Thursday, April 19, 2007

Kitty Carlisle, 1910 - 2007


I just learned that Kitty Carlisle died this week. Wow, what a life she had. Born into a family of German Jewish ancestry in New Orleans, her father died when she was only ten. Her mother escorted her to Europe in 1921 with the intentions of marrying her off Grace Kelly style into European royalty. When that plan didn't pan out, they stayed in Europe where Kitty received her adult education in Switzerland, London, Paris and Rome. She finally zeroed in on her acting career after being accepted into London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and also went on to train at the Theatre de l'Atelier in Paris.

She and her mother eventually returned to New York in 1932 wherein she first apprenticed with the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. She attracted notice quite early in her career. Billed as Kitty Carlisle, she found radio work and made her first appearance on the musical stage in the title role of "Rio Rita." She went on to appear in a number of operettas, including 1933's "Champagne Sec" (as Prince Orlofsky), as well as the musical comedies "White Horse Inn" (1936) and "Three Waltzes" (1937).

Her early ingénue movie career included warbling in the musical mystery Murder at the Vanities (1934), and alongside Allan Jones amidst the zany goings-on of the Marx Brothers in the classic farce A Night at the Opera (1935). She also played a love interest to Bing Crosby's in two of his lesser known musical outings Here Is My Heart (1934) and She Loves Me Not (1934).

Films were not her strong suit, however, and she returned to her theatre roots. Appearing in her first dramatic productions "French Without Tears" and "The Night of January 16th" in 1938, she went on to grace a number of chic and stylish plays and musicals throughout the 40s, including "Walk with Music (1940), "The Merry Widow" (1943, "Design for Living (1943) and "There's Always Juliet" (1944). She subsequently performed in Benjamin Britten's 1948 American premiere of "The Rape of Lucretia." In 1946, she married Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart and appeared in a number of his works including "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1949) and the Broadway musical "Anniversary Waltz" (1954). She met her husband at a dinner party given by writer Lillian Hellman. The couple had two children. He died in 1961 and she never remarried, spending much of her existing time keeping his name alive to future generations.

Many of us know Kitty Carlisle from television. She was the steadfast panelist of several quiz shows in the 1950s, it was the popular game show "To Tell the Truth" (1956) that made her a game show icon. A regular panelist for some 20 years, she appeared on each and every revamped format from its 1956 inception to its 2002 syndicated version. Known for her stately presence, infectious laugh, pouffy dark Prince Valiant hairstyle, and sweeping couture gowns on the show, audiences reveled at her effortless class to these simple parlor games. She also was a substitute panelist for other popular game shows such as "What's My Line?" and "I've Got a Secret."

In later years, she became an important society maven of New York City, an avid patron and zealous supporter of the performing arts. Appointed to various state-wide councils, she was chairman of the New York State Council of the Arts in 1976 and served in that capacity for 20 years, also serving on the boards of various New York City cultural institutions. A noted lecturer, the civic-minded Carlisle Hart was active in administrative capacities as well, notably as Chairman of Governor Rockefeller's Conference on Woman (1966) and as special consultant to the Governor on women's opportunities. At one time she wrote the column "Kitty's Calendar" for Women's Unit News.

Kitty never stopped entertaining. Making her Metropolitan debut on New Year's Eve 1966 as Prince Orlovsky in "Die Fledermaus," she joined the touring production the following year. She appeared in concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra and appeared with the Boston Opera Company at one point. She added stature to a number of summer stock plays including "Kiss Me Kate," "The Marriage-Go-Round" and her husband's "Light Up the Sky." Returning to Broadway as a replacement for Dina Merrill in the 1983 revival of "On Your Toes," she was later spotted in Woody Allen's Radio Days (1987) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993).

She penned her autobiography, Kitty, in 1984, and was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts in 1991 by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C. At the age of 95, she claimed she exercised every day, including floor exercises, the treadmill and swimming. She celebrated her 96th birthday with a gig at Michael Feinstein's New York hot spot Feinstein's at the Regency Hotel.

Her one-woman act in 2005 consisted of anecdotes about the many great men in American musical theatre history that she has known, notably George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, and Frederick Loewe, interspersed with a few of the songs that made each one famous.

1 Comments:

Blogger Melissa Marsh said...

A fascinating profile, Diane. Thanks for sharing!

10:18 AM  

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