Christmas. For better or for worse, no other holiday comes close to conjuring up mental keepsakes from our past, usually some sliver of humanity we dearly hold onto amidst the annual onslaught of crass commercialism. For me - a Jew raised in a secular household - December 25 always reminds me of one person.
Along with Dean Martin, James Brown and Charlie Chaplin, Kitt is part of a small but iconic club of performers who died on Jesus's birthday.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of her death, but the 18th year of my matriculation as a member of the media. Eartha, you see, was one of my early mentors.
When I first met her, she answered the door in a hotel towel draped across her midsection. Even her famous wig was on hiatus.
"Hi, I'm Eartha Kitt," she said, somewhat warily, I thought, and disappeared back into the bathroom.
My camera crew had been waiting outside on the seventh floor hallway of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. I shrugged and motioned for them to go in and set up in the living room.
I had been given this assignment only two days earlier. It was the fall of 1995, and I was still a fresh-faced producer for E! Entertainment Television. My supervising producer told me I was going to interview 68-year-old Eartha Kitt for an interview show called Extreme Close-Up: Eartha Kitt. My first thought - in between yawns - was: Who's Eartha Kitt? My second thought was, why couldn't I get the Jim Carrey show that went to my fellow producer? I decided to take my new assignment as a challenge. I immersed myself in all things Eartha, rifling through her latest autobiography: "I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten." It was then that I realized Eartha played my favorite Catwoman in the Batman TV series. Aha! - a connection! Maybe this won't be so bad after all.
Settling in for our scheduled interview, I was prepared for the other Eartha Kitt to sit down in front of me - Eartha Mae, the shy, suspicious Southern girl she so often references in her life. Sure enough, Eartha Mae was the first to arrive. Sporting a wig that made me think of Carol Channing, she stared down at the floor and frowned as the sound man struggled to affix a clip-on microphone to her delicate mesh top. Attempts at small talk were met with sullen one-word answers. I doodled on my question list.
My instructions were to get enough material to fill the half-hour program on Eartha's life. I started with fluff questions about her latest album and accompanying tour. Gradually, she warmed up and at one point let out a hearty cackle. Sensing I had broken the ice, I made a tactical error. I asked if she could do her trademark gravelly cat-growl to the camera. She fixed me with a blinking stare. "Mr. Haddad, I am not a trained animal to perform for you," she admonished, gently but firmly. I apologized and quickly realized my rookie mistake. She was spilling her life story. I was after sound bites. All I had to do was be a good audience. Ask the right questions, experience the journey with her, and the answers would come.
And come they did. Halfway through the interview, Eartha Mae gave over entirely to Eartha Kitt. She was charming, feisty, funny, candid, and undeniably sexy. Indeed, greeting me in only a towel had the disarming effect of establishing who was really in charge here. I'll always remember her credo as a performer, one I've taken to heart myself as someone who has chosen a career in the arts: "As long as you have the feeling of understanding what you're singing about, then your sense of humor is much more keen, your sense of drama is much more keen, and you'll have a tendency to be that much more of an artist, rather than just..." she scowled... "an entertainer. Anyone can be an entertainer. There are very few of us who can be artists." And with that she let loose one of her patented cat growls, then threw her head back and laughed.
After our interview, I set up our cameras to capture her live show in the Cinegrill lounge, where she was in the midst of selling out a month's worth of shows. Her energy was unflagging, and, just as she preached, she truly lived her songs. By the end of her performance, I was no longer a producer, but an honest-to-goodness fan, experiencing the entire arc of her life with her. Based on the reactions of the teary-eyed audience, they shared the journey. "At the end of my shows, I want people to feel like they've just watched a play," she had told me. She capped the evening with the disco classic, "I Will Survive." Even though it wasn't written for her, it might as well have been. I wasn't just sold; I was awakened. If she could muster this level of energy at her age, I owed it to myself, at forty years her junior, to give everything I had if I too wished to survive in this industry.
Immediately after the show, my crew and I got in the elevator to shoot some remaining footage of the hotel. Before the doors closed, Eartha Kitt was shuttled into our car along with her people. She was winded and sweaty, clutching a large bouquet of flowers. If she saw me, she didn't let on. She was staring at the ground, quietly, content to be just Eartha Mae.
This Christmas, I'll get my share of presents from friends and loved ones. But even if death, Eartha Kitt is the gift that keeps on giving.
Paul Haddad is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer and director. He has also penned two books. He previously wrote for LA Observed about Vin Scully and Little Santa Monica Boulevard. His website is PaulHaddadBooks.com