Preparing To Perform: Lessons From Miss Eartha Kitt

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I recently watched a PBS special about the life and career of singer, actress, cabaret artist and all-around stellar performer, Eartha Kitt. Miss Kitt– who many of you will remember as the purring, growling, sinewy Catwoman from the original Batman television series) died this past Christmas day at the age of 81. When asked by the interviewer how on earth she was still able to do what she loves– and do it so very well—Miss Kitt replied: “You have to prepare yourself to do what want to do you.” Then she went on to explain that, for her, preparing involved thinking the right thoughts, eating the right foods, and keeping negative people away, among other things. I smiled when I heard this, having seen for myself just how seriously and thoroughly Miss Kitt took the notion of preparation. I had, in fact, spent some time in her company at a Jazz festival booked by my husband, Jim, and presented at the famed Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinaw Island. She was 79 years young at the time.

Jim and I went to pick up Miss Kitt at the ferry docks the evening before her performance. I fully expected Miss Kitt to be as expansive, slinky, glittery and diva-esque as the persona that I had seen slithering across a television or teasing the lyrics of I WANT TO BE EVIL in her vixen’s voice. Instead, the woman who came forward to meet us was a silent, tiny, plain-clothed little thing, without a shred of makeup, as reserved and pulled tight as an oyster. She barely spoke a word to us as the horse drawn carriage pulled us up the steep hill towards the long, white-pillared porch of the Grand Hotel. As a performer myself, I knew enough to respect her need for silence and distance. I simply shut my mouth and joined my husband in accompanying her to her sunny, airy, stunning hotel suite. She took in the panoramic view of the smooth cobalt surface of Straits of Mackinaw, put her hands on her hips, rolled her eyes and spoke:

“If I had known it was going to be this fabulous,” she said, “I would have brought a man.” “Well, Miss Kitt” said my husband, “that can ALWAYS be arranged.”She smiled. We smiled. She spoke again.
“What time am I performing tomorrow “

“2 pm, “ Jim replied.

“God,” Miss Kit said, rolling her eyes, “ it’s HELL being Eartha Kitt at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.” And then she put her hands on her hips and laughed, a big rich throaty laugh. When I look back, I realize that that simple question, “what time am I performing tomorrow,” catalyzed the start of Miss Kitt’s preparation countdown and her metamorphosis into the Eartha Kitt (Big E, Big K) people would be paying to see.. Because the Eartha Kitt we expected to dazzle us required time, work and preparation, emotionally and physically. And I was privileged to observe some of that preparation, which occurred in phases over the next 12 hours.

At 9 am the following morning, Miss Kitt showed up at breakfast, five hours before show time, wearing a silky turban, long fluffy false eyelashes, a face gilded with makeup and a colorful kimono—a far cry from the undecorated woman we’d met at the ferry docks the evening before. Wide eyes turned toward her as she swept into the dining room, holding herself like a queen, flirting with maitre D as he seated her. Once fortified with breakfast, she made her way down to the Grand Hotel’s tea garden stage to do an official sound check with the members of her trio. As my husband and I finished our breakfast, we could hear Miss Kitt warming up her voice with a song or two. Then she put the band through their paces, going over parts of a song again and again. Next, word trickled up to us that Miss Kitt required a lounge chair and a tuxedoed waiter to serve her champagne for an improvised bit during her show. My husband scurried to procure them. Miss Kitt was exacting and specific. She knew precisely what she needed and wanted. After all, as she had declared, “you have to prepare yourself for what you want to do.”

An hour prior to her 2 o’clock performance, Miss Kitt retired to her dressing area. No visitors allowed: she needed space and silence. Again, this was all part of her preparation ritual.

At 2 o’clock, I sat eager and breathless in the front row, ready to see the final iteration of Miss Kitt. The emcee hushed the audience and spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Eartha Kitt”

With upraised arms, Miss Kitt swept out of the wings, swathed in a dramatic, long cloak held aloft by a small, scurrying assistant. The assistant whipped off the cloak with a swoosh, revealing Eartha Kitt, Big E, Big K in all her gloriousness: Hair perfectly coiffed, nails long and red, heels glittery and high, stretch velvet gown slit up to there and revealing a very toned leg. She growled. And then she did a backbend that brought the back of her head almost perpendicular to the ground. The crowd gasped!

For two hours, Miss Kitt sang, kicked up to her nose, teased grown men enough to make them blush, made us laugh until we cried, made us cry until we laughed, and otherwise showed us how to take the stage (and an audience) prisoner. As I watched Miss Kitt in full fiery performance, I thought of the silent, unadorned, reserved woman I had met the night before at the ferry dock. In less than 24 hours, she had done whatever it took to bring herself to full performance power. Relying on a lifetime of training and preparation—countless dance and yoga classes, vocal and dance warm-ups, attention to nutrition, costume, makeup, song choices, hours of rehearsal– Miss Kitt had helped transform herself into the stunning, incandescent performer who had me hanging on her every word and gesture. And she had done so even though– and especially because—as she’d put it, “It’s HELL being Eartha Kitt at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”

And here’s the kicker. We– the audience that stood to give her an ovation at the end of her remarkable show– never had a clue that Miss Kitt had just been diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take her life. I have no doubt that the years of training, combined with the steps she took to be thoroughly prepared, allowed her to rise above her medical condition, and give a performance that knocked our socks off. If Miss Eartha Kitt was (and in my heart still is) not a poster child for why training and preparation matter, then I don’t know who is.