I fell in love with Bette Midler when I first heard her, shortly after I arrived in the USA in 1979. Her face had too much personality to be beautiful and she was too buxom for the fashions of the day, but she didn’t care. Actually, she seemed to revel in her own Bette’ness. I played a tape of her songs over and over in the car, and my daughter, Helenka, became a real fan too. Years later, in homage, she nicknamed her daughter, Madelyn, the Divine Miss M.
We pored over articles and photos of her as a mermaid in a wheelchair, or as a uniformed member of a 1940’s singing group harmonizing over The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. For birthdays, my daughter would give me the latest CD, or a kind-of memoir, half-invented, of the Divine Miss M’s life. We went to the movies she starred in, and wept or laughed as the screenplay demanded. We even watched her doomed sitcom.
But we never got to see her live.
So, when, in 2003, Helenka managed to get tickets for a concert in Madison Square Garden, we were elated. This would be my birthday and Christmas present combined, and I couldn’t imagine anything more fun. But just before we were due to go, my mother called from London, telling me my sister, who’d been trying to beat cancer, didn’t have long to live – I had to go.
I didn’t regret the missed opportunity. I forgot about it, in fact, until six years later, when I was due to turn 60. My sister-in-law, Judy, would be ten years older, a couple of days after me. Our daughters found out Bette Midler was playing Las Vegas, and they decided to treat us. We’d fly out for a few days, have a little flutter and see our elusive star. And maybe perhaps, the Cirque du Soleil, because, well, why not?
I’d be in London beforehand, to see my family, so the plan was, I would fly directly to Las Vegas before returning to the icy temperatures of New Hampshire, where Jay was having fun snowmobiling with our son, Fred.
Jay fell off the snowmobile while I was in England and broke his leg, but told everyone not to tell me – he didn’t want to spoil my all-girl birthday treat.
Blissfully unaware of this, I lounged around the Bellagio Hotel, where Judy had arranged a discount on the rooms. She liked to escape to one of the Connecticut casinos to play the slots when she needed a couple of days’ break, so she had a little influence.
Excited, we all dressed up for the event, and then, an hour before, Bette cancelled.
Judy marched downstairs to confront the management. She must have been spending more than we knew in casinos, because, to mollify her, they gave us not only a refund, but a free dinner at Le Cirque. But it didn’t begin to make up for the disappointment.
This year, for another birthday, Helenka tried again. She would get tickets for Bette Midler, slated to begin a run in the musical Hello Dolly! on Broadway. The months went by, and we found it hard to coordinate our schedules for a night when there were seats available. When Bette announced she’d be leaving the cast a couple of days before my next birthday, I resigned myself.
Then, one evening, as we sat around on her sofa watching Will and Grace, Helenka suddenly asked me to pull out my phone and check my calendar.
“It’s now or never,” she said.
There were hardly any tickets for sale, and they were running at $300-400 each. She’s a teacher, so I didn’t think that was remotely reasonable on her salary. Even I, sometimes capable of reckless spending on a unique experience, blanched at paying this much.
But she checked Stub Hub, an online clearinghouse for tickets sold above their face value, but at least procurable.
Hallelujah! We managed to find two seats for ‘only’ $250 apiece. This was beginning to seem like a bargain by this time, especially since they were in a great spot – on the aisle, about ten rows from the stage. They were for a Wednesday matinee, when my daughter should have been working, but she threw caution to the winds and took a day off.
Her printer failed just as we were due to leave, but I told her not to worry. The theatre would be able to issue the tickets from her email confirmation. We stood in line for the box office, happy we were moving quickly. But as we approached, Helenka gasped and pointed at a sandwich board on the sidewalk.
Donna Murphy? Who the hell was Donna Murphy?
Helenka was almost in tears, and after seeing the show, she did break down. It turned out this was the diva’s pre-planned week off, and had we bought our tickets from the box office (who didn’t have any) they’d have told us so.
The production wasn’t great. To make up for lost star power, the cast overacted horribly, and resorted to way too much business – the silent gags designed to elicit laughs where the script fails to. I did some fake laughing, to let Helenka know I was enjoying it, but it was tiresome, and only Bette could have saved it.
“So what was the plot?’ asked my daughter on the way out.
“It’s a musical,” I explained. Seeing this wasn’t enough, I added, “It’s from a play by Thornton Wilder which I’m sure had a story line once…” I trailed off, because she didn’t really care. We would have watched Bette singing the newspaper and enjoyed it.
Swaying a bit as we rode the train back, Helenka composed an open letter to Ms. Midler and posted it on her Facebook page, suggesting she might offer us free passes to one of the remaining performances, or to meet us for coffee.
One of the singer’s early hits went like this: ‘I am the big noise from Winnetka…’
So far – the big noise has remained silent.