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September 18, 2014

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The Showgirl must move on

Bette Midler’s exultant Vegas victory lap

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Bette Midler takes a bow during the final show of “The Showgirl Must Go On” at Caesars Palace Sunday, January 31, 2010.

Bette Midler's Final Performance at Caesars

Bette Midler performs during the final show of Launch slideshow »

As Bette Midler folded up her feathered fans — after singing the first verse of "Wind Beneath My Wings" to her orchestra, the next to "4,500 of my closest friends" — it felt like something more than a Vegas show was ending.

Midler began her two-year run as a headliner at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in February of 2008 — just as the toughest two years this town has seen were dawning. And as she leaves Las Vegas, it seems like a moment of star magnitude, of showbiz spectacle, of Destination Entertainment, is going with her.

"I survived!" Midler crowed, beaming as she made her Big Entrance atop a tower of Louis Vuitton luggage on Sunday night. She not only survived but thrived: At 64, she somehow looks and sounds even better than she did when she got here. (Must be that desert air.) And the show ended on a high note — I've seen The Showgirl Must Go On four times since it opened, and Midler and her crew continually revised, streamlined and improved it right up to Sunday's last bow. Filled with exultant emotion and off-the-script surprises — including drop-bys from Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Marie Osmond, Gladys Knight and Celine Dion (via ginormous video) — her victory lap was probably unbeatable.

On the final night of a show, all bets are off, and anything goes — everyone, especially the star, ready to let loose. Midler seemed energized and emotional, her hair now a blonde puff of curls that matched that of her bandleader and keyboard player Bette Sussman. She acknowledged the strange and pulverizing times" of the past couple of years. She made "Twatter" jokes. She sang "The Rose," warning the audience that we could sing along, "in the sweetest kumbaya moment — the Jews, the Christians, the gays," but only after the first verse, which was reserved for her alone. She sang "Friends," a welcome favorite from her 1972 debut album.

"Last December, I was invited to sing for the Queen of England," Midler said. "I felt very well prepared, because I've been singing for queens all my life. The Queen likes the Beatles — who knew?" Midler said, and in place of John Prine's poignant ballad "Hello In There," she introduced ukemaster Shimabukuro, who accompanied her on a lovely "In My Life," then conquered the Colosseum with a solo "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

After a saltier-than-usual string of dirty jokes told by Midler in the character of ancient showgirl Soph, Marie Osmond crossed the street after her show at the Flamingo and shared "the Mormon F-word": "Fifty."

Midler famously played out Johnny Carson, singing "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)" on the Tonight Show. And Sunday she had her own tearful Carson moment, when Gladys Knight came out at the 11th hour to serenade her with "The Way We Were."

After more than two hours, Midler graciously thanked the Colosseum's cast and crew and brought them all onstage, and the Colosseum's ushers gave Midler a "perfect attendance" award. She faked out the audience by encoring with "My Heart Will Go On" — interrupted by a video tribute from Celine Dion — before singing, inevitably, about wind and wings and unsung heroes.

Midler's arrival in Las Vegas felt personally significant to me. I was a 14-year-old gay kid in the pre-Internet suburbs, when I first heard the siren call of Midler's sighing, whispering, knowing, campy, retro-celebrating "Do You Want To Dance?" on the AM radio, and somehow I knew I was a member of a secret club. When I was agonizing about whether to take a job writing about entertainment in Las Vegas, of all places, the news that Midler was coming helped make my decision easier. Her show was the first big review I wrote for my new newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun.

I, for one, will miss her. And I can't help but wonder what's next: for Midler, for me, for Las Vegas.

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