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Here’s Johnny––and Bette!

New York-based talk shows in the 1970s offered plentiful opportunities for quirky young talents like Bette Midler to sing a song or two and maybe kibitz with the host, regardless of whether they had a Broadway show or film or new record to promote. Midler had none of these when her manager Budd Friedman got her booked on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson not long after she began her legendary run at the Continental Baths. Her bawdy alter ego, the Divine Miss M, was birthed during late night performances for an audience of gay men sitting at her feet, naked but for skimpy bath towels. The Divine Miss M brought together gay, Jewish, feminist, and show business sensibilities in a package that combined raucous comedy, a jukebox’s worth of old songs re-energized, and devastating ballads that brought tears as well as cheers. Midler immediately became the most celebrated new star New York’s gay cognoscenti. 

Carson’s flirtatious/fatherly chemistry with Midler continued during her frequent visits over the next twenty years. In 1973, now a best-selling recording artist and concert star, Midler made a triumphant return in all her curly, red-haired glory. Midler, musical director Barry Manilow, and her backing trio, the Staggering Harlettes, tore the place up, with the Harlettes’ “Optimistic Voices” leading into Midler’s grand entrance for “Lullaby of Broadway” and a sizzling “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” They were a sight: Midler spilling out of a garish evening gown, accessorized with stone martens and platform shoes, and the Harlettes in vintage tie-and-tails harmonizing and dancing their stylized 1940s moves like contemporary women giddily discovering a new/old musical world. Manilow and the band in their 1970s long hair and street clothes jammed in the background. If any single performance exemplified the musical and sartorial fun of the early 1970s nostalgia trend, it was surely this one.

In 1980, publicizing her new book, A View from a Broad, Midler looked remarkably subdued, wearing what she might sardonically call a “tasteful” ensemble of slacks, jacket, and high-necked blouse, with her now-blonde tresses pulled back behind her ears. But she’s as vivid a conversationalist as ever. When Carson asks if she ever envisioned she would be as big a star as she has become, her answer is a straightforward, sincere, “Yes.” But she’s quick to point out that her early view of stardom was superficial. “I didn’t realize that the one thing that’s worse than not being looked at is being looked at,” she says, before launching into a comic riff on being followed in the grocery store by fans who judge her food choices. “I can only go to the fancy food section now.” It was a perfect Midlerian anecdote: outlandishly funny, told with mock horror, but with an underlying seriousness that made it entirely plausible.

In 1983, she was pushing her new single, “Beast of Burden” and her new book, The Saga of Baby Divine, a lavishly illustrated children’s book with adult appeal. Her savage re-envisioning of the Rolling Stones’ hit began with her on the floor, crouching like a caged animal. A tight, spaghetti-strapped cocktail dress and spike heels didn’t inhibit her from dropping to her knees and “humping the floor,” as she liked to call it. The performance ended with a full round of microphone swinging that threatened to destroy the set. The topper was her ad lib as she took her seat next to Carson: “And she writes books too!”

Midler had just turned forty when she returned at the end of 1985, and unlike so many other women in show business, she wasn’t afraid to joke about getting older and trying to stay in shape. A bit more zaftig than usual, and ruing her love of food, she launched into “Fat As I Am” while seated between Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon and proceeded to take over the set, lounging on Carson’s desk, kicking off her shoes, and pulling every laugh out of the comic torch song.

Then she turned around and offered a heart stopping “Skylark” that surpassed her recording from the 1970s.

By her next appearance at the end of 1988, she was one of the most successful and highest paid women in films following a string of hit Disney comedies. She was there to promote her latest film, the dramatic musical Beaches, and was very much the regal film star, complete with an opulent mane of auburn hair cascading around her shoulders while performing “Under the Boardwalk,” from the film’s soundtrack album.  

Midler was on another upswing when she returned just as For the Boys was opening in November 1991. The expensive and ambitious movie musical had good buzz and Midler, coming off big record and film hits, was in high spirits and looking splendid. It seemed more like The Bette Midler Show than The Tonight Show, with the star showcased in several songs from the film, including another impromptu (but not really) comedy number from her guest chair, making “Otto Titsling” a hellzapoppin’ history lesson about brassieres that even for her was wildly, comically flamboyant.

For the Boys was a high-profile failure for Midler and she laid low for months, finally reappearing, at Carson’s request, on his penultimate episode as host of The Tonight Show. After nearly thirty years, Carson was retiring from the show that had come to define late night television. His last guests were Midler and Robin Williams on 21 May 21 1992. It was rare for Robin Williams to be relegated to the role of second banana, but that night Midler left him in the dust. She pulled off one more sitting-on-the-chair song––this one for the television history books––with a specially-tailored version of “You Made Me Love You” and its introductory “Dear Mr. Gable,” first performed by Judy Garland to the movie heart throb, Clark. “Dear Mr. Carson” and “You Made Me Watch You,” with new lyrics co-written by Midler, Marc Shaiman, and Bruce Vilanch, hit all the comic bases, from Carson’s personal life (“I watched your hair turn slowly from dark to white/And when I can’t sleep I count your wives at night) to jokes about Ed McMahan and even Carson’s longtime producer Ted DeCordova (“Before you bid adieu/Don’t be cheap/Put DeCordova to sleep”). Midler was known for her razorlike timing, but her every slow take, grimace, and pause was delivered with comic perfection that was deepened by her genuine affection for and gratitude to Carson.

It was hard to imagine Midler topping that moment. But returning from a commercial, Midler sang Carson one last song. On a stool in the center of the soundstage, she delivered Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” turning this boozy barroom standard into a final, loving tribute, as if standing in for the millions who had watched him over the years. Midler could sometimes overdo the pathos, but here her smiling warmth was even more affecting because it kept the tears at bay. It was Carson who grew increasingly misty-eyed as the camera captured him over Midler’s shoulder while she bid him farewell on “that long, long road.” The moment was instantly iconic, a prime example of live television at its best.

The night was as much a milestone for Midler as it was for Carson. The eager, anxious-to-outrage young chanteuse had matured into an evergreen entertainer who could effortlessly toggle between uproarious comedy and deep emotion. All her Carson appearances had been notable, but this night it was impossible to imagine anyone in show business other than Midler creating this final moment for him.

Featured image credit: Publicity photo of Bette Midler from 1973 by Aaron Russo-manager. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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