Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On
The Colosseum, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
As 4,300 patrons who’ve coughed up the big bucks for a dose of The Still Divine Miss M file in to the post-Celine renovated $95-million Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace, the scrim gracing the back of the 7,000-sq ft. stage is adorned with the image most have already seen touting the show: the Diva herself sitting atop a mound of Vuitton luggage in the middle of the desolate Nevada desert next to the words: Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On.
This image looks decidedly odd and jerrybuilt. The background is lumpy and wrinkled, leaving one to wonder how a person renowned for being demanding and precise about what she wants out there representing her let this oddly ramshackle gaff occur. But when the lights dim, the image slowly starts to move, retreating into one corner to expose a sweeping movable digital panorama of the lonely road leading to Las Vegas, complete with cactuses, cawing hawks flying overhead, a burro munching on sparse vegetation and, in the far distance, Sin City looming at the end of that Yellow Dirt Road known as the I-15.
The deterioration of the original backdrop, now obviously recognizable as another of those oddly incongruous billboards stuck along the barren highway in this vast wasteland, is joined by a vulture, who perches next to Midler’s well-turned ankle as a Sons of the Pioneers-y soundtrack completes the amazing real-looking arid western landscape.
Suddenly, a huge wind picks up. A storm looms as the burro makes a run for shelter and the vulture tries to tuck in and sit it out. A lone big rig heads down the highway to Vegas as lightening begins to flash, followed by sand and debris and, ultimately, a very loud and very substantial tornado. The twister follows I-15, picking up vegetation, debris and finally the semi, which lifts like a Matchbox toy into the air and careens right toward the audience like an old 3-D movie without the glasses.
The cowboy soundtrack melds into “The Big Noise from Winnetka” as the tornado barrels right into town and heads down Las Vegas Boulevard, where it flattens the Luxor’s pyramid, decimates Paris’ Eiffel Tower, and lays waste to the Bellagio magic dancing fountains before familiar local icons start to swirl by caught in its eye, including Wayne Newton in mid-note and the fat Elvis, who emerges with great surprise from an outhouse before being spirited away along with everything else.
The tornado goes directly for Caesars, crashing through the roof and heading for the Colosseum stage, where it’s replaced onstage by elaborate lighting effects highlighting a huge mound of steamer trunks ascending from below on a hydraulic lift. Graced Busby Berkeley-style by 18 stunning feather-clad Vegas showgirls, the luggage pile slowly revolves to reveal Bette Midler herself lounging in the middle of a kind of Vuitton throne, sparkling dazzlingly in sequins and rhinestones and all the associated glitter. “I’m alive!” she shouts from her golden perch, throwing her arms in the air with a sense of Ming the Merciless dominion. “I brought the bling and lotsa things and I am a fucking goddess!”
This assignment is particularly exciting for me since in 1972 I brought an unknown Bette Midler to the west coast for her first ever appearances out of New York’s Continental Baths, booking her at the Troubadour here in LA and its sister club The Boarding House in San Francisco as the first stops on her initial national tour. Having originally met through our beloved mutual friend Bill Sapios when she was still performing through the mist for men in towels, I have known and loved this now legendary icon for almost four decades in what could be called a cross between a quick air-kissing let’s-do-lunch friendship and your standard annual Christmas card exchange.
Although the massive Colosseum is filled nightly for Showgirl with so many gray heads that from the light booth it resembles a vast sea of cotton, you might never realize the average patrons gathered who wave their cellphones in the air at the star’s command—just like we used we used to do with Bic lighters in our wonderfully wasted youth—are now on Social Security. Still, from the audience response to Bette’s show, you would never guess most of them have progressed past their randy years. Even though Bette’s dialogue is as salty as ever—such as promising those in attendance a swell evening of “hits, clits and tits”—no one seems remotely offended, making me uncharacteristically proud to be a Boomer.
“My jokes are older than John McCain,” Bette admits. “I’ve been tellin’ ‘em for 40 years and can you believe they’re still laughing at ‘em?” Clearly, this phenomenon is not lost on Bette. “See, in the 70s my audience was on drugs,” she wisely observes, “and now they’re on medication.” The chant she considers as the backstage anthem for her show is: “No seizures at Caesars.”
Aside from the continuous gags, flaunting that staggering plethora of scantily-clad girls moving to the knockout choreography of longtime collaborator Toni (“Hey, Mickey”) Basil, and winding back and forth into concert mode to sing some of her most famous chart-stoppers, Showgirl wouldn’t be complete without some of Bette’s favorite characters, including that infamous wheelchair-bound mermaid Delores Delago and of course Soph, still the world’s oldest living showgirl after all these years.
See, when Bette started spicing up early performances with her signature ribald humor, she was in her late 20s and a bit embarrassed about delivering those deliciously wicked punchlines despite the encouragement of her touring gag writer back then, another unknown named Bruce Vilanch, and her equally non-famous accompanist Barry Manilow. And so back then at the beginning of it all, Bette invented Soph.
“I was 30,” she remembers, “and I created Soph as 60. Well, guess what? Now Soph is 92, so I guess you can do the math and know how old I am.” With less than a year parting us, sadly I already know this only too well and, these days with IMDb, who could hide such a thing anyway?
Still, Bette’s pleased with the continuing acceptance from her audiences of her more off-color repertoire and fiercely proud of her history, unveiling a huge blowup onstage at one point of that notorious Studio 54-era candid shot of her performing with her bare bum flashing as her outfit lifts in a breeze. “Remember those old days?” she says without a trace of wistfulness. “I was one of those known as the Bad Girls of Rock.” Not that she considers that a deterrent. “Hey, I opened the door for trashy things and big tits and don’t you forget it.”
Somewhere halfway through her performance the second time I attended Showgirl, Bette stopped for a moment and admitted to the audience, “I’m exhausted. I need a rest.” After spontaneously stretching out across the stage in front of her three Harlettes, 18 dancers and 33-piece orchestra, crumpling her pink feathered headdress and smoothing out her tight glimmering gold gown in the process, Bette brought the microphone to her supine mouth and plaintively wailed into it, “Come back, Celine! All is forgiven!”
Forgiveness here is hardly the question, as everyone in attendance is too awestruck to consider the need to forgive. Seated in the auditorium that second night, all 4,300 worshippers shuffling out of the inadequate exits way too slowly (a Vegas achilles’ heel everywhere, it seems) appeared to collectively share the same Yoga mantra amongst one another that permeated the air.
“Sixty-two,” they whispered with a non-believing headshake and passed to one and all in the queue. “Sixty-two.” “She’s sixty-two.” “Sixty-two? No!” Sixty-two?” I just hope the next time I get to enjoy going back in time with the help of The Divine Miss M, my dear friend of our crazy-assed cradle days, her 32-year-old creation Soph won’t then be 120.
For tickets to The Showgirl Must Go On, call 877-7BETTEM or log on at www.ticketmaster.com.