Bette Midler: The People���s Diva

Growing up in Hawaii, Bette Midler had no idea what she looked like. "None," she says. It's a stunning admission from someone so magnetically present, who has devoted so much talent and energy over the years to pushing outsize versions of herself to center stage. This is the Divine Miss M talking, after all! The erstwhile darling of the Continental Baths, the bawdy headliner of "The Clams on the Half Shell Revue," the woman behind Dolores De Lago, the toast of Chicago!

Her childhood home near the Pearl Harbor naval base, where her father worked as a civilian, had only one mirror, Midler explains, and "we had very few photographs. Very few." When success arrived when she was an adult, she was hit by a revelatory jolt. "Once I started getting photographed, I would look at these photographs. I'd say, 'That's not me. That's not what I look like.' I didn't recognize myself."

This was not the sort of reflection I was expecting from Midler, who, at nearly 76, was preparing for yet another photogenic moment, as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient on Dec. 5. Then again, even her "entrance" on this Friday afternoon in October was unexpectedly muted. In person, she exhibits what David Hyde Pierce, her co-star in the hit 2017 Broadway revival of "Hello, Dolly!," calls "a shocking petiteness." In fact, as her publicist and I waited for her outside the Shubert Organization doors on West 44th Street, she breezed right past us, undetected.

"She is a very refined, educated, old-fashioned kind of person who's delicate and vulnerable," says Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, who has been a close friend of Midler's for many years. "At the same time, she can put on the brassy, loud, funny, 'cynical broad' side of herself."

The brassy, loud and funny side is the one that propelled Midler to stardom and still shows up in places like her Twitter account (2 million followers), where she has been known to mock Republicans and recently refereed a fight between Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and billionaire Elon Musk with the tweet: "Girls, girls! You're both pretty!" But that's not the dominant aspect of her personality on this October afternoon, as she sits in a chic black suit and black loafers and converses, eagerly and thoughtfully, in what was once the Times Square apartment of Jacob J. "J.J." Shubert — a co-founder with his brothers of the Shubert theater empire.

The Shubert group owns and operates 17 of Broadway's 41 theaters, and its properties figure prominently in Midler's career: It was in a Shubert house in 1967 that she landed her first major Broadway part, taking over as Tevye's daughter Tzeitel in the original production of "Fiddler on the Roof." And the flagship playhouse, the Shubert Theatre, directly across 44th Street from J.J.'s apartment, is where Midler scored her biggest Broadway triumph 50 years later as Dolly Gallagher Levi — a performance that won her a Tony and left fans' hands raw from applause.

"I don't give myself a lot of pats on the back. I'm too busy moving on," Midler says as she considers the meaning of a career now selected for national distinction. "I mean, I was on a straight path, I was consumed by something. I never figured out if it was hormonal or if it was some sort of glitch in my makeup, but I was consumed by something. And I never wavered from that, from some crazy goal. And now that I am at my age, I have to stand back and take a minute and say, 'What the hell was that?'"

The observation prompts an involved joke that she prefaces with "I can't tell you because it's vulgar" — which of course is exactly the kind of joke you want Bette Midler to tell. So she proceeds: It's about an old, desperate-to-work stage actor who's hired to travel from New York to a Cleveland theater to deliver a single line, one that he anxiously practices over and over on the way there: "Hark! I hear a cannon!" "Hark! I hear a cannon!"

"He jumps out of a cab," Midler says, "he runs into the theater, he runs onto the stage, something goes 'BOOM!' and he yells, 'What the (expletive) was that?!' "

Midler tells the joke with breathless relish. It's classic Borscht Belt material, a reminder that despite all her campy touring acts and concerts in clubs and gay bathhouses in the 1960s and '70s, Midler's heart belongs to the earlier eras, to standards by the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters. Those acts were, in fact, her ticket to perform the older music she loves in times when rock seemed to drum out everything that came before.

That's how Dolores De Lago, Midler's dishy mermaid character, was born.

"I happen to have a real fondness for lounges and I have a real fondness for lounge singers, because I've been one," she says. "And it's actually a fabulous life. I mean, I just loved it from the time that I did it. So the other reason I chose lounge was because I love the music. I wanted to be able to sing those songs without getting, you know, harassed, because a lot of people turned their backs on that kind of music in the late '60s."

Perhaps her most widely witnessed demonstration of that throwback devotion came about after a startling invitation. For Johnny Carson's last night hosting "The Tonight Show" in 1992, the longtime talk-show maestro asked Midler to be his final guest. For the occasion she delivered an emotional rendition of "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen ballad from 1943. The performance was watched by 55 million people.

To this day, Midler says, she's not sure why Carson chose her for his sign-off. But one can hazard a guess. Just as the couch on Carson's set was a way station for talents of every era, Midler was always a kind of crossover artist, one who has been able to span genres, in movies particularly, and remain a touchstone figure.

Or, as she puts it: "I'm the people's diva."

SUBHEAD: 'Hello,' Bette!

On the first day of rehearsals for the 2017 Broadway revival of "Hello, Dolly!," Midler walked into a studio just off Union Square and glanced around a room filled with excited cast members.

"Now, look," David Hyde Pierce recalls Midler announcing, "You can all sing better than me. And you can all dance better than me. But you're not funnier than me!"

Midler's comic feistiness convulsed the room — an icebreaker at the start of a production that would cement a warm friendship with Pierce, best known as Niles from the NBC sitcom "Frasier." On Broadway, he played the curmudgeonly love interest, Horace Vandergelder, to Midler's Dolly.

"There are, you know, big stars who just abandon you onstage for the audience and you're left to — you know, if they look at you, you're shocked," Pierce says. "That's not her. And it wasn't just me. It was with anyone who was onstage with her, including anyone in the ensemble. She was with you 150%."

Midler calls her run as Dolly a highlight of her life. The role offered her a pivotal aspect of performance — an arena to feel free. "I'm not particularly good at games," she says. "So I just didn't play when I was a kid. Sometimes we played hopscotch. But I didn't play play."

"When I'm on the stage, I'm playing," Midler continues. "I am just playing. I'm having so much fun. And then I have all these people who are in on the joke. And they're having fun, too. Because we're all in this place where we can enlighten each other, we can laugh at each other, we can laugh with each other, we can cry. It's a communal thing, and especially in my own shows, the personal shows, the shows that I put together myself."

Source : https://www.theday.com/article/20220101/ENT10/220109991

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