When it comes to Eartha Kitt, it takes a legend to host one. And that will certainly be the case come Sept. 18 when the singular chanteuse returns to New York to celebrate her 80th year on the planet and open another season at the Café Carlyle with a month-long run.
But what will undoubtedly be a surprise to the little lady with the feline purr — as well as audiences who've cherished the Café Carlyle since it opened in 1955 — will be how her host has changed.
Having recently completed an extensive renovation, the only thing that will probably appear familiar in the famed room at the five-star hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side will be the murals. Painted by the renowned artist (and Academy Award–winning scenic designer) Marcel Vertes, the pastel pictures of lovely girls wandering through patches of bowed spring trees have become a signature of Gotham's café society. Indeed, Vertes's invaluable contribution was not lost on the director of management of the Carlyle, James McBride, when he made the decision to refurbish the room last fall. "They're simply iconic," McBride says. "But it's the whole feel of the room, really, the intimacy, that makes it such a special place."
Shortly after Bobby Short died in 2005, McBride says he and the hotel explored the notion of relocating the cabaret to the basement. "We actually put a lot of time and money and consideration into the idea. And just before we were about to execute it, suddenly, we all unanimously agreed that the Café Carlyle was just such a significant part of the fabric of New York that it was too important to relocate." They interviewed a number of top designers and decided on Park Avenue favorite Scott Salvator. "We all felt good about Scott's understanding of what the Carlyle and the café represented," says McBride. In Salvator's vision, expect to see what McBride calls "a refreshing" of the room. With a blue, gold and cream motif, the new room will feature mid-century-styled settees in swirling Jacquard complemented by ostrich-skin-covered barstools and banquettes. Sandwiching the sophisticated decor will be a lush layer of midnight blue carpeting and ceiling to match.
"We took out the drop ceiling," McBride boasts. "There's nearly a whole foot more room above now, which allows the murals to continue."
There will also be perks for the performers, as the renovation includes a new (slightly larger) stage and a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system. "It's a long overdue part of evolution of the café," says McBride. "But one that still holds the elegant style of its bygone era."
And how does Ms. Kitt feel about the whole re-inauguration? "Well, there is no other place in the city that I would rather perform," Kitt replies. "The Café Carlyle is my performing home. And I am deeply honored to be the one chosen to open the new room."