A Showgirl of a Certain Age

Photo: Robert Maxwell

“Will you excuse me?” asks Bette Midler. “I just want to get a lozenge. My throat’s very dry. The humidification doesn’t seem to be working in here.” Midler rises from the sofa and disappears into the kitchen of what she calls her dressing room, which is actually more like a subterranean bunker apartment underneath the Colosseum theater at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “I’m looking for those lozenges!” she calls out to her assistant.

It’s the day after opening night of her show, The Showgirl Must Go On, and the fluorescent-lit hallway outside is lined with dozens of floral arrangements from old friends—white roses from Goldie, a tasteful branchy arrangement from Oprah, a sad-looking three-foot-long reclining white tiger from Siegfried and Roy. The only one that appears to have made it over the threshold is sitting on top of a Steinway baby grand that in the seventies was exclusively used to accompany Frank Sinatra when he played Caesars. (Or at least so says a framed plaque leaning nearby.) It’s a huge, fragrant arrangement featuring a Styrofoam mannequin head with a tall showgirl headdress sent by the previous occupant of these rooms, Céline Dion. “Isn’t it brilliant?” Midler asks without a hint of her trademark queenie derision.

“Miss Dion”—as Midler calls her—is the one who got her all hopped up about humidification and the horrors that can befall a singer’s voice in the desert. Not that Midler, who first played Vegas in 1972, had never heard of Vegas Throat. “They used to think it was because of the way they cleaned the carpets,” she says. “They used to put powder down and vacuum it up.” Doctors now say it’s caused by the low desert humidity and dust particles in the air combining to mimic the effects of an allergy attack. It’s Vegas legend that in 1981, after agreeing to a then–Strip record of $350,000 for one week at the Riviera, Dolly Parton got Vegas Throat on her first night and didn’t set foot onstage the rest of the week.

With 200 shows ahead of her, Midler, a performer with a well-known reputation for obsessive worrying, was not about to let the same fate befall her. Dion said that everywhere she went, the air she breathed was to be moistened to between 55 and 62 percent relative humidity; Midler follows a similar protocol. People in Dion’s wardrobe department told her of a homeopathic product called Las Vegas Mix Spray. “They discontinued it,” says Midler. “So I bought two years’ worth.” She also refuses to go anywhere in the casino without a scarf around her neck. “Drafts,” she explains.

This afternoon, Midler can tell—thanks to an unseen hygrometer, or just skin that’s become super-attuned to moisture content—that the room’s humidification system is only getting the air up to 50 percent humidity. This missing 5 to 12 percent is a real problem and requires one of the licorice-flavored lozenges her assistant is searching for. Tom Jones—whose show at the MGM Grand Midler and her husband saw last year—told her about them. “He had a little table all set up, and all night long he would drink water and he would spray his throat with Entertainer’s Secret,” she says. “He gave me the cue about the Vocalzone. It’s a pastille made in England that was created for Enrico Caruso. I had to send away for them.” Once her assistant has produced the foil packet, Midler pops a lozenge into her mouth and takes her time settling back into the couch, as if giving her vocal cords a moment to get properly lubricated before speaking.

It’s hard to reconcile this slitty-eyed woman in a brown cardigan gripping her black-framed eyeglasses in her hands, concurrently sucking a lozenge and drinking a cup of Throat Coat Tea, with the person who made Midler rich. The Divine Miss M, the juggy-broad persona—“confident as Cleopatra’s pussy,” she used to say—was created in 1970 while playing the Continental Baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway, out of a need to hold the attention of a bunch of gay men who had the choice of either having fun, risk-free anonymous sex or standing around in towels listening to her sing vein-openers of old torch songs. It’s a 35-year-old trope that Midler—who once described her pre-Baths self as an “ugly, fat little Jewish girl who had problems”—is not much at all like her alter ego. But over the years, the gulf between Bette Midler and the Divine Miss M has widened to the point where the two perhaps can’t even coexist in the same town.

Ask anybody who knows Midler why she’s never had a long engagement in Vegas before, and they’ll explain that playing Las Vegas would actually require Midler to stay in Las Vegas. It’s a town she referred to as “Lost Wages” after she first played there 35 years ago, opening for Johnny Carson at the Sahara to an audience that couldn’t care less about her act. “They just didn’t know what to make of me,” she’d said back then. “They didn’t understand why they had left the gambling tables.” And her love-hate relationship with the place has just grown more complicated since.

Midler on the set of her show at Caesars Palace.

“Oh, yes,” says Midler’s husband, Martin von Haselberg, when I ask if the couple had reservations about her coming to Caesars. “Las Vegas is not immediately what we would consider to have our … sensibilities,” he says, milking that final word as if it had stink lines radiating off it.

But weren’t you married here by a guy who moonlighted as an Elvis impersonator?

“That was a long time ago,” he says.

That was 1984. It was an even longer time ago that von Haselberg co-founded the Kipper Kids, a roaming performance duo known for doing violent slapstick in jock straps, wearing dicklike nose prostheses, spray-painting their testicles blue, communicating in fart noises, and pouring SpaghettiOs and shaving cream over one another’s heads. As town-appropriate as that act might seem, the von Haselbergs are not typical Las Vegas show people. Though they have a place in Los Angeles and a spread upstate in Millbrook, they spend most of their time in Manhattan—specifically, in a Carnegie Hill apartment not far from Woody Allen’s old place. In person Midler comes off as almost aristocratic. She offers only the slightest of smiles as she shakes your hand. Her accent—vaguely Brooklyn ethnic on TV—might be described as upper-crust thespian. Her favorite hobbies are gardening and reading. Her daughter, Sophie Frederica Alohilani von Haselberg, is a senior sociology major at Yale. (“If you ever go into the movie business,” Midler told her as a child, “I’ll never speak to you again.”) Her best friends are Jann Wenner and his partner, Matt Nye; in 2006, the couples spent two weeks hiking and camping through Bhutan together. And Midler is a philanthropist: In 1995, she founded the New York Restoration Project, which plants trees, maintains community gardens, and cleans up public spaces in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

As a welcome-to-Vegas gift, and perhaps in an effort to negate the effects of such cultural slumming, Midler’s husband bought her the entire Penguin Classics Library. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in her dressing quarters is stuffed with several hundred of the 1,082 titles. “I’m such a cheese,” she says, averting her eyes bashfully as though she were trying explain a Star Wars action-figure collection. “I’m reading Chesterton right now. The Man Who Was Thursday. I thought I’d start light.”

What lured Midler out of a comfortable semi-retirement in Manhattan to do 200 shows in a flashy resort town in the poorly humidified desert? Well, there’s the money, of course. The closest she comes to saying what she’s netting for two years of performances at Caesars is joking onstage about “the shitloads of cash they’re paying me.” Her musical director, Bette Sussman, has described the amount as enough to provide Midler with “freedom for the rest of her life.” Of course, Midler’s worldly needs must have been obliterated in the late eighties when she was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, but there’s money, and then there’s “fuck you” money. Céline Dion reportedly strode out of Caesars after five years with more than $100 million.

A Vegas engagement also offers the opportunity to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Prior to Showgirl, Midler’s last big gambit was a 2000 sitcom called Bette that lasted only sixteen episodes on CBS. When I ask Midler if, eight years later, she’s still feeling the sting of the failure of her television show, she says, “Very, very much so. What I intended was Entourage. What I got was nothing.”

If Midler once seemed too hip for Vegas, the city has changed in recent years—the $5 buffets replaced by Bobby Flay and Jean-Georges, the desiccated acts like Steve & Eydie giving way to performers like Prince. Besides, Midler always had quite a bit of Vegas in her. “I read a lot of books about people who followed the same path as me, you know, going from being a low clown to being a rather grand clown. And from being a grand clown, they try to forget that they’re a clown at all, and try to become very grand and marry up, you know like, Bea Lillie or Fred Astaire’s sister,” she says. “But you know, ultimately, when I ride the elevator with the housekeepers, I know that I’m one of them. That’s what I come from.”

In the end, she simply couldn’t resist the siren call. AEG Live, the company that books shows at Caesars, had been courting her for three years, and Midler’s friend Steve Wynn had talked about building a theater for her as well. “At first I said, ‘It’s not me. It’s not me.’ But eventually you have to face it. It is you. This is what you do. You love sparkles. You love showgirls. You love boas and feathers. You love boobs. I’m like a magpie. I’m a sucker for whatever glitters.”

What Midler does onstage in Vegas might look a little undignified for a 62-year-old woman, in, say, G. K. Chesterton’s hands. But Midler knows she doesn’t possess the instrument that would allow her to just stand at a microphone in velvet and diamonds, like, say, fellow Semitic icon Barbra Streisand. “She sings like a bird. I don’t,” Midler once told a friend. Neither does her catalogue allow her to just cycle through a series of hits, like Elton John does 50 times a year in his Red Piano show at the Colosseum. “If I could play the piano like Elton John and had the hits he has, believe me, I would be sitting at the piano while the video played,” she says. “Unfortunately, I can barely play the ukulele and I don’t have his catalogue.” There is an expectation of a little more sweat at a Midler show—that she’ll be hopping on a mermaid tail and twirling poi balls in the air.

There are indeed poi balls and a mermaid costume in The Showgirl Must Go On. There’s also plenty of poking fun at the crassness of playing Vegas—“the only town that could teach Kraft something about cheese.” Showgirls parade around in dollar-sign headdresses. After a confetti cannon blows foil coins into the crowd, Midler promises “$40,000, or two T-shirts at my gift shop” to whoever finds the one embossed with a dollar sign. It’s a cute joke that has a slightly bitter aftertaste, considering that Midler, who built her career on embracing a certain kind of authenticity, is putting her name on those bedazzled tank tops, and condoning the sale of a $300 Bathhouse Betty Gift Basket (“For a clean that’s divine when you’re feeling dirty”).

“At first I said, ‘It’s not me. It’s not me.’ But eventually you have to face it. It is you. You love sparkles. You love boas and feathers. You love boobs. I’m like a magpie. I’m a sucker for whatever glitters.”

The show is not conceived with much regard for Midler newbies. Those who just wander into the theater from the casino floor might have some trouble understanding why there’s this lounge-singer mermaid named Delores Delago who rolls around in a motorized wheelchair and a character named Soph who tells filthy jokes in an old-lady voice. (“My boyfriend said to me, ‘Soph, if you would learn to cook, we could fire the chef.’ I said to him, ‘Ernie, if you would learn to fuck, we could fire the chauffeur!’ ”) Does Midler have enough die-hard fans to buy the roughly 820,000 tickets available for the run? What can be read into the fact that Cher will be filling in some of the dates Midler’s show is dark? “Elton, Cher, me? Does it get any gayer?” Midler asks from stage. (John Meglen, the co-CEO and president of AEG Live, told me that, as much as he loves the gays, he’s depending on straight people to come to the show, too.)

Midler has always been a triple threat onstage, even if now she’s not quite so threatening as a dancer. (A running theme in the show is her exhaustion at performing.) The truly amazing moments come when she’s interpreting melodies. Considering the number of times she’s sung it since recording it in 1972, it’s astonishing that Midler’s still able to milk chills from John Prine’s “Hello in There.” And she sings the showstopper of the night—“When a Man Loves a Woman”—with the same Joplin-influenced roughness she had in The Rose. But part of her brilliance lies in her ability to temper the mushy stuff—“The Rose,” “Wind Beneath My Wings”—by bracketing it with nasty, knowing comic bits. “I think of myself as a lowly clown, but I also think of myself as someone who can turn on a dime and sing a ballad and move people,” she says, citing her most direct forbear as Fanny Brice, the Ziegfeld Follies star famous for quickly transitioning from mugging to singing her tearjerking theme, “My Man.” “People don’t bother to do it anymore like they used to in the old days.”

Having managed to find an effective way to look younger than her years, Midler nevertheless frequently betrays the fact that she’s part of a much older show-business generation. “The paparazzi?” she asks. “Back then? We had one guy—Dave.” The spate of starlet crotch flashings garners a riff in her show, during which she flashes a picture of herself from the seventies, performing with her bare ass hanging out. “I was dressing like a ho before hoes knew how to dress!” She’s become a bit more prudish since then, and some of her songs have been wisely reinterpreted. When Midler growled her way through the old sock-hop hit “Do You Want to Dance?” on her 1977 NBC special, she inserted enough moaning and heavy breathing to suggest the title of the song was actually “Do You Want to Help Me Find a Broom Closet in This Place (Because I’m Not Wearing Panties. Honest)?” Now she actually sounds like she might prefer to just dance, a mercifully cringe-free choice.

If Midler needed any reminder of time’s passage, the obit pages over the last couple years have chronicled the loss of many links to her show-business past. “It was a bloodbath,” Midler says. “It was terrible. I went to a lot of memorials.” Lung cancer got Hilly Kristal, who before opening CBGB ran Hilly’s on Ninth Street, in the back room of which Midler first started singing cabaret in the late sixties. Ahmet Ertegun, who signed Midler to Atlantic Records after seeing her paraded around on the backs of screaming fans at Downstairs at the Upstairs in 1971, never woke up after bumping his head at a Rolling Stones show. Arif Mardin, who produced “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance”—songs that would resuscitate Midler’s music career and define her to Generation X as Mom’s favorite singer—died of pancreatic cancer.

And then there was Aaron Russo, her manager and fiercest protector through her chaotic rise in the seventies, to whom Midler gave the instructions “Make me a legend.” Midler would hurl ashtrays at his head; Russo was so in love with her that upon hearing she was seeing her sound man, he made sure much of the sound department got busted on possession charges in Buffalo. He died last year of bladder cancer. “People used to just flock around Aaron,” says Midler. “First of all, he had all the drugs … He was what they used to call ‘a character.’ There aren’t many characters left.”

Midler fired Russo in 1979, and he was the last manager she ever had. She’s barely even employed an outside director since Joe Layton directed her legendary Broadway revue, Clams on the Half Shell, in 1975. She directs her own stage shows, with the help of her longtime choreographer, and “Mickey” singer, Toni Basil. So if there is anybody to thank or blame for her legendary successes or failures—Beaches or Drowning Mona—it is Midler, who, cackling, concedes, “I have had in my lifetime many really bad ideas.”

This reluctance to cede authority might explain how Midler has acquired, even among her longtime champions, a reputation for not making anything easy. “I’m used to it,” says Bruce Vilanch, who has been writing jokes for her for almost 40 years. “I know what her M.O. is. Yeats calls it ‘Turning in a gyre.’ It’s whipping yourself up into a lather. She takes that and synthesizes it and it explodes when she performs. A lot of that is nervewracking for other people, but that’s her process.’’ Preparations for the Vegas show were no exception. “She micromanages,” says Basil, who clearly adores Midler despite her freakouts. “She sat in the audience as we showed her every lighting cue. Every lighting cue! Do you know how many lighting cues there are?” When, during rehearsals, Midler frantically called her former musical director, Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman, for his opinion on something, he gave her the following advice: “Why don’t you calm the fuck down and enjoy yourself finally?” Says Shaiman, “Bette’s constantly beating up herself and all those around her. She enjoys the moment when she’s finally in front of the audience, but she doesn’t enjoy herself when she’s putting together the show. I wish she could learn how to enjoy that part, but it’s part of her molecular structure.”

At the opening-night after-party thrown in her honor at Pure, the nightclub inside Caesars, Midler finally seems relaxed. She’s allowed herself a celebratory glass of Champagne, which is all she’ll be having. “I had a couple years there in the eighties when I was not good with alcohol, so I just stopped,” she says. “I’m a very bad drunk. I’m violent. I’m nasty. And I bite.”

The crowd is typically Vegas random, in that the only other place you might encounter them together is if they all tromped through your dreams after a night spent eating too much garlic. Joey Fatone is there, as are Siegfried and Roy. Alan Thicke is telling Bruce Vilanch what to expect from knee surgery, and recent N-word-scandal-tainted Dog the Bounty Hunter is conspicuously shooting the breeze with a black man, as his wife, Beth, slowly navigates her gargantuan, prowlike chest through the crowd. The predictable old friends and collaborators have come out West, too: Marc Shaiman’s there, as is Jann Wenner, who says Mica Ertegun and “a planeload of people” came from New York.

Midler is being pulled this way and that by a surrounding throng, like a Frito plopped into a koi pond. She looks, well, alarmingly hot, with a couple inches of décolletage appearing above her ruffled, silver Badgley Mischka dress and her blonde hair piled casually atop her head. I compliment her diamond chandelier earrings. “I think they came from Canal Street,” she says, smiling girlishly and wagging them at me. When the D.J. puts on “Lady Marmalade,” Midler frees herself from the scrum, grabs her daughter, Sophie, and with arms waving in the air, dances down the stairs and into her public. Until the stroke of midnight, when she will disappear, the Divine Miss M remains on the clock.

Upstairs, in the VIP section, von Haselberg is sipping a glass of Champagne while keeping an eye on his wife. He tells me that she has breathed air outside of the hotel exactly one time in eleven days, so consumed has she been with this show. Still, in the opening-night excitement, he says Vegas is growing on him. “I’m beginning to like it here,” he says. “I was gone for three days and I started to kind of miss it.”

The next day, I mention to Midler what her husband had said about their not being real Vegas types. “He can speak for himself,” she says a little tartly, as if she’d prefer to unpack her bags before she starts shitting on her new hometown. “This is a resort. It’s great when you’re really tired and you don’t want to think about the weighty things in life and just want to be a little mindless and veg. You know, I’m not going to put resorts down. I’m sure I’ll find a way to put them down eventually, but right now, well, I’m tired.”

A Showgirl of a Certain Age