The English Dearly Love a Duke, but It Took Barry Manilow to Lure 40,000 to Blenheim Palace

updated 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the First Duke of Marlborough defeated the French at the Battle of Blenheim, Bavaria in 1704, how could he know he was setting the stage for a Barry Manilow concert? The Duke's royal reward for the victory was 11,000 sylvan acres 65 miles northwest of London and the cash to build a spectacular 200-room residence, Blenheim Palace. Last week Manilow played the palace to the largest audience of his career, 40,000 fanatics, as well as to the relieved delight of Blenheim's current owner, the 11th Duke of Marlborough, 57. The Duke admitted that he wasn't exactly sure what he was getting into when he agreed to rent the grounds to Manilow for the day: "My wife had a tape of his, you know, the kind you play in the car as background music." By the end of the evening, though, even the Duke professed himself a Manilow fan, converted by the music and the behavior of the crowd. "Nothing like this has ever happened at Blenheim before," he said, noting that the last big crowd had been a Conservative Party rally for distant cousin Winston Churchill in 1947. "There were 40,000 people here then too, but, naturally, it was an older type of audience."

Barry's crowd was mostly female, mostly in its teens, 20s and 30s, and mostly dotty about the American Sultan of Swoon. His British audience may be his most fervent: Last year more than half a million people applied for the 21,500 seats available for five Manilow concerts at Royal Albert Hall. His local fan club of 17,000 is outnumbered only by Elvis' British faithful. At Blenheim, early birds endured half-mile-long queues to get choice seats, scooped up "Smile Barry Style" T-shirts, and posed for snapshots with life-size Manilow cutouts.

The only split in the ranks was a question that has puzzled pop-culture theorists for years: Is Barry Manilow a sex symbol? Said one fan club official, "What people love first about Barry is his music. Then they learn to love the man. His sex appeal is part of that love." Suzanne Smith, 22, of Nottingham observed, "He says he has no sex appeal, but you can't really go by looks anyway."

Unsubtly, Manilow made the most of his own non-Hollywood visage when he finally pranced onstage, bumping and grinding, at sunset. As profiles of his nose flashed on two giant video screens, he noted, "Men who have big noses have big...hearts." He teased about wanting to shed his clothes and about the pointed thrill of '50s brassieres. After rewarding a fan who joined him onstage with an "I Sang With Barry Manilow" T-shirt, he snickered, "I've got T-shirts that say I did a lot of other things with Barry Manilow, too."

During the two-hour, 20-minute show, the audience clapped and sang along. An encore of Hot Tonight closed the concert on the perfect frenzied note. "Barry's changed since I saw him last year," wondered a fan surprised by his improbable posturing. "But I'll take him like this anytime. It was worth all the waiting and pushing."

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