Friday, June 14, 2024

Bette Midler is the Oldest Dolly Levi Ever in “Hello, Dolly!” By Several Years– Including Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey and Ruth Gordon


Bette Midler opens tonight in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway. This isn’t a review because there are no press seats except for the main reviewers. A lot of regular theater press has been offered the chance to buy tickets. Midler is doing no press, either. Why bother? They have a $40 million advance. She’s being paid around $100,000 a week, plus is probably getting a cut of the net take. For that kind of dough the former Divine Miss M doesn’t have to answer a single question except “Where’s the deposit slip?”

There’s no red carpet tonight, either, in keeping with producer Scott Rudin’s pattern of eschewing opening nights. There’ll be a big party at the New York Public Library, but Bette won’t stay very long. She needs her rest!  According to reports she’s suffering from vocal problems and exhaustion.

That’s because Midler is 71 years old. Ruth Gordon was 59 in 1955 when she played Dolly in Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker” on Broadway. When Carol Channing invented the musical role in 1964, she was only 43. When she last performed the role in 1995, Channing was a little older than Midler– 74– but she knew it by heart. Channing (now 96!) still managed to make 111 performances during that last run. And no one filled in for her on matinees. (Donna Murphy is doing that for Midler.)

When Channing vacated Dolly in 1967, Pearl Bailey took over. She was only 55 when she took the role for three years until 1970.

That’s when Ethel Merman arrived. Merman, born in 1908, was just 62 when she became Dolly. That’s still 8 years younger than Midler. (I know, you’re thinking we thought these ladies were old then. They weren’t!)

Dolly Levi is not supposed to be carrying an AARP card. So the matinees may be the way to go since Donna Murphy recently turned 58. David Hyde Pierce, who’s playing Horace vanDerGelder? He’s also 58. (And let’s not forget Barbra Streisand was only 27 when she did the movie– way too young!)

When she was young, no one had more energy than Bette Midler. Her stage shows were like Broadway productions. She climbed out of clam shells and so on. But all that was in the late 1970s and early 80s– 40 years ago. Midler was just in her 30s. Time flies. The wind is beneath our wings! Still, the funniest moment ever on the Grammys was when Bette appeared wearing a 45 rpm single in her hair. Those were the days!

PS Louis Armstrong was only 63 when he had his chart topping hit (seven weeks at number 1) with “Hello, Dolly!”) in 1964.


Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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