BootLeg Betty

A Fan’s Perspective: BETTE’S FIRST NATIONAL TOUR/CLAMS ANYONE?

BETTE’S FIRST NATIONAL TOUR/CLAMS ANYONE?

Now, that the New Years Eve (1972/73) show was such a success, it was time to let the rest of the country see what Bette Midler was all about with her first national tour starting in January 1973.

Just before Bette embarked on the tour she was on the cover of one of my favorite old magazines, After Dark, with a great story on the inside pages. This is one of my all time favorite pictures of Bette; she just looked so sexy and my, my, my did she have anything else on but that hat?

I think this cover is lesser known, than the one she was on five years later also on After Dark in May of 1978 with her holding up a champagne glass for After Dark’s tenth anniversary issue.

Before the tour started, Melissa Manchester wanted to go off on her own and left the Harlettes. Now Bette needed to find someone within a few weeks to replace Melissa for the tour. It was then that Melissa Manchester started out her own career as a recording artist on Bell Records.

Bette had met Charlotte Crossley in Chicago while performing at Mister Kelly’s. Charlotte had been in a few productions of plays like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair”. Bette hired Charlotte to take the place of Melissa. Now, the show was made up of Bette, Barry Manilow, and the Harlette’s – Merle Miller, Gail Kantor, Charlotte Crossley and the band.

The tour started mid January and Detroit was the third stop of the tour, but Bette would be performing the night before in Cleveland, Oh. So, you know we had to drive to Cleveland to see that show and I think the theater held about 3,000-4,000 and her show was sold out.

What a show it was…with a backdrop of buildings in New York City, the Harlettes, the band and Bette in her then famous outfit: a red botton down shirt (I always called a shirt because it looked like a mans shirt) that she sometimes also wore as a blue shirt or yellow shirt, depending on what night you saw her show. She tied the shirt at the waist and she always wore black pants with them then mixed with that wild red hair. You can see those shirts and pants in the triple split screen of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in Bette’s show in Vegas today.

This show had parts of the New Years Eve show, but had some other songs and jokes added for the national tour. Bette now had two writers for this tour, Bill Hennessy and Bruce Vilanch.

When Bruce came into the picture they began getting local information that Bill and Bruce would turn into one line jokes for Bette to use on stage in each city. The audiences were always surprised when Bette would make a joke about their city, people like the mayor, city council, other politicians and radio/TV personalties in their area.

This is when I began to be one of those people they would use for local information. I would give them information about local politics and names of towns or suburbs that had funny or strange names. For example, an area within the city limits of Detroit is called Hamtramick (which was a Polish area), which is known as Hamtown to Detroiter’s.

So Bette’s line would be “I see all my people from Hamtown are up in the balcony, Hi!” and she would look up there and wave to them. The audience would go wild and could not figure out how she knew about Hamtown or anything else that she should not know about, but did and it worked everytime.

I got to speak to Bette in Cleveland for a short time and said, I’ll see you in Detroit tomorrow. I remember she said, you drove down here just for the show, you all are crazy!

I’m sure you have heard the story of what happened to Bette, the Harlettes, the band and Bill and Bruce, when they arrived at the airport in Detroit the next day.

Two people were waiting for them and said that the promoter for the Detroit show had sent them to pick them up. So, they get outside and their was this Winnebago. Bette and all the rest thought this was strange but got in the Winnebago and headed for Detroit.

Well, the two people owned a restaurant (I think it was an Italian restaurant) and they had a dinner for Bette and crew. Aaron Russo, arrives on a later flight, and the promoter and limo driver told him they could not find Bette and the rest of the band.

Well, Aaron calls the police and they finally find Bette and crew at this restaurant.

Aaron comes in the restaurant and all of them had been eating and drinking. He was very upset with all of this, so Bette starts throwing a Baked Alaska at Aaron to break the tension and a food fight broke out.

I will write about it later in this story, but it happens again and I was there this time.

Bette’s show in Detroit was at the Masonic Temple Theatre which holds 4,000 and it was sold out also.

One note: We all could go to all these shows back then because the tickets were between $6.50 and $7.50 for Bette’s shows. Can you believe that?!

Bette’s opening line that night was “Now I know where they keep Diana Ross’s earrings when she’s not on the road.” The theatre had two very large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that she was referring to. The crowd loved that joke and Bette made them feel like she really knew something about Detroit.

This tour was the start of something that I don’t think any other performer has ever done to this day.
Bette, throughout all of her national tours (from this tour through her last national tour, “Kiss My Brass” ) would come back to the same cities a few months later to a sold out crowd with the same show she performed a few month earlier.

The next show we went to was in Houston, TX at the Music Hall (no longer around), since we has friends living there. It was so much fun to go with friends that had never Bette Midler in action and watch them enjoy her show.

We later moved from Detroit to Houston in July 1975.

It was always fun to see her perform in other cities and even though the show was basically the same, some things would be different. Like the local jokes for example. For me that was the fun part of seeing her perform around the country and hearing different lines or hear a different song in the show.

This tour was divided in to two parts, the Winter tour and the Fall tour, but most people do not know (I never see anyone write about this show) that she came back to Michigan in late April, 1973 to perform at the University Of Michigan in an assembly hall that only held between 1,000 – 1,200 people. This was the most intimate show since the days of Mister Kelly’s, Bitter End and Up The Downstairs.

This show had to be scaled down a little since she did not have as much stage to perform on, so no backdrop and Bette and the Harlettes and the band were really close on stage and their was not much room for Bette’s dance routines with the Harlettes. Bette, I think, really enjoyed doing a show with just that many people; she even did a couple of songs that you did not see in the bigger theaters.

We all got to speak to Bette after the show and that’s when we found out that she would be back in Detroit later that same year in October for three nights at the Masonic Auditorium. We couldn’t wait until October. So when the tour started up again in August, we had to find out what other cities close to Detroit Bette would be performing in for the Fall tour.

The next time I (we) saw Bette’s show was in Cleveland again on August 30, 1973, and it was the same show but different jokes and some different songs. Also, this half of the tour had some major changes in the Harlettes and the band. Gail Kanter and Merle Miller left during the summer break from the tour and now joining Charlotte was Robin Grean and Sharon Redd and they would be the new Harlettes for the rest of the tour.

In the band Michael Federal (hated to see him go) and Dick Frank left also, so the stage looked a little different when they started up the second half of the tour.

Barry Manilow had finished recording his album for Bell Records and the rumors were that Barry would be leaving the tour also. However, Barry worked out a deal with Bell Records (same label as Melissa Manchester) that he would open the second half of the show with three of his own songs before Bette came back out for her Second Act.

Barry performed those three songs in Bette’s show, but Bell Records really wanted Barry to go on his own tour since “Mandy” was such a big hit at the same time.

Barry really wanted to stay with Bette and the tour until the end of it’s run at the Palace Theatre in New York City in December and that’s exactly what he did. Barry left the theatre on December 23, 1973.

The next show we went to was October 7th., again in Houston. One of the local jokes I can remember that she did in Houston was,”So, this is space city, are you all spaced out?”

The next stop was Chicago for three nights at the Auditorium Theater, October 12, 13, 14th, and I have a great story about that first night in Chicago.

We drove over to see the shows (we went to all three shows) and the first night the crowd was acting like they came to see the symphony perform.

All other cities you would see drag queens, people trying to look like Bette or Cher, even some wanted to look like Cat Women. But the audience in Chicago that first night were all dressed up and so quiet during the show. No matter what Bette would sing or joke about they would applaud so politely, no screaming, just polite applause. I remember I said, to the people I was with, “what the hell is going on, this is just not your normal Bette Midler crowd.”

So, at the end of the first half of the show, Bette, said, “well, do you want to see more?,” and the crowd said, “Yes!” Bette came to edge of the stage and she had on that red shirt that was tied at the waist of those black pants. Bette, then unbuttoned her shirt, then untied it, and there they were… those ENORMOUS TITS!!! She shook them a few times at the audience and the crowd went wild.

When the second half of the show started it was like being at a different show in a different city. The crowd was making so much noise and really getting into her show. I felt like now this is a Bette Midler show and only Bette could get them going like she did that night in Chicago.

The next day the story of her opening her shirt and shaking her tits was in all the Chicago newspapers and I think one of the headlines was “Bette Midler Bares All” and the next two nights were back to what I was used to at a Bette Midler show, that was wild and crazy, I loved it!

Next stop was Madison, WI and then three nights in Detroit. We went all three nights and all I can say, it was even better than the show in January.

Bette and the gang came in to Detroit a day before her next show there.

I DJ’d one night a week at a club on the Detroit River, it was upstairs from a famous night club called the Roostertail and the club I played at was called The Palm River Club. It was a club and restaurant.
I was asked by the owners to DJ a special dinner for Bette Midler and party. The owners did not know that I was a fan of Bette’s.

I said, oh hell yes, and the evening that Bette and party came to The Palm River Club, October 17,1973, I was the DJ. When they got to the club, Bette saw me and said, what are you doing here and I said, I’m the DJ for the night and she just started laughing and said, wow, that’s so funny.

So, after they ate their dinner and it was time for the dessert to come out – it was Baked Alaska.
I already knew the story of them throwing it at the other restaurant. As soon as the waiters put the Baked Alaska on the table everyone started throwing it at each other and I even got hit a few times.
What a mess, but it was fun for everyone, even Aaron Russo.

Detroit was really ready to get into her show. The word had gotten out that you could come to her show and dress however you wanted – drag, leather, it was a show and it was a party for everyone.

So, more people came in drag. My favorite story about that is one night, five big leather guys came with no wigs on, but they had glitter in their beards and prom dresses, high heels and earrings on. They would walk around the theater and eveyone was talking about them.

When the show started, Bette said,” I think we have some of the leather crowd here tonight, but I’m not sure?”

All of that just added to the shows and made more than just a concert, it was a happening!

Bill and Bruce, used some of the information that I had given them for those shows. Since those days I’ve been called on to help with local information no matter where I lived (Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Houston) and it has always been so much fun for me. It makes me feel like I’m a small part of the show(s).

To hear something that I gave them and for them to turn into a one line joke for Bette was (and is) so exciting for me and my friends. My friends knew they were using information I had given them and they would always say after the show, “Wow! those were your lines.”

Bette, has always had great delivery of those one liners and to all the people around the country that have given them local information over the years, I’m sure Bette would say, THANKS!

Bette’s second album came out in November that year and I think it was even better than the first one. I didn’t like the sound quality (being in the music business makes you more aware of the sound quality of records) on the first album but this second album sounded so much better.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see any of the shows that December in New York at the Palace Theater. I hated that I could not go, but I had a lot work I had to do in Detroit for all of the month of December that year.

Also, unfortunately after this tour was when we stopped sending those dozen yellow roses. We just were not sure if Bette was still getting them anymore.

The next time I saw Bette was in April of 1975 at the Erlange Theater in Philadelphia.

Bette was there for one week to work out the kinks in her new show “Clams On The Half Shell Revue” before they would take the show to New York City.

I really was not expecting to see a show like this. It was a very big production with a lot of sets and that giant clam shell she would come out of and the huge gorilla hand that Bette would sit in.
It was breath taking!!!

This show was so big it had three writers! So now the writers were, Bill Hennessy, Bruce Vilanch and the just-added Jerry Blatt ( I never met Jerry), who wrote for Bette up until the mid 80’s. Lionel Hampton was the special guest in the show and would play the vibraphone/xylaphone throughout the show and he had a solo spot in the middle of the show.

In June 1975, I went to New York City to see the show for two nights at the Minskoff Theater. The best seats for this show were $15.00 and the balcony seats would cost you $10.00. I guess that was a lot of money back then, but wouldn’t we love to pay only $15.00 to see the show in Vegas now!! 🙂

The stage at the Minskoff was even bigger than the one at the Erlange Theater, so now the show really looked extremely big to me and it was some of the best staging of any of Bette’s shows EVER!

The next time I would see Bette perform would be “The Depession Tour” in January of 1976. I will write about that tour later.

This was also the beginning of the end, for all of us, not getting to see or speak to Bette off stage as often as we did in the past. It was a shock to most of us and I don’t think anyone was ready for that fact.

It was at this point that some of my Detroit friends would stop going to see Bette perform. They felt that now she was getting to be a big star, it was off limits to be her friend anymore. I tried to tell them that this is what happens to all people in show business. The bigger they become, the more people come between you and that star.

So, between my Detroit friends that have passed away or are just not Bette fans, I may be the only one of the group that still loves her and follows her career.

Bruce Vilanch says, that I’m one of Bette’s dinosaurs, that’s how long I’ve been following her.

This is the reason my Detroit friends felt the way they did about getting to talk to Bette anytime.

Now she had a new manager, Aaron Russo (I nicknamed him, “Ruthless Russo”) and he was very, very protective of Bette at all times! He did not like people from her past (like all of us) to have an open door to Bette and unless a person was involved with her professionally, no one got close to Bette without Aaron saying it was ok.

Sometimes even those that worked with her could not just speak to her anytime they wanted to speak to her. It was only when Aaron would let them get near Bette!

Aaron was almost always ruthless with the people that worked for Bette and drove some of them away, like my friend, Bill Hennessy who left after this tour, but did help out on the “Clams On The Half Shell Revue” shows in 1975. After that, Bill went on his own.

One of the things I remember about Aaron was that he was a great dresser. At shows he was always in a suit and most of the time had (what I called) his “Bat Masterson” cane with him.

Years later, after (1978,) Bette and Aaron parted their ways professionally and personally (there had been a romantic involvement) Before the movie “The Rose” came out, they were no longer working together.

Years later I understood where Aaron was coming from and that he only wanted to do the best he could for Bette and protect her career at all times and at all costs.

It was the early 80’s and I was on the road with Pamala Stanley for two years. Being partners with her in a record label for those two years I realized then why Aaron was the way he was about Bette.
Then I was on the road for ten years (1986-96) with a group from our label Dave and I had started up in 1986. They were The Uptown Girls.

I got to see it from the other side and how the fans can be just a little too much most of the time when your on the road and trying to keep them out of the dressing room in the clubs that The Uptown Girls performed at all those years.

The last time I saw Aaron was in a TV ad and on the local news in Las Vegas, 1998. He was running for Governor of Nevada, but he lost. One controversy about Aaron running for Governor in Nevada, was over whether he was a resident of Nevada or California. He said, he was a resident of both.

The last time I saw something about Aaron was when he passed away in 2007, he was 64 years old.

I was a DJ in clubs in Detroit and an MC for many Drag Shows for six years. My DJ name was Russ Knight.

I DJ’ed four nights a week at a gay club that had the best drag show in town and every Monday night it was the place to be in Detroit. The club would be packed every Monday with about 300-350 people.

Even some famous stars that were in Detroit would come by to see the shows, that’s how popular they were.

One of the performers, Trisha Trash, only impersonated Bette.

A guy (can’t remember his name) that lived just outside of Detroit, taped all of The Tonight Shows and any variety shows that had female singers on it.

He said, he ran the shows through a filter that made them sound better than just off the TV (TV was in mono then) and sold those tapes to drag queens around the world.

He had taped Bette the first time and everytime she was on The Tonight Show and Trisha bought them as they happened. So Trisha was doing Bette before she even had her first album out.

When Bette’s first album came out, Trisha would do some songs from those tapes and some from Bette’s album.

After the second album came out, Trisha put together a 45-50 minute show from those two albums.
He would tell jokes in between the songs and he was very funny.

He had a set of buildings from New York City in the background and he added three other drag queens (to be his Harlettes) to the show, and they were known as the Queenettes. The show was called “Trisha Trash and the Queenettes Live at Morey’s”.

I have some photos from one of those shows that I would like to share with you.



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