Monday, August 9, 2010

Let's French: An In Depth look at Eartha Kitt

This Week on Pardon My French, we will be featuring french music by non-francophone artists. Tune this Thursday, from 2:30-4pm and hear music from Eartha Kitt and many others.

You may know Eartha Kitt as the purring Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV series. Perhaps you recognize her voice from the cartoon Emperor’s New Groove (2000) as the ancient and evil Yzma. Who can’t sing along to her sexy hit from the 50s “Santa Baby”? Her career began in the mid 40s until she passed away in 2008.

Born in South Carolina, Eartha Kitt (born Eartha Mae Keith) had a hard childhood. Her mother was half Cherokee, half African American. Eartha was a product of a rape. She lived in Harlem with her aunt after being abandoned by her mother and suffered abuse from her family members. After quitting school at 15 and ran away from her adopted home; living in subways and working odd jobs. By chance, she was offered an audition and became a part of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the renowned African-American ballet troupe. After touring America and Europe, Eartha was noticed in France and she decided to move there in 1949 after resigning from the dance company.

In France, she became popular for her “exotic” looks and interesting voice, often compared to Josephine Baker. Many earlier African-American performers who had come over to France in the 1920s and 30s gained the most success there because of the racism and segregation they faced back home. Performers like Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Nina Mae McKinney, Anna May Wong. Eartha picked up the French language easily, after being exposed to foreign languages in Harlem and New York. Her work in cabaret remains some of her most notable pieces.

She was discovered by Orson Wells and was cast in production of Faust. She moved back to the United States in the 50s, where she became notable in film and music. She continued her French repertoire with “C’est si bon”, but her most famous song was “Santa Baby” in 1953. She was a star on Broadway for years, continued in to film in unfortunately minor parts because of the racism that persisted in the 1950s. She was unofficially blacklisted in 1968 (during her popular role as Catwoman), when she told the first lady exactly what she thought about Vietnam. She did not return to the United States until 1978, where she continued her film and theatre roles until her death in 2008.

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