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Bruce Vilanch

Bruce Vilanch

Posted: December 26, 2008 11:30 AM

Eartha Kitt: My Encounter with a Legend


Of course I adored and wanted to be Catwoman. That goes without saying. Eartha Kitt was another matter. I had interviewed her once for the Chicago Tribune. It was a couple of years after she told Lady Bird Johnson what she thought of LBJ's Vietnam war. Unfortunately, she chose to tell her at a girly luncheon all about Lady Bird's beautification program. Eartha took the entire luncheon off-message and maintained that she didn't work for eleven years after that, but here it was l971 and she was headlining a nightclub in Chicago. She'd already been a legend for twenty years, and legends have very vague calendars. I had a great time interviewing Eartha. who spent a lot of time telling me how she had created Eartha and was now spending the seventh day resting.

The next great time I had with her was about a decade and a half later, and this time I got to participate in the creation. Things were slow-ish for both of us. I had just been fired after refusing to do free rewrites on my script of Can't Stop the Music, widely considered to be the best first-draft screenplay since Citizen Kane. One of the benefits of working on the Village People movie was I got to see them all naked which, at the time, helped me see lots of other people naked, from villages far and wide. The other benefit was I met Jacques Morali, the insane gay French Jew who created the group and wrote their songs. In another pocket of his existence, Jacques annually created a score for the Crazy Horse show in Paris. Spectacular showgirls lip-synched the English lyrics as well as spectacular showgirls could to an audience of non-English speakers who had about as much interest in the lyrics as Lorenz Hart might have had in the showgirls. Armed with this knowledge, Jacques asked me to write a lyric to one of his disco tunes. And he had another reason. "The girrrrl will be lap-sinking to Eartha Kitt. And zo the lyrics need to be special." Will she be doing an Eartha Kitt impression? "Don't be bizarre. It is not a drag show. Eartha is sitting on a hill in Connecticut, not working. She will record this one thing." The song was called "Where is My Man?" It's about Eartha and her endless search for a soul-mate who never met Bernard Madoff.

I sent the lyrics to Eartha. A day later, she called. "Brrrrruce, my love. Where have you been since 1952? This is so, so Eartha. But listen, I've never done this disco music before, so you must make a recording of this just the way you want me to phrase it so we get the maximum Eartha out of it." If I didn't know that Ashton Kutcher had not yet been born, I would assume I was punked. Moi, teach Eartha Kitt how to phrase? Naturally, I fired off the cassette, which prompted another call from Eartha, threatening to sue me into the next world if I ever dressed up like Jim Bailey and did her act. She then went to New York and recorded the song with Jacques. During the session, they called. There was a long dance break on the record and Jacques felt she should cover it with something, something Eartha-esque. I dragged out my best trans-continental Eartha and purred, "I want a man...with a big...big...big...big.....big....yacht." Notice I resisted dinghy. And please enter it into the record. They loved the song at the Crazy Horse, Jacques and his business partner Henri Belolo released the song as a single, it became a gigantic dance record all over the world, I got to tip several people lavishly, and suddenly Eartha was Back. She never had charts for a full orchestra, and disco music always sounds silly when attacked by a trio, so she never performed the song in public outside of singing it to track at huge discos. But we did record an entire album of equally Eartha-esque disco songs, in which she continued her poignant search for a relationship with a man of color, clarity, cut and carat. I feel her pain. To this day, I will walk into disco and hear her asking, "where is my man?" You ain't the only one, sister.