An interview with the legendary Eartha Kitt

"I feel very happy about the fact that (sings) 'I did it my way!' And I didn't lay down for a fortune, if you know what I mean. And I didn't do anything that I thought was -- well, let's say 97 percent of my life has been playing the game of life in a honest way," said Eartha Kitt, who performs Saturday night at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick.

Eartha Kitt may be best known for playing Catwoman in the '60's TV series "Batman," but there's more to her than one campy stint.

The child of a black mother and a white father, Kitt's childhood was spent in South Carolina, picking cotton for a penny a pound.

"All I wanted to do was have something to eat and clothes on my back," she said. When Kitt was 8, after being abandoned by her mother, she moved to Harlem to live with an aunt. After becoming a member of the Katherine Dunham Company, Kitt was discovered by Orson Welles, who cast her as Helen of Troy in a stage adaptation of "Faust."

The famous director once bit her lip during a performance, Kitt recalled. "Why did you bite me?" she asked him backstage. "I got excited," he responded.

Welles once famously described Kitt as "the most exciting woman in the world."

Kitt's career -- which includes Grammy nominations for some of her torchy albums and Tony nominations for Broadway shows like "The Wild Party" -- has recently enjoyed a resurgence, as she's been recording the voice of the evil sorceress Yzma in Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove," its sequel and TV spin-off. She also performed at the White House last year.

The last time Kitt visited 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with an unpopular war as backdrop, in 1968, her career was nearly derailed. She was invited to take part in a lunch with Lady Bird Johnson. During a discussion about crime, Kitt criticized the Vietnam War, reportedly bringing the First Lady to tears. (Kitt has written in her autobiography that she didn't see Lady Bird Johnson cry.)

Afterwards, Kitt said, she was blacklisted, forced to perform in Europe. She later learned that the CIA had kept a file on her.

When Kitt returned to the White House last year, she sang her hit "Santa Baby" as part of a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. She did not comment on the Iraq war. "I went there as an entertainer," she said.

Kitt, who turned 80 in January, also recently fought colon cancer.

On Saturday, the internationally famous chanteuse will bring her come-hither personality and distinctive voice to the Weinberg in Frederick.

News-Post Staff writer Bill D'Agostino spoke with Kitt recently by telephone.

I read that you were diagnosed with colon cancer last year. How are you feeling?

I'm fine now. I'm back to the gym and getting myself back into my usual routine.

Can you tell me a little bit about what the show (at the Weinberg) will be like?

It will be like what Eartha Kitt does. Old songs that people know me by, and new songs.

Old songs like "Santa Baby" and "C'est si bon (It's so good)"?

"C'est si bon," yes, because that's one that everyone wants to hear. But "Santa Baby" is out of season now.

How did you first come to record "C'est si bon?"

It was sent to me when I was living in Paris some years ago. It had already, according to the agents, four times been a hit. I had never heard it before. In those days we didn't have this kind of access to information that we have today. There was no television back in Paris. When they gave me the song, I thought, 'OK, I'll try it, because I have to sing something in French.'

But I forgot the lyrics [at a show] in Brussels. It was the first time I performed the song. I'm a very shy person anyway and it's easy to feel that way when I'm out there in front of people who had not experienced me at the time. I forgot the lyrics and I ad-libbed.

First of all, there was nothing but women in the audience. And that scared the hell out of me. I like women, and I love them in my audience because they have a good sense of humor, but I love working to men. And there were no men. So when I saw all these women ... it kind of threw me. So I ad-libbed, which is what you hear today on the record, which is how the song became another hit.

You mentioned you're shy. That's hard to believe.

Everyone says that. "You shy? Hah hah hah." (Laughs.) But they have no idea.

That's why it's wonderful to be doing -- one of the reasons why it's wonderful to be doing animated films now. ... When I get on stage, God is that scary. Once I get out there and I see the audience and the way they accept me, then I start to feel like Eartha Kitt, not Eartha Mae.

You used the analogy of Eartha Kitt versus Eartha Mae -- where did that come from?

My name is Eartha Mae Kitt. That's the one that's terribly, terribly shy and never wants to be seen or attract attention to her because she's a reject. Nobody wanted her as an orphan. My mother gave me away. ... Because of the way the public has accepted me I've made a very, very good living, which is very good for me. I never wanted to be in a position to be taken care of. But once I get out there (on stage) and realize that I'm still wanted and I'm still needed, I begin to feel, 'Oh, this is a comfort spot.' But once I leave the stage ... I go back to being a little cotton-picker from the south, that little orphan that nobody wanted.

It's not a sad thing. That's a very comfortable feeling for me to be in. ... But that private side of me is so private.

That must have made it all the more horrifying when you learned that the government was invading that privacy.

You don't really believe it. It wasn't fear as much as it was unbelievable. As though to say, "This is my country that is doing this to me, an American citizen who really believes in the United States of America and democracy and all of this?" ... I thought it was a joke.

It sounds like something out of some crazy Russian novel.

Yeah. Not in my country. But everything came out all right because when (director) Geoffrey Holder came to my house in Beverly Hills and asked me to do Shaleem-La-Lume in the story of Kismet ...

"Timbuktu!" (in 1978)?

"Timbuktu!" And when the audience gave me a standing ovation -- I mean really the whole audience stood up and applauded before I could even open my mouth -- I thought, 'OK, I guess everything is going to be OK.' (Laughs.) But in the meantime, I was going to Europe to work. Not to live. I really believe in this country. We have our problems but we're getting there.

I read you recently came back to the White House for a Christmas Tree celebration (with President George H. W. Bush).

I think he has a marvelous sense of humor.

Is that right?

Yes I do. He's a good person. I won't say anything about the administration because we know what we are all going through. But I think the whole world is going through a kind of exorcism now. We are cleansing ourselves.

Were you tempted to say anything while you were there about what's been going on?

No. I went there as an entertainer. I don't believe in just blurting things out because somebody might be looking for a headline. There are other ways -- as I did before, when the Johnson administration asked me to come to Washington to give my opinion. Then, I think, that is the proper way. But just to be blurting things out, I think you're feeding the enemy.

If I have something to say about my government, I'm going to say it to the government, not just blurting it out like somebody on the corner just because I want a headline. ... I think a lot of people who are bashing the government and bashing the president don't have constructive ideas.

You're famous for so many different things: Being a dancer, singer, actress, Catwoman, Orson Welles calling you "the most exciting woman in the world." How do you hope to be remembered?

Anything that they can remember me by. (Laughs.) I think it's wonderful. ... I feel that no matter what you remember me by, I'm very glad to be remembered. Because you remember me, I'm still working. I would say that most of the memory comes from Catwoman and now "The Emperor's New Groove."

How did you get the role of Catwoman?

I don't know. They called and asked if I would do it. ... I'm very glad I got that part. It was one of the funniest things I've ever done without thinking how funny I was. ... People say to me, 'You are a cat. You move like a cat. You talk like a cat. You grrrrowl like a cat. And you look like a cat.

'You look like a Burmese cat.'

I read that you're going to be in the new Kander and Ebb musical "All About Us." You're playing Esmerelda (the fortune teller)?

Esmerelda? No.

Yes, that's the character. I'm so confused because back in the '50s at the La Jolla Playhouse I played Sabina (the maid from "The Skin of Our Teeth," the musical's source material). ... Now I guess I have to play Esmerelda. Which means I'm very glad to be playing that part. She is a lot of fun. I can make her a lot of fun.

I'm in a wonderful position because I feel better, happy-wise, than I've ever been in my life because I don't have to worry about -- you know that sensuous thing that everybody's always talking about, 'Oh, you're so sexy, oh you're so beautiful and you're so blah blah blah'?

Now that I'm at the age I'm at, I don't have to worry about it anymore. (Laughs.) I don't have to worry about all of that nonsense, about having a man in my life, and why don't I have a man in my life -- all of that kind of craziness.

I'm very happy to be where I am. ... Someone asked me the other day, 'What do you feel after you've had cancer? Do you feel more alive?'

I've always felt very much alive because I'm so grateful for my life anyway because my life has been very beautiful. To have been an orphan and rejected and all of that kind of business, I got through that without even fighting. I just did it. Without hitting anybody over the head. Because I always felt you have to earn whatever you get. You can't just stand there and say, I need affirmative action because you feel sorry for me.

I know that I have been criticized for saying I really don't believe in affirmative action. And I have a qualm in my mind about that. ... I think lots of times when we are given something, we don't appreciate it as much as when had to work for it, as opposed to sitting there and blaming somebody for what happened to us 100 years ago.

I feel very happy about the fact that (sings) 'I did it my way!' And I didn't lay down for a fortune, if you know what I mean. And I didn't do anything that I thought was -- well, let's say 97 percent of my life has been playing the game of life in a honest way.

What: Eartha Kitt

Where: Weinberg Center for the Arts, 20 West Patrick St., Frederick

When: Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $30 to $50, with discounts for seniors and students. There is also a $80 dinner and post-performance reception with Eartha Kitt available, as part of the 2007 Tivoli Society Annual Gala.

Information: 301-600-2828 or www.weinbergcenter.org.

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