Kitty Carlisle Hart, whose long career spanned Broadway, opera, television and film, including the classic Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera,” died after a battle with pneumonia, her son said Wednesday. She was 96.
“She passed away peacefully” Tuesday night in her Manhattan apartment, said Christopher Hart, a director-writer-producer who was at her side. “She had such a wonderful life and a great long run. It was a blessing.”
Hart was touring the country in her autobiographical one-woman show, “Here’s to Life,” until the pneumonia struck around Christmas, her son said. Broadway’s theaters planned to dim their marquee lights Wednesday in honor of the longtime patron of the arts.
In 1991, she received the National Medal of Arts from the first President Bush. Hart’s last gig was a December performance of her show in Atlanta.
David Lewis, Hart’s longtime musical director, said she would be remembered “as the grande dame not only of show business but also in her philanthropy and her support for the American musical theater.”
Well known for her starring role as Rosa Castaldi in the 1935 comedy “A Night at the Opera,” her other film credits included “She Loves Me Not” and “Here Is My Heart,” both opposite Bing Crosby; Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”; and “Six Degrees of Separation.”
‘People remember me from television’
But she was probably best known as one of the celebrity panelists on the popular game show “To Tell the Truth.” She appeared on the CBS prime-time program from 1956 to 1967 with host Bud Collyer and fellow panelists such as Polly Bergen, Johnny Carson, Bill Cullen and Don Ameche.
The show featured three contestants, all claiming to be the same person, with the panelists quizzing the trio to determine which one was telling the truth. Hart later appeared in daytime and syndicated versions of the show.
“People remember me from television,” she once said. “They don’t even remember me from ‘A Night at the Opera.’ They have no idea that I played the lead and did all the singing. But they do remember television, particularly ‘To Tell the Truth.”’
She began her acting career on Broadway in “Champagne Sec” and went on to appear in many other Broadway productions, including the 1984 revival of “On Your Toes.” In 1967 she made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in “Die Fledermaus” and created the role of Lucretia in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia.”
When Moss Hart directed “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, winning a Tony award, the production starred a young Julie Andrews.
“Her humanity, her wit, her great style were legendary,” Andrews said in a statement Wednesday, calling the star “a beloved and trusted friend.”
Kitty Carlisle Hart’s film career began in 1934; in “Murder at the Vanities,” she sang “Cocktails for Two,” a song later made famous in a spoof by Spike Jones.
“A Night at the Opera” the following year was the Marx Brothers’ sixth film and their first for MGM, where they shifted after their career at Paramount sagged at the box office. MGM’s Irving Thalberg added more romance to the Marxes’ formula, bringing in Hart and Allan Jones to play the young opera singers in love, and the film became a huge hit.
‘A great dame’
Elegant and sophisticated — with hair, makeup and dress perfectly in place — Hart has been called a “great dame.”
In a piece on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in 2000, Marie Brenner, author of “Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women,” said: “A great dame is a soldier in high heels. ... They lived through the Depression. They lived through the war. They were tough, intelligent and brassy women.”
Discipline ruled Hart’s success. She began every day with an exercise routine, even after turning 90.
Hart was born in New Orleans on Sept. 3, 1910. She attended the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
She and Hart married in 1946 and had two children: Christopher and daughter Catherine. Her husband died in 1961 at 57. In later years, she lived on the next block from Kaufman’s daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider, and the two would confer when a revival of a Kaufman-Hart play was in the offing. In a 2002 Associated Press interview, Schneider called her “my best friend.”
She served on the state arts council from 1971 to 1996, including 20 years as its chairwoman. In 1988, she testified in Albany to a legislative committee amid complaints that the council had financed gay-oriented projects.
“We fund art,” she said. “We don’t fund anyone’s point of view.”
Hart’s special concern for women’s role in society led to her appointment as chairwoman of the Statewide Conference of Women and later as special consultant to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller on women’s opportunities. She also moderated a TV series called “Women on the Move.”
She served on the board of Empire State College in New York and was an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Besides her daughter and son, survivors include three grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete. “We’re working on a terrific memorial,” her son said.