Today is the birthday of the Queen of American show business Bette Midler (b. 1945). The Divine Miss M. was (and remains) way ahead of the curve on this post-modern retro show biz thing…and, in a subtle way, very influential. In fact (as I mention in my book No Applause) more than most of the so-called New Vaudevillians of the 70s and 80s, she is a true New Vaudevillian, given that the biggest stars of vaudeville were all singing comedians. Sophie Tucker is a big hero of hers. But she is also of that New Vaudeville generation — she was heavily influenced by the Ridiculous Theatre and New York’s camp scene in the ’70s, eventually becoming one of its biggest stars. Imagine my excitement when she plugged my book No Applause in People Magazine a couple of years ago! So it’s a mutual admiration society. A lopsided one, but it is one! I really hope someday to meet her.
I first knew her name in 1979, with her smash hit Janis Joplin–inspired movie musical The Rose. But in retrospect I learn that I’d known her work much longer than that. In 1972, she had a top 10 hit with a cover of the Andrew Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (which they’d introduced in the Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates). The radio stations played Midler’s cover constantly, and because my mother was very much of that era (she was 15 when the original version came out), we were made very much aware of the tune (i.e., when the song came on, she turned up the volume and started dancing. I’m not saying it wasn’t mortifying).
Midler’s amazing hot streak from the mid ’80s through the mid ’90s included Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (1986), Outrageous Fortune (1987), Big Business (1988), the original version of Beaches (1988), Scenes from a Mall (1991), For the Boys (1991), Hocus Pocus (1993), a tv version of the musical Gypsy (1993), a cameo in Get Shorty (1995), and The First Wives Club (1995).
Cool stuff since then has included her own sitcom Bette (2000-2001), the camp remake of The Stepford Wives (2004), the 2008 remake of the Clare Boothe Luce classic The Women, the Broadway musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2011-2012), and the current Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly (2017). Her latest movie is Freak Show (2017) with Abigail Breslin. And naturally all of those record albums and concert tours, which are less my bailiwick to write about.
You can learn more about her in her 2014 autobiography A View from a Broad. And to learn more how Bette Midler fits into the history of show business please check out No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever highly perceptive books are sold.