‘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!
But it was not Bette’s big voice alone that made her such a sensation at the baths. There was also the way she looked: The costumes she chose from the rummage piles of recent history, the styles from the Forties that had become her visual trademark. Far from pretty, she had the appealing tenacity of a tough little drag queen. When she tried to be sexy it became a poignant burlesque. Innocence and tawdriness merged and made Bette Midler just plain tacky.
And since Bette by her own admission was the “last of the real tacky ladies,” she was incredibly attuned to the camp sensibility. She knew its nuances in a way that few women did. She picked up on its wry bitchy humor and dished it out with delight.
From where I stood, near a section of chairs that had been roped off as a sort of peanut gallery for timid heterosexuals who did not wish to brave the crush, the stage was a raft of light adrift on a sea of naked shoulders. Her backup trio, the Harlettes, stood in formation in black cocktail dresses with hands on hips. These three dark-haired girls had this incredible . . . Attitude. They were chewing gum.
Steve Ostrow, the owner of The Continental Baths, looking like a dummy out of Bloomingdale’s men’s shop, grabbed the mike and said, “She needs no introduction. . . . “
Everyone turned expectantly toward stage-right, and, at the first feathery fluttering in the wings, a great roar went up from the very bowels of The Tubs . . . the pits.
As she went into her theme song, “Friends,” I was not giving my full attention to the music; I was engrossed in noticing the details: the way her disproportionately large bazooms, with a plastic Woolworth’s rose stuck in the cleavage, overflowed the silver corselet she wore, bouncing like jellied fruits as she sashayed around the stage; the way those gold lame Miami Beach toreador pants or whatever they were hugged her buns and stretched over her cute little pot belly like a baloneyskin; those incredible open-toed shoes with the little transparent plastic spike heels that even the hookers on 42nd Street don’t wear anymore!
Her stage make-up was so stylized that it was almost impossible to imagine what she might look like underneath it; the Orphan Annie frizz curls, the Raggedy Ann doll rouge spots on each cheek, the Martha Raye smile smeared with scarlet – it all gave the animated but impenetrable impression of a mask in a Japanese Noh drama.
It was as stifling as a stalled subway car down there in the steamy depths, but Bette’s most loyal audience hardly seemed to notice. They pushed forward and stood on chairs to get a glimpse of The Divine Miss M. Her performance, despite the grueling heat, was fast-paced, moving from the Streisand-esque schmaltz of her opening “Friends,” into a sultry “Am I Blue,” then into a racing, strenuous “Leader of the Pack.” All the while she was rapping between numbers: “I guess you’re wondering ‘Who are those three cocktail waitresses up there with Miss M anyway?’ They’re my girl singing group, the Harlettes . . . They’re real sluts.”
By the time she-finished an emotionally charged version of “The Weight,” paraphrasing the lyrics so that they became a moving comment on one woman’s vulnerability, she had this crowd of nearly-naked woman-eschewing men howling and stomping and whistling like the troops greeting Mamie Van Doren at a USO show.
* * *
Sitting in her apartment, waiting to watch herself on the Carson show, Bette talks of her early childhood, and growing up in Hawaii:
“I guess Hawaii is a weird place for a nice Jewish girl to be born,” she is saying, curled on the couch like the last shrimp on a serving tray, “but my father was a housepainter from New Jersey with an adventurous spirit, and before I was born he decided to move there, so . . . I had to make the best of it, you know? You wanna see my high-school yearbook?”
She takes it down from the shelf and lays it in my lap. Flipping through, I see the same pictures that have filled high-school yearbooks since time immemorial: fresh-faced kids smiling under crewcuts, greasy pompadours and shiny pageboys; except in this one all the faces are Oriental. I remember watching halftime at the Honolulu Bowl on television one afternoon. All the cheerleaders were hula dancers, dark-haired little China dolls in grass skirts. It was impossible to imagine Bette Midler among them.
“As you can see, the school I went to was just like any high school anywhere … like a high school in Brooklyn or Cleveland. We had rock & roll, sock hops, American Bandstand, the same as anywhere else. The only thing different was that all the kids were Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Samoans. . . . And those kids were tough. But I wasn’t and all the girls hated me because I had such big boobs. At the tender age of 14 or 15, they were quite phenomenal, I had quite a pair on me, let me tell ya” – and she looks down at them now, nestled quietly under a nondescript sweater (even her breasts relax when she’s offstage) – “I still have, as you can plainly see. Anyway, all these tough girls would chase me home from school and try to beat me up just because I had bigger boobs than them. I guess I was very inward when I was young. You wouldn’t believe it but I was very shy, stayed by myself, read a lot, lived very much in my head … in my daydreams.
“Then one day I learned that I could be popular by making people laugh. I became a clown to win people’s acceptance and I think that’s when I decided that I wanted to be in show business, to do something in the theater, on the stage … By the time I was in my senior year of high school I was completely stage-struck and had made up my mind that eventually I would come to New York. . . . “
Arriving in the city in 1965, Bette took a room in the Broadway Central, a dilapidated welfare hotel on lower Broadway, whose lobby, any hour of the day or night, was likely to resemble the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. She supported herself by working at Stern’s department store, selling women’s gloves.
“I wanted to be a great dramatic actress back then,” she says with a little self-derisive laugh. “I had always sung, but I never really thought of becoming a singer at first. The Thea-ter was my great love, dahling – I was calling people ‘dahhhhling’ even back then. I got into singing eventually because I had the idea that if I started out in musical comedy, it would open the doors to those great juicy dramatic roles. . . . “
The first musical role she played was off-Broadway, at the Cafe La Mama, in a Tom Eyan play called Miss Nerfiti Regrets. After auditioning for almost an entire year, she finally got her first break on Broadway, a job in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof. After she was with the show for a while, she auditioned for and won a role she had understudied, as Tzeitl, one of the daughters in the play.
“For a while I was just ecstatic,” she continues. “I couldn’t believe my luck – I was actually on the Broadway stage! I stayed with that show for almost three years and then the whole thing started to turn sour. I felt like I was stagnating, busting my ass every night for three years and getting nowhere. At that time there was this friend of mine in the show with me, Marta Heflin, her name was. She was fed up with the show too, so after work she used to go down to this little bar on the Bowery called Hilly’s to sing out her frustrations. I had frustrations, too, so I figured, ‘Why not give it a try?'”
Bette was so well-received that first night at Hilly’s that she was encouraged to seek gigs in other small clubs, one of which was the Improvisation. It was here that she met Barry Manilow, who was working there as the house pianist one night a week.
Manilow, a professional studio musician and coach, with a long list of commercial jingles to his credit (he’s the voice that sings “You deserve a break today” in the McDonald’s commercials) became Bette’s musical director and arranger. For the next couple of years, Bette worked regularly at the baths, perfecting her songs and developing her stage alter-ego, the Divine Miss M.
She owes much to that first gig at the baths – it led to her audition for The Tonight Show, where she received her first national exposure, and to being asked by Carson to open his nightclub act in Las Vegas. But didn’t she feel at times that it tended to make people pigeonhole her?
She bristles at this question.
“Do you mean how do I like performing for faggots?” she asks, almost petulantly. “Well, they’re just people really. And as for being categorized, I don’t think anyone could categorize me at all because I’m beginning to get all kinds of people now. I love those boys at the baths because they were the first audience to encourage me. They will always mean a lot to me but that doesn’t mean that I can’t branch out and reach other people, other groups as well . . . I mean, I don’t categorize myself, so why let anyone else do it and think they have me all figured out?”
About her work with Johnny Carson, she says: “I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a good man, a real professional, and the more professional I became, the more he respected me, the more he opened up to me. I mean, he’s not hip by any means, but he’s not what you’d call a real right-winger, either, though he’s certainly more conservative than you or me. He’s basically just a good honest person once you get past all the bullshit. I enjoyed doing his show when I felt ready for it, some I did, some I didn’t . . . but Las Vegas – puh-leeze, honey, that was really bizarre. The audience was really weird – all the women wore wigs – and I don’t think they knew what to make of me, where I was coming from at all . . . I hated Vegas, but it was fascinating as an experience, to have it behind you, you know?”
The doorbell rings. It’s Bette’s bassist Michael Federal who has come over to watch the Carson show with her. She greets him with a warm hug. Federal used to share this apartment with Bette (his name is still on the mailbox), but recently he moved to his own place a couple of blocks away. A frail, pixyish man with a shy, reticent manner, when I asked him to comment on Bette, he told me, “Well, I used to be her lover – what would you like me to say? That she was great in bed? Actually Bette and I still love each other, but we can’t live together. I mean, she is a very fiery lady. She’s always rushing some where but she’s never there on time. I’m just the opposite. I’m very mellow and laid-back so I couldn’t take it anymore. I just moved out, but I still love her and I think she still loves me. . . . ”
Soon we are joined by two other members of Bette’s entourage: her drummer, Luther Ricks, and his girlfriend Gail Kantor, one of the Harlettes, who looks more like a City College coed than a cocktail waitress or a Fifties slut behind the wire-rimmed glasses she wears offstage.
We all gather around the set when Carson comes on. Bette crouches on the floor, totally absorbed.
As she watches herself singing a humorous version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” she’s all smiles; but then as she watches herself sitting down making small talk with Carson, her mood changes and she starts to frown, as though what she sees and hears disturbs her. The image of this brassy-looking girl on the screen, so eager to please, seems to bother her. Perhaps it has something to do with the guest who preceded her, a dumb blond with enormous breasts who owns a filling station in Brooklyn. The blond was the perfect foil for the double entendres of Carson and Ed McMahon and while she was on there was a nice communal feeling of superiority in this room as Bette and her friends joked about what a coy, stupid stereotype she was. Now Bette is talking to Carson and there’s a heavy silence in the room. This image of herself on the screen, talking compulsively, anxious to please, seems to embarrass her. Carson is shaking his head with characteristic Midwestern Gee Whiz incredulity, saying, “You know something? You’re gonna really be something to contend with. . . . You’re gonna be a very big star in this business.”
“I can’t wait,” Bette says, a clashing flash of fiery hair and painted lips, as seen on the screen.
“Well, you’ll just have to,” cracks Carson.
“Hmmmm. That’s interesting,” Bette is saying, from down there on the floor. “That’s very interesting. . . . “
The lounge of The Continental Baths, almost empty in late afternoon, has the comfortable artificiality of certain nocturnal haunts like cocktail lounges during the daylight hours. No daylight enters; the languor lulls one. . . . There are a couple of bathers around the pool, only one or two elder senators lounging nearby, drinking them in with cool, lizard eyes. Steve Ostrow waves to me from across the room. He’s wearing a towel, taking a busman’s holiday, one supposes. A well-preserved man of apparent middle age, Ostrow has long silver surfer hair and a lean Mahatma Gandhi physique covered with an overall layer of thick white body-hair that makes him look kind of blurry, like an out-of-focus Polaroid. He greets me, explaining that he’s on his break and leads me to a little round table at poolside as though we’re on the French Riviera. After getting us coffee from the refreshment counter, he sits down opposite me and starts right in telling about how he discovered Bette Midler.
“She was just this little girl in her early 20s and I heard her singing over at the Improv about two years ago. I recognized her talent right away and booked her here. There was that instant rapport with my audience that was truly fantastic. I developed Bette right here in this room. That’s why I don’t completely understand her bitterness lately. She seems to want to deny this very important part of her career now, as though it was something to be ashamed of. I can understand if she wants to move on to a larger audience. God knows, she deserves it, but she should never turn her back on the boys at the baths, who made her what she is today. It never hurt Judy Garland that the gay audience loved her, did it? I don’t understand Bette. . . . Why did she have to go make an album in a recording studio when she’s so much better in live performance? She could have recorded her first album right here: Bette at The Baths – now that would have been a natural.”
I repeat Bette’s and Aaron’s accusation that Ostrow overcrowded the room for her last performance here. Several expressions cross the gaunt face before the features lock themselves into a tight little smile.
“What you have to understand about Bette,” he begins, attempting a good-natured shrug, “is that’s just how she is. “That’s just Bette for you. On the other hand, if the place wasn’t crowded enough, don’t you know she would have accused me of not promoting it well enough? She would want to know why so is drawing better than her. That’s the way Bette is but I love her anyway. . . . “
“Bette claims that she was doing one last concert merely as a favor,” I tell him.
“She does?” Ostrow’s eyebrows leap up. “That’s news to me. Bette came to me and asked me for that date. She said she wanted to come back and play again and I said, ‘Bette, you name the date,’ because she is a great performer and she could work this room anytime she wanted to. But. the truth of the matter is, that Bette came to me and asked me to do that last show. I think she wanted to dispel some of the rumors going around that she was becoming sort of . . . well, anti-homosexual. I think she wanted to show that it wasn’t true by coming back and doing a show for the boys at The Tubs.
“But I think the problem goes deeper than that. I think Bette has become bitter lately and it shows. The lovely bitchiness that was once a part of her act seems to have become more real to her – all the dishing and the bitching is unnecessary. Audiences are very sensitive, especially this audience here, they can detect hostility. . . . So it appeared somewhere in print that Bette was anti-gay and that hurt, because I know Bette loves gay boys because she loves beauty, do you know what I mean?”
Ostrow sits silently awhile and then: “Look around here,” he commands with a wave of the arm, “it’s beautiful! What do you see?” – I see a fat young man drop his towel and jump into the pool – “You see beauty all around you!”
After we have pondered this last statement in silence I ask Ostrow if he remembers any amusing incidents or anecdotes to relate about Bette that might be of interest for my story.
“Well, let’s see. Oh, yes, I remember something that I thought was amusing. Last summer my wife and I invited Bette to spend a weekend with us out at our house on Fire Island, and I remember that she got very upset when my dog took a shit on the beach. She just freaked out. She actually went to the trouble to bury the shit in the sand and then she gave us this big long lecture about ecology and pollution and stuff like that. She was actually quite serious and humorless about it. It seemed so out of character for Bette to be carrying on like that. She also has very conventional ideas about love and the sanctity of marriage. That weekend when she visited us we had several friends around and relationships developed that were . . . well, of the moment” – and here he leers as if to imply that such things are understood, are even de rigueur, as they say, among civilized men – “and these relationships, friendships, whatever you call them, seemed to disturb Bette very much. This prudish side of her nature really shocked me.”
Ostrow sits there gazing out upon this world of beauty he has created on the upper West Side, this paradise of wicker swings and smoked mirrors, where naked men lull around the pool like locker room buddies in some deodorant ad, and he shakes his head. His voice, when he speaks again, sounds like coal going down a chute.
“You know,” he says, “the biggest mistake Bette made was not recording a live album. If she had put out a first album called Bette at The Baths – now, wouldn’t that have been beautiful. . . . ?”
“We thought of doing a live album first,” Ahmet Ertegun, the President of Atlantic Records, is telling me, sitting in his office on Broadway, “but Bette was resistant to the idea of doing one at The Continental Baths because she didn’t want to be known only as ‘That girl who sings at the Turkish baths.’ Personally, I don’t think Bette has to worry about such things – but we’re very happy overall with the way the studio album turned out and sometime in the future I am sure we will record one of Bette’s performances live.”
Ertegun, a very influential man in the record industry, says he was bowled over the first time he saw Bette Midler singing at a place called Upstairs at the Downstairs.
“My own personal tastes,” he tells me, “are very sophisticated. I like Cole Porter, Fred Astaire, things like that. Or else blues, Big Bill Broonzy, that kind of thing, or good jazz, like Charlie Parker. I don’t usually like what is called popular music, so Bette’s sort of stuff wouldn’t be my cup of tea if she weren’t so talented. But Bette is a very special kind of entertainer, a phenomenon. The first time I saw her at the Upstairs at the Downstairs . . . I was never so stunned by a performer. It was altogether a very New York kind of scene, and the rapport she established with us, the audience, was fantastic.”
Ertegun went backstage and told Bette that he would sign her right away. The album, The Divine Miss M, turned out to be eight months in the making, because of Bette’s inexperience with working, in a studio, and because of rifts that developed over the production. Originally, Ertegun assigned Joel Dorn, producer of Roberta Flack and other Atlantic artists, to produce it. But if you look at all the production credits listed on the back of the album, it would seen to have been produced by a committee composed of Dorn, Barry Manilow, Geoffrey Haslam and Ahmet Ertegun – all of them working on the same project, if not exactly in concert. According to Barry Manilow, both he and Bette were dissatisfied with Dorn’s finished product. Ahmet Ertegun was called in to mediate and Dorn bowed out. At this point there was nothing left for Ertegun to do but call in Geoffrey Haslam to assist him, and roll up his shirtsleeves and pitch in himself. The album wound up with six cuts attributed to Don and the other six attributed to the new producing team of Manilow, Haslam and Ertegun.
“Well, honey, here we are – at the height of our fame and back in the pits again!”
Bette Midler is right. This crowded dressing room in this club called the Bijou Cafe is pretty shitty to say the least. But being on the road is always pretty shitty, no matter how you look at it. You just have to do your best to ignore the really unsightly things, like that pyramid of dead animal flesh over there – the usual coldcuts courtesy of the management – or the one lousy champagne bottle, empty, bobbing like a buoy in a leaking bucket of melted ice . . . drip, drip, drip … the Mafia water torture in Philadelphia!
At least when a promotional tour goes as well as this one, there are some consolations. With packed houses and rave reviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, Bette Midler has little to feel depressed about. Still, it is wearing for a girl who for the most part has worked close to home to have to go out on the road and do three shows a night. Then to have to put up with all the jerks who come barging into the dressing room between shows expecting you to be as energetic as you are on. If you’re not, they take it personally. Christ!
Bette used to try to be the Divine Miss M at all times. But it was an incredible amount of energy to expend on all these negligible morons – like Mr. Progressive Top 40 standing over there talking to Aaron in his Glen Campbell haircut, his plaid suit and those obscene shiny boots. Bette has been just slouching here, looking at him as though he were something crawly under a microscope. “Like I say, we’re what you would call a Progressive Top 40 station. In other words: What we’re trying to do is to educate them slowly . . . can’t spring anything too radical on ’em right away or we’d lose ’em for sure. We don’t play any of the heavy stuff – the Zeppelin, stuff like that. Or we wouldn’t play Alice Cooper, for example. That would be just too far out for our folks. But we’ll play, say, Loggins and Messina, we’ll play something tasty by Elton John . . . and we’ve been known to play something by Bette Midler once or twice in an hour.”
Mr. Progressive Top 40’s grin freezes when he realizes that Bette Midler is not smiling. Aaron Russo is very subtle about such things. He points a thumb at the guy and says, “Hey, Bette, this guy’s station is the Number One station in Philadelphia.”
“Really? That’s fabulous, Aaron.” Her tone is flat.
“Well, it was a real pleasure to meet you Bette,” the guy says, “and I really enjoyed your show.” And he’s out the door faster than you can say Progressive Top 40.
“Christ, listen to them out there, Aaron. They sound like they’re fighting.”
Aaron looks out the window, at the crowd waiting to get into the club for Bette’s final show. “They must be freezing their asses off,” he says.
“Aaron, I want to cancel,” Bette says in this little whispery parody of a Jayne Mansfield voice.
“Don’t even joke that way,” Aaron says. “I hate canceled shows.”
“Oh, Aaron, I don’t want to go on,” she teases. “I want to go home right now. What the hell are they doing down there anyway?”
She gets up and goes to the window.
“Look at them shoving and pushing out there. Christ, what a bunch of animals. The dummies. Look, I’m waving at them and they don’t even know who I am. . . . “
* * *
‘God, she’s hostile tonight,” said Bette’s friend Bill Hennessy standing down at the bar.
During that last show the strain was beginning to make itself felt. You could tell Bette was tired and that she was rushing through it, repeating the same lines for the third time that evening. That was something I still couldn’t get used to: that her raps between songs were not completely spontaneous. Until you drank your way through three full shows, as I had, wincing at the repetition, somehow, unaccountably, almost embarrassed by it as the people all around me burst into warmly appreciative laughter, feeling somehow a party to a minor deception. . . .
There was one line, for example, which played to the bleachers of their ethnic pride: “I used to be Jewish, but since I’ve been here in Philly, I dunno . . . I feel so Eyetalian.”
Earlier in the evening, between the first and second shows, Bill Hennessy was sent down to the bar to fetch me. Miss M’s spirits were sorely in need of uplifting and she was just wondering if I might have a joint or two stashed away within my Marlboro pack. It just so happened that I did, but first I would detain Hennessy for a minute with a few questions.
“Are you really Bette’s comedy writer?” I asked him.
“Well, yes. . . .” he said, somewhat hesitantly, as though there were a conflict of interest buried in there somewhere between his ego and his caution. I took note of the fact that he looked like a comedy writer in his red turtleneck and his Scotch plaid trousers and his fruitboots.
“. . . . yes I am, but it isn’t a very well-known fact. You see, Aaron and I like to keep it kind of quiet.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, because we wouldn’t want people to get the impression that Bette was plastic or anything. She is very sincere, a very real person. She’s a very dear, dear friend and I have been working with her since she started at the baths. But I don’t actually write a script for her or anything per se. What I do is to merely come up with suggestions, lines that she can paraphrase from performance to performance. When we’re on tour, wherever we happen to be, I just go out and look around and come back with some ideas about what might be considered funny in the town we’re working in. Then Bette and I kind of toss ideas back and forth between us until we have it worked out. Like that line she’s been using tonight about the little old Chinese ladies rolling down the hills in San Francisco. I just came up with that one while we were there and it’s been getting laughs everywhere, so we’ve kept it in the act. But the reason we keep it kind of quiet – about me being Bette’s comedy writer – is because we wouldn’t want anyone to think that everything was unspontaneous and planned out in advance. . . . We wouldn’t want anyone to think that Bette wasn’t a very witty lady in her own right.”
Bette’s big New Year’s Eve concert at Philharmonic Hall is less than two days away. The tension is building to the panic point. Strange last minute power-ploys are coming into play. There is mutiny in the air. . . .
Bette is back in the kitchen of her New York apartment on a rainy Saturday screaming into the telephone:
“What do you mean calm down! I spend $2000 of my own money on choreography and costumes for those girls and they tell me they’re leaving me after the concert? What kind of shit is that? What do you mean, calm myself?”
“Bette, would you please shut the fuck up!”
It’s Aaron barking at her over his shoulder from the living room, where he shoots a quick anxious look at me, the eavesdropping journalist.
“No, I won’t shut up, Aaron! Fuck you!”
Aaron grins, shrugs, says, “This is really stupid what those girls are pulling. The Harlettes are threatening to split from Bette. They say they want more money, that they’re buried in the act. What they don’t understand is that Bette isn’t making any real money yet herself. We expect to make some money soon, a lot of money, but so far most of what we’ve made has had to go back out as fast as it came in . . . Actually it’s just this one girl, Melissa, who’s putting ideas into the other girls’ heads. I know Gail and Merle will stay on. Mainly it’s Melissa who isn’t satisfied. She says she’s losing her own identity. Whenever she works alone people always compare her to Bette, she’s living in Bette’s shadow . . . What does she expect? There’s only one Bette Midler, right?”
Bette slams down the phone and makes a Loretta Young entrance, a big smile on her face, as if all the screaming was just a joke.
“Ed,” she says, “you print one word of this and I’ll break both your arms.”
“Yeah,” says Aaron, with a bone-cracking chuckle, “and I’ll break both his legs.”
* * *
An hour before the New Year began, as Alice Cooper hurried down the aisle looking like the Phantom of the Opera in full dress tails and white gloves, Bette Midler was carried out onto the stage at Philharmonic Hall in a sedan chair by four khaki-clad stagehands who could have been delivering an oversized pizza.
As the Harlettes filed onto the stage in their inimitably blasé fashion, wearing pink satin prom formals, all you saw of Bette at first was one bare leg, dangling out through the red curtains of this sedan chair – the kind they’d use for transporting royalty in old Burma – it waved out limply in broad comic-strip parody of a sexy slink.
The entrance was so unbelievably tacky, the men carrying Bette out seemed so disinterested, that you almost expected one of them to say: “Hey lady, where do you want us to put this damn thing? We ain’t got all night.”
The four stagehands carried the sedan chair to the center of the stage, set it down, and walked off. Then the curtains parted and Bette Midler smiled her humble funny-girl smile, and the audience applauded wildly. Barry Manilow, resplendent in white formal tails and looking like the illegitimate off-spring of a Leon Russell and Liberace tryst, stood up and, with gestures of exaggerated elegance, made kudos to Bette, the way Doc Severinson toms it up for . . . here’s . . . Johnny!
Then he swept his tails behind him, sat at the piano, and played those first clunky, cloying chords of “Friends.”
Like a girl who is used to opening her own cab doors, and doing so with some semblance of dignity, Bette Midler wiggled up out of the sedan chair and stalked and shimmied across the stage.
Oh, ya got to have friiiieeeeeeeee-ends
Th’ feelin’s oh so strong. . . .
I’m struck by at least a part of her secret: No one works a stage the way Bette Midler does. She’s all over the place, reaching out affectingly, imploring them with every gesture to love her, as she moves around onstage in her tacky tight dress with its slit up the side reaching all the way up to her thigh. Despite the hokey, deliberate soppiness of the song and the schmaltzy sentiment expressed (so reminiscent of Streisand’s song about “People who need people”), I’m moved. The big time show business soar of that big voice evokes a sense of deja vu that recalls every great performance one has ever seen. I feel that inescapable flush of warmth move over me, that shower of goosebumped recognition that makes one more flight over the old rainbow seem perhaps as possible as the next NASA journey to the moon.
And then there’s that lonely, homely girl, sitting on a living room sofa telling me honestly that she had been worried about what I might write . . . but that she isn’t anymore . . . for now she considers me a friend; and although there is the guile beneath the veil (insecurity has tiptoed under the sheep’s clothing of coy confession before), somehow, deep down, I knew she really meant it. . . .
This need, naked on the surface, is one of the things that makes her performance both affecting and slightly repugnant in a very vague and nagging way. There is something psychological about Bette Midler’s appeal, something very vulnerable that surfaces right alongside the enormity of the talent. It makes one have to reconsider the fact that her onstage raps are not ad-libbed in another light: perhaps it is not so much insincerity as another facet of her painful insecurity. . . .
But just when you’re beginning to sink irrevocably into the upbeat pathos generated by “Friends,” there she is taking the Harlettes into forward gear in a raucous, fast-paced mini-medley made up of two Fifties favorites, “Uptown” and “Do Ron Ron.” Watching Bette and the girls work out, the raw awkward sexual energy of it all makes you think of Tina Turner; the next song will have to be good to maintain this frenetic pace. Whatever it is, it will be anticlimactic coming on the heels of this Fifties freakarama – but Bette has just the solution to that little problem. She rummages even further back into the past and comes up with a treat from the Forties.
“This next song is in a style made famous by the fabulous Andrews sisters,” she tells us. “Those girls were too much, honey . . . They could raise their eyebrows . . . in unison! . . . And often did! . . . Anyway, this song is called ‘Hubba-Hubba,’ which, roughly translated, means Hot Shit.”
Although nostalgia for this idiom would have to stretch into earliest infancy to be felt first-hand by most of those assembled here tonight, the star-studded audience of New York Scene-makers reacts with wild enthusiasm as Bette and the Harlettes move through their whistlestopping Woo Woo routine in perfectly syncopated choo choo time, taking this funny old novelty song, this period piece, and giving it an energy akin to rock & roll.
It is this ability to move inside idioms made available to us by the assimilation of the camp sensibility into the popular culture that will make Bette Midler the first major entertainer to fully explore the rich resources of the camp genre. It allows her to glide easily now into the softer subtleties of “Am I Blue,” as the Harlettes sit down in the shadows, out of the spotlight, on a green park bench which has been placed there onstage for them. Bette steps forward to the microphone to inhabit yet another period, another mood, with the same uncanny authority, addressing this vast hall with an intimacy which suggests some smokey after-hours scene, with Barry Manilow noodling wanly away at the piano – her play-it-again-Sam accomplice in the Blues. . . .
Always there are the raps between numbers. Sometimes they are cloying and overlong as she hesitates, waiting for the warm waves of reassurance to come roaring down the rows and overwhelm her as she stands there onstage, looking so small and vulnerable, this funny-looking little girl in her tacky clothes; sometimes they are funny and succinct, as when she jokes about Johnny Carson having married three girls with names like Joan, Jo-ann and Joanna, saying “He must’ve had a sled named Joan when he was a kid.”
At one point, introducing a Nyroesque bayou ballad called “Delta Dawn,” Bette makes some references to Laura Nyro that skirt the edges of bitchiness. She imitates Laura Nyro’s speaking voice in a way that makes her sound like some dumb Jayne Mansfield blond, and recalls attending one of her concerts: “I was in the third balcony . . . looking down on her.”
Fang city! Then, just as suddenly, she will turn vulnerable again. Someone screams, “We love you, Bette!” from the back of the hall and she gets all choked up.
“I hope you won’t get mad at me when I change . . . because I have to, ya know,” she worries aloud, addressing the audience as though it is a lover that she senses someday may split, ” . . . I hope you’ll stay with me. . . . “
And after they assure her that they will, it’s right back to business:
“Now I’m going to sing in my tough shiksa voice,” she announces, hands on hips, legs akimbo. “Are you ready, girls? First we assume a position of extreme hostility. . . . “
They close the first half of the concert with a racing, raging, almost painfully speedy “Leader of the Pack,” and the house lights come on.
* * *
At intermission time I’m standing, drink in hand, among the crowd, wondering what has happened to everyone. These are people you used to see at Grateful Dead concerts, wearing Woodstockian pioneer hair and fringe; but if someone were to walk in here like that now he would be looked upon as archaic and perhaps, as the pace of fashion’s cycles accelerates, as an . . . objet de Camp! Yes, look at the old water buffalo there lumbering through the crowd, sending off shocks of musk.
Look around at this crowd here to honor Bette Midler tonight at Philharmonic Hall; look at them milling around in the glossy lobby and crowding around the bar. It is as if some high priestess at Vogue or Bazaar suddenly stood up and declared, “This season we shall all go back to that wonderful period – Berlin, avant la guerre!”
Look at the writer and videotape enthusiast Richard Robinson over there. Richard, the author of such books as The Osmond Brothers and the New Rock Scene, used to have hair past his shoulders. One of the greatest moments of his career was when someone mistook him for Mark Farner at a Grand Funk Railroad concert a while back. Now Richard has his hair cut short and greased down flat like Helmut Berger in The Damned. And there’s Richard’s wife Lisa, syndicated columnist for a string of European pop magazines. You used to see her running around at rock concerts in bellbottom jeans and imitation snakeskin boots . . . very ye ye, as the French say. Now Ms. Robinson is standing there in an absolutely fabulous long Drop Dead Dress in black and silver.
Here they are at the Bette Midler New Year’s Eve Gala with all these other New York trendsetters, hangerson and Welfare jet-setters and they seem suddenly to have . . . grown up! We all have!
I’m wearing a polkadot bowtie I ripped off from Gimbel’s and Jeannie is wearing that crazy red jumpsuit a girl at work gave her and. . . .
This never would have been happening a couple of short seasons ago, back in the old days of rock & roll. Bette Midler never would have surfaced from those steamy depths in the days of Janis Joplin. No way! Bette Midler is a stylist in the era of high style. We have seen a return here to traditional show business values: Mammy, how I luv ya, how I love ya, mah dear old mammy – the old soaring-voiced showstopper style overlayed with funk that came of growing up watching American Bandstand in Hawaii . . . a weird but totally logical and inevitable hybrid as camp spreads its tentacles into the increasingly more recent past. In a way, it may have to do with nothing more profound than our own natural aging process, as the Kraft Cheese ads phrase it. It remains to be seen whether Bette Midler will get the 18-year-old vote and become a deity to the somnambulant adolescent corpses who roam the corridors of the Academy of Music, looking for the perfect riff.
The intermission ends precisely at midnight and, minutes into the New Year, the star, done up as the New Year baby, in a diaper with a huge silver safety pin and a vinyl sash saying “1973,”rises up out of the orchestra pit in a hail of confetti, brandishing a champagne glass, and singing “Auld Lang Syne.” This is a brilliant second entrance, for it makes explicit the point, in case you may have missed it, that Bette Midler is indeed the New Face of 1973.
The flatteringly stylized art nouveau likeness of her that adorns the cover of The Divine Miss M has been seen everywhere, from magazine pages to posters in the subway. Several articles, profiles and reviews dealing with the phenomenon of Bette Midler have appeared in that great cultural arbiter, The New York Times, alone. There have also been stories in the Daily News, the New York Post and After Dark. Bette Midler has been celebrated and hailed everywhere as the bitching, dishing spirit of camp – this wicked homosexual wit, so rich in its insights – finally surfacing in the mainstream in respectably feminine form.
So, this inspired entrance at the very onset of the New Year really puts the clincher on it. And just when you’re thinking that nothing short of a fire in the balcony could follow such an opening, the Harlettes come trotting out in top hats and tails a la Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and sing and dance their way through a Fred Astaire-like (Ahmet are you watching?) “Lullabye of Broadway,” of all goddamn things! The girls take center stage and are featured on this number, and you wonder if this is a concession on Bette’s part to their demands (indeed she does seem more solicitous of them than usual tonight; even introduced them individually by name, instead of her usual “My three cocktail waitresses. . . .”) – or merely because Bette needs time to make another costume change, into yet another slinky, tacky dress, before joining them for a rousing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” replete with hubba hubba polyrhythms, fingers waved in the air, and spirited cries of “Eight to the bar!”
The amazing thing is that despite all this pop art removal from quaintly dated material, Bette Midler and the girls never lapse into a parody of the musical periods they pass through; instead they move right inside of various idioms and invest them with new energy and life. Even a silly groupie lament like “Superstar” is performed with a semblance of real emotion which sidesteps its kitsch and transcends its essential