by Ray Cooper
During the late 60’s to the mid 70’s I spent a lot of time in New York City on business (the music business) and most of the time I would stay there a week. New York City was a wild and crazy place back then.
So you knew that when the most popular underground magazine in NY was called “Screw” and that a group of dance clubs at the time in the city were where you had to check your clothes at the door and leave them in lockers until you left the club were packed every night, it was a crazy place!
I never lived there, but sometimes I thing how much fun it might have been, to have been as young as I was and open to almost anything.
I had made many friends over the years and one of them was what I called an all around Broadway person – he could act, dance and sing. His name was John (I called him Johnny). He had been in off Broadway and Broadway plays over those years and up until the early 80’s he was on Broadway.
My friend Johnny loved Diana Ross and talked about her all the time. So, when she was performing for two weeks at the Waldorf-Astoria in the same room that Bette has used for most of her New York Restoration Project benefits, I had two free tickets for the show and asked Johnny if he wanted to go see her. Johnny said “Oh! Yes!” and we went to see Diana on a Saturday night and he loved her show.
I always liked her for many years, being from Detroit, and growing up loving the Supremes. But I was not a big fan of Diana Ross after she left the Supremes.
In the cab going back to his apartment we were talking about her show and I said, I like a female singer that has more balls than the wispy voice Diana has. I said, I like someone with feeling in the way she sings and in her on-stage performance, kind of like Janis Joplin.
At that point he said, I have a friend that writes and knows this girl that sings at the baths and has also been on Broadway and she is kind of like Janis Joplin, but also she is very funny.
Well, I was never a bathhouse person and the only baths I knew were called “Club Baths” and they were a national chain of gay baths at the time and they had baths in most of the major cities in the US and I went one night to the Club Baths in Detroit and did not like it and never went back. I guess it was just not my thing.
I told Johnny, I would really love to see this girl but I don’t think I could go to a bathhouse just to see her sing. He said, you will be fine, this one has an entrance from the street to the cabaret where she sings, so you won’t have to go into the baths area to see her show. So we went later that night to see her perform.
We got there around midnight and met with his friend Bill Hennessy (her first comedy writer) who was a close friend of Bette and wrote one liners for her show at the Continental Baths. After the bath days, he wrote for her until 1975.
The show started a little after 1:00am and I was in heaven for the entire show, she was great, she was wonderful, she was fabulous, and the best performer I had seen in a longtime. And, believe me, I had seen many, many performers over the years being in the music business.
She was so entertaining. The songs were great! It was like they were really written just for her. She was so funny and connected with the audience during the entire show. Most singers just stand on the stage, sing the song, and don’t talk to the audience like Bette did and still does today. I had never seen a performer relating to an audience the way she did. Never!
After the show we went with Bill to speak to Bette and she was so nice and so funny, even off stage.
I thought she was kind of meek off stage compared to that person I just saw on the stage, but then I realized it was a character she had created just for her shows. Just like the characters she would have to become in the plays she had been in on Broadway.
I remember, I said, to her ” I wish I had enough money to make you a star, because I know you will be a big star someday soon”.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her and how great she was singing and making jokes about everything and everybody it was so funny.
After we left the baths and on our way back to Johnny’s apartment, he said, didn’t you see “Fiddler On the Roof”? (I went to many plays back in those days and sometimes saw a play more than one time).
I said, yes, and he said, then you have seen her before in that play.
I said, Oh!, My!, God!, you are right, WOW!
(Playbill: Fiddler On The Roof)
I wanted to see more of Bette the next time I would be in NY, hopefully very soon.
I had to go back to Detroit the next day and when I got back I told all my friends about Bette and that I wanted them all to see her perform. I just could not stop talking about her to my friends in Detroit and they wanted to see this person I was so excited about, named Bette Midler.
My next trip to New York City was about two month later and my friend Johnny said, that she was also singing at other clubs in the city, so when I saw Johnny he told me where she was performing and I went to see her at Up The Down Stairs. This show was even better than the one I saw at the baths. The audience was even more into her show and it was the wildest show I had ever seen.
I spoke to Bette and Barry after the show and they said that things were starting to happen for her.
Atlantic Records were talking to Bette about doing an album with them.
The next time I saw Bette perform was at the Bitter End and she was even better than the last time I saw her.
A few weeks later in Detroit, I was watching the “The Tonight Show.” (I always watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when I was home.) It was live from NYC back then and that night Bette was on the show singing. After singing she was talking to Johnny Carson! (If Johnny asked you to sit at his desk after you performed to talk to him, that meant that Johnny really liked you.) He even said that night, “you are going to be a big star” and I thought this was the first time she was on his show.
When I heard her name announced as a guest, I called as many friends as I could during the show (most of them watched the show also – it was one the only things on TV that late then) and I said, that’s her, that’s the girl I’ve been telling you about, isn’t she great, that’s Bette Midler!
I found out later that she had been on The Tonight Show one other time before, so I must of been on the road when she was on. I was so upset when I realized that I had missed her the first time she was on The Tonight Show.
After that, Bette, was on The Tonight Show many times that year and for a few years after, until NBC moved the show to LA. Once in awhile she would be on during LA days. I had heard that Bette and Johnny had a falling out (don’t know if it was really true), so for years she was not a guest on his show.
Johnny Carson, always loved Bette and that is why he asked her to be on his final show and what a show that was that night. It was so emotional and so sincere, that I think everyone that was watching that night had to be crying like I was.
It was 1971, and Bette went on a small tour of some the night clubs/dinner clubs in the mid-west and she came to Detroit to perform at a club called The Top Hat in Windsor, Ont. Canada across the river from Detroit. She would be there for two weeks and I went as much as I could. With my day job and being a club DJ three nights a week, I couldn’t go as much as I wanted to, but I wanted to go every night to see her perform.
It was so good to see her again and knowing that I could just drive over to the club and see her for two weeks was so exciting.
Let’s just say, she was not packing them in at the club.
Most of the people did not know who she was being she did not have a record out and had only been on “The Tonight Show” a couple of times and if they had not seen her in a play on Broadway in NY, then they did not know who Bette Midler was and what does she do.
The club’s MC would open the show and tell a few jokes and then she was on for the rest of the show.
She was all alone on this tour and had to use the house band and house MC.
One night I got as many people as I could together (I think 15-20) and I took some bar towels from the club that I DJ’d at in Detroit to the show and handed them out to all my friends and at the end of the show we all threw the bar towels to the stage and she said, “Wow!, this makes me feel like I’m back home in New York at the Continental Baths, thanks to all of you”.
She had told me, that she got paid $1,000.00 a week plus a motel/hotel room and out of that money she had to pay the house MC and the house band and ended up with only $250.00 a week out of the $1,000.00 for herself.
During those days she wore vintage clothing from re-sale shops in NY, so she did not have to spend much on her stage outfits, not like the thousands she pays for outfits today.
One of my favorite (I have many) stories, is when she was performing at The Top Hat in Windsor.
The Windsor police stopped her on the street one day near the Top Hat. They thought she was a prostitute with her wild clothes and her outrageous makeup! What else could she be, they thought, and she was not what the Windsor police wanted walking down it’s streets.
She told them, I’m performing at the Top Hat. After checking with the club, they let her go after they confirmed that she really was performing at the Top Hat and was a singer from New York City.
A couple of my friends, Jack & Wade, Patrick and I went a couple of times to lunch with Bette.
Bette, did not get up early, so they were mid-afternoon lunchs.
One of my Detroit friends was Peter McWilliams who wrote poetry for a living under the name Peter Alexander. Peter wanted to make a movie and wrote a story about Jesus Christ and it would be a religious satire called “The Greatest Story Ever Overtold”.
Peter had never made a movie before and had no idea how much money and time it would take to make a 90-95 minute movie, it ended up costing him between $30,000.00 and $40,000.00, that was really a lot of money in 1971 to spend on a movie.
He had asked his friends (most of them were also friends of mine) who were not actors, just people that wanted to be in his movie and he would not pay them to appear in the film.
I had three best friends in the movie, Jack, Wade, and Richard.
Peter asked me and my partner Patrick to be in his movie, but both of us had good jobs and we were not sure what he was going to do with his movie, so we told him no, but I said, I would help with anything I could off camera.
He also had seen Bette on the Tonight Show and at the Top Hat, so he asked her if she wanted to be in his movie. She had two days off a week from the club and he told her that he would cast her to play the part of the Virgin Mary in the movie.
She said, she would do it if he would pay her $250.00 and have someone pick her up in Windsor and drive her back to Windsor each day she was on the set, so they wrote up an agreement and that is what Peter paid her.
Bette is in the movie for about 10-12 minutes (I’ve never timed it) playing the part of the Virgin Mary.
Everyone else in the movie knew that Bette had gotten paid to be in it, but hey, it was Bette Midler, so they didn’t mind.
Some of the movie was filmed in Jack and Wade’s kitchen and another part was filmed at Richard’s apartment, it was so very art deco and looked good in the movie. Outdoor shots were filmed in Palmer Park and Bell Isle in Detroit.
(Bette poses in front of the synagogue for Ray)
If you will look at the photo of a photo of Bette that I took during the filming of the movie in front of a Synagogue in Palmer Park and you can see she posed for the picture in her black hat and dress. This is the only copy of the photo I have. I lost most of my old pictures and other Bette Midler items in a house fire in 1978 in Houston, Tx. I moved from Detroit to Houston in mid-1975. So, it is a photo of the photo I took. I took many pictures that day and this was the best one so I had it blown-up to put on the wall in the “Betteroom” of my house in Detroit.
Peter called all of us to let us know his film was finished, and invited us come see it, so one night all of my friends (even friends that were not in the film) went to the theater at Wayne State University to see Peter’s finished film. It was later that same year (1971) and the movie was very, very bad.
None of us told Peter at the time how bad his film really was!
I know we all wanted to tell him.
Bette was in the middle of film as the Virgin Mary, just like Peter had told us she would be and that was the best part of the movie – watching her.
If you see the film, look at her hand, it has a band aid on it. She had cut her hand in Jack and Wade’s kitchen during the filming of the movie.
One other story about the movie (we all called it “The Detroit Movie”), my friend Richard, who was in the movie a couple of times, is in one of my favorite scenes when he’s in bed with Bette, the screen goes black, and you hear Bette say, “Is that the Staff of Life?”
Well, I think most of you know the story of what Peter did with the film in 1974 after Bette had made a name for herself with her albums and being on different TV shows.
He took the film to LA in the winter of 1973 and had a song written called “The Divine Mr. J” and also added opening credits with stills of all the main characters and had them splice Bette into different parts of the movie so it made it look like she appeared not just in the middle of the movie for 10-12 minutes but throughout the movie.
It was filmed in 16mm and he had it transferred to 35mm for theaters to show it. I will say that it was much better than the original film I saw in 1971, but still a bad movie.
He came up with a new title “The Divine Mr. J”, being that Bette was known to her fans as “The Divine Miss M” , so he wanted to use the play on words to get the public to come see his movie. He said he spent about another $40,000.00 to hopefully make it a marketable film.
His plan was to release it nationwide in May of 1974. It was booked to play at theaters in most of major cities.
Well, let’s just say that Bette was not happy about Peter releasing his movie and now she had a manager, Aaron Russo, who was also not amused with Peter’s national movie release after three years.
The main reason they were mad was that Peter had billed this as Bette’s film debut, and they did not want this low-budget movie to be known as Bette’s film debut. They had bigger plans for her film debut. As you know that film was “The Rose” in 1979
A lot of Bette’s friends, and even Bette and Aaron, protested the movie in some of the east coast cities it was showing in. They went to the theater to picket and hopefully get people to turn around and not go in to see the movie.
Aaron, finally after a few days, got it stopped from being shown in theaters with some kind of court order (not sure how he could stop it in different cities), but at least that’s what I heard back then.
The story I was told at the time was that somebody (?) paid Peter to take it off the market ( I heard it was between $60,000.00 and $80,000.00 to cover his cost to make the movie in 1971 and then fixing it up in LA in late 1973), but I’ am not sure if that is really true, but that is what Peter was telling all of us back then.
If you want to see Peter he is in the opening of the movie as Harpo Marx.
(The Divine Mister J movie poster)
If you will look at the photo of the poster from the movie (that Peter gave me back in 1974) you can see why Bette and Aaron were very upset about it’s release. The name of the film and the character drawing that looked a lot like the one Richard Amsel did for Bette.
You can still (maybe) find it on video or DVD, but it’s now called “The Thorn”, maybe named after the movie “The Rose”. I know, someone (?) released it to video in 1985 to make back some of money spent and called it “The Thorn” because it has been a thorn in Bette’s side since 1974.
If you have not seen the movie, check it out, it’s strange and not very good, so for people who did not know her back then it is fun to see how Bette looked in 1971 on film and she was very campy in the film, I must say.
(“The Thorn” in Bette’s side)
Even today, she does not like to talk about it and I don’t blame her. It is just plain awful!!!
2 thoughts on “A Fan’s Perspective: Before She Was Famous Part I”
I have a “black glove” menu from the Top Hat that I found in my deceased parents’ home. I have no idea how they acquired it, as we hailed from the south.
Well, that sure is interesting. If you don’t mind could you send pics of it. I’m sure the readers would be interested in it as would I.