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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column, “Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway” by Varick A. Chittenden.
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Volume 33

Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway by Varick A. Chittenden

My memories of Kitty Carlisle Hart go back to my teenage years, when flickering images on a black-and-white television set first brought her—as a celebrity panelist on the game show To Tell the Truth—into my family’s living room in the North Country. Her glamorous looks, aristocratic bearing, quick wit, and gentle humor made a real impression on me.

Many years passed before I had the opportunity to meet Kitty Hart. Of course, as a regular applicant to the New York State Council on the Arts and an occasional panelist for the Folk Arts Program, I knew that Hart had been serving there for a long time. But it was the summer of 1994, a few months after we at TAUNY had moved into our first public space, that Sara “Dee Dee” Barclay, then a council member, organized a tour of the Saint Lawrence Valley for several council members and staff. Dee Dee had asked for my help to find places for them to visit and I saw an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. So, despite the fact that our first gallery was tiny and had no kitchen, I offered to have them visit us and stay for lunch.

That was a memorable day for us. Hart, a half dozen other council members including Richard Schwartz, and several staff arrived in a van after other stops in our area earlier in the day. She spent considerable time in our first-ever exhibit of local folk art, and then we sat down to eat on borrowed tables and chairs. The menu included homemade venison stew, head cheese, johnnycake, and cheese curds. Hart asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing, but won the day by insisting that the eight-year-old daughter of TAUNY’s board president sit with her for lunch and carrying on a lively conversation with her throughout.

Later on that same trip, my wife Judy and I were included in an elegant dinner party for about thirty people at the Barclays’ home near Pulaski. Before dinner, we gathered in the large living room for the entertainment, which I had happily arranged for the occasion. Both Adirondack storyteller Bill Smith and Tug Hill fiddler Alice Clemens performed in a setting that reminded me of an eighteenth-century drawing room. I can still see Hart pulling up her chair to within a few feet of Bill and Alice, with her attention focused only on them throughout their entire performances.

I assume by all accounts that Kitty Carlisle Hart was a city person. She spent a lot of her life on Broadway stages, in uptown galleries, and in literary salons, surrounded by people whose names appeared regularly in the arts and society pages of major newspapers. But when she was appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to the NYSCA board, she found her true calling as an advocate for the arts and artists of New York State—“all the artists of the state,” as Richard Schwartz, who would eventually succeed her as chair of the council, told me recently.

I’m sad to note that Kitty Hart died on April 17 in Manhattan; she was ninety-six. Her New York Times obituary said that “Working for the arts council, Miss Carlisle was herself a ‘Johnny Appleseed for culture,’ especially in rural part of New York State. ‘Wherever we go, the arts flourish,’ she said. ‘It’s a cliché now that people say they want to make a difference, but I’d like to think that somehow I made a difference.’” Kitty Hart served on the council for thirty-six years and was chair for almost twenty. In her 1988 memoir she mentioned the creation of the Folk Arts Program as one of the major accomplishments of her tenure.

Besides the more conventional examples— fiddle festivals, quilt shows, or ethnic dance events—applications to the council for folk arts programming have at times tested what some might call “art” or —folk art.” Al Berr, longtime deputy director, recalls, “When the Michael Cousino Vietnam diorama exhibit proposal [a TAUNY application!] came to the NYSCA committee, Mrs. Hart expressed real doubt about it. When shown photos of the pieces and being told about their significance, she replied, ‘That’s folk art, I know it is!’ She may not have known what it was intellectually, but she had the sensibility for it and that was enough for her.” And Robert Baron, director of the program since its beginning, remembers “an application with community- based hip-hop, where she wanted to hear an example in the council committee meeting, and it was played for her, and she approved in her ever-charming manner.” One of Hart’s many gifts as a leader in the arts world was her willingness to listen and learn, to accept and even endorse artists and art forms that were previously unfamiliar to her.

I recall fondly the gala night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000, when TAUNY was among the honorees for Governor’s Arts Awards. When I learned that Kitty Hart and Martha Stewart were chosen to present our award, I was especially pleased. And when the two got on stage to read the citation, Hart mentioned several towns in our region where we present programs. Stewart jokingly asked if she had visited all those places, and the then–ninety-year- old shot back, “You bet I have!” And I think she had.

On the night after her death, the lights all over Broadway were dimmed for a moment to honor her work and her life. But way off Broadway—in city neighborhoods and small towns all over New York—we remembered, too. We shall miss her. She indeed made a difference.


Photo of Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper
Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of English at the State University of New York in Canton and executive director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).

One of Hart’s many gifts as a leader in the arts world was her willingness to listen and learn, to accept and even endorse artists and art forms that were previously unfamiliar to her.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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