Arts: Living voice of a golden past

At 89, the stage and screen legend Kitty Carlisle Hart is still treading the boards in an eternal summertime. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
Word gets out. Tickets for last Sunday's performance of Jubilee, the "lost" musical of Moss Hart and Cole Porter, simply vanished. Mercifully, it is being repeated tomorrow. Aside from the bizarre pleasure of discovering this quasi-crazy 1935 show about an irresponsible Royal Family who fling off responsibilities to flirt with showbiz - including a Princess Diana swooning over a star and a Queen who steps out with Hollywood's Tarzan and longs to be called "Butch" - you also get to meet a legend.

No biography of Broadway's golden age is complete without quotes from Kitty Carlisle Hart. At a staggering 89, this nice Jewish girl from, of all places, Louisiana is still singing and telling her extraordinary life story across the US and beyond. Indeed, there are still seductive traces of southern vowels in her beautiful speaking voice.

Elegant and gracious, she's like a female Alistair Cooke but with well- timed Manhattan irony, and she's not above self-deprecation. Americans recognise her from the weekly, unscripted TV show To Tell the Truth - a cross between What's My Line and Call My Bluff. She claims she agreed to it only because her husband wanted her to go into New York once a week "to pick up the laundry, the mail and the kosher frankfurters". It lasted 15 years. Over here, she's known as the love interest in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. While she was filming it a message arrived that Moss Hart and Cole Porter were there to speak to her.

"I got very excited. I'd sung some of Cole's songs but I hadn't ever met Moss Hart. He was the kind of person that people told stories about. I began to run, and tripped over one of those cables and landed flat in front of him." Undeterred, they asked her up to their hotel suite to sing one of the songs from their new show Jubilee. "So that evening I sang One of Those Things - and I didn't get the job." Nine years later, she got Moss Hart. "When I married him," she laughs, "he said he'd finally set me on my feet."

Her career is the fault of her formidable mother, a young widow who took her teenage daughter, Henry-James-style, around Europe in search of "a brilliant marriage". What little money they had disappeared in the 1929 crash.

Not a woman to be daunted by circumstances, she announced, "You're not the prettiest girl I ever saw, you're not the best singer I ever heard, you're certainly not the best actress I could ever hope to see but you could be a model - you wear clothes fairly well. If we put them all together, we'll find the husband we're looking for on the stage."

Which is why Kitty wound up at Rada. Back in New York she did vaudeville, then sang Prince Orlofsky in Champagne Sec, a Broadway rewrite of Die Fledermaus - "I wore black tights and had very good legs" - during which she became friendly with the pianist, Frederick Loewe.

"He'd stand behind me in the dressing-room and say [she affects a guttural Viennese accent], `Some day I'm going to wrrrrite ze best musical on Brrrroadvay'. And I'd think, you and who else? I mean, there were 40 pit pianists in those days; there were a lot of musicals then." He reminded her of the fact 25 years later at the triumphant opening of his My Fair Lady, directed by Moss Hart.

Champagne Sec got her a contract at Paramount. "They were picking up anybody who had one head and two legs and could sing, because they were making all these musicals." Her first outing, Murder at the Vanities, was a bizarre confection of music and murder with a guest appearance by Duke Ellington, pre-Hays Code censorship numbers with nude girls and a song flagrantly entitled, and in praise of, Marijuana, then legal in the US.

Shelley Winters once described the composer/ performer Oscar Levant as "a tortured man who sprayed his loathing on anyone within range" but it was he who recommended her for A Night at the Opera."

On set, ready to do her first song, she realised the voice on the sound- track wasn't hers. "I stopped and the director, Sam Wood, was up on the boom and he called down, `What's the matter, kid?' And I said, `I don't know, Mr Wood', so he said `OK. Take Two.' Same thing happened. So I said, `Mr Wood, that's not my voice.' He said, `we'll explain later; just do it'. And something told me not to." She walked off the set. "It was the most courageous thing I ever did."

Backed up by her agent, she held up production for three days. Finally, she was called in to see Thalberg.

"I was in costume and I went into his huge office and I cried in his waste-paper basket, I cried on the top of his head, I cried all over his desk - and finally they let me do it. So when you hear that, it's my high `C'."

But that was about it for the film career. (Mind you, 52 years later she went to dinner with Betty Comden, met Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and landed herself a number in Radio Days.) Hurt feelings were soothed by nights out at the El Morocco with George Gershwin.

With hit recordings under her belt, they would bet each other over whose song would be played first, his or hers. "He was a wonderful dancer, full of enthusiasm. He had a lot of ladies, and he asked me to come up to his apartment and work on a song called Summertime . I'd sing and he'd fiddle with the accompaniment. The second time he called me up to sing it, I caught on. This was like going up to see someone's etchings."

They remained fond of each other and he even asked her to marry him. "But he didn't really love me," she concedes. "He thought I would be very suitable."

Her career is almost the definition of diverse. She sang the title role in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and even this year she turned down a Broadway acting role. These days she's terrified by the prospect of learning a part. In her autobiographical concert, she has a script on a stand for safety's sake.

Not that anyone cares about her reading. Audiences are too busy savouring the fruits of her experience and, to be frank, her solid gold, old-fashioned charm.

`Jubilee' is at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, tomorrow night (0171-494 5051)