Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)

In a somber contrast to the joyous day we are having, it saddens me to report that the legend that is Eartha Kitt has passed away today at the age of 81 after a substantial battle with colon cancer. A legend of film, theatre and television, she was a multi-talented performer whose distinctive purr of a voice became her trademark. She became famous for her recordings of "C'est Ce Bon" and "Love for Sale," as well as her most famous single which we've been hearing a lot these past weeks, "Santa Baby." Orson Welles once called her "the most exciting woman alive." She stirred up considerable controversy in 1968 when she famously brought Lady Bird Johnson to tears when she spoke out against the war in Vietnam during a White House luncheon. She would be scorned by the Johnson administration and was professionally blacklisted in the United States for years. Kitt was featured on Broadway in New Faces of '52 (in which she sang the sultry showstopper "Monotonous"), Mrs. Patterson, Shinbone Alley opposite Eddie Bracken. After twenty years away, she returned to the Great White Way in the all-black revisal of Kismet entitled Timbuktu! Kitt's diva entrance involved her being carried on like the African princess she was portraying by two muscular men in the chorus. Eartha brought down the house nightly by stepping down from her chaise, downstage center, and announcing her first line: "I'm here." Then she launched into a brand new song written especially for her called "In the Beginning, Woman" (which replaced the contextually irrelevant "Not Since Nineveh," which was geographically linked to Baghdad, the setting of Kismet). She later returned in La Chiusa's The Wild Party (a second Tony nom) and as Chita Rivera's replacement in the revival of Nine. She also famously brought down the house in London when she succeeded Dolores Gray as Carlotta in the 1987 production of Follies. She is probably best known on television for her portrayal as Catwoman on the campy 60s series Batman (a role also played by Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether) More recently, she made a lot of new, considerably younger fans in her riotous voiceover work as the villainous Izma in the Disney animated feature The Emperor's New Groove as well its subsequent TV series (for which she would win two Daytime Emmys). Professional that she was, she could be seen in NY among many first night crowds and gala events throughout her illness, as well as appearing in cabaret at the Cafe Carlyle in September 2007 and at La Pigalle in London in April 2008. Kitt is survived by her daughter Kitt McDonald Shapiro and four grandchildren.

Here is the legend performing "I'm Still Here" on the Olivier Awards during her run in Follies:

No comments: