A Fan’s Perspective: Before She Was Famous Part II

by Ray Cooper

After Bette finished her part in Peter’s film and her two week engagement at the Top Hat, she went on to Chicago to open for comedian Mort Sahl at Mister Kelly’s. All these shows were just Bette on her own with the house MC and Band. No Barry Manilow nor backup girls for this short tour…just Bette on her own. Since she was the opening act, she would only be doing a few songs, therefore we decided not to go to the Chicago show.

After being in Detroit for two weeks, we all missed her very much. It was like having your favorite cousin come visit you and then they had to go back home and you didn’t want them to leave.

I saw Bette perform a few more times in New York and then the first major event was about to happen and I had to be there so see it, no matter what! It’s 678 miles from Detroit to New York City and Bette was going to do her very first large concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Well, it wasn’t just me that wanted to be there to support her first big concert, some of my other Detroit friends wanted to go to New York, too. HEY!, it was at Carnegie Hall, not just some run-down theater. Carnegie Hall! The big time! So, Richard, Jack, Wade, Patrick and I drove to NYC to see the show.

We left after work Thursday night and drove all night to be there on Friday, June 23, 1972, to see her perform at Carnegie Hall. We arrived in the early afternoon in New York City, and went to our hotels to relax until it was time to go to the show later that night.

Jack and Wade stayed at the hotel (Ansonia Hotel) above the Continental Baths, and the rest of us stayed at a hotel that was called The Manhattan back then. Today it is called the Milford Plaza Hotel.

The show had Bette, Barry Manilow, the MGM girls, Melissa Manchester, Gail Kanter, Merle Miller, and the band that Bette and Barry had put together – Dick Frank, Michael Federal, Kevin Ellman. Bill Hennessy had written most of the lines for the show and we did get to speak to him that night. But none of us wanted to bother the rest of them; we knew they were all nervous about the show.

Bette had signed a deal with Atlantic Records and was working on her first album. We knew that Bette loved yellow roses, so this was the first of many times that we sent them to her. In fact we sent her yellow roses every time we saw her perform.

This concert was, as I called it at the time, the test to see what a large audience would think of this unusual performer. Would it work? Could this outrageous looking, acting singer/comedian pull it off in front of a large mixed audience? Well, the show sold out and she was a big hit that night in June of 72.

Bette was great and the whole show was very very good; not your normal concert. Bette did her thing, singing and telling jokes. Also, Barry sang two songs, Melissa did a couple of songs, and Michael Federal sang and played his bass guitar. It was like a variety show and not just a Bette Midler concert.

In our minds that was the night that, Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M, was born, June 23, 1972

This is the playbill from that night and it is fun to read all the names on it.

We were all so glad that we had made the trip to see this show and we couldn’t stop talking about it all the way back to Detroit and for days after that.

Between Jack, Wade, Richard, Patrick and I, we all kept up with her (by phone) and what she was doing at the time. Most of the time I would speak with Bill Hennessy and he would fill me in on what was new with Bette.

Bette’s first album came out in 1972 and she went on what is called a “meet and greet” tour that Atlantic Records had put together for some of the major cities. She came to Detroit and it was held at one of the best hotels in the city, The Saint Regis Hotel in their main ballroom.

The five of us all got an invitation to the party (meet and greet). Of course, we sent her a dozen yellow roses to the hotel she was staying at.

Atlantic Records had invited 200 guests to the event. When we got to the hotel, outside and in the lobby, there were about an extra 200 people wanting to get into the party, but who didn’t have an invitation.

Atlantic had hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and a lot of promo copies of her album laying around the room on tables. The room was decorated with what they call flats (which is the same size as an album) and posters of Bette’s album cover all over the walls.

About one hour into the party Bette came to the party and walked around talking to everyone and signing her album. I remember, she had two security people (yes, even back then) with her and they were very tall men. They were with her every minute of the night. She looked so small next to them.

She was so sweet and was having such a good time with all the people. They were asking her questions, wanting to have her sign her album, something, anything! She told us that this was what she really wanted to do and her dreams were starting to coming true.

The next time I saw Bette was at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago. This time it was her show! She was playing there for two weeks. With her album out, she had the gang with her this time –
Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Gail Kanter, Merle Miller, Dick Frank, Michael Federal, and Kevin Ellman. We drove over to see the shows for two nights. Bette, did two shows a night, so we were excited to find out that we would get to see four of her shows in those two nights.

My favorite story about those shows is one night she was singing “Superstar” and the club had cordless microphones, which were a new thing and not that great back then. She had just started singing the song when all of a sudden a cab was near the club. You could hear over the PA system the cab driver say, “I’m at the corner of Rush and Ohio.” Bette stopped singing, looked around the room, and said, “What the fuck was that?” After the audience laughed, she just went back into the song, like nothing had happened. It was great and the audience loved it! No one else could do that the way she could then nor now. She is so quick and spontaneous when something strange happens during her shows.

We all went to Mister Kelly’s one other time to see her perform and I think that was when I met Bruce Vilanch, but some things are fuzzy from those days, if you know what I mean. I think it was Bill Hennessy that introduced us at Mister Kelly’s. Bruce, was a writer for the Chicago Tribune and came to do a story about Bette. Since then, they have worked together and have been friends for all these years.

I remember Bill Hennessy saying to me at Mister Kelly’s, “well you know what the next step is, it’s a national tour coming soon” and it did happen in January of 1973.

My friend Richard had moved to New York, to take a job as a commercial artist. Richard did a great portait of Bette back in those days, and gave it to her. I wish, I knew what happend to it. So, now Richard really could keep up with her and what she was doing and then let all of us back in Detroit know what was next for Bette.

He called me one day in November from NYC to let me know that she was going to do a New Years Eve show and that I (we) should come to NYC see it. Well, I (we) did and it was well worth the trip.

It was New Years Eve 1972 and Bette was booked to bring in the new year (1973) at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City. Bette, had the best entrance yet! She opened the show being carried to the center of the stage by 6 men in a sedan chair. When she got out of the chair the crowd went wild!

Bette performed her heart out for the first half of the show, then there was an intermission. They served champagne in the lobby and then just before midnight the second half of the show was going to begin. They let everyone know it was going to start by dimming the lights, like they do in Broadway theaters.

A few minutes before midnight, the announcer started the countdown to the New Year, and when it reached the top of the hour, Bette came up from the orchestra pit with (I’m sure everyone has seen that photo) just a diaper on, a banner that said 1973 on it, and singing “Auld Lang Syne.” It was great.

My favorite story from that show is, a very tall guy that had on a leather mask, leather shorts, leather boots, and that was it. We had seen him all evening and then everyone was talking about him during the intermission in the lobby. He was walking around looking very scary to everyone.

After the opening of the second half of the show, Bette moved back up on the stage. A few minutes into the show the “leather man” came up the stairs on the left side of the stage. Bette was center stage talking and telling jokes. All of a sudden he walks towards her with his arms out, like he was going to choke her.

Finally, she sees him a few feet away from her, and starts to panic. The look on her face was the look of fear! He was getting closer to her when 4 or 5 men came out from backstage, took him down, and then carried him off the stage.

I never did hear why he did it or what happened to him later. Maybe it was part of the show, but no one would say, when I would ask about it. So, if anyone knows, let me know. It just added to one of the best New Years Eve’s I have ever had in my life.

The weather that night in New York was very warm for that time of year, in the mid 60’s, and the show was even hotter. I lost the poster and program from that show in the fire*, but I can still think about how great she was that night 1972/1973. How thankful I was that Richard had called me and asked me to come to NYC for another great show from Bette Midler.

*Note: People ask me all the time about “the fire” and how is it that I have some things from before the fire and a lot of things I don’t have after the fire. It happened, 1978, in Houston, TX, and we lived in a townhouse with two levels.

The “Betteroom” in that house (I’ve had many Betterooms over the years) was on the second floor and some of the items that were not on the wall (almost all the walls were covered with Bette things) were in a box in a closet on the second floor. Everything on the second floor was destroyed, but we did have some items in some dining room cabinet drawers on the first floor and/or items that were out of the house for some reason.

We went back the day after the fire to see what we could salvage. In those drawers we found scrapbooks and other items that were not burned in the fire. I really wish that I had all the stuff from before the fire and often I think about those photos and articles of Bette.


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