Legendary actress was avid arts advocate

Kitty Carlisle Hart, a stage actress who worked in film and opera before becoming a TV gameshow staple — and then revitalized her career in her 90s with one-woman shows — died Wednesday in New York. She was 96.

Son Christopher Hart said his mother had been in and out of the hospital since contracting pneumonia over the Christmas holidays. “She passed away peacefully” at home, Hart said. “She had such a wonderful life, and a great long run, it was a blessing.”

Hart did a 12-year stint on the popular gameshow “To Tell the Truth” that began two decades after she had made her debuts on Broadway and in film.

She began her acting career on Broadway in “Champagne Sec” and went on to appear in many other Broadway productions, including the 1984 revival of “On Your Toes.”

Carlisle Hart’s film career began in 1934, in “Murder at the Vanities.”

The following year, she was cast as Rosa Castaldi in the Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera.” It was the brothers’ sixth film and their first for MGM, where they shifted after their career at Paramount sagged at the box office. MGM’s Irving Thalberg added more romance to the Marx Brothers formula, bringing in Carlisle and Allan Jones to play the young opera singers in love, and the film became a huge hit.

Later film credits included “She Loves Me Not” and “Here Is My Heart,” both opposite Bing Crosby; Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”; and “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Carlisle Hart made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967 in “Die Fledermaus” and created the role of Lucretia in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia.”

From 1956-67, she appeared on the CBS primetime gameshow “To Tell the Truth” with host Bud Collyer and fellow panelists such as Polly Bergen, Johnny Carson, Bill Cullen and Don Ameche. Hart was the only panelist to appear in every episode; she also appeared on several later incarnations of the gameshow in syndication and daytime.

The gamer featured three contestants, all claiming to be the same person, and three panelists asking them questions to determine which was telling the truth. She also appeared as a guest panelist on “What’s My Line?” and “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Carlisle Hart was born Catherine Conn in New Orleans. Her mother believed that sending her to Europe would get her hitched with a proper gentleman; instead, she was educated at the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London before returning home to work as an actress.

Hart’s late husband was Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart, who wrote “You Can’t Take It With You” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” with George S. Kaufman, and won a Tony for directing “My Fair Lady” on Broadway.

She and Hart married in 1946, and had Christopher and a daughter, Catherine, in 1950. Moss Hart died in 1961 at age 57.

The elegant, sophisticated entertainer was also a tireless advocate for the arts, serving on the New York State Council on the Arts from 1971-96, including 20 years as its chair. In 1988 she testified in Albany to a legislative committee amid complaints that the council had funded gay-oriented projects.

“We fund art,” she said. “We are neutral as far as anyone else is concerned. We don’t fund anyone’s point of view.”

In 1991, she received the National Medal of Arts from President George H.W. Bush.

She was once asked which she loved more — the movies or television.

“I think television had more of an influence on my life than the movies, because with television, you came into somebody’s home,” Carlisle Hart replied. “People remember me from television. They don’t even remember me from ‘A Night at the Opera.’ They have no idea that I played the lead and did all the singing. But they do remember television, particularly ‘To Tell the Truth.’ “

She wrote her autobiography, “Kitty,” in 1984.

At the age of 94, she started performing one woman shows on the history of musical theater. Her performances were staged in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco; she was booked to perform in Atlanta in November. Daily Variety critic Bob Verini wrote of her August perf: “Hart’s program of song standards and reminiscence is unforgettable, not because she’s performing it, but because she’s performing it with such rare grace and luminous artistry.”

Besides Christopher and Catherine, survivors include three grandchildren.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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