What You May Not Know About Eartha Kitt
Eartha Mae Kitt was an international star who gave new meaning to the word versatile. She distinguished herself in film, theater, cabaret, music and on television. Miss Kitt was one of only a handful of performers to be nominated for a Tony (three times), the Grammy (twice), and Emmy Award (twice). She regularly enthralled New York nightclub audiences during her extended stays at The Cafè Carlyle and these intimate performances have been captured in her recording, Eartha Kitt, Live at The Carlyle.
Miss Kitt’s distinctive voice enchanted an entirely new generation of fans. Young fans loved her as YZMA, the villain, in Disney’s animated feature “The Emperor’s New Groove”, (2001 Annie Award for Best Vocal Performance / Animated Feature). Miss Kitt was also featured in the sequel, “The Emperor’s New Groove II” and reprised the role in the popular Saturday morning animated series “The Emperor’s New School” for which she received a 2007 and 2008 Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program and a 2007 and 2008 Annie Award for Best Vocal Performance in an Animated Television Production.
Miss Kitt was ostracized at an early age because of her mixed-race heritage. At eight years old, she was given away by her mother and sent from the South Carolina cotton fields to live with an aunt in Harlem. In New York her distinct individuality and flair for show business manifested itself, and on a friend’s dare, the shy teen auditioned for the famed “Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe.” She won a spot as a featured dancer and vocalist and before the age of twenty, toured worldwide with the company. During a performance in Paris, Miss Kitt was spotted by a nightclub owner and booked as a featured singer at his club. Her unique persona earned her fans and fame quickly, including Orson Welles, who called her “the most exciting woman in the world”. Welles was so taken with her talent that he cast her as Helen of Troy in his fabled production of “Dr. Faust.”
Back in New York, Miss Kitt was booked at The Village Vanguard, and soon spotted by a Broadway producer who put her in “New Faces Of 1952” where every night she transfixed audiences with her sultry rendition of Monotonous. Her show-stopping performance in “NEW FACES”, which ran for a year, led to a national tour and a Twentieth Century Fox film version. Broadway stardom led to a recording contract and a succession of best-selling records including “Love for Sale”, “I Want to Be Evil”, “Santa Baby” and “Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa”, which earned her a Grammy nomination. During this period, she published her first autobiography, “Thursday’s Child.” Miss Kitt then returned to Broadway in the dramatic play “Mrs. Patterson”, and received her first Tony nomination. Other stage appearances followed, as did films including “The Mark Of The Hawk” with Sidney Poitier, “Anna Lucasta” with Sammy Davis, Jr. and “St Louis Blues” with Nat King Cole.
In 1967, Miss Kitt made an indelible mark on pop culture as the infamous “Catwoman” in the television series, “Batman.” She immediately became synonymous with the role and her trademark growl became imitated worldwide.
Singing in ten different languages, Miss Kitt performed in over 100 countries and was honored with a star on “The Hollywood Walk of Fame” in 1960. In 1966, she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in the series, “I Spy”. In 1968, Miss Kitt’s career took a sudden turn when, at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, she spoke out against the Vietnam War. For years afterward, Miss Kitt was blacklisted in the U.S. and was forced to work abroad where her status remained undiminished. In December 2006, she returned to Washington and lit the National Christmas Tree alongside President and Mrs. George W. Bush.
In 1974, Miss Kitt returned to the United States, with a triumphant Carnegie Hall concert and, in 1978, received a second Tony nomination for her starring role in the musical, “Timbuktu.” Miss Kitt’s second autobiography, “Alone With Me”, was published in 1976 and “I’m Still Here: Confessions Of A Sex Kitten” was released in 1989. Her best-selling book on fitness and positive attitude,” Rejuvenate! (It’s Never Too Late)”, was released by Scribner in May 2001. Live theater was Miss Kitt’s passion. In 2001, Broadway critics singled her out with a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for her role as Dolores in George Wolfe’s “The Wild Party.” Over the last few years, she has starred in National Tours of “The Wizard Of Oz” and Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”. In December 2003, Miss Kitt dazzled Broadway audiences as Liliane Le Fleur in the revival of “Nine, The Musical.” In December 2004, she appeared as The Fairy Godmother in The New York City Opera production (Lincoln Center) of “Cinderella.” She also starred in the off-Broadway production of “Mimi Le Duck” (2006) and The Westport County Playhouse production of “The Skin Of Our Teeth” (2007).
Miss Kitt remained devoted to performing in front of live audiences, from intimate cabarets to concert halls with local symphonies. Some of her engagements included appearances with The Atlanta Symphony, The Portland Symphony, Detroit’s Music Hall, D.C.’s Blues Alley, Seattle’s Jazz Alley, Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, The Mohegan Sun, Sarasota’s Van Wetzel Center for the Performing Arts Festival. In addition, she was especially proud to have brought her one-woman show to the 51st Annual JVC Newport Jazz Festival and the Miami Beach JVC Jazz Festival. In February 2007, Miss Kitt returned to London after a 15-year absence for a remarkable series of sold-out performances at The Shaw Theater. She returned to Great Britain in 2008 to critical raves at London’s Place Pigalle and to headline the prestigious Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
On January 17, 2007, Miss Kitt held a celebratory concert in honor of her 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall with a JVC Jazz called “Eartha Kitt and Friends.”
Miss Kitt died on December 25, 2008, and is survived by her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, and four grandchildren. Her outstanding vocals along with her curvaceous frame will forever be cherished for generations to come.