Kitty Carlisle, a marmalade domestic shorthair regarded by many as the premier feline entertainer of her time, passed away today at Angell Memorial Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts due to complications from kidney disease. Ms. Carlisle was 16 years old.
Little is known about Carlisle’s early life until her pre-adolescent months. In May, 1991 (estimated age: five months), she was discovered when she wandered into a rehearsal of Unsung Cole (And Classics Too) at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Her star appeal was recognized instantly by dancer Heather Douglas who hastily named her “Puck” after Shakespeare’s mischievous character because, “She arrived on a midsummer night.” [sic] That night, Kitty went home with Douglas’s fellow cast member, Ken Hollern. On arriving at her new residence, however, she chose to reveal her true identity not to Hollern, but Hollern’s roommate, Scot Tannreuther. Tannreuther helped her quickly shed the inaccurately attributed name Puck and soon adopted her as Kitty Carlisle.
The young Carlisle also informed Scot that despite her name, she was not, in fact, related to Kitty Carlisle Hart. However, whispers of a blood relationship to Broadway legend Carol Channing circulated widely throughout her career. Ms. Carlisle acknowledged a similarity in appearance and voice, but never confirmed nor denied the rumor.
Within months, the kitten blossomed into a lovely adult feline and her charms were immediately apparent to Hollern’s tomcat, Alex P. Kitty. In an interview, Alex recalled, “I thought I had lost all interest in the fairer sex since my operation, but there was something about her. I couldn’t control myself around that minx.” After a brief, passionate affair, Carlisle underwent a necessary medical procedure and the relationship cooled considerably. Kitty Carlisle attended the Wright State University Professional Actor Training Program for one quarter, but withdrew when it became apparent that a degree would never be conferred upon a non-human. During this time, she shot several scenes for the short film The Living. Unfortunately, those scenes did not appear in the final cut, but director Paul A. Wagner III praised her performance, saying, “She’s the perfect cat. She’s like a cartoon cat.”
She spent the next year contemplating her career as a performer under the choice tutelage of her father and Grandma Peggy. Grandma Peggy was the first to discover Kitty’s love/hate relationship with houseplants and flowers. Kitty delighted in eating many of these, including spider plants, herbs, roses, and in one unfortunate incident, an artificial silk African violet. As vegetation does not stay down well in cats, her lifelong addiction to foliage would always be closely monitored by her personal managers. She learned many skills during her time with Grandma Peggy, including lying about in the sun, drinking milk from cereal bowls, fetching rubber bands, and howling vociferously at closed doors. The howling would serve her well in her later career as a singer, but she surprised everyone when she expressed a desire to become a magician.
To aid her in this endeavor, she and her father moved in with new roommates, including a male feline performer, Pud. Motivated by a desire to eat dried sea oats — forbidden to her because of the aforementioned dependency — Kitty soon developed an elaborate routine that consisted of escaping from a room secured by a human-accessible doorknob, a hook-and-eye latch, and a towel under the door. Even without thumbs, Kitty proved she could mysteriously escape in under five minutes, an unequaled accomplishment for a feline. Sadly, the relationship with Pud was, at its best, tense and strained and, at its worst, violent and abusive, so the act was never performed for a crowd and the Tannreuther-Carlisle team relocated to Cincinnati in 1994.
After abandoning her magic career, Carlisle teamed up with newcomer Breugel Passolini and the two appeared together in many projects over the next seven years including the plays All About Bruegel (Cincinnati), Cats, In Order of Appearance (Lexington, Kentucky), and Kitty! The Musical (Leominster, Massachusetts) based on the little-known Stephen King novel. In January 2001, creative differences prompted Carlisle to leave her successful partnership with Passolini. Her impending retirement was announced during the broadcast of her autobiographical NBC variety special, Kitty Carlisle’s Splendor Hour. A creative triumph at the height of Kitty’s fame, Splendor Hour was soon copied by several lesser celebrities on stage, resulting in Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Bea Arthur on Broadway, and Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. But none came close to capturing the splendor of the Carlisle special.
After the special, Carlisle and her father moved to the Boston area, intending to “lie low” and sip flutes of whole milk by the harbor, but when the pair met producer Michael Colford, he convinced the veteran actress to embark on a new career as a cabaret performer. The three, along with Colford’s daughter, E. Gertrudis Unum, developed an intricately choreographed act entitled It’s Time To Wake Up! My Food Bowl Is Empty! Though the show was performed almost every night, the fact that it was performed only between the hours of four and six a.m. made it difficult to build a strong following. Still those who heard Ms. Carlisle sing can attest that she had vocal power rivaling Barbara Cook, Barbra Streisand, and — compliment of compliments — Ms. Ethel Merman herself.
In June 2004, one month after Massachusetts began recognizing marriages between people of the same sex, Kitty and Gertrudis were united in marriage when they both partook of the magical wedding ham left over from the union of Aunts Gianna and Sarah. The union did not last long, for within an hour of consuming the fateful ham, the pair learned of the impending nuptials of their fathers, Scot and Michael. Realizing that they would soon be sisters, both cats regurgitated the wedding ham and the union was considered annulled. Kitty’s Boston marriage was one of the briefest on record. Even when adjusted for “cat time”, the union rivaled the legendarily brief marriage of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine. Scot took Michael’s last name to become Scot Colford, but for professional reasons, both Carlisle and Unum retained their surnames after the Colford union and subsequent cross-adoption.
Kitty Carlisle’s nightly performances would continue for nearly the rest of her life and in fact, her performance grew in strength and emotion as she matured. It wasn’t until Spring 2006, when Kitty began treatment for a hyperthyroid condition, that she found the effort too exhausting and finally retired from performing, save for an occasional early morning charity performance and voiceover work for the Chlotrudis Society of Independent Film. A diagnosis of chronic kidney disease, often associated with hyperthyroid condition in cats, followed soon after. In the last year of her life, Kitty still held court for her fans and was even rumored to have a romantic attachment to a much younger (in cat years) human, Chris Kriofske of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. She also made new friendships with media maven Beth Curran, scientist Beth Caldwell, and her part-time nurse, Rachel. In honor of Ms. Carlisle’s prestigious career, a new drink, the Kitty Carlisle (a vodka collins with Stoli Blueberry), was created during festivities at the Provincetown International Film Festival in June 2007.
Kitty Carlisle touched many lives and will be fondly remembered by all who knew her.