The Jazz.com Blog
December 28, 2008 · 3 comments
Jazz.com's arnold jay smith covers the OctoJAZZarians beat for us, and it seems that he has crossed paths with all of the legends of jazz at some point in his career. Now he shares his recollections of the late Eartha Kitt, who passed away on Christmas Day. T.G.
She loved to sing with jazz groups. She appeared at jazz festivals and in clubs normally reserved for jazz performers. She was a political radical known for her independence, and impudence. But deep down the sultriness was a cover for her insecurity borne from a lifetime of not knowing who she was or where she came from. I read somewhere that Eartha Kitt challenged a group of students to find her birth certificate, which she never saw. They did and that’s how she found out when she was born. Thus she died at age 81.
A short-for-his-age young star-struck waif was introduced to Ms. Kitt after she hit it big with “Santa Baby.” She was appearing at a dinner club in Brooklyn, of all places, called Ben Maxsyk’s Town and Country. My mother, also diminutive, loved the entertainers her own size: Gracie Allen, Garland, Piaf and Kitt. The family got to casually talk with Ms. Kitt, which she claimed to never have forgotten.
Flash ahead to Brooklyn College in the late fifties. My “House Plan”—sort of like a fraternity without the Greek letters and initiation rituals—took our initiates to a Broadway musical every semester. (We seemed to have a knack for closing them as well.) One such was something called Shinbone Alley, a cute idea based on a newspaper column “Archie and Mehitabel,” which was ostensibly written and typed by a cockroach named Archie, portrayed by Eddie Bracken, who was in love with a cat named Mehitabel, purred by Eartha Kitt. This was long before any of her now-famous television cameos on TV’s Batman, I Spy and the other programs, but her name was known from nightclubs and recordings. The book and lyrics for Shinbone were written by Don Darion and Mel Brooks—his first—with music by George Kleinsinger, who also penned the kiddie musical fantasy “Tubby the Tuba.”
At the time, I was looking to jump into jazz with both feet rather than as a sideline to my Wall Street career. Jack Kleinsinger—who I was to find out later was George’s cousin—was in the start-up stages of his now 35-year-old “Highlights In Jazz” series, which caught my attention. We’re still working together. I got to meet the eccentric George and visited him in his menagerie apartment atop the Hotel Chelsea. Among the other visitors was Eartha who had maintained their friendship. The menagerie included birds, monkeys, reptiles and a koala bear all in a semitropical setting. All were highly illegal, even in earlier eras.
I was standing in the rear of the courtyard of the Judson Memorial in Greenwich Village, where George’s memorial was taking place, when I thought I saw someone step surreptitiously behind me. It was more of a feeling, actually. Eartha asked me some questions about the funeral. Then we were off, separately.
After speaking to her daughter, my wife, singer/percussionist Fran McIntyre and I stood at the corner of the Carlyle bar waiting for Eartha’s set to complete. Fran needed to talk to her about professional matters. Eartha saw me and remembered we had a mutual friend in George Kleinsinger. Our subsequent conversation drifted in and out of his multiple marriages, the menagerie which the City had wanted to dismantle for years and, yes, musical matters. Excitedly, she motioned and said to “stay right here. I have to do an encore, but I want to talk.” True to her word back she came and talk she did. Man, could she carry-on!
At the 2005 Litchfield Jazz Festival she opened the proceedings for the deep pockets. This time the conversation was brief but picked up right where we had left it some years prior: George, the menagerie and his young widow.
Eartha Kitt loved people. Once I caught her in a mink coat and shades walking her two poodles on East 57th St. in Manhattan and stopping to talk to anyone who recognized her. She seemed to live for that recognition. While mention is made of her “New Faces of 1951” debut little is said of some of the others who came out of that show: Robert Clary of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, Paul Lynde of Broadway’s and later Hollywood’s Bye Bye Birdie, and still later of TV’s Hollywood Squares, and the character actress Alice Ghostley. Not all of the aforementioned made it into the pantheon of household name-dom, and I don’t know if they all got their stars on the Walk-of-Fame. But you just know you could talk to each of them, especially Eartha, even on a busy N.Y.C. street.
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