New York, 1973: Continental Baths manager Steve Ostrow was looking for a larger-than-life singer to take his clients minds off the dangerous landscape that existed outside its doors.
A deliciously sleazy paradise for gay men to congregate, the bathhouse was frequently raided by police as American society struggled to deal with the newfound atmosphere of sexual liberation.
Steve found the ballsy talent he wanted and had to look no further than wife Joanne’s acting class, who raved about a buxom lass who was waitressing in a West Village café. Her name? Bette Midler. Catherine Alcorn has been performing her enthusiastic homage ‘The Divine Miss Bette’ to international acclaim for seven years and explains how, sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways. “When I was putting the show together in 2009, I was working with a cellist who lived in my building and I was telling him about this Bette Midler cabaret show I was putting together,” Catherine says. “And he told me Steve lived just around the corner from us!”
Steve and Catherine worked together to help her channel the spirit of the vivacious red-haired songstress without ignoring Bette’s gay icon status. “He and Joanne were instrumental in getting homosexuality taken off the disability list in the early 1970s. After Joanne’s recommendation, he checked out Bette, hired her on the spot and paired her up with a young pianist, Barry Manilow.” Bette quickly became a darling of the gay world: she would throw bottles of amyl at the punters, waggle her breasts and tell lascivious jokes. Although the baths closed down a few years later, Bette’s career took off. Some 15,000 kilometres away, Catherine had taken notice and was hooked on the camp theatrics.
“I grew up watching the MGM movies, but it wasn’t until I saw ‘Beaches’ that it struck me that I hadn’t seen anyone until then who was such a force of nature. She was such a three dimensional character – she could sing, she could act and she was a comedian. “She’s not traditionally beautiful or six foot tall. The beauty of her is that she can induce tears of laughter and tears of compassion. Her diversity as an artist is what drew me to her. She’s like a beacon. She just shines.”
After attending university in the not-exactly-cultural hotbed of Wagga Wagga, she met producer and film-maker Peter Cox. The pair were out one night at cabaret joint Slide in Oxford Street circa 2007, seeing a friend’s gaudy show, ‘The Fabulous Chandeliers’. It sealed the deal for Catherine’s next career move.
“I fell in love with the art form immediately. I turned to Coxy and said I wanted to do a show like this and he said ‘who do you want to do?’ Without even thinking, I said ‘Bette Midler’.” Three weeks later, with a song list from 1970s era Bette including ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘The Rose’, the pair had a script and production had begun. The premiere was at Slide and was a change of pace for Catherine. “I’d been out of Australia for a couple of years so I was basically re-announcing myself to the industry. I invited all these agents to come see this show to see what I do.”
“Because I’d been in a vocal duo, this was the first time I’d ever done the talking instead of just harmonising. I was terrified! I never went off the script in that first incarnation. No agents came to see it. But the show kept selling out so we kept doing it and this machine was born. The beauty of cabaret is you never know what to expect and you’re invited into a piece of intimacy essentially. There’s never a fourth wall in cabaret. I interact with the audience and take the piss any chance that I get. I get away with anything under the Bette umbrella and the harder I go the more they love it.”
‘The Divine Miss Bette’ Plays Redland Performing Arts Centre 12 August.