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Kitty Carlisle Hart keeps her charming ways

(ran PT HT CI editions)

At the end of her one-woman show, Kitty Carlisle Hart sings September Song in her warm and lovely voice, then flashes a winning smile at the audience as if to say: "See, I still have it, don't I?"

Well, of course, she does. After 60 glorious years in musical theater, Hart has all the charm and stage presence needed to keep an audience enchanted for better than an hour. And she does so with her new show, My Life on the Wicked Stage, which she will bring to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 4.

In this, the slim, stunning and 80-something actor regales her mostly older audiences with a medley of memories, anecdotes and songs from the glory days of American musical theater.

Hart put her new show together just months after resigning in 1996 as chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, a job she held for 20 years.

"I was at loose ends. . . . I mourned for a few months," she says, "then I realized I still had another string in my bow that I should use. Staying busy, involved, taking every opportunity that comes along _ that's what keeps your mind alive."

Hart first presented My Life on the Wicked Stage as part of a series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She brought it to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this fall, where she performed before a VIP-studded, very appreciative audience.

Now she is taking her show coast to coast in a series of one-night stands. Her bookings reach far into 1998.

The show's success is noteworthy not only because Hart is so enduring but also because she stages her act without benefit of film, slides, sets, props, sound effects or backup singers. Except for her pianist, she is alone on stage, in her bejeweled size-8 gowns.

Her anecdotes are not all "wicked," but they are impish.

For instance, she tells her audiences that the famous composer Sigmund Romberg "had an encyclopedic memory _ for everyone else's music."

George Gershwin, she reports, wrote a fill-in-the-blank song and would insert the name of whatever woman he was with.

The old-time crooner Rudy Vallee, she reveals, could not read music but devised an elaborate notation system so he could lead his band.

The eight songs Hart sings were written by old "family friends." They include Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Jerome Kern, Just One of Those Things by Cole Porter, Something Wonderful by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Always by Irving Berlin.

It takes a polished professional to pull off such an intimate show, and Hart has all the credentials. Her stage career dates back to 1933 when she opened on Broadway in Champagne, Sec. ("If you remember that," Hart laughingly told an admirer at the Kennedy Center, "you're a cad.")

Her Hollywood career included starring roles in the 1930s with the Marx Brothers and Bing Crosby and much later appearances in such films as Radio Days and Six Degrees of Separation.

In opera, Hart has played Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus.

Many fans remember her best for her 15-year stint as a regular panelist on the television game show To Tell the Truth.

Hart married producer-playwright Moss Hart, a titan in the theater, in 1946, and she has been a devoted keeper of his theatrical legacy since his death in 1961.

During her 20 years at the helm of the New York Council on the Arts _ when she visited arts projects in every corner of the state _ Kitty Hart continued to perform occasionally and to lecture on the arts regularly.

On leaving that post, she might have kicked off her high heels and settled back for a spell. Instead, she played in summer stock for four weeks to get her singing voice in good shape, then launched into My Life on the Wicked Stage.

Plans include a new book (she published her autobiography, Kitty, in 1988), in which she would push her campaign for federal support of the arts.

In whatever else she does, Hart is bent on making every day count because, as most people discover, time speeds up as we age.

"As my mother used to say," she tells her theater audiences, "once you're past 50 every 15 minutes is breakfast."

_ Gwen Gibson writes about entertainment and the arts for Third Age News Service.

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