Three cheers for Barry Manilow. They’ve got his Vegas show featured on PBS now. It’s aired about forty times in the past week and it’s one of those fundraising oddities that gets you hooked from the first accidental surfing stop.
And consider this: the show is a permanent fixture at the Las Vegas Hilton, the hotel that Elvis Presley built, in the main showroom, the showroom that Elvis owned, the room Wayne Newton took over.
It’s a big year for Barry Manilow. He even had his first Number One album a few weeks ago. So today’s feature in the L.A. Times promised to be a clear-eyed view of a long public life, and a chance to finally address the elephant that stomps into the room every time Manilow appears on the family TV screen.
This would surely be Barry Manilow's Johnny Mathis NY Times moment: the platform for him to sing “I Am What I Am.”
Instead, the article drops hints like Hansel & Gretel breadcrumbs along the way, before dissolving into a Soviet-style whitewash of history.
Grab the Calendar section and read along.
The article opens big: Manilow arriving at the airport in his Mercedes after a show so he can sleep in his own bed in Palm Springs.
It leads us on, describing, how in the 1980s, ”…Manilow shifted, through age and necessity, to a stage presence more like Liza Minnelli.”
The writer describes Manilow's appearance when first arriving on the charts in 1974 as "lanky and almost girlish with his doe eyes and blond tresses."
Then a real tease: Manilow praises Liberace and the writer posits: "Manilow questioning the cultural heft of Liberace might invite thoughts of how much in common they share."
The writer then throws in another hint with a reference to outed American Idol star Clay Aiken: ”How far off could Clay Aiken be from Manilow's musical core?”
Then we get into the backstory of little Barry Pincus. And here, the article goes haywire, jumping from his youth to ad jingle career to his first solo album-- skipping his most creative period, and the time when music aficionados first heard of him—his long and historic stint as Bette Midler’s musical director, arranger, producer-- and onstage pianist, the man who led the band when Bette played gay joints like New York City’s now infamous Continental Baths.
No mention of the Baths. No mention of Bette (even though Manilow recently troubled the charts when he produced her 2003 Rosemary Clooney and 2005 Peggy Lee tribute albums).
There’s even a history sidebar accompanying the article that washes away this part of Barry’s past, which has been airbrushed and mainstreamed, and in lines like the one describing the 1974 Barry Manilow as a ”a Shaun Cassidy look-alike behind a baby grand," deliberately twisted.
Barry Manilow did not emerge unknown as a jingle writer-turned pop star. He was Bette Midler’s boy. He shared the stage in a sell-out Carnegie Hall performance in 1972. He co-produced and arranged the breakthrough Grammy-winning The Divine Miss M. After lots of publicity with Midler, he got a deal on Bell Records (later Clive Davis’ Arista) along with former Midler Harlette Melissa Manchester. People knew who he was. This was the disco era.
In the sad fallout of Brokeback Mountain’s Oscar loss, this surprise focus on Barry Manilow seemed one small way to right some wrongs. At his age, with his obvious financial security, and with newlywed-to-a-man Elton John tinkling his ivories a few blocks away in Vegas, it seemed the perfect moment for Barry to nonchalantly acknowledge his sexuality, as Johnny Mathis did in the New York Times more than a decade ago.
Instead, it was a nudge-nudge, wink-wink set-up with no payoff.
Strange. One of the hallmarks of the LA Times Calendar-music Hilburn era was a wide-eyed hero worship and lack of cynicism that seemed too small-town, or at least disingenuous, for a major newspaper, especially one in an industry town.
Today's prominent puff piece is just plain weird. At this late stage in the newspaper game, the days of “reading between the lines” is a little bit dated. We wonder if it has anything to do with the L.A. Times’ bulked-up Las Vegas section and a conscious effort to cast Manilow as mainstream and Middle American as the folks who fill the Hilton's showroom.
Did the advertisers have anything to do with the editing?