Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tuesday Afternoon in the Theater District: Kitty Carlisle Hart Memorial at the Majestic Theatre

At noon today, we stood on a long line outside the Majestic Theatre to get into the memorial service for Kitty Carlisle Hart, singer, actress, TV personality, (extremely) longtime chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts, and an icon of Broadway and NYC life from a different era. In the 1950s and early 1960s, we used to watch her on To Tell the Truth and sometimes What's My Line? and often saw her greatest movie role, as a supporting member of the cast (the young female romantic lead, though) in the Marx Brothers' funniest movie, A Night at the Opera. Broadway-loving kids like us idolized her late husband Moss Hart, playwright, director of My Fair Lady and many other hits (and plenty of flops) and author of perhaps the most fascinating theater memoir ever, Act One, which entralled us when we read it in junior high.

We sat up in the nosebleed section of the highest balcony -- but then again, it's about the same spot we were sitting our first time in the Majestic 43 years ago, watching Sammy Davis Jr. in Golden Boy. We could tell when our family walked into the Saturday matinee, the people around us looked nervous when they spotted three boys ranging in age from 13 to 3. But we were the kind of kids that sat quietly if not silently and didn't fidget. We started taking our youngest brother Jonathan to Broadway shows and museums when he was two -- even to the show at the Hayden Planetarium, where the people in charge expected a 2-year-old would cry in the dark. But Jonathan just sat there and looked up at the Christmas "Bethlehem star" show.

We met Ms. Hart only once, at an AIDS benefit at the 92nd Street Y sponsored by the writers' organization PEN in the fall of 1987. We were introduced by our friend Gregory Kolovakos, the late great translator who worked for Kitty as head of the Literature program at the Arts Council. (Gregory was the one that told us about her relationship with almost-U.S. President Thomas E. Dewey [and he also disabused us of the notion that Elizabeth Taylor was seeing Malcolm Forbes, who preferred younger guys].) The next summer, we got a letter from her saying we'd won a $3,750 Writer-in-Residence Award at the Rockland Center for the Arts in suburban West Nyack; in the fall and winter of 1988-89 we spent several months doing creative writing workshops with schoolkids (from third to twelfth grade) in Rockland County.

Anyway, Kitty's memorial - which we're sure the New York Times will cover so we don't have to, at least not in detail - was a terrific "show" and a great sendoff. The best speakers were her son and daughter, who told great stories about their irrepressible mother, who well into her mid-90s was running circles around people one-third her age. Barbara Walters told some good stories too, and others that spoke included Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization and Mario Cuomo. Kristin Chenoweth and Michael Feinstein sang some of Kitty's songs, and they showed clips from her on the TV quiz shows, on a PBS documentary and from the movies.

Our personal favorite Kitty Carlisle song was the one she sang in Woody Allen's Radio Days, about the lack of eligible men in wartime, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old":
They're either too young, or too old,
They're either too gray or too grassy green,
The pickings are poor and the crop is lean.
What's good is in the army,
What's left will never harm me.

They're either too old or too young,
So, darling, you'll never get stung.
Tomorrow I'll go hiking with that Eagle Scout unless,
I get a call from grandpa for a snappy game of chess.

We know the feeling ourselves, but we imagine that in real life, Kitty Carlisle Hart never did.

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