midler’s young aide describes the scene in the dressing room with equal parts of wonder and pride in her voice. Meanwhile, Bette sits there beaming like an impish little girl who is presenting her parents with a perfect report card. “He said that,” she proclaims, “to me.” And then she breaks into a THE WHOLE IDEA of an admiring Sir Laurence Olivier paying his compliments to Bette Midler after seeing her perform twice during her six-day Los Angeles engagement is just the kind of unbelievable thing that has been happening to the diminutive redhead with the big voice and the wild sense of humor all the way through her career.
She started out in Hawaii, but today she belongs to the world. Hawaii was where she was raised and where she escaped from to pursue her acting fantasies. New York was where she came to struggle and search, finally landing a role as one of the daughters in ” Fiddler on the Roof,” and then an even bigger break, appearances on tie Johnny Carson show. There she told how she had been singing to towel-clad audiences at a men’s bath, and her effervescent personality began to attract attention and nightclub bookings.
It wasn’t long before she and the piano player who had accompanied her at the baths, Barry Manilow began to make waves in the entertainment world. They expanded her show to include a full band and three female singers, dubbed the Harlettes by Bette, and began playing large concert halls. Bette signed a record contract and released two albums.
An exhausting cross-country tour in 1973 grossed 13 million in ticket sales. And then she dropped it all and disappeared while Manilow went with his own troupe and soon became a star himself.
“Darling, I WORKED for eight years straight,” says Bette. “Sundays and holidays, every single day to get to where I was at that point, and I was exhausted. God knows I had no race left. I wanted to go away, and I didn’t want to see anybody for a while. So I went. Now I’m back.”
Bette neglects to point out that she’s back as big as ever. Earlier this year, she starred in her own Broadway revue, which had to be extended from 4 to 10 weeks and grossed more than 51.8 million. At the moment she’s relaxing at the Bel Air Hotel for an interview after completing nine grueling sold-out shows in six days at the prestigious Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, part of a nationwide tour that is selling Just as fast.
What draws her audiences of all ages and all sexual persuasions? It’s a combination of Innocence and bitchiness, with dramatic vocal interpretations of powerful songs and campy parody of lighter numbers from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and even ’70s. It’s a spirit and verve that seem to radiate from her even during the rare slow spots during her shows.
Despite the elaborate props and supportive musicians, singers, and dancers in her new show. Bette Midler is essentially the same as she was in her early club days. She’s a consummate entertainer with a knack for what pleases audiences and a need to be adored.
She also is still playing a character that she developed from listening to the backstage chatter of chorus girls and boys on Broadway: The Divine Miss M. This brassy broad has become so strongly associated with Bette that not only her public but also Bette herself sometimes tended to confuse character with the creator.
IN THE NEW SHOW, Bette has toned down the brash Miss M a little bit. “She isn’t
anywhere near as bitchy as she once was. She’s much…not calmer, but softer, I think. Not so garish. What I’ve tried to do is turn it into a more theatrical presentation, not so much dropping the character as softening her, the sound of the voice, the mannerisms.
“It’s not so bitchy as it is the sound of the voice that drives me so nuts. I can’t stand that voice anymore. I am very matronly now. I am going into my dignity and my dotage.”
Not quite. The new show, titled after her new album, “Songs for the New Depression.” features some of her raciest material ever, including a segment of Sophie Tucker jokes that will singe most ears. There’s also an elaborate sketch about a second-rate nightclub singer, Vicky Eydie, “caught in an act, not of her own” in a tacky nightclub. And the finale pulls out all the stops. Yet despite the staging and the funny lines, what often brings Bette standing ovations are straightforward renditions of two powerful songs, John Prine’s “Hello in There” and Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers.”
Between the singing and dancing and set routines. There is a lot of Bette the standup comedian in this show. Part of the reason for the more leisurely paring is Bette’s hospitalization for an appendectomy on the eve of her tour which takes a ribbing during (the show, of course). But Bette also wants to retreat from the frantic razzle-dazzle of earlier shows.
“1 always chatter. I just used to chatter a lot faster. I’m not as young as I once was. You love to work up to that kind of hysteria, and I don’t think I ever want to hit that again, because that will kill your body. That’s why I had to take a year off. I was beaten, beaten by all that hysteria.
“It may happen again, especially if I take to drink, as most performers do on the road. I try my best to avoid it, but once you start to drink and or take drugs on the road, then it kind of gets away from you. You do start to get a little manic. And tiredness will do it to you. too. Tiredness will make you very frantic and very edgy and very nervous .”
Yet, DESPITE the health hazards. Bette is still addicted to audience adoration and adds on Extra shows Just to prove to herself that she’s still wanted. “It’s because I haven’t been out In so long,” she says weakly. “I do have a fan.-.and I sold them, I sold Ihem all. I figured if ! could sell them, if there were enough people that wanted to see me, then why not show myself to them, if I was going to enjoy myself.”
And though she’s completing negotiations for a film contract with Columbia Pictures and hopes to begin shooting a comedy sometime this year, her feeling at the moment is that she could go on for another eight years on stage without a break.
“I’m thrilled about this show because I’m working again. I’m really working. I’m creating it and making it happen, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out toward the end If it’s as good as I hope it Is by the time I get to the East. I don’t think I’m gonna stop. I may keep it going through the summer and see where I can end up with it.”
“That’s really my life, really what I do best. I haven’t been on the screen yet, and God
only knows what I’m going to photograph like, but I don’t think I could ever give touring up. That’s my life’s work.”