Just an Old-Fashioned Cat

Eartha Kitt is one funny dame

Just an Old-Fashioned Cat

Her patented growl is as much a calling card as any of her top-selling hits. She's a luscious, leggy performer, just shy of becoming an octogenarian. She spent time on a sitting president's enemies list. And Austin Cabaret Theatre is bringing her to town for a gala fundraiser. While this teasing temptress – once dubbed the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles – has some striking similarities to last year's ACT gala star, Carol Channing (another gravel-throated 80-year-old with a packed résumé, great gams, and a history of pissing off chief executives), she's her own cat and shows no signs of putting that purrrrrrr to rest. Of course, we are talking about the one and only Eartha Kitt.

From humble beginnings – raised in the cotton fields of South Carolina, then sent to live with an aunt in New York City, where she got her first break with Katherine Dunham's modern dance company – Kitt rose to a triple-threat career in music (I Want to Be Evil, Love for Sale, Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa), television (I Spy, Batman), and theatre (Timbuktu!, Follies, and, most recently, The Wild Party, Cinderella, and Nine: The Musical). Kitt continues to confound and delight, with surprise undertakings, such as her turn behind the mic as the voice of the villainous Yzma in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove and its sequels. ("[Children] know my name, and they ask me to say one of the lines. 'Pull the lever! Wrong lever!' Things like that. I love it. It means that I'm still alive and still wanted! It means that 10 years from now, I'll still be working. I am also going to continue in the television version, The Emperor's New School. There is no other Yzma!")

That voice! That simmering cauldron of timbre, volume, and tone creates a lively interview. Text on paper cannot suitably convey the lyrical lilt of Miss Kitt's delightful command. Imagine, dear reader, a woman as melodious and as animated as the characters her trademark tones bring to life.

Most recently, Kitt has been a fixture on the NYC nightclub scene. Her regular residencies at the Cafe Carlyle serve as a base to her touring appearances and voiceover work. She offers insight into her love for standards and reluctance to perform today's pop hits. The Austin show may well be an extension of her nightclub act, but so far, she's not talking.

"I want to surprise you!" she insists. "I am singing a variety of all sorts of things – songs that I have not sung in years, old standards. ... The words that are being written today, I have a hard time recognizing that as a part of me. However, I do think Sting writes beautifully for the pop world. And Sondheim writes beautifully for the theatre – but you can't sing his songs! I love him as a writer, as a composer, but it's very difficult to sing him. There are one or two of his songs – "Send in the Clowns," I wanted to change it to "I am here" instead of "maybe next year." I always want to sing [and she does]: "I – I am here!" [laughter] Because what we all go through ... we all turn out to be a clown of some kind or the other in somebody's eyes. And feel rejected in our lives. But I haven't bothered to ask him about it because he wanted to sue me when I rewrote the words to "I'm Still Here" [from Follies]. But I love his work still. Even after he sent me a cease-and-desist letter! [laughter] I love that man; I like him as a person, and I like him as a thinker. He writes fantastic things like Into the Woods and, what's the other one I love? That's great [pause] – you know, where they kill the people and make hamburgers out of them? – and Sweeney Todd. Brilliant! But who can sing the songs?! Like the national anthem. That's it! Oh my God! Have you ever tried to sing the national anthem?!"

I Feel the Eartha Move: Haunting, Not Flaunting

Kitt's mid-1980s foray into pop-dance music, via the hit single "Cha Cha Heels" with the Bronski Beat, solidified her place in the pantheon of camp, but she was not thrilled with what she considered the "disrespectful" tone of certain lyrics and songs. Has that put her off modern pop music?

Earth Kitt: I'm not a joiner. I don't follow the herd. And if I happened to have fit "in" for a moment or two or three or four, I'm very grateful. The fans I received by making those records have treated me well. I was introduced to a new audience, and I'm grateful about that. But I don't think I have to go out of my way to say, "Oh my God, I'm not selling a record, now I'd better go this way, I'd better go that way." Don't be afraid of saying what you feel. I don't think you have to hit anybody over the head with whatever it is that you want to say, and you don't have to use four-letter words to do it either. And you don't have to be using women in this kind of [pause] oh-so-derogatory [way]. It is heartbreaking! It shows disrespect for the woman, no matter what kind of music or what they're trying to say. Of course, it's easier to make money if you're cheap. I've never sung a risqué song in my life ... that I know of. If I sing a song, I never think of it as being risqué.

Austin Chronicle: Where is that line between alluring and appalling? Are there any new artists getting it right? Anyone doing it with class and panache?

[You can almost hear the smirk.]

Just an Old-Fashioned Cat

EK: Classssss? And panache are you saying? Who? Who?! WHO!! [laughter] Yes! Oh my God, I can say no! And at the same time, I can think of somebody in the business who is relatively young, like Shakira. I think she's kind of classy. But you see, if you've got talent, you don't have to rub it in my face by taking your clothes off. Now, of course, I tease, too, because everybody says I've got beautiful legs. I tease my men with that, and I think it's fun, but I wouldn't go any further than that, like ripping off my clothes or showing much more than the audience would feel comfortable with. Now I'm not dealing with the right or wrong of it, but I don't think it's necessary. You know, you don't have to be flaunting in order to be haunting.

If you think in terms of teasing and leaving it at the proper borderline, then that's haunting. And if you leave it there, they will leave with the feeling that they got excited. One time, a woman in the audience sitting right by the stage – and I was teasing her man – she said, "Oh my husband has gotten so excited!" And I said, "Can he afford both of us?" She whispered to me through her husband, "Yes, I think so!" [laughter] There was a lady in Houston [back in the late Sixties], she was about my age, and she said, "Oh Eartha, what you are doing for me tonight!" And as a result, she invited me to supper! Which I thought was wonderful! I love when people do like that. I love it when the women particularly have a good sense of humor. Because when all is said and done: The fact is you are going to enjoy this, not me, because you go home with him, I don't. I'm only helping you! [laughter] Now, these women had a sense of humor, and I love it!

The World According to Eartha: Kitt on Current Events

Back in 1968, Kitt was invited to a luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson at the White House. The guests were invited to offer ideas about the problems facing inner-city youth, and Kitt connected those problems to the Vietnam War. She was subsequently blacklisted and left to live in professional exile in Europe. It nearly killed her career. How does she feel about the situation now on this occasion of traveling to the hometown of Mrs. Johnson?

EK: If she had a good sense of humor, she'd look me up.

AC: Would you receive Mrs. Johnson if she cared to visit?

EK: Of course, I have nothing against Mrs. Johnson. I understand that she owns television and radio, and they might have kept me off the air. I'm not sure about that, however. But look, we have to go through what we have to go through. Nobody in this world is going to go through this life without having a setback of some kind or another. But that day at the White House, I was asked to give my opinion. [Her voice conveys a distinct sense of betrayal and sadness for being misunderstood.] I don't just let my opinions out. And I still feel that it was the right thing to do because I was against the Vietnam War after it had gone on for so long. I think we know differently now that we stayed there too long.

But this is a different kind of war, Iraq, to me. You see, we the people ask too much from the government. We drive our big cars. We never want to walk; we want to ride everywhere. And I say if you don't want us to go to war for oil, to have our comfortable life energywise, why don't you do more for yourselves? Drive less, walk more; eat less, walk more! But we don't do enough for ourselves; we just want to blame blame blame, and then we get mad at the government, and we get mad even at God! We Americans are saying, "You want to dig for oil? Not in my back yard. You're going to kill the trees, you're going to kill the birds. We should get the oil from outside of the country." Why? Don't we have enough? It is a dangerous thing for us Americans to feel that we never have enough of whatever it is that we are entitled to. Instead of feeling that we have to go to war to get what we feel we are entitled to, then pick up a shovel and start digging. Work for it. Why do we need for it to come out of Saudi Arabia? All the way from there? Now, if we don't win that particular situation – we have to go to Venezuela.

And all of these countries are teasing us anyway. Now, look at Korea. She wants attention! Did you ever see the film The Mouse That Roared? Well, there you are. It's about a tiny country that goes to war with America so that we'll take care of them for the rest of their life. But in real life, it strips this country of its own values – materially as well as morally. People start feeling that the government is wrong, and they blame the government for everything.

I have a soldier friend – well, I don't really know him; he's a fan, and he sent me, all encased in a picture frame, a flag. It said, "This flag was flown especially for Eartha Kitt over Iraq." I let him know: I appreciate the fact that you are fighting for our safety and fighting for our comfort. Bottom line: I don't think that we as Americans in general appreciate this country as much as we should. I've been in other countries. I've been in Iran. I was a friend of the sister of the shah of Iran: Eva. I had the same feeling ... Let me put it this way: I was in Morocco. And those little children who are making rugs with their tiny, tiny fingers because their fingers are so nimble and small that they are the only ones who can make these rugs. I felt like that was me when I was picking cotton in South Carolina at that particular age. Five and 6 and 7. But it was not funny living in squalid conditions. And when I hear good things in Iraq, I think we don't hear about it because of ratings. But people say to me, "Don't you think this government is very secretive?" They are too young to remember back to World War II, when we said, "Loose lips sink ships." Well, I'm quite sure that there is a lot of stuff going on that we don't know anything about. And a lot of it I don't think we should know ... well, some of it.

AC: But wouldn't she agree that there are a lot of disenfranchised, discontented people out there? And legitimately so?

Eartha Kitt performing with Katherine Dunham dancers, 
Eartha Kitt performing with Katherine Dunham dancers, 1945

EK: Discontent very often makes geniuses. Walk more! Drive less! Eat less! Walk more! And stop griping!

One Eartha at a Time: How Kitt Manifests Her Philosophies

Aside from her three autobiographies [Thursday's Child (1956), Alone With Me (1976), and I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989)], Kitt shares more of these personal philosophies in her latest book, Rejuvenate (It's Never Too Late) (2001). How does she sum up her personal philosophy?

EK: My fans asked me to write about: How do you do what you do at the age you are? Use your common sense! It's not a matter of being fanatical about it, but common sense is common sense. Use your common sense. Walk more; eat less! Some people feel, "I don't have time to go to the gym; I don't have time to do my exercises today." Well, rather than waiting at that bus for 10-15 minutes, you can walk to the next bus stop and get there just in time. Kill two birds with one stone: You've saved a few pennies and lost a pound or two. I'm talking about walking, not dragging.

AC: Weren't you diagnosed with cancer?

EK: Colon cancer ... I don't want to talk about that. Everybody knows about that anyway. Well, it's not a matter of me talking or not talking about it, it's a matter of realizing that I am not sitting around moping about it. I am eating the right kind of foods. This morning I had oatmeal and two boiled eggs and a piece of salmon and half a grapefruit. I eat more or less like that all the time. I have vegetables growing in the garden, so when they're ready, I'll be eating from the garden! I stay away from processed foods, but I've always been like that. I've always said, "Stay away from processed foods because you don't know what's in that box!" Even if you have to go shopping more than one or two days in the week to get as fresh food as possible. Around here we have a farmer's market, so what I don't have in my garden I will go there and buy the food – mom-and-pop grown food.

AC: What haven't you done that you wish to do?

EK: Live performance is so honest because of its immediacy from the audience. The audience is your best director. Live performance to me means that I'm growing all the time. So that's what I want to keep doing. I'm going to be 80 years old on the 17th of January. Traveling is not as exciting as it used to be! If I get to the point where I don't want to travel as much as I do now, maybe I'll get into a little theatre directing. I hear so many actors. They don't know where the important words are, and they haven't analyzed why they are saying that line. I'd just ask them: Where is the most important word in that particular phrase, and what is the meaning of what you're saying? Even singing songs. I hear lots of singers. They're singing, and they don't know what the hell they're talking about! Aaaaaaah! I just want to scream! The wrong word is being emphasized. I see it because I watch a lot of the great old movies: Mildred Pierce; Now, Voyager; the Godfather series. I learn a lot from the directing. Not that I ever want to be a serious director in that way. But you know, you never know. I would probably be directing children. I love working with children.

AC: Would you consider revisiting your role as Catwoman?

EK: Oh! I loved doing Catwoman! Why not? But I probably would do it now as the mother of the cat. I love doing the character. I didn't have to think about it: I didn't try to be a cat, I am a cat!

AC: On the Web, you were voted favorite Catwoman of all time: How does that feel?

EK: Rrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwrrrrr!

end story

Austin Cabaret Theatre presents Eartha Kitt live, Friday, July 28, 8pm, at the Mansion at Judges' Hill. For more information, call 453-2287.

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