In an era when manufactured “celebrities” are as common as drab backyard sparrows, Eartha Kitt, who died on Christmas day of colon cancer at age 81, was the kind of strange, wondrous, exotic bird you lay eyes on once and never forget. I first discovered Kitt when I was a young boy watching after-school reruns of Batman; she was touted in the credits as an “Extra Special Guest Villainess” for her role as “The Catwoman,” and while everything about the show was pure ridiculousness — nothing more so than the way Kitt gleefully rolled her r’s on words like “prrrrrrrhaps” and “terrrrrrrrific” — it was an exercise in futility to try to take my eyes off the giddy woman in the black bodysuit who seemed to turn her every scene into a wild one-woman show.
I could pretty much say the same of Kitt’s performance in the 2000 Broadway production of The Wild Party. I remember exiting the theater and marveling how with just two solo numbers (including the show-stopping “When It Ends,” a defiant ode to man’s mortality), the then 73-year-old Kitt managed to steal the show from her terrific costars Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin.
This past summer, however, I got to see Kitt in a cabaret setting, the forum where it was said she felt most at home. Sitting maybe 20 feet away from the stage at Café Carlyle in New York City, and watching Kitt vamp and shamelessly flirt with male audience members, I was struck by how few octogenarians would still attempt to play the sex kitten, let alone pull it off (and doing two shows a night, no less). Perhaps even more impressive, though, was Kitt’s understanding that to be seductive, you don’t always have to be so bloody serious. Indeed, she broke out into her trademark cackle several times during old chestnuts like “Too Young to Be Meant for Me” and “Champagne Taste” (a clip of the latter is embedded below). Still, my favorite moment of the show — Kitt’s rendition of “La Vie en Rose” — didn’t feature any hip-gyrating or leg-flashing at all; her voice vibrating with each word like a plucked string, Kitt was so beautifully somber that the clanking of cutlery and the rumble of ice against glasses in the intimate dinner theater ceased entirely.
Speaking of ice in glasses, here’s a virtual toast to the fabulous Ms. Kitt. Check out some more fascinating footage after the jump, then share your own memories of the legendary entertainer in the comments section below.
More on celebs we lost in 2008:
Legacies ’08: Stars Pay Tribute to the Legends Who Left Us (Extended Versions)
Which celebrity death affected you most in 2008?
Remembering Heath Ledger
Remembering Bernie Mac
Remembering Paul Newman
Remembering Estelle Getty