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A real star of stage and screen

She danced with Gershwin. She auditioned for Cole Porter. Irving Berlin was her daughter's godfather. Her late husband, Moss Hart, was one of America's most celebrated playwrights and directors.

Kitty Carlisle Hart was front and center for Broadway's greatest decades. She is one of the few eyewitnesses still around to talk and sing about it.

Now in her 80s (Hart refuses to say more about that subject) and after a career as a singer, a game show panelist (18 years on To Tell The Truth) and two decades as president of the New York State Council for the Arts, Hart thinks she has finally found herself.

"Darling, it's unbelievable," she said by phone from Atlanta, where she was performing this week. "I waited all these years to have the kind of success I'm now having."

She is touring with her one-woman show, My Life Upon the Wicked Stage _ A History of American Musical Theater. She performs twice in the bay area in coming days. The show is a collection of songs and stories, most from her own recollections.

"I'm the last one who sings Gershwin and actually knew him," she says.

She knew him well.

"We used to go to El Morocco and dance," she said, recalling the legendary New York nightclub.

Gershwin proposed marriage. Carlisle declined.

"He wasn't in love with me, but he thought it was time to get married and I was eminently suitable," she said.

But she had a hit song then _ Love In Bloom, later appropriated by Jack Benny _ and a career on stage and in the movies.

She later auditioned for Cole Porter and Moss Hart, who were casting their forthcoming musical Jubilee. She liked Hart.

"I didn't get the job," she says. "And it took me a long time to get the man."

Moss Hart proposed in 1946, and Carlisle took his last name and put her career on hold.

"I felt that Moss was a real genius, and it was worth taking care of him. And I had a wonderful outlet," she said.

That outlet, which arrived in 1957, was the panel show To Tell The Truth.

As Kitty Carlisle, she bubbled beside Bill Cullen, Orson Bean and Peggy Cass, trying to guess which of three contestants were who they claimed to be. Most of America simply accepted her as a celebrity, without actually knowing of her earlier career as a singer and actor on stage and in a legendary scene in the Marx Brothers film A Night At the Opera.

"I was never really out of the public eye," Carlisle said of those days.

After her husband's death in 1961, she continued to appear on television. She also raised their two children.

In 1976, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo nominated her to chair the state's arts council. She threw herself into the job, traveling to obscure towns to encourage local theater groups and fighting to keep state financing for the arts.

She used flattery when possible _ "I served five governors and I called them all "Governor Darling.'t"

But she kept other weapons in reserve.

"On several occasions I literally cried up in Albany if they threatened to cut us. I cared very passionately, and I wasn't above weeping if that's what it took."

When she stepped down in 1995, Hart was depressed.

"I mourned, like any decent CEO. I felt at wits' end," she said.

She didn't stay there long.

"One day I woke up and said, "You're a damn fool. You've got another string in your bow. Now use it!'

"

That last string was her own talents and memories. She built her one-woman show from a piece she had done years earlier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was an instant hit.

She doesn't downplay her talents, but she gives credit to her friends, who wrote songs such as The Man I Love, Always and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. "These were first-class composers, and they were first-class lyricists. The writers were poets; they told a story with a beginning, middle and end." And Hart, her voice still clear and strong, knows how to sing those songs.

She appeared at a benefit last week with the composer and pianist Marvin Hamlisch. It was an all-Gershwin show, and Hart performed the section of her show about her friend George. The response was overwhelming.

"I've been playing a long time," she said, "but when I turned to make my exit, my dear, even the orchestra was applauding."

Information from Times wire services was used in this report.

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