Our Evening with Kitty Carlisle

Did we ever tell you about the time we met Kitty Carlisle? No? Well, let’s rectify that right now.

In 2005, we attended a screening of June Moon at NYC’s Film Forum. It’s a 1931 adaptation of a play written by George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner that hadn’t been screened since its initial run more than seventy years prior.

To mark the occasion, Anne Kaufman Schneider, Kaufman’s daughter, and James Lardner, Lardner’s grandson, were on hand.

And so was Kaufman-Schneider’s pal Kitty Carlisle-Hart, who was then just two months away from turning 95. She was, of course, the widow of former Kaufman collaborator Moss Hart.

We thought the world of Hart (still do)—Kitty was one of our favorite New Yorkers, and, since she was seated directly behind us, we decided to turn around and tell her as much.

“Thank you, dear,” she said when we told her it was an honor to be sitting in front of her. “I do hope you’ll try to scrunch down in your seat so I can see the movie.”

We promised to do our best.

A few minutes passed, and we felt a finger tapping on our shoulder. We turned around.

“May I have some of your popcorn,” Ms. Carlisle-Hart asked, pointing at the nearly full bag of popcorn on the floor next to my seat (we were both seated on the aisle).

“By all means—have just as much as you like.”

And she did just that, reaching over and grabbing a handful of corn several times through the course of the picture.

We were thrilled. Someone who once starred opposite the Marx Brothers was sharing our popcorn! And impressed, too—we hope, when we’re 95, we’re still up to bending over and snagging some popcorn from a bag on the ground.

We spent most of the movie contorted every which in order to keep our fat head from blocking Ms. Hart’s view of the screen, and after the final credits, we turned around and asked her if our efforts had been successful.

“I didn’t miss a thing,” she said effusively. “Thank you so much!”

We chatted briefly for a moment or two more, and we screwed up enough courage to ask her if she would consent to our conducting an interview with her one day soon, if we could find a publication interested in running it, and she readily agreed, telling us how we could contact her if and when the time came.

Later, I spoke to Ms. Kaufman-Schneider, thanking her for the Q&A she had participated in after the movie. She was great—whip-smart, opinionated (she hated the movie, and wasn’t afraid to say so), frank, and witty.

She asked me if we weren’t the young fellow whose popcorn Kitty had been filching; we admitted that we were.

“I don’t know what to do with her,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “She said to me, ‘I’m hungry, and this nice young man has some popcorn,’ and I couldn’t talk her out of it.”

We assured her that we had been pleased to share our snack and thanked her again.

We never managed to conduct that interview with our Kitty; she passed away just short of two years later and we somehow didn’t manage to get our ducks in a row in time. But we’ll always treasure the memory of our encounter with her.

And we figure that, if there’s an afterlife (and we’re inclined to think there is), we’ll have someone to show us around a bit. Surely she won’t mind introducing us to the Marx Brothers, for starters, and to our favorite What’s My Line panelist, Arlene Francis. Kitty, of course, was a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth, but she was a guest panelist on What’s My Line more than once, and we’d bet our bottom dollar that she and Arlene got along like two peas in a pod.

We figure it’s the least she can do. After all, we shared our popcorn with her, right?

Times Square Tintypes: Beatrice Lillie

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles actress and comedic performer Beatrice Lillie.
 

PuLEEZE!!!!

BEATRICE LILLIE was really born in Toronto, Canada. She went to England, alone, at the age of fifteen.
Caricature of Beatrice LillieShe likes anything that’s green.
Her theatrical career started in Charlot’s Revue of 1915. Here she made her first hit singing Irving Berlin‘s “I Want to Go Back to Michigan.”
Has an inferiority complex whenever she talks about business.
Her husband is Lord Peel. That makes her Lady Peel, in parentheses, to the rotogravure sections. Her supreme treasure is her son, Robert, who is here with her.
Is exactly the same offstage as she is on. Even says “Thank you” and “Puleeze” as she does for a laugh in the theater.
Sleeps perched up on three big pillows. Always has a sandwich placed on the night table and sleeps with socks on to keep her feet warm.
There are two things she really hates. One is to have her picture taken. The other is writing her signature.
She passed the blindfold test, endorsing a certain brand of cigarettes. She smokes an English cigarette called “Players.” She endorsed Lux thinking it was candy.
She either likes a person at first sight or not at all.
As far as musical talent goes she can tickle a bit on the guitar.
The only legitimate play she ever appeared in was Up in Mabel’s Room. It was a big hit here. It lasted six weeks in London. The critics said: “Beatrice Lillie played Beatrice Lillie very well.”
A snowstorm fascinates her. During the snowstorms, while she was in this city, she went sleigh riding in Central Park.
Calls people “Ducky.” If she doesn’t call them “Ducky,” she calls them “Chicken.” Whenever something pleases her she refers to it as “A pretty kettle of fish.”
Her son scolds her because she wears funny costumes on the stage. He believes he should always look pretty.
Among the things that make her shudder are people who chump hard candy, people who tell you they have a cold and then cough in your face to prove it, people who crack their knuckles and people who are always blowing bubbles with chewing gum.
She likes the saxophone because Lord Peel plays it.
She owns a dress suit. And wears it as well as she does a Paris smock. This Year of Grace was the first show in her theatrical career in which she didn’t wear it.
Every week she receives letters from people who want to sell her an old gun, an old piece of china or an old print that once belonged to the early Peels.
Almost everyone has his own nickname for her. Some of the most popular are: “Tiny,” “Smally,” “Beena,” “Mina,” “Hoyland,” “Peanut,” ‘Dumbell,” “Crazy,” “Oopie” and “Lady Peel.”
She would rather visit a doctor than eat an apple. She only took a bite of the apple she is supposed to eat while singing “World Weary.” This bite almost choked her.
She can name the horse the Prince of Wales didn’t fall off.
Her favorite Americans are Robert Benchley, Donald Ogden Stewart, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Marc Connolly and Alexander Woollcott. The Algonquin, she believes, is the capital of the United States.
Claims that no matter where she lives in this town of ours they are always building a house next to her bedroom. For this reason she sleeps with cotton in her ears.
Every evening she orders the same dinner. It consists of roast beef plain, plain boiled potatoes, plain white bread, Worcestershire sauce and plain spinach. She makes a special request that it be served by a plain waiter.
Her secret desire is to be able to speak with a Jewish accent.

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Times Square Tintypes: Irving Berlin

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles perhaps the greatest of American songwriters, Irving Berlin.
 

THE BIRTH OF THE BLUES

HE has a name that will live forever and he bought it for a song. IRIVING BERLIN.
Came to this country at the age of four, the youngest of eight children. In Russia his father was a cantor. Here a kosher butcher.
He has yet to find a hat to fit him.
He eats a lot for one of his size.
Plays the piano by ear. And only in F sharp. Has a specially constructed piano with a sliding keyboard. When the music calls for another key he merely moves the lever.
He is not a one finger player. Uses all his fingers badly.
Has a scar on his forehead. It was received on a Washington’s Birthday in Cherry Street, trying to start a bonfire.
Thinks he is a good stud poker player. His friends say he’s lucky.
His pet aversions are riveters and second verses.
Ran away from home at the age of fourteen. His first stop was Callahan’s saloon. Here he sang “The Mansion of Aching Hearts” until enough coins were tossed at him to pay for a night’s lodging. Later became a singing waiter at Nigger Mike’s place, 12 Pell Street. The barker on the trip to Chinatown bus now points out the place.
He wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” credited with starting the jazz vogue, at the age of twenty-three.
Crowds frighten him. So do certain individuals.
His idea of a great achievement is writing a song that reaches the million copy mark.
Maintains a home in West Forty-sixth Street. But lives elsewhere. The first of every month generally finds him moving.
His square moniker is Israel Baline. For a time, he went under the name of Cooney. Became Berlin because that was the way the Bowery pronounced Baline.
As a singing waiter he kicked a hoofer named George White out of the place for being a pest, and he served Al Smith.
Is always chewing gum. This can be observed by merely watching the funny way his hat moves on his head.
His favorite biographer is Alexander Woollcott.
He composes in this fashion: First playing the song on the piano. Then singing it to Arthur Johnson, his right and left hand man, who records upon paper what he hears. Then Johnson plays the written manuscript. This is the first draft. From this Berlin works on to the final version. Often after a song has been published he changes it.
His bill for flowers for the Mrs. is $1,000 a month.
His patent leather dinner shoes have more cracks than his hair has waves.
Of all the songs he has written, a figure exceeding four hundred, his favorite is “The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On.”
Is very restless. Can’t sit or stand still. Always paces the floor. He walks miles in any room he is in. It is the only exercise he gets.
As far as playwrights go, his taste begins and ends with George S. Kaufman. As for music, he’ll whistle anything by Jerome Kern. For lyrics he hands first prize to B. G. De Sylva. And if asked to name the swellest guy in the theatrical game, he’d shout Sam Harris.
He has had to change his entire working schedule since he became a father.
He has never worn a diamond. The only jewelry he wears is, occasionally, a pearl tie pin.
Never eats the crust of bread or rolls. Always plucks the filling. This can be seen circled about his plate.
After finishing a song he sings it to the first person he meets. A bell boy at Palm Beach was the first person to hear “Lazy.” A Broadway taxi driver was the first to hear “All Alone.” A bewildered stranger, occupation unknown, was the first to hear “Say It With Music.”
He never writes anything in longhand but his signature on a check. Everything else he prints.
The one thing in life he is looking forward to is walking into a restaurant with his daughter, Mary Ellen.
Of all the songs ever written the one he’d love to be the author of is “The Rosary.”
On the fly leaf of a book containing every song he wrote there is this ditty which he believes sums up everything:

Let Me Be a Troubadour,
And I Will For Nothing More
Than One Short Hour Or So
To Sing My Song And Go.

He has a form-fitting couch which was especially designed for him.