Friday, March 25, 2011

Eartha Kitt

























Eartha Mae Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008) was an American actress, singer and cabaret star. She was perhaps best known for her highly distinctive singing style and her 1953 hit Christmas song "Santa Baby". Orson Welles once called her the "most exciting woman in the world." She took over the role of Catwoman for the third season of the 1960s Batman television series, replacing Julie Newmar, who was unavailable for the final season. She also was famous for being the voice of Yzma in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove as well as its sequel and TV series.

Early years

Kitt was born on a cotton plantation in the town of North, South Carolina, a small town in Orangeburg County near Columbia, South Carolina. Kitt's mother was of Cherokee and African-American descent and her father of German or Dutch descent. Kitt was conceived by rape.
Kitt was raised by Anna Mae Riley, an African-American woman whom she believed to be her mother. Anna Mae went to live with a black man when Eartha was 8. He refused to accept Kitt because of her relatively pale complexion. Kitt lived with another family until Riley's death. She was then sent to live in New York City with Mamie Kitt, who she learned was her biological mother; she had no knowledge of her father, except that his surname was Kitt and that he was supposedly a son of the owner of the farm where she had been born. Newspaper obituaries state that her white father was "a poor cotton farmer."

Career


Photo of Kitt by Carl Van Vechten, October 1952
Kitt began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company in 1943 and remained a member of the troupe until 1948. A talented singer with a distinctive voice, her hits include "Let's Do It", "Champagne Taste", "C'est si bon", "Just an Old Fashioned Girl", "Monotonous", "Je cherche un homme", "Love for Sale", "I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch", "Uskudar'a Gideriken", "Mink, Schmink", "Under the Bridges of Paris", and her most recognizable hit, "Santa Baby", which was released in 1953. Kitt's unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in the French language during her years performing in Europe. Her English-speaking performances always seemed to be enriched by a soft French feel. She had some skill in other languages too, as she spoke four languages and sang in seven, which she effortlessly demonstrated in many of the live recordings of her cabaret performances.

Career peaks

In 1950, Orson Welles gave Kitt her first starring role, as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr. Faustus. A few years later, she was cast in the revue New Faces of 1952 introducing Monotonous and Bal, Petit Bal, two songs with which she continues to be identified. In 1954, 20th Century Fox filmed a version of the revue simply titled New Faces, in which she performed "Monotonous", "Uska Dara" and "C'est si bon". Though it is often alleged that Welles and Kitt had an affair during her 1957 run in Shinbone Alley, Kitt categorically denied this in a June 2001 interview with George Wayne of Vanity Fair. "I never had sex with Orson Welles," Kitt told Vanity Fair, "It was a working situation and nothing else". Her other films in the 1950s included The Mark of the Hawk (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958) and Anna Lucasta (1959).
Throughout the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s, Kitt would record, work in film, television and nightclubs, and return to the Broadway stage in "Mrs. Patterson" during the 1954-55 season, "Shinbone Alley" in 1957, and the short-lived "Jolly's Progress" in 1959. In 1964, Kitt helped open the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California. Also in the 1960s, the television series Batman featured her as Catwoman after Julie Newmar left the role.

Anti-War Controversy

In 1968, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kitt encountered a substantial professional setback after she made anti-war statements during a White House luncheon. Kitt was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot." During a question and answer session, Ms. Kitt stated "The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise children and send them to war.” Her remarks reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt's career. The public reaction to Kitt's statements was extreme, both pro and con. Publicly ostracized in the US, she devoted her energies to performances in Europe and Asia.

Broadway

During that time, cultural references to her grew, including outside the United States, such as the well-known Monty Python sketch "The Cycling Tour", where an amnesiac believes he is first Clodagh Rodgers, then Trotsky and finally Kitt (while performing to an enthusiastic crowd in Moscow). She returned to New York in a triumphant turn in the Broadway spectacle Timbuktu! (a version of the perennial Kismet set in Africa) in 1978. In the musical, one song gives a "recipe" for mahoun, a preparation of cannabis, in which her sultry purring rendition of the refrain "constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon" was distinctive.

Later years


Eartha Kitt in concert, 2007
In 1978, Kitt did the voice-over in a TV commercial for the album Aja by the rock group Steely Dan. She wrote three autobiographies — Thursday's Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976) and I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989).
In 1984, she returned to the music charts with a disco song, "Where Is My Man", the first certified gold record of her career. "Where Is My Man" reached the Top 40 on the UK Singles Chart, where it peaked at #36; The song also made the Top 10 on the US Billboard dance chart, where it reached #7. The single was followed by the album I Love Men on the Record Shack label. Kitt found new audiences in nightclubs across the UK and the US, including a whole new generation of gay male fans, and she responded by frequently giving benefit performances in support of HIV/AIDS organizations. Kitt appeared with Jimmy James and George Burns at a fundraiser in 1990 produced by Scott Sherman, Agent from The Atlantic Entertainment Group. It was arranged that James would impersonate Kitt and then Kitt would walk out to take the microphone. This was met with a standing ovation. Her 1989 follow-up hit "Cha-Cha Heels" (featuring Bronski Beat), which was originally intended to be recorded by Divine, received a positive response from UK dance clubs and reached #32 in the charts in that country.
In 1992, Kitt had a supporting role as Lady Eloise in the film Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy. In the late 1990s, she appeared as the Wicked Witch of the West in the North American national touring company of The Wizard of Oz. In November 1996, she appeared on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy. In 2000, Kitt again returned to Broadway in the short-lived run of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. Beginning in late 2000, she starred as the Fairy Godmother in the US national tour of Cinderella alongside Deborah Gibson and then Jamie-Lynn Sigler. In 2003, she replaced Chita Rivera in Nine. She reprised her role as the Fairy Godmother at a special engagement of Cinderella, which took place at Lincoln Center during the holiday season of 2004.
One of her more unusual roles was as Kaa the python in a 1994 BBC Radio adaptation of The Jungle Book. Kitt lent her distinctive voice to the role of Yzma in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, for which she won her first Annie Award, and returned to the role in the straight-to-video sequel Kronk's New Groove and the spin-off TV series The Emperor's New School, for which she won two Emmy Awards and two more Annie Awards (both in 2007–08) for Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production. She had a voiceover as the voice of Queen Vexus on the animated TV series My Life as a Teenage Robot.
In her later years Kitt made annual appearances in the New York Manhattan cabaret scene at venues such as the Ballroom and the Café Carlyle.
She was also a guest star in The Simpsons episode "Once Upon a Time in Springfield", where she was depicted as one of Krusty's past marriages.
From October to early December, 2006, Kitt co-starred in the Off Broadway musical Mimi le Duck. She also appeared in the 2007 independent film And Then Came Love opposite Vanessa Williams.
Kitt was the spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics' Smoke Signals collection in August 2007. She re-recorded "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" for the occasion, was showcased on the MAC website, and the song was played at all MAC locations carrying the collection for the month.

Personal life

After romances with the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and banking heir John Barry Ryan III, she married John William McDonald, an associate of a real-estate investment company on June 6, 1960. [15] They divorced in 1965. Their only child, a daughter named Kitt, was born on November 26, 1961. Kitt McDonald married Charles Lawrence Shapiro in 1987  and had two children, Jason and Rachel Shapiro. A long-time Connecticut resident, Ms. Kitt lived in a converted barn on a sprawling farm in the Merryall section of New Milford for many years and was active in local charities and causes throughout Litchfield County. Subsequently moving to Pound Ridge, New York, then in 2002, Kitt moved to the southern Fairfield County, Connecticut town of Weston to be near her daughter's family.

Activism

Ms. Kitt became a vocal advocate for homosexual rights and publicly supported same-sex marriage, which she believed to be a civil right. She had been quoted as saying: "I support it [gay marriage] because we're asking for the same thing. If I have a partner and something happens to me, I want that partner to enjoy the benefits of what we have reaped together. It's a civil-rights thing, isn't it?"

Death

Kitt died from colon cancer on Christmas Day, 2008 at her Weston, Connecticut, home.

Filmography

Features:
Short Subjects:
  • All About People (1967) (narrator)

Television work

Discography

  • "C'est Si Bon" (1954)
  • "Santa Baby" (1954)
  • "Under the Bridges of Paris" (1955) (UK #7)
  • "Just an Old Fashioned Girl" (1958)
  • "Che Vale Per Me" (1968)
  • "Where Is My Man" (1983) (Sweden #5; US Dance #7; Netherlands #20; UK #36)
  • "I Love Men" (1984) (UK #50)
  • "I Don't Care" (1986)
  • "This Is My Life" (1986) (UK #73)
  • "Arabian Song" (1987)
  • "Cha Cha Heels" (featuring Bronski Beat) (1989) (UK #32)
  • "If I Love Ya Then I Need Ya" (1994) (UK #43)
  • "Santa Baby" (2007) (UK #84)

Stage work

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