Kitty Carlisle landed her first leading part in the operetta Rio Rita. She made her Broadway debut the following year. She landed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1934. She later returned to Broadway, playing the lead role in the musical comedy White Horse Inn in 1936. She had a lead role in Anniversary Waltz in 1954. Two years later, she left the stage for television. In 1967, she debuted at the Met.
Actress, singer, television personality and arts advocate Kitty Carlisle was born Catherine Conn on September 3, 1910, in New Orleans, Louisiana. A woman of great poise, elegance and wit, Carlisle was a popular entertainer, best known for her long run as a panelist on the television show To Tell The Truth. She developed her air of sophistication early on. Her mother began to taking her to cultural events at a young age. She studied the piano and had singing lessons.
When she was 10 years old, Carlisle lost her father. Not long after his death, Carlisle and her mother moved to Europe where she attended an elite private school in Switzerland. Hoping to line up a good marriage for her daughter, her mother sent her to finishing school in Paris. After making her rounds in high society, Carlisle was unable to make a suitable match. Her mother gave her two choices: acting or modeling. She chose acting and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Returning to the United States in 1932, Carlisle soon landed her first leading part in a touring production of the operetta Rio Rita. She made her Broadway debut the following year in Champagne, Sec, a musical adaptation of Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus.
Success on Stage
Soon Hollywood came calling. Carlisle landed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1934. Making her debut, she first appeared in the musical mystery Murder at the Vanities (1934). Later that year, she starred with Bing Crosby in two films, She Loves Me Not and Here Is My Heart. But her best-known film role was as the great soprano singer in the Marx Brothers' comedy, A Night at the Opera. While largely a foil for the brothers' comedic efforts, Carlisle impressed audiences with her singing, especially her rendition of the song "Alone." Despite the popularity of the film, Carlisle's Hollywood career sputtered to a stop with the studio buying out the remainder of her contract.
Back in New York, Carlisle returned to Broadway, playing the lead role in the musical comedy White Horse Inn in 1936. She went on to appear in another musical, Three Waltzes, the next year. Carlisle also performed in nightclubs and on the radio and became part of the New York cultural scene, befriending such luminaries as composer George Gershwin and novelist Sinclair Lewis. It was one of the big names in the theater that won her heart. She married the love of her life, playwright Moss Hart, in 1946. Being a supportive wife, Carlisle said that Hart involved her in his work, bringing her to rehearsals and asking her advice, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. The couple had two children, Catherine and Christopher.
Working together on the comedy Anniversary Waltz in 1954, Carlisle had one of the lead role while her husband served as its director. Two years later, she left the stage for television. With her perfectly styled hair, red lipstick and pearls, Carlisle provided a touch of New York glamour to the quiz show To Tell the Truth as one of its panelists. In each episode, a panel of famous people had to identify the correct person from the impersonators.
Other panelists included Polly Bergen, Ralph Bellamy and Tom Poston. During the show's run, Carlisle suffered a great personal loss when her husband died in 1961. Despite her loss, she continued working on the show and stayed with it until it was cancelled by CBS in 1967. Around this time, she made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Die Fledermaus.
Legacy and Philanthropy
Outside of her work as an entertainer and television personality, Carlisle became a champion for the arts. She served on the New York State Council of the Arts as vice chairperson from 1971 to 1977 and then became the chairperson—a post she held for two decades.
In the later part of her career, Carlisle made a few film appearances, including Woody Allen's Radio Days (1987) and the identity drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993) starring Will Smith. She also maintained a busy schedule of cabaret and theatrical performances. While in her nineties, Carlisle toured with her one-woman show, My Life on the Wicked Stage. And in celebration of her 96th birthday, she played a number of dates in 2006, giving her final performance that November.
Carlisle died of heart failure on April 17, 2007, in New York City. At her memorial service, friends from all walks of life turned out to honor one of Manhattan's grandest ladies, including Barbara Walters and Michael Bloomberg.
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