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The Gold Lamé Dream of Bette Midler

What does the 'last of the tacky ladies' have to say to her first Rolling Stone cover story? 'Puh-leez, honey'

February 15, 1973
Bette Midler
Bette Midler on the cover of Rolling Stone.

'That last show at the Tubs was the worst. I'm telling you, it was the pits, honey."

Curled on the couch in her Greenwich Village apartment, Bette Midler flutters a hand over her heart at the mere memory of that last chaotic gig at The Continental Baths. Without her stage make-up, she fades into plainness. Except for the nose, which remains formidable in the Streisand mold, the features contained within her pear-shaped face are vague and nondescript. Even her electric orange curls seem to settle down into a dull carrot-colored mass. Bette Midler, offstage, looks like a girl who doesn't get asked out on Saturday night.

"When I looked out and saw how many people that bastard Ostrow had packed into that place, I was sick. Wait until you see me on New Year's Eve at Philharmonic Hall, that's gonna be a good one. But that last show at the baths was just a complete bummer. To begin with, it must have been at least a hundred degrees down there the way he packed those poor boys in. At first we couldn't even get through the crowd to get back to the dressing room. To make things worse, one of the Harlettes, my singers, couldn't find her dress. She's running around backstage screaming, 'My dress! I can't find my fuckin' dress!' The rest of us are standing there ready to go on: 'Your dress, fuck your dress!' Oh, I'm telling you it was the pits, my dear. It was so fuckin' hot down there my eyelashes fell off!"

* * *

"You don't do something like that to someone like Bette," Aaron Russo, Bette's manager, is saying with true indignation, stabbing the air with a pudgy forefinger like Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, a big silver tumor of a ring catching the light from the television screen as we wait for the Johnny Carson Show she taped earlier this evening to come on.

"Bette has outgrown The Continental Baths." Aaron is saying. "I mean she's a star now, she needs the baths like a hole in the head, right? But we agreed to do one last show as a favor. So what does Ostrow do? He decides to make a killing! He throws Bette to the lions!"

Aaron Russo, this burly Italian with a face like a manhole cover alternately smiling and scowling under a full frightwig of frizzy freak hair – Aaron is like a streetscrapper smitten with an archangel when it comes to Bette. Dining in a little Italian restaurant, where all the waiters referred to him respectfully by name, he told how he started out in the lady's underwear business, then got out of it to manage the Electric Circus for a while before moving to Chicago and opening The Kinetic Playground and becoming the Bill Graham of the Midwest. But managing Bette is his only project now. It is his full-time job, for he truly believes that she is destined to be the biggest star of our time, the very biggest, bar none.

"I am actually in awe of Bette Midler," Aaron confided softly, holding his arms across his chest as though suddenly chilly and actually shuddering in the smoke of his baked swordfish.

* * *

The first time I saw Bette Midler perform was that chaotic evening she spoke of at The Continental Baths. The hunkering, buggering manmeat herds were packed into the subterranean lounge like cattle in a boxcar, waiting for Bette Midler to make her triumphant return to The Tubs. There were a surprising number of fully clothed heterosexual couples as well, who had come to witness a Fellini fantasy in the flesh. They were not disappointed.

Out on the dance floor, barely toweled young men enacted a rock & roll ritual, dancing like maidens in some primitive puberty rite, while tribal elders overflowed chaises around the pool. It reminded you of a scene out of William Burroughs' novel The Wild Boys, in which wild boypacks raised in a womanless society run amok and lay waste to the remnants of Western Civilization.

At first it was a riotous asset for Bette Midler to be able to go on The Tonight Show and say she started out singing in a men's Turkish bath – it made for just the kind of snickering repartee that goes over well on late-night television. The Continental Baths soon became one of the major attractions for visiting pop royalty slumming in New York. Along with Max's Kansas City and the Limelight, it became one of the places one went to get a look at the satyricon in action. Recently Mick Jagger showed up but had to split pretty pronto when the entire herd immediately started to advance on him. A visit to The Continental Baths can induce culture shock in even a seasoned social observer like Richard Goldstein, who wrote a humorous piece in New York magazine in which he asked. "What if I am corralled into a back room by 30 men who want to do a Lawrence of Arabia on me?"

Bette was only the second performer to play the baths after Steve Ostrow decided to add live entertainment to a list of attractions that included a swimming pool, saunas, orgy rooms and a free V.D. clinic. The first act Ostrow booked into the room was a husband and wife folk duo, Lowell and Rosalie Marks. Now, Lowell and Rosalie were nice people, no doubt about it – but you can imagine how a domestic folk act went down with these betoweled young Turks of The Tubs. Right around the time that Ostrow realized he had better gear his entertainment toward camp sensibility, he had the good fortune to hear about a sassy little girl who was waiting on tables and singing for nothing over at a place called the Improvisation. Ostrow heard her, loved her and hired her. The chemistry of Bette at the baths was fantastic from the very start. She had a real Big Voice, that even in its earliest untrained stages had the showstopping soar of Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand.

Some unsuspecting gay guy would be sitting down there on his bony haunches on the floor near the foot of the stage watching Bette Midler perform and this voice would crawl right up under his towel and touch him and make him feel warm all over and suddenly it was like he was back in junior high school assembly again and everybody was singing, "When You Walk Through a Storm." Goosebump city!

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