Kitty Carlisle Hart, Stage Legend, Dies at 96 Actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, whose long career spanned Broadway, opera, television and film, including the classic Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera has died at age 96.
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Kitty Carlisle Hart, Stage Legend, Dies at 96

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Kitty Carlisle Hart, Stage Legend, Dies at 96

Kitty Carlisle Hart, Stage Legend, Dies at 96

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Kitty Carlisle Hart, the actress, singer and arts advocate, passed away Tuesday night in her Manhattan apartment. She was 96 and in failing health since contracting pneumonia last Christmas. Tonight, Broadway theaters will dim their lights in Hart's honor.

Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN: For most members of the baby boom generation, Kitty Carlisle Hart was best known perhaps for one thing. She was the charming panelist with the infectious laugh on the television quiz show "To Tell the Truth."

(Soundbite of "To Tell the Truth")

Ms. KITTY CARLISLE HART (Actress): Number three, I know I'm a little behind the times, but my last skates had keys. One of these shoes skates like.

Unidentified Woman: They have (unintelligible) speed skates. They don't have keys.

Ms. HART: And they're all attached to the shoe?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Ms. HART: Oh, I see. How do you tighten them then?

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

LUNDEN: Now, she was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 3rd, 1910 - or 1914, or 1918, depending upon which biography you read. Her father was a doctor, her mother the daughter of the mayor of Shreveport. After her father passed away, her mother took her to Europe to study at private schools in Switzerland and Paris - and hopefully snare rich husband. It was in Paris that she adopted the surname Carlisle after perusing a telephone book, she told NPR's Liane Hansen in 2002.

Ms. HART: My name was Katherine Conn, C-O-N-N, and it had never been changed. And in Paris, it was an embarrassment because it sounded like a very naughty French word, so I couldn't wait to change it. And the minute I changed it, my mother changed hers, and she became Mrs. Carlisle.

LUNDEN: But even with a new name, Kitty Carlisle and her mother found rich princes were in short supply. She told Scott Simon in 1988 that her mother decided a new approach was necessary.

Ms. HART: She said I wasn't the prettiest girl she ever saw. I wasn't the best singer she ever heard. I certainly wasn't the best actress she ever hoped to see. But she said, if we put them all together, we'll find the husband we're looking for on the stage. She had abandoned her hopes of a rich prince. So I went on the stage, and see, she was right - I found the husband I was looking for on the stage.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Night at the Opera")

LUNDEN: In the 1930s, before getting married, she developed a career singing operetta in New York and on tour. She landed a Hollywood contract and did several films, including the Marx Brothers classic "A Night at the Opera."

(Soundbite of movie, "A Night at the Opera")

LUNDEN: Kitty Carlisle start as the ingénue, an opera singer, but the powers that be weren't sure she could handle the vocal requirements.

Ms. HART: I'd only taken the movie in order to sing opera seriously, because in those days, the Marx Brothers were - I thought I was slumming. They were knockabout comics. And so to do the operatic sequences was my whole purpose in doing the movie, and when I got on the set and I heard somebody else's voice to my playback instead of me, I walked off the set. And I held up the production for about three days. And finally they let me do it. And so when I hear "A Night at the Opera" in the movie, it's my high C in the Miserere.

(Soundbite of film, "A Night at the Opera")

LUNDEN: Over the years, Kitty Carlisle was linked to many eligible bachelors in New York and Hollywood. Perhaps the most famous was composer George Gershwin.

Ms. HART: Oh, George was fun. George was a really most interesting man. He was an egomaniac, but then I'd grown up with egomaniacs, so that didn't bother me. He did ask me to marry him, but he wasn't in love with me, nor was I in love with him.

LUNDEN: The man she did end up marrying, in 1946, was playwright and director Moss Hart.

Ms. HART: He was a wonderful playwright. He was the right age - he was about six or seven years older than I. He was divine. And he'd never been married, and I'd never been married. So I thought, why not me? I'm perfect for you.

LUNDEN: The Harts hosted parties and weekends for New York writers and celebrities like Lerner and Loewe, Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Harpo Marx. After her husband died in 1961, Kitty Carlisle Hart became increasingly involved in charity work and arts advocacy. She was named vice-chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts and took over as chair in 1976, serving in that capacity - with no pay - for 21 years.

And she saw the council through cutbacks and culture wars, including defending controversial artists before the state legislature in Albany.

Ms. HART: I was called on the carpet. So after being raked over the coals, I finally said, I know you all go to the opera. Well, there was a lot of digging in the ribs with that, because they didn't all go to the opera. I said, and there's an opera that is played everywhere and it's called "Rigoletto." And it's filled with rape and murder, and I threw in incest for good measure, and they didn't know the difference. And I won the day.

LUNDEN: Kitty Carlisle Hart was a force of nature. Well into her 90s, she barnstormed across the country performing her one-woman show, "Life Upon the Wicked Stage." Alex Rybeck frequently accompanied her on the piano.

Mr. ALEX RYBECK (Pianist): To me the most thrilling thing about working with Kitty is that she's a direct line to the composers whose work she's singing. She's a direct line to George Gershwin, a direct line to Jerome Kern, to Kurt Weill, to Cole Porter. So in accompanying her and listening to her phrasing, it's about as pure a rendition of the song as you'll ever hear, because they taught her those songs.

Ms. HART: (Singing) Days may not be fair always, that's when I'll be there always...

LUNDEN: For NPR news, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

Ms. HART: (Singing) Not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.

SIEGEL: That's Kitty Carlisle Hart in 2002, singing "Always" by her friend Irving Berlin. She died last night in Manhattan. She was 96 years old.

Ms. HART: (Singing) ...always, when a love that's true always. When the things you've plan need a helping hand, I will understand always, always. Days may not be fair always, that's when I'll be there always, not just for an hour, not for just a day, not just for a year, but always.

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