STAR SPANGLED NIGHT FOR RIGHTS, SEPT. 8 1977
(The Hollywood Bowl)
On September 18, 1977, Aaron Russo, Bette Midler’s manager, produced “A Star-Spangled Night for Rights” at the Hollywood Bowl. The focus of the four and a half hour concert was gay rights. Performers included Midler, War, Richard Pryor, Helen Reddy, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits and Tanya Tucker. Among the approximately 17,000 people in the audience was Paul Newman, Olivia Newton-John, Valerie Harper and Robert Blake.
It had been a rough year for gay rights. In June, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign proved successful when Dade County, Florida voters repealed the gay rights ordinance they had just passed in January. In Arkansas, the state legislature reinstated the sodomy laws it repealed two years earlier.
As a result of these setbacks, gay rights marches appeared around the country, official Gay Pride parades drew their highest number of participants to date, and Russo organized the concert to benefit the Save Our Human Rights Foundation.
California Senator John Briggs threatened to blacklist every Hollywood performer or politician who supported or attended the show. The following year Briggs sponsored a proposition to remove all gay or lesbian employees and their supporters from California schools. The measure was defeated due in large part to the efforts of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. On September 18, 1977, Milk had yet to be elected to that position.
The concert went well for its first few performances, but took an ugly turn when comedian Pryor took the stage. Among the things he said: “Motherfuck women’s rights!” “Fags are prejudiced.” “I’m sick of y’all and your faggoty-ass bullshit. What were you doing during the Watts riots ”“ sucking each other’s dicks? Fuck you and everything you stand for, I’m getting the fuck out of here.” And the finale, “You Hollywood faggots can kiss my happy rich black ass!” It wasn’t his best material. And yes, if given the choice between arson, destruction, looting, beatdowns and fellatio, my selection is a no-brainer.
Next on the concert bill”¦Tom Waits! It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer was to perform a comedy set at Mr. Burns’ birthday party. Mr. Smithers gets on stage and announces “I have some sad news to report. A small puppy, not unlike Lassie, was just run over in the parking lot. And now it’s time for the comedy stylings of Homer Simpson!”
Waits was invited to perform at the event by his close friend Bette Midler, who he met three years earlier at The Bottom Line in New York. Subsequently, Midler recorded Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” in 1976 and they did a duet on Waits’ Foreign Affairs album released the year of the Hollywood Bowl show.
Before Waits took the stage Aaron Russo came out to apologize for Pryor’s outburst. “I’m terribly embarrassed and don’t know what to say about what just happened, but I do think this show tonight started out and will end up on a positive note.” However, the audience was agitated. Waits gave up after two songs.
The crowd wanted the headliner. Bette Midler bounded on stage and asked the crowd “Is there anyone here tonight who wants to kiss this rich white ass?” The crowd cheered and she closed the show.
Bette Midler & Co.’s Concert From Hell!
Back in the 1970’s “gay rights” was still kind of a new concept. The Stonewall riots had happened not too many years before; the assassination of SF Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were still a year away; and people like Anita Bryant were voicing a lot of anti-gay jargon and “hate speech,” as it would be called today. It was an ugly time.
Still, as the 70’s played out, the cause of gay rights was gaining momentum, and activism was on the rise.
Bette Midler, by 1977, was well established as a fairly mainstream star. Of course, she had a huge following in the gay community. Her manager, Aaron Russo, decided that the time was right to put on a big show, a cavalcade of stars that would push the cause of gay rights way to the forefront (if only for a night). A concert was planned to benefit the group “Save Our Human Rights Foundation, Inc.”
Just the very news that such an effort was in the works was enough to set the homophobic battle drums to beating. Sen. John Briggs (R-Fullerton) threatened to blacklist every Hollywood performer or politician who supported the show, or even attended.
A very impressive array of acts was assembled for this once-in-a-lifetime event. The band “War” was on the bill, as were a diverse range of singers including Helen Reddy, Tanya Tucker, Tom Waits and the Divine Miss M herself. Also on tap were Lily Tomlin, a few novelty acts such as a black troupe of gay roller skating dancers called “The Lockers,” and a prestigious pair of dancers from the LA Ballet Company.
Oh yeah, and also Richard Pryor.
It was a beautiful night at the Bowl, and everyone was excited. Hollywood royalty such as Paul Newman were being fawned over in the VIP section. Bette was the star attraction, and most in audience were very anxious for her performance.
Everyone would have to wait quite a long while.
The show started a bit late, but no one seemed to mind. There was positive energy, and a definite party atmosphere. Several of the singers did their numbers, to mostly enthusiastic applause. Someone made a note of the fact that Tanya Tucker, Helen Reddy and Bette herself had all produced hit versions of the song “Delta Dawn.” “Wouldn’t it be great it they performed it together?” went some of the buzz.
But things got interesting after the novelty act “The Lockers” performed.
“The Lockers” were definitely “unique.” It was a dance act, and they wore brightly colored costumes, and roller skated to music. It may be as a result of the fact that the troupe got a pretty lukewarm response that set the wheels in motion for the disaster that was to come. Also rumored was that a stage hand reprimanded one of the Lockers for smoking backstage, and that it had set Pryor off. There are theories that Mr. Pryor might have been “high.” Most attribute what happened to him just being Richard Pryor.
A few sentences into his act, he became increasingly belligerent, then turned on the huge audience, calling gays racist, and also trashing the concept of women’s rights. He criticized the audience for giving the ballet company a standing ovation, while appearing to be unimpressed with the black roller skaters.
Pryor voiced his complaints. “I came here for human rights, but I am seeing what it’s really about. Fags are prejudiced.” He went on, “The Lockers dancers came backstage dripping with sweat and all you could say was, ‘Oh, that was nice.’ But when the ballet dancers came out dancing to that funny music, you said, ‘Wow, those are some bad mothers…'” He was ranting at this point, to a stunned house.
The tirade went on for some minutes, with Pryor weighing black rights against gay rights, black rights against women’s rights, and making pejorative comments about gay sex acts. The reaction in the Bowl ranged from shock to hurt to anger and everything in between. He was booed off the stage for what seemed like forever.
He finally concluded with, “Where were you faggots when niggahs burned down Watts? All of you can just kiss my happy rich black ass!” With that he effectively “mooned” the audience and walked off.
A minute or two after Pryor had finally exited, the show’s director came out to try and calm everyone down, followed by a shaken Aaron Russo, who went onstage to state a disclaimer, and to apologize. After Russo left the stage, things were somewhat confused. People were really ready to see Bette and get the hell out.
But there were more acts.
Another performer and unfortunate casualty of the show was Tom Waits. A portion of the audience was likely familiar with Waits by this time. Bette fans would have known him from a duet he’d done with her on a recent album. He had the look of a guy you’d expect to see hanging out at a bar back in the “Beat” days. His singing style is described as idiosyncratic, a somewhat bluesy, guttural, raw kind of sound. A white artist with the soul and voice of a black gospel or blues singer.
Tom Waits was actually sitting on the darkened stage for some five minutes with a lit cigarette prop, near the piano, waiting for the ruckus to die down. When he finally got to sing, after the Lockers debacle and the Pryor fiasco — and he sounded black — the audience became very impatient. It may be that he was unfamiliar to some, or it could have just been that everyone was still in shock. Maybe it was because of the way he sounded. Whatever it was, he only lasted for two songs.
A couple more forgettable acts followed. It may have been 3AM before Bette Midler finally came out to do her act and wrap up the show. By now she knew what had transpired, and she was faced with a huge challenge in trying to get everybody back into a good mood and end the evening on some semblance of a happy note.
She burst upon the stage, and shouted out about the only line she could have uttered that both acknowledged and made fun of the evening. “Is there anyone here tonight who wants to kiss this rich white ass??” she screamed. The audience roared their approval, and the show went on.
Bette didn’t stay on for a very long time. She had such a connection with the audience, who worshipped her. So they understood when she explained to them, “It’s late, we’re all tired, let’s do another song or two and go to bed.” It was like that.
Still, even for the Divine one, the night wouldn’t end without yet one more incident. The second selection Bette sang was off her then-current album, a song called “Red.” The song has an extremely energetic closing, and when she performed the final verse, she “mocked collapsed” on the stage, knees first. Well, the stage was rough, and she cut up her knees, quite badly. Aaron Russo had to come out and wrap white towels around her bleeding legs.
Miss Midler performed a few more numbers, including a romantic, caressing interpretation of “La Vie En Rose.” Many in the throngs surely wished she had been the only entertainer that evening. When she left the stage, and the evening was finally at its end, there were many emotions.
But everyone knew that this was a show they would never forget.
Bette Midler’s Set List (Thanks To Bette On The Boards):
(Mark Klingman, Buzzy Linhart)
In The MoodÂ
(Joe Garland, Andy Razaf)
(John Carter, Sammy Hagar)
War Wounds / Los Angeles Chatter
Empty Bed BluesÂ
Sophie Jokes / Anita Bryant
La Vie En RoseÂ
(Mack David, Louiguy, Edith Piaf)
Fiesta In RioÂ
(Bette Midler, Jerry Blatt)
Do You Want To Dance / Higher and HigherÂ Â
(Bobby Freeman / G.L. Jackson, C.W. Smith, R. Miner)
(Mark Klingman, Buzzy Linhart)
Titles in italic constitutes as spoken dialogue