Bette Midler Biography

1 December 1945, Aiea, Hawaii, USA. As a singer, comedienne and actress, Midler rose to fame with an outrageous, raunchy stage act, and became known as ‘The Divine Miss M’, ‘Trash With Flash’ and ‘Sleaze With Ease’. Her mother, a fan of the movies, named her after Bette Davis. Raised in Hawaii, as one of the few white students in her school, and the only Jew, she ‘toughened up fast’, and won an award in the first grade for singing ‘Silent Night’. Encouraged by her mother, she studied theatre at the University of Hawaii, and worked in a pineapple factory and as a secretary in a radio station before gaining her first professional acting job in 1966 in the movie Hawaii, playing the minor role of a missionary wife who is constantly sick. Moving to New York, she held jobs as a glove saleswoman in Stern’s Department Store, a hat-check girl, and a go-go dancer, before joining the chorus of the hit Broadway musical Fiddler On The Roof. In February 1967, Midler took over one of the leading roles, as Tzeitel, the eldest daughter, and played the part for the next three years. While singing late-night after the show at the Improvisation Club, a showcase for young performers, she was noticed by an executive from the David Frost television show, and subsequently appeared several times with Frost, and also on the Merv Griffin Show.

After leaving Fiddler On The Roof, Middler performed briefly in the off-Broadway musical Salvation, and worked again as a go-go dancer in a Broadway bar, before taking a $50-a-night job at the Continental Baths, New York, singing to male homosexuals dressed in bath towels. Clad in toreador pants, or sequin gowns, strapless tops and platform shoes - uniforms of a bygone age - she strutted her extravagant stuff, singing songs from the 40s, 50s, and 60s - rock, blues, novelties - even reaching back to 1929 for the Harry Akst / Grant Clarke ballad ‘Am I Blue?’, which had been a hit then for Ethel Waters. News of these somewhat bizarre happenings soon got round, and outside audiences of both sexes, including show people, were allowed to view the show. Offers of other work flooded in, including the opportunity to appear regularly on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show.

In May 1971, Midler played the dual roles of the Acid Queen and Mrs Walker in the Seattle Opera Company’s production of the rock opera Tommy and, later in the year, made her official New York nightclub debut at the Downstairs At The Upstairs, the original two-week engagement being extended to 10, to accommodate the crowds. During the following year, she appeared with Carson at the Sahara in Las Vegas, and in June played to standing room only at Carnegie Hall in New York. In November, her first album, The Divine Miss M, was released by Atlantic Records, and is said to have sold 100, 000 copies in the first month. It contained several of the cover versions that she featured in her stage act, such as the Andrews Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ (which reached US number 8), the Dixie Cups’ ‘The Chapel Of Love’, the Shangri-Las’ ‘The Leader Of The Pack’ and Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Want To Dance?’. The pianist on most of the tracks was Barry Manilow, who was Midler’s accompanist and musical director for three years in the early 70s. The album bears the dedication: ‘This is for Judith’. Judith was Midler’s sister who was killed in a road accident on her way to meet Bette when she was appearing in Fiddler On The Roof. Midler’s second album, Bette Midler, also made the US Top 10. In 1973, Midler received the After Dark Award for Performer Of The Year, and soon became a superstar, able to fill concert halls throughout the USA. In 1979, she had her first starring role in the movie The Rose, which was loosely based on the life of rock singer Janis Joplin. Midler was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress, and won two Golden Globe Awards for her performance. Two songs from the movie, the title track (a million-selling US number 3 hit) and ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, and the soundtrack album, entered the US charts, as did the album from Midler’s next movie, Divine Madness!, a celluloid version of her concert performance in Pasadena, California.

After all the success of the past decade, things started to go wrong in the early 80s. In 1982, the aptly named black comedy, Jinxed!, was a disaster at the box office, amid rumours of violent disagreements between Midler and her co-star Ken Wahl and director Don Siegel. Midler became persona non grata in Hollywood, and suffered a nervous breakdown. She married Martin Von Haselberg, a former commodities broker, in 1984, and signed to a long-term contract to the Walt Disney Studios, making her comeback in the comedy Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986), with Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss. During the rest of the decade she eschewed touring, and concentrated on her acting career in a series of raucous comedy movies such as Ruthless People (1986), co-starring Danny De Vito, Outrageous Fortune (1987) and Big Business (1988). In 1988, Beaches, the first movie to be made by her own company, All Girls Productions (their motto is, ‘We hold a grudge’), gave her one of her best roles, and the opportunity to sing songs within the context of the story. These included standards such as ‘Ballin’ The Jack’, Cole Porter’s ‘I’ve Still Got My Health’, ‘The Glory Of Love’, ‘Under The Boardwalk’, and ‘Otto Titsling’. Also included was ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’, by Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar, which reached number 1 in the US charts and number 5 in the UK. Midler’s recording won Grammys in 1990 for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year.

In 1990, Midler appeared in Stella, a remake of the classic weepie, Stella Dallas, in which she performed a hilarious mock striptease among the bottles and glasses on top of a bar. The following year she played in Scenes From A Mall, a comedy co-staring Woody Allen. Her appearance as a USO entertainer in World War II, alongside actor James Caan, in the same year’s For The Boys, which she also co-produced, earned her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. The movie showed her at her best, and featured her very individual readings of ‘Stuff Like That There’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’. In the same year, she released Some People’s Lives, her first non-soundtrack album since the 1983 flop, No Frills. It entered the US Top 10, and one of the tracks, ‘From A Distance’, had an extended chart life in the USA (number 2) and UK (number 6). By the early 90s she was planning to revive her musical career, and in 1993 brought a spectacular new stage show to Radio City Music Hall. The lavish three-hour concert, her first for 10 years, was called Experience The Divine, and seemed as ‘gaudy and outrageously tasteless as ever’. In 1994 Midler won an Emmy Nomination, along with Golden Globe and National Board of Review Awards for her outstanding performance as Rose in a CBS television musical production of Gypsy. In 1995 she released Bette Of Roses, her first studio album for five years, and continued to play sell-out concerts and make acclaimed movies. The television special Bette Midler In Concert: Diva Las Vegas was aired in 1997. The following year chat show queen Roseanne hosted a nostalgic reunion between Midler and her original vocal and musical support, the Harlettes and Barry Manilow. Two years later she attempted to break into television with her self-titled sitcom.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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