I’m a little late getting around to this, but I’d like to take a moment to mark the passing last week of two great ladies of the theatre: Lynn Michaels and Kitty Carlisle Hart. I didn’t know much about either of them before last week, but it turns out there was plenty to know.
Michaels was a key figure in the original indie theater movement back in the 1950s. Her debut as a producer was Bertolt Brecht’s The Private Life of the Master Race, adapted by Eric Bentley, which went on to receive of the very first OBIE Awards from the Village Voice. From there, she opened and ran the St. Marks Playhouse, which presented such works as The Blacks by Jean Genet, Deep are the Roots, and Leroi Jones’ The Slave/The Toilet. And, starting in 1969, the venue become the home of the then newly-formed Negro Ensemble Company for nine seasons.
Today, Michaels may be most famously remembered for converting an old hat factory into what is now the Ohio Theatre. She was also the founder and artistic director of the Open Space Theatre Experiment, which presented festivals of new work, including James Lapine’s Photograph.
Artistically speaking, Kitty Carlise Hart couldn’t be further away from Michaels, but her devotion to the theatre was just as fervent.
She was a performer whose career spanned every medium. She starred opposite the Marx Brothers in their classic 1935 film, A Night at the Opera. From 1956 to 1967, she was a celebrity panelist on the popular television game show, To Tell the Truth, with other such luminaries of the day as Johnny Carson, Polly Bergen, and Don Ameche. Her Broadway debut came in 1933, in the operetta, Champagne Sec; her final Broadway appearance came some 50 years later, in the 1983 revival of the Rodgers & Hart musical, On Your Toes. In between, she appeared in several other Broadway productions including the musical White Horse Inn, Agnes DeMille’s production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Anniversary Waltz, a play directed by Hart’s husband, the legendary writer-director-producer, Moss Hart. She even made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, in a 1967 production of Die Fledermaus.
Hart was also a diligent arts philanthropist who served on the New York State Council on the Arts from 1971 to 1996, including 20 years as its chairwoman. Her advocacy for bettering women’s role in society led to her appointment as chairwoman of the Statewide Conference of Women. Later, she served as a special consultant on women’s opportunities to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
In 1988, Hart testified in Albany to a legislative committee investigating complaints that NYSCA had funded gay-oriented projects. Her response? “We fund art. We don’t fund anyone’s point of view.”
In one obituary of Hart’s, I came across a quote that seems to suit both her and Michaels. It came from a 60 Minutes interview with Marie Brenner, author of Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women, in which she offered her explanation of the term “great dame”: “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.”
‘Nuff said, eh?