Theater News

Don’t Forget: Hire the Vet!

Michael Buckley chats with Kitty Carlisle Hart and Philip Bosco, two of the veteran stars of Tasting Memories.

Kitty Carlisle Hart in Tasting Memories(Photo © David Rodgers)
Kitty Carlisle Hart in Tasting Memories
(Photo © David Rodgers)

Tasting Memories, a compilation of vignettes dealing with food, is the latest production of Catherine Wolf’s Colleagues Theatre Company. The show’s rotating cast includes Kitty Carlisle Hart, Philip Bosco, Rosemary Harris, Tammy Grimes, Richard Easton, and Alvin Epstein. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Hart, whose credits range from her appearance in the classic Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera (1935) to her appearances as a regular panelist on TV’s “To Tell the Truth” to her 20-year stint as chair of the New York State Council on the Arts; and Bosco, the Tony-winning actor (Lend Me a Tenor) who recently made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

On a Friday afternoon, the nonagenarian Mrs. Hart warmly greets me as I arrive at her East Side apartment. What attracted her to Tasting Memories at this point in her life? “I like to work,” she responds. In the show, Hart sings a song titled “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.” According to Catherine Wolf, also present for the interview, “Kitty has a lot of funny things to say in the show. She’s a great comedienne.” Downplaying the compliment, Hart admits, “I like to make people laugh.” (The not-for-profit Colleagues Theatre Company was founded by Wolf in 1996 “to identify and develop performance opportunities for the mature and seasoned actor and to provide training opportunities in theatrical craftsmanship for gifted high school graduates from underserved communities.”)

Hart refers to A Night at the Opera as “my claim to fame — with my children and my grandchildren. They all watch it and think it’s very funny.” In the movie — mainly written by George S. Kaufman, her late husband Moss Hart’s frequent collaborator — Mrs. Hart plays Rosa Castaldi to Allan Jones’s Ricardo Baroni and the pair are surrounded by the manic antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx.

I ask Hart to divulge her secret for looking so well. She laughs and replies, “My dear, if I knew what it was, I’d be the richest woman in the world. I’m very grateful.” When did she know that she wanted to seek a show business career? “My mother told me,” declares the New Orleans native. “We lost what little money we had in 1929 [when the stock market crashed]. My father was a doctor who died very young and my mother had taken me abroad to make a brilliant marriage. That’s what American ladies did back then. Hopefully, the daughter would marry a rich prince — failing that, an impoverished baron. When we returned, my mother said, ‘It’s obvious you’re not going to make a brilliant marriage and you have to earn a living. I suggest you go on the stage.’ I went on the stage to find a rich husband.” (Catherine Wolf interjects, “You married a prince of the theater.” Concurs Hart, “You bet I did!”)

Kitty Carlisle met Moss Hart “at a party at Lillian Hellman’s. The theater was a smaller community in those days,” she comments. “We all knew each other. I had auditioned for him a couple of times but he never really looked at me. I could tell. Well, I was siting on a sofa and he was sitting on the arm of the sofa. I looked at him and I wanted to rivet his attention. I said, ‘Moss, tell me about your trip to the South Pacific.’ He had gone there to entertain the troops [during World War II] with The Man Who Came to Dinner. The next day, he called me. ‘Are you surprised?’ he asked. I said, ‘No, I knew you’d call.’ I knew because he had looked at me for the first time. He always said, ‘There’s no nonsense about Kitty’ — but he didn’t use the word ‘nonsense!’

“About eight months later, we were married. It was wonderful.” [Their marriage lasted from 1946 until Moss’s death in 1961]. “I never married again, because it was so good and I didn’t want to give my children — they were 12 and 14 when their father died — a stepfather. But I wasn’t allowed to take any money from the estate, so I had to hustle my bustle. I’ve performed in every state in the union. I still go around the country singing — and I get good money.” Which role has given her the most satisfaction? “It would have to be Kitty Carlisle Hart,” she says with a smile.


Philip Bosco in Tasting Memories(Photo © David Rodgers)
Philip Bosco in Tasting Memories
(Photo © David Rodgers)

Philip Bosco is happy that his schedule allowed him to appear, albeit briefly, in Tasting Memories; he tells me that he has known Catherine Wolf since they worked together in the 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls. Last seen on Broadway in Copenhagen (“It was the most difficult part to learn”), Bosco will return this fall in the Roundabout production of 12 Angry Men. “I’m Juror Number Three, the part Lee Cobb played in the movie,” he says. “I’m the antagonist. It’s a marvelous ensemble piece. We start rehearsals the end of August.”

The actor is equally at home in drama (The Heiress) and comedy (Moon over Buffalo). Which genre would he choose if he were simultaneously offered two roles? “All things being equal, I would probably lean towards the comedy,” he replies. “They’re much more fun to do. Having said that, I don’t think I’ve had a more enjoyable experience with a play than The Heiress; I love Cherry Jones and Frannie Sternhagen. But with a comedy, there’s so much fun backstage and you hear the laughter coming back at you. It’s much more exciting to come to work.”

Bosco recently added a new venue to his extensive credits: “I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera. It was an evening of Stravinsky. There was a ballet [Le Sacre du Printemps], a kind of one-act opera [Le Rossignol], and Oedipus Rex, for which I was the narrator. I was on an elevated seat with the whole male chorus behind me. I had a great time.”

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, where his father owned and operated carnival concession stands, Bosco was the eldest of four sons. He attended Catholic University. That’s where he met his wife, the former Nancy Dunkle. Married 47 years, the Boscos are parents of seven. “We have a very close, wonderful family,” he proudly tells me. “It’s the most important thing in my life.” The five-time Tony nominee says that he prefers stage to film work: “I really don’t like movies,” he says. “I love to watch them and I’d love to direct if I had the skills, but as an actor — at my level — they are very unsatisfying. You’re a cog in a huge wheel. There are good actors in movies but you don’t have to be a good actor. Many movie actors — such as John Wayne and Alan Ladd — couldn’t walk across a stage.”

Growing up, Bosco attended movies “at least twice a week. I was a big Warner Brothers fan. They had gritty movies with John Garfield, Bogart, Cagney, Eddie Robinson. MGM had what we used to call ‘ladies’ movies’ — Greer Garson and all kinds of fluff. I loved the dramatic music in movies, especially the Korngold and Steiner scores. I’m a frustrated piano player. I play by ear; I never studied. My mother wanted me to take lessons but I wasn’t interested. It’s the thing I most regret in my life. I hate rock and roll and country music but I adore opera and jazz, especially Benny Goodman. And I have a special affinity for Gershwin’s music. George Gershwin and I have the same birthday, September 26.”

The actor saw his first Broadway play while in high school. “It was Arsenic and Old Lace at the Hudson Theatre, with Allyn Joslyn, Boris Karloff, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander,” he recalls. “The same week, at the Golden, I saw Angel Street with Judith Evelyn, Vincent Price, and Leo G. Carroll. I started going to the theater a lot.” Today, Bosco seldom attends plays (“I prefer the opera”) but makes it a point to see Christopher Plummer’s work: “I’ve always admired Plummer. We went to Stratford to see him in King Lear and then we saw him again in New York. Of my generation, he’s probably the greatest actor.”

Bosco’s New York stage debut occurred as Brian O’Bannion in a 1958 City Center production of Auntie Mame that starred Sylvia Sidney. “She was so mean and vicious, an absolute horror,” he recalls. “It went on tour as a bus-and-truck company but I quit.” His favorite roles include Pistol in Henry V, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing , Claudius in Hamlet, the title roles in Richard III and Cyrano de Bergerac. “If I had to choose one, it would be either Cyrano or Richard III,” he says. “After Shakespeare, Shaw’s my favorite. He’s an actor’s dream.

In addition to The Heiress and Breaking Legs, he cites Moon Over Buffalo among his most enjoyable stage experiences. “I loved working with Carol Burnett,” he says. “That show got me into the upper brackets of money, and that’s not unimportant. I also loved working with Jerry Zaks in Lend Me a Tenor, for which I got a Tony. I don’t believe much in awards. It’s not the award that offends me, it’s the hype that surrounds it. The Tonys started out as sort of an in-house thing; then the producers and advertisers got hold of it and turned it into a circus.”

Bosco’s advice for beginning actors is, “Take any job that’s offered. Don’t pick and choose. Even if you think a part’s beneath you, do it. If you think you’re miscast, do it. There’s nothing that can replace experience. Talent is cheap; so many people have talent. What so many people don’t have is experience. You really can’t learn your art unless you do it again and again and again. In any of the other performing arts — music, dance — it’s unthinkable not to practice over and over.” Fans of Phil Bosco who can’t wait to see him in 12 Angry Men have the chance to enjoy his work in Tasting Memories. Since the show is about food, I end our interview by asking the actor to name his favorite type of cuisine. “Italian,” he answers promptly, “with Chinese as a close second!”

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Tasting Memories

Closed: June 13, 2004