BETTE MIDLER TO RECEIVE THE 44TH KENNEDY CENTER HONORS FOR LIFETIME ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENTS
By Harvey Kubernik
November 11, 2021
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced this summer the selection of five Honorees who will receive the 44th Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime artistic achievements.
Recipients to be honored at the annual national celebration of the arts in Washington, D.C. are: operatic bass-baritone Justino Díaz, Motown founder, songwriter, producer, and director Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, legendary stage and screen icon Bette Midler, and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
“The Kennedy Center Honors celebrates luminaries whose art and creativity have enriched us beyond measure,” stated Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein.
“An artistic tour de force and America’s Divine Miss M, Bette Midler has enjoyed an unrivaled and prolific career, entertaining millions with her wondrous voice and trademark comedic wit.”
“This year’s Honorees represent the unifying power of the Arts and surely remind us of that which binds us together as human beings. These artists are equal parts genius, inspiration, and entertainment,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter.
“On December 5th, feting these extraordinary people and welcoming audiences back to our campus. We look forward to shaping an even more exciting Honors program and broadcast with CBS-TV and the producers based on the success and newfound innovations of our 43rd Honors earlier this year.”
“I am stunned and grateful beyond words,” said the Divine Miss M. “For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans.”
As one of the world’s most beloved entertainers, Bette Midler has garnered accolades across all facets of show business. Midler’s expansive body of work has spanned nearly six decades across different genres, eras, and media. She has been recognized with four Grammy Awards®, two Academy Award® nominations, three Emmy Awards®, two Tony Awards®, three Golden Globe Awards, and nine American Comedy Awards. One of the best-selling female singers, her albums have sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
Bette Midler performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on March 11, 1973, as part of The Divine Miss M Tour. Additionally, she was among the guest cast appearing in a video tribute for 43rd Kennedy Center Honoree, Midori.
In addition to her career as a performer, Bette Midler is active in various social causes and in 1995 founded the New York Restoration Project, an open space conservancy and New York City’s largest private land trust. NYRP is dedicated to protecting and preserving community gardens and other green spaces throughout all five boroughs, and in collaboration with the New York City Parks Department, has planted over 1,000,000 trees in New York City.
With her fresh and audacious perspective, Bette Midler is a living legend. Originally from Hawaii, Midler currently resides in New York City.
“From 1963 to 1968, I studied Method acting with Frank Corsaro in New York City,” volunteered poet and actor Harry E. Northup.
Harry subsequently appeared in Martin Scorsese-directed films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. In 1966 he met Midler.
“In 1966, Bette Midler sang ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,’ as her boyfriend, Mike Pavao, accompanied her on banjo, in my 5-floor walk-up, 3-room apartment, bathtub in the kitchen, on Tenth Avenue and 25th Street. Mike was my next-door neighbor. A young artist, he was studying art with Will Barnett. Mike and I worked at The Downtown, 1 Sheridan Square, as waiters, on weekend nights. Bette was a dancer there. In January 1966 I saw her in Miss Nefertiti Regrets and I know she was in Fiddler on the Roof during 1967-1969.
“That was the one party I gave in those 5 years. My acting teacher, Frank Corsaro, came. Fellow acting students Lane Smith, Leland Hickman, and Harvey Keitel were there. Harvey showed up with two young women from Brooklyn, Michele Stein and Rita Ann Solomon. I fell in love with Rita and we married the following year.
“Years later, I was living in Los Angeles and got an acting job in The Rose. I met Bette on the set in Long Beach and again on the 20th Century lot where we reminisced in her trailer. Bette said, ‘You sure love acting.’ She was marvelous in The Rose.”
“I caught Bette Midler December 5, 1972 debut at The Troubadour with Peter Allen opening,” remembered photographer and writer Heather Harris.
“I reviewed it for either Performance or the UCLA Daily Bruin entertainment section Index. Obviously a winner right from out of the chute. We had all read about her breakout success at New York City’s Continental Baths.
“The Baths’ audience imprimatur made perfect sense. Midler’s nonstop energy, sparky wit and use of props reminded me of first-hand tales of the Cockettes’ mid-1960s stage shows in San Francisco (I knew their documentarian in 1968.) Yet her schpiel and lovely voice were so universal that my decidedly non-libertarian parents were immediately advised to go see her since she covered their beloved big band era (‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ made this debut setlist, predating her hit with ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,’ the first appreciated resurrection of parental music by our demographic to chart.)
“Her set shone with her wildly eclectic taste from the Shangri-Las to Jackie Wilson to Bobby Freeman, and her contemporary pal Buzzy Linhart.
“So glad the opener the night I attended was Peter Allen instead of the next night’s Barry Manilow. Allen then was a hybrid singer/songwriter, proto-show tunes kinda guy. Even with my Swiss cheese memory I vividly recall his best number ‘Tenterfield Saddler,’ a nostalgic ode to rural Australia with an equine aside about his grandfather, replete with this stingingly poignant line ‘… it’s easier to drink than go crazy…’ For those who personally encountered Allen in his more extroverted forays be flattered. Remember Peter Allen was portrayed in the biographic musical The Boy From Oz by everyone’s current heartthrob, Hugh Jackman.”
In 1978 I interviewed Bette Midler in Southern California. I was invited to her Bel-Air home and had a blast with this yenta.
The results were published in the September 23, 1978 issue of the now-defunct Melody Maker.
By Harvey Kubernik 23, September 1978 Melody Maker.
Bette Midler Just Wants to be Loved. It’s the Least a Legend Can Expect.
Since The Divine Miss M surfaced from Manhattan’s Continental Baths six years ago a plethora of albums, concerts, Broadway, and TV specials have played their parts: some have worked, some have backfired. But the impetus and the unquenchable thirst for activity remain.
Currently, Bette’s schedule includes the completion of her first starring role in a motion picture, The Rose, which loosely depicts the calamitous and ultimately, destructive life-in-the-fast lane of a rock singer in the late sixties. Scheduled for release early next year, it will add a further dimension to Bette Midler’s protean talents.
It’s a drama directed by Mark Rydell, starring Midler, Alan Bates, Frederic Forrest, Barry Primus and Harry Dean Stanton. The screenplay is by Bo Goldman and Bill Kerby.
The soundtrack from The Rose will be her next album, to be followed by her second US television special and then another film, Strike And Hyde. There is also a discussion of Bette starring in a re-make of Gypsy, the cinematic biography of Gypsy Rose Lee.
Midler is anxious to rock the continent and to premiere new material. Her backup band will be purged of excess baggage, strings, and things, so that the music may adopt a harder edge. Fronted by journeyman guitarist Steve Hunter, a former accomplice to Lou Reed, the band also includes Robbie Buchanan on keyboards, Danny Weiss on lead guitar, Mark Leonard on bass, and Whitey Glan on drums. Of course, the ubiquitous Harlettes will be in full bloom: Katie Sagal, Linda Hart, and Fran Eisenberg.
“For Europe, we’ll be doing a composite program, an up-to-date compilation of all the past characters,” says Bette. “They’ve never seen me there.”
Plying opposite Alan Bates in The Rose, Midler’s acting debut is a surprise. Her chillingly, accurate portrayal of a sixties casualty, from a period in contemporary music extensively chronicled, makes an astounding acting debut.
“The character I play is a girl singer, strong-willed and somewhat shell-shocked by the tumult of those times. As I was myself…The part reflects a couple of things about me. A certain amount of insecurity, for example – most people experience it, but don’t want to reveal it. My best work is always revelatory. When I stand on the stage, I try to get not completely naked, because you have to hold something back or else there’s no mystery, but as close to naked as I can bear to come. I want people to sense that what I’m showing them isn’t phony. I want to spark that shock of recognition that makes them say, ‘Oh, I know what that gesture means, that look.’ That’s some form of acting, and I’ve always done it.
“It was difficult for me to locate a proper script. Stallone wanted me to play Talia Shire’s part in Rocky but I didn’t read the script. My manager did and told me it was one of the best scripts he had ever read but felt the part of the girl wasn’t very big and he didn’t think that it would be an auspicious film debut. I would have loved to have been in that film. Well, you know the old story, no sight is better than hindsight.
“I was attracted to The Rose part by the range of the character. She laughs, cries, sings funny and gets into all kinds of trouble. It’s the last eight days of her life and she’s on the edge, something we all encounter on occasions.
“I became very fond of the character. When I read the script I thought she was much too vulgar, and I have a reputation for that kind of thing anyway, so I was afraid to do it. I tried to whitewash her, clean it up – and then I realized it didn’t sound like a real character because I was trying to scrub her up for mass consumption. I realized it just in the nick of time, right after rehearsals, and gave her back her balls.”
Is the role, with its Joplinesque overtones, in any way autobiographical?
“I tend to think that most people in this business lead fairly similar lives. I felt very sympathetic to the role. She is as old as I am. I went to the Fillmore East and to record stores. I did everything everybody did. I went a little overboard, though. I have an enormous record collection, book collection, pictures, everything. I’m like a sponge and tend to soak up everything around me. I am a spectator and not as much a participant. I like to watch trends, the way people move in large groups. I try not to be part of the herd.
“I have never been stoned out on acid with 300,000 other people; I didn’t go to Woodstock…but at least I’m still standing.
“I had a ball. It wasn’t very hard taking direction because I’ve been in the theatre before so I know and respect the role of the director. I changed my whole voice, my way of moving in order to accommodate her character. We worked for quite a while, dear, I wanna tell you. It was all so different and so exciting. Steve Hunter was so wonderful, fronting this very loud band. The band was all brand new and pushing me into new areas. I was singing like I never did before, all new phrasings.
“That character and I are not the same person and everyone thinks that’s me. Until recently I wasn’t that big a fan of rock and roll. I was always a stone cold R&B freak. Rock ‘n’ roll is R & B played by white people. I’m a great one for the original. The last few years I’ve started to pick up on rock, it wasn’t so bad. I admit I was a little snobbish about it.”
Henry Edwards is the former New York Times pop music critic and author of the screenplay to the 1978 Movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Edwards is also a devoted fan of Bette Midler. He reported her initial breakthrough in New York and followed her career closely.
“What Bette has done is to create a whole new direction for popular music,” Edwards suggested to me in a 1978 phone interview.
“She is the founding mother of the pop nostalgia craze. She is single-handedly reopening the door for American cabaret. Most importantly however, is that she has done it entirely on her own terms rather than the traditional album, tour, vacation riff. Like Springsteen, she waits for long periods until the moment is right, an instinctual, intuitive sense of coordinating the time and place. She waited six years after the initial splash to go to England because she feels she is now ready.”
Bette Midler was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 1, 1942, the youngest of two daughters of a house painter who also happened to be a strict disciplinarian.
Shortly before Bette was born the Midlers had moved from New Jersey to Hawaii looking for their very own paradise. But Hawaii was not the roses and rainbows they imagined. They lived in a poor, dilapidated neighborhood outside Honolulu, and until high school, Bette was “a very plain young lady, very concerned about my books.
“But I was a performer even as a kid. Just took it for granted, never imagined I’d make a living at it. It started when I was a junior in high school in Honolulu, where I grew up. I had a couple of inspiring speech teachers and I always loved to read out loud.
“Anyway, to keep in good with the teachers, you had to go to tournaments and compete in dramatics and stuff, and for some reason I took it into my head to do all that. Didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I was caught up in it like a flame. Like I used to do Elizabeth And Essex, and I didn’t have any idea who Elizabeth was. I knew she was a queen, and I figured her for a redhead, so Sturm und Drang and everything.
“My childhood was easygoing. We were a big, poor family, but we had good times. My mom is a super-divine woman. She always loved show business, and in fact she named me after Bette Davis. My dad was very rigid. He moved to Hawaii from New Jersey to escape from his mother, I understand. He’ll argue about anything. He’s the kind of guy who calls up the talk shows and quarrels with the announcer. He made his opinions very well known to me in my adolescence. He has never seen me perform. He’s afraid he’ll be offended by what I say and do onstage. He doesn’t like the idea of me prissing around and being provocative in public. My father’s a real drag, you know. I love and adore him, but to this day I have to be prepared to do battle with him tooth and nail.”
Following high school, Bette studied dance and drama at the University of Hawaii for a year, then landed a booking as an extra in the movie Hawaii. When filming moved to a studio in Los Angeles, she bought herself a plane ticket and went along, and by the time her scenes were finished, she’d saved enough money to move on to New York. After landing a few minor roles in obscure off-Broadway productions, she joined the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof, where she later ascended to the role of Tevye’s oldest daughter.
I asked and pressed Bette about the real reason for her move to New York.
“I came to New York to meet Dylan. I was 19 when I first hit New York and the first thing I did was go down to the Village and look for him. Those first albums of his completely blew my mind. I had a very hip girlfriend and we used to go to her house and listen to Dylan and Joan Baez. I even went out and bought a guitar so that I could accompany myself on ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’”
In fact it took her nine years to meet Dylan. And then he rewarded her patience by recording a duet version of ‘Buckets Of Rain’ for her album, Songs For The New Depression.
“I spent a lot of time lookin’ for him. He didn’t let me down at all.”
It was around this time that Bette began singing in the Continental Baths, “The Tubs”, which provided an ideal springboard for her offbeat, idiosyncratic persona. Resplendent in black lace corset and gold lame slacks, her rowdy best-of-the-falls approach struck a resonant chord with the local clientele.
The excess and total abandonment of inhibitions led to a rabid following for Bette. At the Baths you could get wild and throw joints at the stage (a sign of true popularity), which created a comfortable habitat for trendsetters. The birth of disco took place among scantily clad men in these steam cookers.
Bette sang everything from Dylan to Laura Nyro to the Andrew Sisters and went down a storm.
A closer examination of her neurosis helps to untangle the complexity of her personality; ultimately, the key to her fervent popularity.
Riddled with insecurity, Bette became a cult figure in New York, and was soon appearing at the better-known clubs, which led to regular appearances on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson.
Bette was riding the jet stream of success following the release of her first Atlantic album, The Divine Miss M, but in reality it was just the calm before the storm.
Her second album, Bette Midler, was universally panned, throwing into doubt some of the initial demonstrations of support. Was Bette genuinely a panacea for the under-nourished state of pop music?
“The terrible reviews I got on my second album convinced me that I had no worth as a human being and that I might as well pack it in,” Midler confesses.
“When I finally took a step back and a breath, I almost fell down. I almost had a breakdown from it. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it because I was completely wrapped up in the moment. See, I worked steadily from 1965 till the time it really burst up for me in 1973. I didn’t have any time to think that I could fail.
“It’s dangerous to read reviews – the good ones or the bad ones. I was crippled twice in my career by bad reviews. The bad ones hurt your feelings, and the good ones make you forget who you are.
“I took a year off and I was miserable. The pits! I went to Paris and I ate my troubles away. I ate like a pig. I mean, if you’re gonna eat, you might as well go to Paris. And I threw myself into some affairs. That’s always good – you end up with a lot of material afterwards. At the end of 1974, Aaron [Russo, manager/boyfriend] called me up and said, ‘I think it’s time that you go back to work.’ My mind was blank. I had no ideas, no inspiration.
“It turned out that Aaron had booked a Broadway theatre and had already taken out ads to announce my return to the stage. He literally coerced me into returning, so I had to show up, bright and early.”
The revue Clams On The Half-Shell, was a resounding success. Shortly afterwards she returned to the concert stage and has been “getting fairly steady work ever since.” Three subsequent albums, Songs For The New Depression, Live At Last and her latest, Broken Blossom, have been generally praised.
Last December she starred in her first network television special, no small feat considering America’s puritanical inclinations with regards to prime-time entertainment. The special was titled, Ol’ Red Hair Is Back, but Bette had another title in mind.
“We wanted to call it Aloha From Pearl Harbor Via Satellite, but in the final analysis, it was really too tasteless. I know, I know. That shouldn’t stop me, but I do have an innate sense of the appropriateness of things. Like war.”
She contends that she had no problems with the NBC network censor; what she doesn’t say is that she imposed strict disciplinarian measures upon herself, which prevented the use of such classic Midler material as references to vaginal sprays and venereal disease.
Concurrently with the airing of her television special, Bette returned to more intimate surroundings; specifically, a tour exclusively of clubs.
“I really haven’t been close to the audience in a long time,” says Bette. “I thought it would be nice to actually see them for a change, and being on the road changes me, drastically. You see the towns and the way people are living, and you’re not all caught up in yourself. Your emotions come bubbling up to the surface. Makes you feel like you’re alive. It’s exhausting but fun.”
Long after a Midler show is over there remains the lingering excitations of her performance. Her funky, glitter-gutter personality borders on kitsch sometimes, so it certainly isn’t her comedy skills alone that instill in her fans that rabid frenzy of commitment. Similarly, she is hampered vocally by a relatively narrow range. But more than just singing and comedy, it is the whole Midler persona, so warm, so vulnerable. Amidst the frivolity and brassiness, there emerges a truly human component.
“I am very dedicated to my work, I really love it. I look at pictures and films and other performers – anything to get ideas. I try constantly to keep my mind going. As soon as my mind has stopped working, I feel as though I’ve died. My mind has to be in a constant state of agitation, I’m always thinking, what can I do? What is going to surprise? What will uplift, instruct? I know it sounds corny, but it’s the kind of training I got when I was a student, and I never got over it. I never got over the serious nature of work and, I think it’s very important to appreciate the seriousness of my work. It might look like fun and games on stage but it’s my work.”
Midler played the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood. “I just love playing these little dumps,” she says upon arrival on stage. “But this place isn’t exactly a toilet. It’s classier, more like a bidet.”
Her Roxy show is a bawdy, rumbustious affair, all bases covered, no punches pulled. As expected, Los Angeles was put through the ringer of her vitriolic barbs.
‘“Oh, it’s back to LA and the sounds of thousands and thousands of blow-driers.’ Or: ‘There’s absolutely nothing to do in LA but wait for your pool cleaner to show up and read People magazine.’
“One of my favorite places in LA is Tower Records. They have all these bins for these different kinds of music But I’m always getting filed in the pits bin, you know along with Vikki Carr. So, I just pick up all my albums and go plunk myself down beside Olivia Newton-John. I’ll be a bleep-bleep-bleep if I’m going to stay there and rot alongside Liza Minnelli.
“Did you like the TV special?” she asked. “I did…I was real proud of it. The network was very nice, too. The only thing they asked me not to do was mention drugs. Gee. I didn’t realize drugs were the enemy in television. I thought they were the sponsor…”
After our 1978 two hour interview for Melody Maker, Bette and I talked for a few minutes about singer/songwriter Laura Nyro. We both knew her. Record producer and songwriter Bob Crewe introduced me to Laura in 1976 at her Santa Monica Civic Auditorium concert. During Bette’s initial encounter with Laura in the early seventies, Nyro and Midler noshed on tuna fish sandwiches, while discussing poetry, jazz and R&B. They became friends.
As we parted company in ‘78, Bette recounted a translucent 1971 Nyro Carnegie Hall midnight concert in New York City and further kvelling about Laura’s memorable Fillmore East recital as an audience member.
In 2005, Midler narrated a BBC Radio 2 documentary, Shooting Star-Laura Nyro Remembered.
During 2012, Bette Midler inducted Laura Nyro into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held in Cleveland Ohio. H
View Bette Midler’s speech on Laura Nyro:
(Harvey Kubernik is the author of 20 books, including Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows published in 2014 and now available in six foreign language editions. Kubernik also authored Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic And The Music Of Laurel Canyon and Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972. Sterling/Barnes and Noble in 2018 published Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s The Story Of The Band: From Big Pink To The Last Waltz. For October 2021 the duo has written a multi-narrative volume Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child for Sterling/Barnes and Noble.
Otherworld Cottage Industries in 2020 published Harvey’s book, Docs That Rock, Music That Matters, featuring interviews with D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles, Murray Lerner, Morgan Neville, Dr. James Cushing, Heather Harris, Robbie Robertson, Curtis Hanson, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Andrew Loog Oldham, Dick Clark, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Travis Pike, Allan Arkush, and David Leaf, among others.
Harvey is currently working on a female-themed manuscript Sisters In Song
Kubernik’s writings are in several book anthologies, most notably The Rolling Stone Book Of The Beats and Drinking With Bukowski.
This century Harvey wrote the liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special and The Ramones’ End of the Century). Kubernik is the Project Coordinator of The Jack Kerouac Box Collection.
During 2020 Harvey Kubernik served as a Consultant on the 2-part documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time directed by Alison Ellwood.