Every superheroine needs a fabulous origin story, and the roots of The Divine Miss M are planted deep in the gay culture of New York City in the early ’70s.
Bette Midler first made her mark on stage, playing the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway for three years, but it wasn’t until she started appearing regularly at the Continental Bathhouse did her legend begin to take shape.
Opened in 1968 in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel, the baths were a way for gay men to socialize and discuss current events. And maybe other stuff. Bette started performing in the summer of 1970, and it was where she would start to build her core following, often provided piano accompaniment by Barry Manilow.
Bette talked about that time while promoting her 1998 album Bathhouse Betty, saying “Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I’m still proud of those days [when I got my start singing at the gay bathhouses]. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of ’Bathhouse Betty’ with pride.”
Footage of an appearance from 1971 provide a fascinating time capsule, as we see Bette in her mid-20s, unpolished and eager, showing the brassiness we would all come to know and cherish.
This is raw talent at its finest.
For her “800th farewell appearance,” she starts off with “Friends,” snarks about wanting to work at Cherry Grove (on Fire Island), but “they couldn’t find work for me in the bushes,” and segues seamlessly into “Fat Stuff.”
From there, it’s jokes and banter, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” a glorious version of “Superstar,” Bessie Smith, an ode to weed, Joni Mitchell, “Easier Said Than Done,” “Chapel of Love,” and she closes with “I Shall Be Released” by The Band.
At one point audience interest seems to flag, and Bette scolds “C’mon boys, pinch each other, get that blood circulating. Your mother is up here working.”
In this age of disposable pop stars, it’s important to remember why our icons are icons, and this is an essential historical document.
H/T Pink News