Christmas Eve. Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. 1976. Lorraine Lipman is going to see A Star Is Born with seven friends and asks her 14-year-old daughter, Robin, if she'd like to come. ''What else does a Jewish kid do on Christmas Eve?'' Robin now recalls, flashing a smile that dimples her cheeks and squints up her eyes. ''As soon as I saw Barbra Streisand's face on the screen, I was blown away.'' Her expression turns deadly serious. ''My whole life changed that night.''
Lipman went to see the movie again. And again. And again. 163 times, in fact. As soon as school ended for the day, she would hop on the bus and head to the theater. Every weekend, she'd catch screenings from morning until night. She wore out and replaced the soundtrack album three times, weeping through each listen, leaving tearstains all over the record covers. ''That was when I decided I'm going to save every penny for the rest of my life for a Barbra Fund,'' she says. ''I saved every birthday present, every Hanukkah present. I sold all my jewelry. I got extra jobs. I'm so glad I had the foresight to start that back when I was 14.''
Today, 30 years later, Lipman is holding court on a pillowy beige couch in the Boca Raton, Fla., home of fellow fan John MacEachron, where around 50 devout Barbraphiles have gathered at a brunch celebrating the Florida stops on Streisand's 16-city tour. While two acolytes belt out the Yentl soundtrack (''Why is it that every time I close my eyes he's there?'') on a portable karaoke machine in the bedroom, a bunch are admiring MacEachron's vast videotape collection, and even more are packed in a small den debating the finer notes of Streisand's early-'70s TV guest appearances. As four amazed guests look on, Lipman flips page by page through her ''Six Degrees of Barbra Streisand'' scrapbook: a 250-plus-page photo album bulging with pictures of people and places somehow connected to her idol. Chris O'Donnell? ''Almost was Bernard,'' the caption reads, a reference to the Prince of Tides role that ultimately went to Streisand's son, Jason Gould. Starbucks? ''Where Barbra gets her coffee in Malibu.'' Bill Clinton? ''F.O.B.''
''She's like a stalker,'' dismissively whispers one onlooker, who then goes on to describe her own extensive collection of Streisand's garbage. (Yes, bags of trash, including a torn-up 1983 letter in which Streisand fires an employee.) Others, like Joanna Gilsenan, a peppy 24-year-old newlywed who flew in from Manchester, England, with her husband, Martin (not a fan, he stagnates in the kitchen), are in awe. ''I don't have the infinite knowledge some of these people have,'' she says. ''I just know that before the show last night, this wave of panic hit me. I was going to see Barbra. I felt ill.''
For these ardent admirers, loving Streisand is a singularly sublime experience. They are, as they see it, the luckiest people in the world, happy not just to shell out $750 for a concert ticket, but to construct their entire lives around her career. In the realm of Madonna maniacs and Phish fanatics, Streisand's faithful seem to hold a uniquely obsessive spot. ''A lot of people have been fans since the '60s and '70s,'' says Allison J. Waldman, author of the 2001 collection The Barbra Streisand Scrapbook, who is making a documentary, Let Go and Let Barbra, with fellow bruncher Angelo Guglielmo Jr. about the most loyal of followers. ''Other singers have come and gone, but Barbra, she's a survivor. A lot of Barbra fans feel like they've stuck with her through thick and thin, and they're not stopping now.''
Just look at Rosie O'Donnell, who can't remember a time when she didn't worship Streisand...and says the sole reason she went into show business was to become friends with her. ''It's not as though this is an entertainer that people like, and so they put a poster up of her,'' says O'Donnell, who is making a fan documentary of her own (Stalking Streisand). ''She has a gift that has been bestowed on few individuals. I think she's got a direct connection with the Light, or whatever you want to call it the Source, or God. She's definitely channeling something. She's a huge satellite dish.''
As the sun sets a few hours before Streisand's Oct. 30 Fort Lauderdale concert, the plaza in front of the sold-out Bank-Atlantic Center has the spirited vibe of a Grateful Dead show. Occasional loners pace with one finger raised in the air, hoping for a miracle ticket, while a group of fans discuss their dream set lists. But instead of dreadlocked crusties, these early arrivers are seven senior canasta buddies who've carpooled over from the Cascades, a gated adult community in Boynton Beach, Fla. Nearby, Barbara Jaramillo, 57, who recently underwent heart surgery, tries to bond with an excited elderly couple. She sits on a bench, stroking a palm tree necklace around her neck, and starts to get verklemmt. ''I've been waiting 40 years to see her in person,'' she says, clutching a white handkerchief she brought along for when the tears really start to flow. ''When I found out she was doing another tour, I said, 'I don't care what I have to do. I'm going to be there.' And now I'm jumping out of my skin.''
Finally it's showtime, and Streisand appears on a round platform raised from below, lifted into a flood of flattering light. During the two-and-a-half-hour show, she expertly works all sides of the rose-filled stage. The crowd loves it, tittering appreciatively when she jokes about a ''senior moment'' and letting out a whoosh of ahhhs when Streisand starts humming the first few notes of ''The Way We Were.''
One of the Boca brunchers, Todd Sussman (who had impressed his fellow noshers with an extensive knowledge of past tour merchandise), now sits in the fifth row, taking copious notes about each song for a column (''Todd's Corner'') he writes in a Streisand fan newsletter called All About Barbra. He springs up at the end of each song as if someone had just sprinkled tacks on his chair, and he is stunned speechless when a woman behind him admits she came to see guest artists Il Divo, not Barbra.
At one point, Streisand introduces Linda Richman Mike Myers' ex-mother-in-law, who inspired his classic ''Coffee Talk'' Saturday Night Live sketches from the stage, and heads crane to catch a glimpse. (In other cities, actual celebrities have shown up, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Robert De Niro, and Oprah.) ''It's sick how much I love her,'' Richman gushes during the intermission. ''I play her in the car. I play her at home. The voice keeps getting better. The body keeps getting more voluptuous.'' Her only complaint? ''In '94 I got tickets for free. Ever since my daughter divorced [Myers], the perks really have dried up.''
Later, after the lights dim and Streisand strolls out for the second set, this lovefest briefly comes to a screeching halt, courtesy of a now-famous incident featuring a plastic cup filled with ice and maybe some liquid. Streisand brings George Bush impersonator Steve Bridges on stage for a presidential mock session, and a heckler throws said offending item at the singer. ''Treyf,'' Streisand snips, using the Yiddish word for unkosher food, as she throws the cup off stage. From across the theater, another man repeatedly yells, ''You're a bitch, Barbra!'' and ''Four more years!'' until three burly security guards drag the squirming, screaming disrupter out. ''Just buy my records,'' Streisand yells back. ''Don't see me live!''
Barbra would later claim the ice incident was not politically motivated, but rather the result of a guy having a fight with his girlfriend. Whether or not you buy this, some audience members clearly were put off by the sketch. ''It's wrong to bash our president under any circumstances,'' says Dr. Paula Stewart, a dentist responsible for whitening the teeth of Il Divo, speaking a few days later. ''I prefer her as an entertainer, as opposed to being held hostage to hear her political views. Nobody wants to hear that crap.'' But many others couldn't agree less. ''It's the artist's job to provoke,'' says Rosie O'Donnell. ''She's real. She's up there. And she's pissed.''
On the day before Streisand's Nov. 2 show at Atlanta's Philips Arena, Edmund La Fosse, 53, woke up at 5 a.m., consumed by the knowledge that Barbra could be here, on his home turf, right now. He flipped on the news, expecting a lead story about where the star was staying or what she was doing. ''I thought the anchor would say, 'Streisand hits Atlanta!''' he says the following morning in his cozy condo. ''That's where my head is at right now.''
His arms covered in tattoos of skulls, one punctured by a blood-dripping blade, La Fosse doesn't look like a typical Streisand disciple. In his bedroom are framed pictures from his time as a principal dancer in Eliot Feld's ballet company and a silk-screen signed ''To Edmund, Happy Birthday, Andy Warhol.'' ''From my Studio 54 days,'' La Fosse says affably, referring to life before the past 18 sober years.
With the concert nine hours away, La Fosse is hanging out with Robin Lipman, who flew up last night to crash at his pad. Lipman and La Fosse have been friends since they met at a Streisand convention more than 20 years ago. Today, the two explore his living room like a couple of archaeologists unearthing holy ruins. There are life-size cutouts of the star from store window displays, the red chandelier earrings and blond hairpiece from the 1966 TV special Color Me Barbra, and Yentl stickers that Lipman boasts she bought for 39 cents at a drugstore back in 1983. Lipman doesn't even blink at the collection's oddest piece: a pinecone from the grounds of the singer's estate that sits alongside its ''Streisand Center Certificate of Authenticity.'' Maybe it's because at home she displays a piece of Streisand's house that fell off during an earthquake and a bottle of water from the pool of Streisand's former Malibu mansion.
La Fosse looks up at the electronic billboard he's programmed to continuously flash his seat assignment for tonight's show (he has just spent nearly $800 on a front-row ticket, which means he'll have to sell the merely decent one he bought months ago). ''I'll see any movie she's in,'' he says. ''I'll buy anything she does. She can't go wrong. I've never felt this way about any other performer. And I've met Liza. I've met Baryshnikov. I've met Madonna.''
Before the concert, the two cruise around Atlanta, driving past the Ritz-Carlton hoping for a Streisand sighting (no luck) and stopping by a favorite chicken-and-waffle joint in case their girl grabs some preshow eats (nope). Though La Fosse can't afford the airfare and hotel costs to attend more shows, Lipman will have a couple other chances for a run-in when she flies to the Las Vegas and Los Angeles concerts. Her Barbra Fund is ''down to pennies'' after she purchased tickets and airfare for 10 of the 20 stops on this tour. But while she's been to 23 concerts over the years, she's never managed to meet her idol. ''I don't even know what I would do if I met her,'' Lipman says. ''I'd have to tell her what she's meant to my life. She gives me the most pleasure of anything I've ever known.''
That night, the audience is intoxicated by Streisand, especially when she tells a heartwarming story about being pregnant the last time she performed in Atlanta, in 1966. They cheer supportively when she stumbles after part of the set she's leaning on breaks. During a second encore, she dedicates the song ''Smile'' to her white poodle, Samantha or as Streisand describes her, "a person [covered] with hair.'' La Fosse soaks it all up from the front row, eight seats down from John Travolta and Kelly Preston, gazing upward as if to take Communion. ''It was the night of my life the word I am going to use is GENIUS,'' La Fosse e-mails a few days later, still coming down from the experience. ''My friends,'' he says, ''know not to call me a month before the show or a few weeks after. I need some time alone to process the experience. It takes me a while to absorb it.''
The morning after the Atlanta show, Lipman rents a car and drives five hours southeast, hoping to visit the South Carolina locations where Streisand filmed The Prince of Tides. It takes an hour of getting lost on various bridges before Lipman finds the spot where she can recite Nick Nolte's ''Lowenstein...Lowenstein'' line. She has someone take her picture in the house that Streisand rented during the shoot and snaps some self-portraits in the car's rearview mirror. These pictures will be added to her already extensive collection of reenacted scenes from Streisand's movies. Except Yentl. So far the Barbra Fund hasn't covered trips to the Czech Republic.
Eventually Lipman is back home in Coral Springs, Fla., counting the days until she leaves for Las Vegas. At first, she had worried that her boss at the elementary school where she works in administration might deny her request for 13 vacation days. In the end, he okayed the time off, but if he hadn't, Lipman knows her priorities. ''There's always another job,'' she shrugs. But not always another Barbra concert, unfortunately; this tour ends in Los Angeles on Nov. 20. ''I'm going to be so depressed,'' she says. ''I'm going to go crazy without something to live for.'' Of course, there are rumors brewing of a European tour in 2007. ''I've been waiting my whole life to go to Europe,'' says Lipman, her voice speeding up, giddy at the prospect. ''And now, finally, I'll have a reason to get a passport.''