She has referred to herself as a "late bloomer." But Kitty Carlisle Hart, now in her 80s, has cycled through three distinct careers, and is now embarking on a fourth returning to the stage in a one-woman show.
With the rerelease on CD of the Decca Broadway series of eight of the world's most beloved operettas, Ms. Hart's first career, as a Broadway and Hollywood singer, is again being discovered. Recorded during the 1940s and 1950s, the series features Hart in "The Merry Widow," "Desert Song," and "Roberta." It also includes now-classic melodies such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Lovely to Look At."
"Operetta is very different from opera," she explains, seated comfortably in her East Side apartment. "They're much lighter, and there's much more attention to the lyrics. As far as the form goes, they're halfway between opera and musical comedy, with a formula story, but the musical range [is] like opera."
"Roberta" in particular, written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach in 1933, symbolizes the transition from operetta to the musical, which was first attempted by Kern in 1927 in "Show Boat."
That year was also an important one for Hart, then Kitty Carlisle. When her mother found herself without any other resources, she took 13-year-old Catherine from New Orleans to Paris and London, and convinced singing and acting teachers to coach her daughter privately.
"Mother could be very persuasive," she laughs. A few years later, they moved to New York, and young Kitty launched a stage career. She soon found herself part of the famous Algonquin Round Table set, where Edna Ferber sparred with Groucho Marx, and Alexander Woollcott traded barbs with Dorothy Parker. She starred in Broadway revues, and appeared in films such as "Night at the Opera" and "Murder at the Vanities."
Then, she met playwright Moss Hart, whosecredits include "You Can't Take It With You," "Once in a Lifetime," and "Lady in the Dark."
They enjoyed one of Broadway's most colorful unions for nearly 20 years, until Hart died unexpectedly in 1961, four years after directing the landmark Broadway production of "My Fair Lady."
"After Moss died, I found myself tied up in litigations, with no money," she says. While her husband left a generous estate, the courts initially ruled against her receiving it, and it took years for the legal tangles to be corrected.
So she went back to work this time on TV. She joined a new television panel program called "To Tell the Truth," as a regular for 16 years.
"They advertised cigarettes," she continues, flanked by framed photographs of her and Moss with luminaries from Broadway's golden age.
"And we, those of us on the panel, decided that we would strike if they tried to make us smoke on the air. We didn't want to help them sell their cigarettes."
When the television show ended, Hart, then 64, agreed to head the New York State Council on the Arts.
"It was a lot of work," says Hart, "but let me tell you, it was worth it! I would be traveling the state, visiting classrooms, and museums, and theater groups, giving them encouragement, and finding out what they needed.
"To me, there's no better way to give a child who's in trouble a chance at a new life than to introduce them to the arts."
She stayed in that post for 21 years, finally stepping down from the daily routine at 85.
"And now, I'm singing again," she says, her face brightening at the prospect of doing more concerts. She has already made appearances at half a dozen events around the country in the past year.
Her one-woman show combines personal anecdotes from her life with songs from many eras, including Gershwin, Kern, and Sondheim.
"I was a late bloomer in terms of concert performances, you know. I didn't make my debut at the Met until I was 54."