By RON BAXLEY JR. T&D Correspondent
NORTH – Had Eartha Kitt been alive and able to be there, she might have proclaimed that the gala in her honor at North High School Saturday evening was, “P-r-r-fect.”
In SCETV documentary footage shown at the event, Kitt says, “It’s time to come home,” and purrs just like her Catwoman character.
Kitt Shapiro, daughter of the legendary singer and actress, said Catwoman was her mother's “favorite, over-the-top” role.
Kitt, well known for her rendition of the song "Santa Baby," among others, was born in the town of North on Jan. 17, 1927. She died on Dec. 12, 2008.
Approximately 200 attendees watched the premiere of an Eartha Kitt-inspired performance by the Columbia City Ballet.
William Starrett, the ballet's artistic director, said, “(North) Mayor (Patty) Carson told me about this gala. We talked about putting together a program. I knew we had to bring Eartha Kitt’s music to life through dance.”
Shapiro, a successful blogger, clothing store owner and merchandiser, said she was excited about the Columbia City Ballet doing the choreographed dances based on Kitt’s “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Cha Cha Heels” and glad they were bringing ballet to the small town.
The choreography for the dances was a mix of ballet, jazz and contemporary, Starrett said.
“She was herself so completely. She was 100 percent herself," he said of Kitt. "She was really so unique and did not shy away from that.”
Jordan Hawkins, Starrett’s lead dancer, had some challenges to face during her performance. She danced in high heels for Kitt’s “Cha Cha Heels.”
“I had never choreographed to high heels before. We all had to do a lot of different approaches. High heels are harder to work with,” Starrett said.
Hawkins, who was backed up by four male dancers, said the choreography for “Whatever Lola Wants” is more ballet based and more romantic.
“I am also emoting the drama of the songs in an Eartha Kitt-style,” Hawkins said.
Starrett said he wanted to symbolize Eartha Kitt within the choreography. After the premiere Saturday in North, the Columbia City Ballet will perform the Eartha Kitt show Feb. 22-23 in the Columbia Music Festival Association ArtSpace at the Black Box Theatre in Columbia.
“I think it’s really important that my mother be celebrated in her hometown," Shapiro said of the gala. "She mentioned how hard it was to be here in the '20s and '30s, and she referred to herself as a 'cotton picker from the South.'”
“Our roots give us our celebration for who we become,” she said. “My mother was never bitter about it (how she was treated as a youth). She said she learned how not to treat others based on how she was treated.”
Shapiro added, “She said it made her a stronger person, and she always wanted to support others and their dreams."
“My mother was very much about being a human being. As long as people classify others by the color of their skin, they will continue to segregate,” she said. “I was asked not to think about color. She made me look at everybody and see them as colorless."
Sheldon Rice, a resident of Columbia and Air Force veteran, advocated having Eartha Kitt Day observed in South Carolina, according to Shapiro. S.C. House Dist. 66 Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, after being contacted by Rice, made the declaration at the State House in 2017 that Eartha Kitt Day would be celebrated annually on Jan. 17.
“I wanted our native daughter, Eartha Kitt, to be recognized,” Rice said. “It then became a gala a few years ago. Now, Mayor Carson wants a museum."
Proceeds from the Eartha Kitt Gala will go toward the establishment of the museum.
“It’s not just about the big cities," Shapiro said. "Many small communities are being forgotten. I think it’s important for me to come back here to my mother’s roots to try to help with the museum … . The history is too rich. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s still history.”
Beryl Dakers, director of Special Projects and Outreach at SCETV and 50-year veteran of television production and documentary film making, served as mistress of ceremonies for the gala. She showed excerpts from SCETV’s documentary “Kitt Comes Home.”
In the documentary, Kitt mentions being called “yellow” as a child in North and not being accepted by anybody. Upon returning to South Carolina in 1997, Kitts says in the film, “I left in tears, but it seems I have come home to love … . I have been in over 108 countries in this world, and today you have made me extremely proud to say I am a South Carolinian.”
A silent auction during the gala featured items from local citizens and businesses, and Shapiro also donated some of her mother's belongings for it, many of them signed by Kitt. These items included a monogrammed flask, a playbill, an autographed copy of Jet magazine with Kitt on the cover and some of her needlepoint.
“This is our second time celebrating the life of Eartha Kitt here in North," Mayor Patty Carson said. "We are overjoyed to have members of the community, celebrities and dignitaries here.”