“The night everyone turned against Barbra Streisand”

Streisand at International Hotel

1969 by May Mann

In the eyes of most people, everything she had done before was just a prelude to that night. Barbra had made it on stage and in films, but the nightclub scene was where she had started and where she had, as yet, failed to score big. Amazement was the reaction to the contract she had signed with the International Hotel in Las Vegas. She would be paid one million dollars!

It was a tremendous coup for the "girl from Brooklyn"and even she knew it. She had debated a long time before deciding to sign the contract, but if she had had any doubts about her ability to be a success at the International, she kept them to herself.

After all, she was a super-star. She had received world-wide acclaim for Funny Girl, in which she played the lead both on Broadway and in London. She followed that with a smashing success in the movie version of the play. Immediately after that she filmed Hello Dolly, and on its heels, On a Clear Day. Barbra Streisand was the golden girl of show business. Everything she touched turned out beautifully. So how could anyone, least of all the star herself, be worried about the International opening? What could go wrong?


“Opening night I wanted to be with my audience and what did I do? I turned them off! And they turned me off. I felt hostility coming up on the stage in waves. I worked,” she told me later, “but it was total fear time. Of course it showed.

“They thought I was a snob, but I was really just scared!”

Every advantage, every extravagance had been offered to make Barbra’s debut at the International a triumph. The night generated more excitement than has been known in that town in years. It was the official unveiling of the world’s largest and most luxurious hotel, and many very important people had accepted the near-priceless invitations. So expectations ran high; the whole town was keyed up. The International itself was not as yet quite completed, but the workers were putting on a final spurt of energy to make the multi-million dollar place ready for Barbra and the guests.

Barbra had been rehearsing for days. Her gowns had been specially designed and were rumored to be very glamorous and chic. She had found a lovely house to rent during her stay and had a comfortable homelife away from the hotel with her adorable son, Jason. To add to her happiness, Elliot Gould, her estranged husband, had called to say he would be there for Barbra’s big night. Things were going so beautifully it was impossible to imagine there could be a, hitch.

All of the 2000 seats were filled on that night. The audience had a magnificent meal and were settling down expectantly, impatient for the show to begin. Finally the lights lowered, the orchestra began the overture and a hush settled over the big room. Onto the stage she walked. The queen of the evening . . . in Levi’s and a wrinkled shirt!

Shock and cold disbelief showed on faces all around the room. Apparently Barbra had meant to put her audience at ease with her, to show them that she was just an ordinary girl at heart. Well, it didn’t work. The jokes she cracked about the unfinished condition of the hotel, rather than making the audience laugh, alienated them. They settled into a cold resentful disgust. If Dean Martin had said the things she had, everyone would have laughed. But such humor had not been expected of Streisand, and her efforts to be one with everyone had unfortunately backfired.

She began to sing, but her audience was clearly not with her. Beneath her facade of sophistication, Barbra has feelings just like the rest of us. She felt the hostility and resentment and she was scared. But Barbra is a pro, too much of a pro to show her panic. Instead, she hid her feelings, as she usually does, under a sophisticated, aloof manner, a protective insulation against hurt and criticism. As her audience froze, so, did Barbra.

She sang to perfection and no one applauded. It was embarrassing all the way around. Many people began to walk out as soon as she stole off for a brief intermission to change her costume. She came back wearing a rose pleated chiffon, about which, she said, “This was my bed spread. I just thought I’d put it on and make a costume!”

Again silence, not laughter. The harder Barbra tried for sympathy with her audience, the more reserved they became.

How could such a defeat happen to Barbra Streisand, from whom so much had been expected? Everyone in the hotel’s lobby afterwards was talking about it. The critics wrote it as it was. No one tried to save her.

“Streisand was on key and sang perfectly, but she was cold, mechanically indifferent,” said some.

Since Barbra didn’t need the Vegas engagement to add to her laurels, it was generally assumed that Barbra would walk out. Hasty arrangements were being made to replace her. Why should she stay and be insulted? She could buy up her contract! Perhaps everyone all the way around would have been happy if she had.

But they didn’t know the real Barbra. They didn’t understand her dedication, or her refusal to accept defeat on any terms!

Instead of stalking off stage that night and crying her heart out, she called meetings of her managers, read the critics, and asked what she had done wrong and how she could remedy it!

If any of the critics had just probed a little into her actions, had given her the benefit of the doubt, she would have been most grateful. No one did, though, so Barbra had to overcome the problem by herself. Give up? Not Barbra.

With her indomitable spunk and spirit Barbra simply continued. She put aside personal hurt and went into immediate rehearsals, worked most of the night and all of the next day before show time, injecting different numbers, different songs. Perhaps it was just that first-night audience that had gone wrong. That’s what she hoped, but the second night proved to be like the first. Barbra found herself put down more than ever.

Back to work she went. She rehearsed every day, and every night she did what was virtually a different show. And it paid off. After the second week people were saying Barbra was great! Some of the reviewers were invited back to see and judge the new show for themselves. Some came and were convinced, but the question still remained, “How much damage has been done?”

I flew down to Vegas for Barbra’s last performance. Once again the big room was packed. The lights dimmed, the orchestra began, the curtain rose. Again a hush fell — I held my breath wondering what would happen next. Would it go well this time? The music reached a crescendo and suddenly she appeared.

That night she was a vision in flamingo pleated chiffon. Her hair was high in curls, and a single diamond brooch sparkled on the daring neckline of the gown. Barbra smiled warmly at the audience and launched into an up-beat “Rain on My Parade.” The applause was thunderous. She stood for a moment, seeming to savor it, then she went into “People,” a plaintive melody with all its pathos. Next came “Funny Valentine,” “Second-Hand Rose,” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The audience was all hers, and it showed. Barbra loved them and they loved her. Enjoying herself, she was relaxed and happy. There was not a touch of aloofness. She had reconfirmed herself as queen, a desirable, lovely queen of song, a superb entertainer, a super-star. She was all that and more. She was what the people had expected all along. She was . . . great!

Barbra went into song after song happily, talked little, but when she did speak she was concise, witty, brief. She paid homage to the orchestra and all of those who had helped her. She gave them deep, almost to the knee, bows.

It was only at the end that she became pleasantly, and femininely, flustered. She was lovable, almost in a little-girl way, when she said, “I want to introduce someone who is . . .” and she stammered, “who is, well, you see him on television and you hear him on records and . . .” she looked up, “well, Elvis Presley!”

Elvis rose, smiling, to take a bow.

Then Barbra said, “Elvis, you will be up here in my place tomorrow night and you’ll love it, just as I do. Tonight, and many of the nights here, have been pure joy for me.”

There was no rancor—no mention of her horrible ordeal in the beginning. Barbra was exhibiting Grade A sportsmanship.

Barbra walked off after three standing ovations. People had been applauding all night. And with this music ringing in her ears, she knew that her professionalism had paid off. She had not backed away from a fight. Barbra had chosen to win, and win she had.

This, however, is not the first ordeal Barbra has experienced in her fantastic career. At 19 she became a hit in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, her first big step up with great reviews. She fell in love with Elliot Gould, married him, and then the problems of her career out-distancing his began. There were the separations when his jobs were in New York and Barbra was brought to Los Angeles for an opening at the Cocoanut Grove. I remember her West Coast debut there. She wore a simple dress and sang her heart out. Later, at the party honoring her, we talked briefly. She dared to be different, to be herself. While everyone wore heavily beaded costly gowns, Barbra wore a candy-striped gingham. She was simple, direct and honest.

Next came Lake Tahoe. The new star was introduced opening night at Harrahs. She was sharing double billing with Liberace.

During the first show, the owner, sitting with Barbra’s manager said, “She is good, but she’s not for us. She’s too sophisticated. I'm sorry, but the people here won’t like her.”

Why? She was a big hit at the Cocoanut Grove! And she’s going to star in Funny Girl, her managers argued. It was a ter-rible moment. Was Barbra going to be cancelled before she opened? How could anyone face such humiliation?

The owner, sympathetic with her plight said, “Well, then it will be Liberace’s show. She can be introduced by Liberace, come on and sing three numbers. No more!”

When Barbra was told the news, she hit the ceiling! But her intuitive professionalism held her then just as it had held her now. She stayed on, and she did just what they asked.

Her talent, coupled with this tremendous dedication, makes Barbra a super-star. She will be one for many years!

Alex Shoofey, President of the International, invited most of the stars in Las Vegas to an elaborate party he gave for Barbra at 2:30 a.m. after her closing. As the stars from the other hotels began arriving, it began to look like Barbra, the guest of honor, wasn’t going to show. Many made bets she wouldn’t show for her own party. They didn’t reckon with Barbra’s personal integrity.

A most fabulous buffet was arrayed on well-appointed and handsomely decorated tables. Mr. Shoofey welcomed the guests.

An hour and a half passed but no Barbra. Everyone began to relax and enjoy themselves, convinced she wouldn’t show.

But they were wrong! Show Barbra did. She wore a little white plastic rain hat and jacket with pants. She was relaxed and comfortable. And she snuggled close to her escort, Peter Matz.

I went over to say hello, and, though Barbra was polite, I could sense a certain wariness. A wariness which perhaps springs from having trusted and having been rewarded with hurt.

“I had forgotten how scared I can be,” she confided. “I have been making movies all this while. I haven’t appeared before a live audience in so long. I had forgotten how scared I get.”

Barbra continued earnestly, “I have never really enjoyed performing before strangers who are sitting there waiting to pick me to pieces. I am too vulnerable to unfair criticism. It hurts. After all,” she looked deep into my eyes, “I’m human, you know.

“In the beginning, instead of showing fear, I used to be able to use fantasy. The girl out there wasn’t really me, and the audience was filled with people who loved me and thought I was just right. And they were cheering for me, helping me.

“Today I am too aware of reality; I don’t enjoy performing before a live audience any more. It is too real, too unsympathetic. It can be too unkind.”

Feeling the way she does, would Barbra return to the International?

“I signed a four-year contract with the hotel. I shall honor it.”

How does she feel about films? She has had such great success with them.

“I love making pictures. If it isn’t right the way you do it the first time, it can be done over until it is just perfect. I enjoy making films. I intend to stick to that medium.

“I don’t want the nightclub touring away from home either. I want the real life. I enjoy my home. It might shake up a lot of people—but I can really enjoy scrubbing my pantry, cleaning out my refrigerator and filling it with food from the market, where I do my own shopping. I enjoy cooking dinner and having close friends in. Most of all, I enjoy taking my little son to the play park, talking with the other mothers who have little sons, and discussing what is best for little growing boys.”

My face must have shown surprise. It certainly was a different Barbra from the one the world knows. She read my thoughts and laughed.

“I am not an exhibitionist; I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert! I used to, in the beginning, dare myself to make myself do things—so I wouldn’t be a weak character!

“I care about my life, my son, my family, my mind, my body and my home. And I care about all of these far more than I do about money and a career. If I can be happy with a career, and it comes along and doesn’t interfere with the real things that make me a happy woman, I’ll go along. I shall never turn into a dedicated career machine. I want to stay a woman who his loved and who loves in return.”

Yes, Barbra learned a great deal from her ordeal at the International. And for this reason she is thankful. The performing world should be thankful as well, however, because they learned a great deal, too. They learned what it means to be a star, in the real sense: to go on shining brightly no matter what trouble comes your way. They learned that a star of such a high calibre has an obligation to the audience for which it performs. Temper tantrums and pouting sessions have no place in the world of a true professional.

Barbra certainly proved that.


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