Thursday, April 19, 2007

When the world was black and white

Kitty Carlisle died yesterday. she was 96. Kitty was the last of the New York social group that dominated much of television in the early years. Back in the 1950s, game shows were often treated with more respect that they are today. The better ones, What's My Line and To Tell the Truth came on in prime time and had panels of New York socialites to play the games. Kitty was often on a panel with Bennet Cerf, a fellow who was in the publishing business and Dorothy Killgallin, a newspaper columnist. Even the pure entertainers, such as Steve Allen or Orson Bean, were really just society figures in disguise. You had the feeling that when the dapper John Charles Daily dismissed each episode of "What's My Line", the cast would repair to Sardi's or perhaps 21 for drinks and dinner, and that the reveling would go on, in a sophisticated manner, into the early hours of the morning. About on par with an Algonquin Round Tale discussion.

Kitty was not so much beautiful as she was glamarous, in that New York society way. Her late husband was Moss Hart, a famous playwrite and producer.She has known and loved Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and everyone that had counted for anything in the New York theatre since the 1930s.This was in a time when New York was the last word on sophistication in the world. Even bigger than Paris. If you watched Jack Parr or Steve Allen or even Ed Sullivan, chances were that the guest was someone on stage in New York, or someone who had just written a book. The transfer of talent from New York to Los Angeles, which was completed by the late 60's, changed the nature of what we came to know as sophistication. I dare say that if television had stayed in Manhattan, we probably would not have had the likes of Anna Nicloe Smith as a major star. Kitty simply would not have allowed it. The best way to put it is that Hollywood vulgarized the television industry, which in turn vulgarized the country. Oh, most of us were vulgar already, but we knew enough to be ashamed of it and to try to hide it.And when Kitty or someone from that gang was on the air, we could forget who we were, and for a moment we would be swirled into a glorious cocktail party in a beautiful apartment building on Park Avenue.

I will never think of Kitty without seeing her in black and white. I am sure that I saw her plenty of times in color over the years, but when you saw someone the first 1500 times you ever saw them, in black and white, the memory is imprinted forver. The whole world was black and white then. I was watching a movie when my daughter was small when she asked me if the world had any color when I was a boy. She was unsure as to when color came into thje world. I explained to her about black and white movies and pictures, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that she was right. My childhood was in black and white. And, it was in New York, a place I had never really been. But that's where Dave Garroway was, and Bud Collier, and Chet Huntley and Captain Kangaroo and many of the people I saw every day.All of them gone now. In the words of the old song,"some are up in G".

Now they are all gone. The glory and glamour of New York in the 1950s is recounted only in celluloid and in books. We will never again see the likes of Kitty Carlise, wearing a personalized black mask (glasses stems instead of string) asking the mystery guest if he, or she, is currently appearing in any Broadway plays. I loved Kitty Carlisle, I loved what she stood for, which was taste and the arts. I loved the way she looked, the way she spoke and the refinement with which she always carried herself. She was the last of her kind. Sardi's must feel very empty by now.


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