Ol’ Red Hair Is Back (1977)

Ol’ Red Hair Is Back (1977)

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In 1977, Midler’s first television special, whose title, Ol’ Red Hair is Back, was a takeoff on Frank Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, premiered, featuring guest stars Dustin Hoffman and Emmett Kelly. It went on to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Special — Comedy-Variety or Music.

NBC gave Bette Midler the opportunity to host her first television special. Putting someone as bawdy and raucous as Midler in the highly controlled standards-and-practices world of network TV was the equivalent of putting a size ten foot into a size nine shoe, and “Ol’ Red Hair is Back” could easily be summarized as “Bette Midler Lite.”

The majority of this one-hour special was basically an abbreviated, bowdlerized version of Midler’s wacky stage show. The energy was there, but the cheerful vulgarity that was Midler’s trademark was kept a low-level risque pitch – the sentiment was strictly naughty PG-rated, not raw R-rated. However, Midler offered more than a few unexpected surprises that kept her program on an eccentric edge.

For starters, “Ol’ Red Hair is Back” opens with one of the most wonderfully bizarre musical numbers ever put on television. A group of native Hawaiians in a beachfront setting bring a giant clam ashore. The clam is opened and out pops Midler, in a Las Vegas version of a Hawaiian sarong, who begins singing “Oklahoma!” Incredibly, the Hawaiians join in a hula chorus line to this out-of-place tune. When the song is over, Midler returns to the clam and takes one of the buff hula boys with her.

The remainder of the special never quite matches that lunatic moment, but there is enough oddity to spare. Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced circus clown, shows up to perform his fabled routine of using a broom to sweep the illumination from a spotlight. He sweeps the light up Midler’s figure, at which point the singer launches into her hit tune “Friends.” Kelly returns later for a weird number that finds him sitting in sadness on a bench while Midler croons “Hello In There.” That John Prine-penned song, with its poignant plea to consider the loneliness of the aged, is given a haunting rendition by Midler – but it makes no sense having her sing that to a clown, even if the clown. Kelly turns up at the end of the show to reprise his broom routine, this time handing it over to Midler as she sweeps the spotlight’s beam.

Somewhat more intriguing was Midler’s good fortune to snag Dustin Hoffman as her other guest star. Hoffman, who rarely showed up on TV during the 1970s, offers a surprisingly subtle display of piano playing skills. Midler and Hoffman perform “Shoot the Breeze,” a tune they wrote together (Hoffman created the melody, Midler the lyrics). It is not a good song, by any stretch, but the performers have a pleasant rapport. That number is capped by a genuinely funny sketch where Hoffman plays a Rachmaninoff prelude while Midler strips him of his street clothing and dresses him in a formal tuxedo.

Beyond that, the show is strictly Midler’s stage act, complete with a studio audience that constantly breaks into applause. With her Harlettes offering song and dance support, Midler sails through her popular songs including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Shiver Me Timbers” and “Do You Want to Dance?” One genuinely surprising number finds her performing an English version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” while dressed in a stunning crimson gown (courtesy of Bob Mackie’s stitchery brilliance).

Oddly, the special was used to promote Midler’s album “Broken Blossom,” which was just arriving in stores. “La Vie en Rose” was the only song from that album used on this show; neither the album nor that song made any impact on the charts.

“Ol’ Red Hair is Back” is a curious endeavor. As a singer and dancer, Midler puts in herself into frenetic overdrive and barrels through her musical numbers like a runaway train. But things slow down between her numbers, where she provides a toned-down version of her comic shtick. The most daring part of her appearance comes when she cups her hands beneath her breasts and dubs them “the twin deities of truth and beauty.” Otherwise, she aims slight but snide digs at the goodie-two-shoes personas of Marie Osmond and Dorothy Hamill, imagines the shock of viewers tuning in and not knowing who she is, and presents a rambling monologue about encountering an obese woman wearing a fried egg on her balding head.

Any Midler fan watching this cannot help but rue that Midler is holding back with “Ol’ Red Hair is Back.” Even Midler herself semi-acknowledges her restricted settings, facetiously claiming her her presence on NBC signals the downfall of American moral decency. But then, she offers a show that is so tame that kiddies and grandmothers could watch it without any degree of discomfort. In fact, the show was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union – not exactly a bunch of rebel rousers, eh?

Still, enough people were comfortable enough with “Ol’ Red Hair is Back” during its broadcast on December 7, 1977. It did well in the ratings and went on to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Special and Best Tape Sound Mixing (there’s an Emmy for that?). The show also received a nomination for Writing for a Comedy-Variety or Musical, but that Emmy went to “The Paul Simon Special.”

As far as I know, “Ol’ Red Hair is Back” was only broadcast once on NBC. I don’t know if it was ever rebroadcast on another network or screened as part of a retrospective of Midler’s work. There has never been a commercial home entertainment release of this title, and I don’t believe any effort is being made to bring it back.

However, several prescient souls who owned Betamax machines videotaped the show during its only broadcast, and today’s bootlegs originate from there. The source of my bootleg copy is a fella in New Jersey who told me this amusing anecdote: “I remember recording it on a stormy night. In fact, there was a nasty thunderstorm. At one point in the broadcast, NBC lost their high-quality ‘network feed’ and switched to their ‘back-up’ copy, which they ran in sync, just in case of trouble. It happened during a commercial. You can see and hear a glitch and a color shift at 33:46 (on the DVD), when they switched back to the network link.”

Is this title worth seeking out? For Midler’s fans, the answer is yes – a subdued Midler is better than nothing, and this special could’ve easily been lost. Even if “Ol’ Red Hair is Back” doesn’t present her at full-throttle, it is an amusing diversion that offers a happy sampling of what the Divine Miss M is capable of performing.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!