Kitty Carlisle Hart embodies longevity

Entertainer is doing great things in life

November 03, 2003|By Paul Horsley | Paul Horsley,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Kitty Carlisle Hart hasn't had what you'd call a career, exactly. She's had half a dozen.

The New Orleans-born singer-actress starred on the Broadway stage when George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter were just the best of dozens of Tin Pan Alley masters.

She played opposite Groucho Marx in A Night at the Opera and Bing Crosby in She Loves Me Not, then a half-century later appeared in Radio Days and Six Degrees of Separation.

She had a minor operatic career, performing in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and portraying Prince Orlofsky at the Metropolitan Opera's Die Fledermaus in 1967. Then she brought all the strands together to become one of the most influential arts administrators America has known.

In the famous words of the announcer on TV's game show To Tell the Truth, where Hart appeared as a panelist for 15 years: Will the real Kitty Carlisle Hart please stand up?

At 93, Hart is accustomed to people marveling that she is still around. But she's more than just around; she is lucid and funny, has the legs of a woman half her age and can still knock out a tune. If she has advice for widows -- she never remarried after the 1961 death of her husband, Broadway and film producer-director Moss Hart -- it's to "get busy and do things."

"I've had to take care of my body all my life, because my instrument is inside," she said recently on the phone, speaking from the Upper East Side apartment she and her late husband bought in the 1950s. "I practice every day, do my scales."

The key to longevity? "It's doing something you love to do -- and taking care of your body." She does the latter with an austere diet and plenty of exercise: Nearly every day she can be seen out walking in her neighborhood just off Central Park.

She said singing musical theater has kept her young, too -- her first love is still the classic songs from an era when "they were scooping up any young person who could sing and look decent at the same time."

"We had a plethora of fine composers," Hart said. "We had Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers, Hammerstein." The golden era lasted until about 1970, she said.

She went to see Hair when it came out in 1968, and she said it was clear the era of the great musicals was coming to an end. "I covered myself up, because I didn't want anyone to know that I was seeing Hair. And I walked up to the box office, and a fellow said, `Hello, Miss Carlisle.'"

She remains one of the truly recognizable Americans of her generation. Many Americans know Hart best for her stint on To Tell the Truth, that brainy Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game show where she held forth with Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and others. "They were very wise," Hart said of the show's creators. "A lot of [viewers] told me that they learned [proper] English listening to it, because we spoke well."

Despite her passion for the musical theater, Hart's most lasting legacy might be as an arts administrator. From 1976 to 1996, as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts, she raised millions for artists and arts organizations. She also helped establish local agencies throughout the state.

She is the arts council's chairwoman emeritus. The city of Albany named a theater after her, the Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre. President Bush awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 1991.

It helped having a familiar name, she said, but her fame took her only so far. "I don't think celebrity hurt me in the beginning. But it wouldn't have helped me maintain it, if after a certain amount of time they'd said, `That dodo, she doesn't know anything.' After they've received you charmingly, they want to know what you can do."

Among the battles fought during her tenure were those over the controversial art of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, the so-called culture wars that damaged the National Endowment for the Arts.

She had reservations about Serrano's talent, she said, but "Mapplethorpe was an artist, and he did some things that weren't to the liking of the legislators." She was able to win battles with the state Legislature by arguing that people have created great art out of uncomfortable subjects for centuries.

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