“Much better than the real Eartha Kitt!”
That’s a compliment I never expected, nor even hoped for, when I began performing as “Eartha Katt” at Cabaret Del Vino. Granted, my raspy baritone has drawn comparisons to the exotic icon ever since I was in high school. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t sound the way I do because of smoking; I inherited this voice from my mother, who probably got it from her mother. My maternal grandmother died years before I was born, so I never heard her speak, but I do know that all of the women descended from Tomeno Shibasaki have deeper-than-average voices.
Intrigued and impressed by Eartha Kitt from the first time I saw her on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I’d always felt flattered when people told me I sounded like her, but I hadn’t been inspired to emulate or impersonate her until a couple of years ago.
As the emcee of the Malu Productions Polynesian show aboard the NCL Pride of America cruise ship, I greet hundreds of audience members each Sunday during our post-show “aloha line.” Nearly every week, someone would tell me that I reminded them of Eartha, in appearance as well as in voice. So, when I was asked to portray a celebrity of my choice for a charity karaoke event, I naturally chose the Catwoman chanteuse. It went well enough to encourage me to add Eartha to my roster of alter egos.
Tallulah Bankhead is another deep-voiced star I’ve had the pleasure of portraying. As an alumna supporting the Baldwin Theatre Guild, I played Tallulah several times in BTG fundraisers. The Diamond Lil Revues were themed variety shows with lots of audience participation; the ones I took part in were set in the 1940s Hollywood Canteen USO club. Audience members pretended to be armed forces personnel, enjoying a night of R&R with Tinseltown celebrities. The Baldwin USO Shows were especially popular with WWII veterans, as you might imagine.
On one unforgettable night, a spry, silver-haired gentleman politely asked me for a dance with Tallulah. As a faux Frank Sinatra crooned “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the former serviceman beamed at me, tears welling in his eyes. “I danced with the real Tallulah Bankhead, at the real Hollywood Canteen, 50 years ago,” he said. “You sound just like her.”
We swayed in silence for the rest of the dance. I didn’t want to disturb his reverie; he was obviously reliving a very special moment. When the song ended, all too soon, I walked him back to his table, gave him a kiss on the cheek and said, “Thank you, dahling.”
“Thank YOU for making this old man feel young again. That was the second best dance of my life!”
My turn to cry.
That was the only time I’ve ever met someone who actually met Tallulah Bankhead in person. At least a dozen people have told me they had the fortune of seeing Eartha Kitt in concert, including the woman quoted at the start of this column.
She was in the audience last Monday night, when I made one of my occasional guest appearances in RoseOx Productions’ dinner show at Cafe del Vino in Maalaea. After the show, her husband told me, “We saw the real Eartha Kitt many years ago on the Mainland. I think she had been drinking.”
The couple said Eartha took the stage, mumbled incoherently for a minute or so, then stumbled off. So, while they did get to see her in person, they never saw her perform. “I was so disappointed in her,” the woman said, “That’s why, to me, you were much better than the real Eartha Kitt.”
Hey, it’s a compliment. And it’s true, I finished all my songs and didn’t fall down even once.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.