Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt: An Appreciation

"I'm an orphan. But the public has adopted me and that has been my only family. The biggest family in the world is my fans." - EARTHA KITT

The music world lost yet another of its distinctive voices. Eartha Kitt, who rose from the poverty of the cotton fields of rural South Carolina to become a sultry singer, dancer and actress of elegance and sensuality, has died earlier today in Connecticut of colon cancer at the age of 81.

Kitt, a self-proclaimed "sex kitten" famous for her catlike purr, was one of America's most versatile performers, winning two Emmys and nabbing a third nomination. She also was nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.
A versatile performer who won a pair of Emmys and was also nominee for the Tonys and Grammys, Kitt's career spanned six decades, from her beginnings as a dancer with the famed Katherine Dunham dance company, to a successful acting, singing and recording career where she had more than her share of classics and would become a fixture on the cabaret circuit.

After becoming a Broadway sensation singing "Monotonous" in the Broadway revue "New Faces of 1952," Kitt parlayed it into a lucrative career on the Broadway stage, appearing in such stage hits as "Mrs. Patterson," "Shinbone Alley" and "The Owl and the Pussycat."

But she was perhaps best known for her recordings. Her debut album, "RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt," came out in 1954, featuring such songs as "I Want to Be Evil," "C'est Si Bon" and the saucy gold digger's theme song "Santa Baby," which is revived on radio each Christmas. The following year, RCA followed it up with "That Bad Eartha," which featured such songs as "Let's Do It," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," further solidifying her persona as the bad-girl chanteuse.

Her television appearances included a memorable stint as the sexy Catwoman on the popular "Batman" series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar who originated the role.

But what generated controversy for her later in life was an incident in 1968, where she angrily denounced the Vietnam War during a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," she told the group of about 50 women. "They rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."

For four years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA, which allegedly found her to be foul-mouthed and promiscuous.

"The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you're entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work," Kitt told Essence magazine two decades later.
In 1978, Kitt triumphantly returned to Broadway in the musical "Timbuktu!" — which brought her a Tony nomination — and was invited back to the White House by President Jimmy Carter.

Once dubbed the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles, Kitt remained a picture of vitality who attracted fans less than half her age -- even as she reached 80. When her book "Rejuvenate," a guide to staying physically fit, was published in 2001, Kitt was featured on the cover in a long, curve-hugging black dress with a figure that some 20-year-old women would envy.
Eartha Kitt was a survivor -- persevering through an unhappy child as a mixed-race daughter in the South, career reprisals for daring to speak truth to power, and through the years, remaining a picture of youthfulness and vitality, attracting fans less than half her age even as she neared the age of 80.

There are two memories of Eartha that struck a chord in me: A guest appearance on the TV series "Mission: Impossible," as a guest agent what showed off what her dance training did for her movement, and film clips from an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1950's, where she performed "C'est Si Bon" playing to the camera, playfully taunting the viewing audience with her antics. It was from watching that clip that I wrote a french scene in my play "The MacGuffin," where the judge lip-synched the song as a fucia-tinged spotlight focused on her.

Eartha, you're a true diva, and a down-to-earth soul as well. You will be deeply missed.

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