Harry Knapp

Harry Knapp
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March 08
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DECEMBER 26, 2008 6:32AM

Eartha: A True Story

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Eartha Kitt

Before I tell you this true story about Eartha Kitt and me I must ask you in advance to forgive my indulgence as I usually try to avoid shop talk here on OS, mostly because I don't consider it my identity as a person and more bluntly because I loath those who blow their own horn but under the circumstances I feel compelled to share it.  Additionally it's 3 am and I hadn't thought about getting out of bed on Christmas to write but I couldn't sleep.  My hope is that I won't wake up in the morning and discover I was writing in my sleep...though it may be an improvement to my alert writing.   Here goes...

Warning...a bit long

Hudson Hotel
Hudson Hotel New York City

New York City 2004
It was 4:30 on a blustery winter afternoon in the city, giant pillowy snowflakes floating to the madness below, the darkness falling behind it on cue as the perfect backdrop to my front row seat.

There I sat alone in a secluded corner staring out the window of the library room at the Hudson hotel... paralyzed...waiting for her...terrified.   This was no ordinary woman, no ordinary entertainer, she was an icon revered throughout the world.  So why would she come to meet me...in New York from her home in Connecticut?

Hudson Hotel
Hudson Hotel Library Room

Let me step back for a moment.  Like most people surviving in the film business I had always dreamed of directing a film.  For 15 years they let me change the tires and fill it with gas but never tossed me the keys to actually drive the car.   Then one day an attorney in New York approached me through a relative about financing a film.  At the time I didn't have a script so we agreed to revisit the offer when we did.

I remember being excited, shocked and afraid all at the same time.  Afraid mostly because this business is unkind to directors with a losing record, in fact the movie landscape is littered with filmmakers who directed one movie and never worked again.  Obviously I didn't want to be one of those guys but the risk was worth it so I went to work searching for a script.

One would think after so many years in the business that I would know the business.  I mean any movie buff off the street could pick a winner so this should be simple...not so much.  There were two things that I absolutely had to have...story and performance, I was willing to compromise on everything else but I just couldn't start with a weak piece of material.  For a year I read hundreds of scripts until I found a script entitled "Cherrys".

It is a semi-autobiographical tale of three generations of black women who are thrust together by the unexpected death of step-granddaddy and forced to confront the shared demons that bind them.  The script was a hot potato to start...it was a drama, female driven and the characters were black..all hard sells.  Piling on further the script dealt with strong issues the black community rarely if ever explore...homosexuality and sexual child abuse.  If that wasn't a steep enough mountain to climb the script resembled more of a stage play than a screenplay. BUT it was the best story I had read and I could see the film in my head.

When I met with the writer she told me that she hadn't touched the script in a few years because no actors responded to it.  We made a deal, I would bring the picture to my investors if she would spend the next six months rewriting it with me.  When it was done I was so happy with it I felt like we had written Gone with the Wind.

Now all we needed was money and a cast.  I flew to New York and pleaded my case...curiously the investors agreed to give me $3.5 mil, a modest budget but workable.  Together we held our breath as the script hit the streets, how would agents react to a first time director for such a strong piece of material, how would black actors react to a white boy directing such sensitive subject matter and could we get great actors for no money.

  Lynn Whitfield
Lynn Whitfield

The three main roles were mom, daughter and grandmother.  We decided to cast the mom first, she needed to be beautiful, disconnected and bound tightly so we met with Lynn Whitfield who I loved in "Eves Bayou".  She was a tough cookie, skeptical but curious enough to say "yes". 

  Jurnee Smolett
Jurnee Smolett in "Eve's Bayou"

As we discussed the grandmother I was conflicted by so few choices so we cast the daughter who had been abandoned by mom and struggling to eat as a dancer in the city.  During a conversation with Lynn about Eves Bayou we talked about the powerful performance the young girl who played her daughter gave.  A few days later I asked our casting director if we could see her and wondered what she looked like ten years later.  As soon as Jurnee Smolett began to read we knew she was the one. 

Jurnee Smolett
Jurnee all grown up

Now we needed to cast the grandmother who was the keeper of secrets imprisoned in her denial.  All of the likely actresses were suggested...Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Della Reese but I wasn't feeling it, this role was the centerpiece of the film and I wanted it to be somebody the audience wouldn't expect...Eartha Kitt!!!

As 5pm neared I moved deep into the Grill Room where we were meeting and I played musical chairs for a couple minutes, where should I sit, where should she sit...  As I settled into my chair I reminded myself that this was the same woman who was blackballed in America for speaking out against the Vietnam war...AT THE WHITE HOUSE! 

And then she was there, standing at the podium with her daughter Kitt.  She was dressed in a full length fur coat, black dress and black boots, black gloves and a black hat.  As she walked the aisle morphed into a catwalk, everything stopped even the cooking.  It was slow motion, she was indeed the sex kitten, perfectly sculptured legs and eyes that could disarm a nuclear weapon.

I'm standing now, ready to greet her.  "Hello Harry I'm Eartha  and this is my daughter Kitt".  Already I'm confused because her daughter is white...blonde hair blues eyes white.  Eartha sits but doesn't remove her coat, gloves, hat, nothing....so this should be a quick meeting.  She starts the conversation..."Tell me how you see this character", that I can do which is a huge relief. "Tell me why me"...I see her in you..."People will have a hard time sympathizing with her"...it's a messy film. Silence.

Eartha Kitt and Kitt
Eartha and Kitt

She reaches her hand out and kitty kat tickles my arm..."Harry please help me remove my coat"...something happened, I can't tell you what but we connected.  " I want to do your film...it needs to be told...I know all those people, some are me some are my relatives but they are real"...Sober.

For the rest of the afternoon she shared stories about her life, struggles with being black and having a white child.  One story in particular is sad, she was in South Africa doing a benefit concert to help build homes for the poor.  Earlier in the day, before the show, she was in a park playing with Kitt...not aware blacks weren't allowed.  A cop promptly kicked her out not realizing who she was...of course it was instantly all over the evening news.  Later that night on stage as she closed the show people were expressing their outrage over the incident.  Rather than bathe in the apologies she announced "I'm here to raise money to build houses so write the checks"

It was time to go, Kitt had to get home to her family and they had a long drive.  I wanted to cry.  She was kind and decent to a guy most actors would have discarded.  She brought my film to life at that table and she agreed to call Sidney Poitier for me.  It was too good to be true.

A few nights later I went to see her perform at BB Kings....it was the holidays and as you might expect she was singing Santa Baby.  After the show we sat for a few minutes, she told me that she had spoken with Sidney but he had retired and I thanked her trying.  We said our goodbyes and both looked forward to the rehearsals.


Eartha sings Santa Baby

About a month later after we had cast the balance of the cast with Lou Gossett Jr., Anna Devere Smith, Earl Hyman and many others I was ready to go.  I flew to New York to set-up shop and begin prepping the film...when I got a call.  "Harry this is Holly....I just received a call from our investors and they are backing out...seems there is no market for black films"...Silence.  Anger.  Tears.

Two years of my life spent on a story I believed in has now come down to me calling Eartha Kitt to tell her "nobody cares about films about black people". How ironic...I may never make another film based on a film I never made...but I didn't care, all I could think about was that phone call.

First I called Kitt to apologize, she was gracious, told me Mom would  understand.  I didn't understand so how the hell could she, I knew the answer to that question but it was so unfair I couldn't get past the shame of this business.  So I called.  She knew the sound of my words...they were all too familiar to her, she sensed that panic in my voice...she held my hand...and took the hit.

We never made the film but I had always hoped we would find a way just so I could make it right with her-now she's gone. Tears.

Eartha this story changed me.  I will forever regret that phone call and never forget your graciousness.  You were one of a kind.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Harry, thanks so much for sharing your experience. Eartha Kitt was one of a kind and you've illustrated that beautifully. My condolences to you. (rated)
Harry, your compelling and original story will forever be a part of our Christmas 2008 memories. My wife and I were very moved by your sharing it so eloquently with the OpenSalon community.

We're sorry to hear that such an important story about how human relationships can go awry, told from the perspective of the generations of oppressed minority women, was suppressed, as indeed their lives have been for most of our nation's history.

From what we can understand, the story is universal, even if those in power -- or those who think they're in power -- want to live like it doesn't apply to them at all and never will.
Thank you for sharing this story, Harry. It is truly sad that Hollywood doesn't care about making films about black people. We have so many rich stories. That's why I'm such a fan of independent filmmakers and authentic black theater. I encourage you to keep pushing. Don't worry about being the 'white guy' doing a black film---hell, Steven Spielberg didn't seem to worry too much about it with The Color Purple.
I'm Speechless (or typeless don't know which). Though not visual, this story clearly encompasses everything that the cast would have reflected on the screen. You made your movie!!!

Thank you and Ms. Kitt for all the moments.
Wonderful story, Harry. It's a shame the film never made it.
Great post, Harry. Thanks for sharing your Eartha experiences. Though not mainstream, there are numerous black films that break the heterosexual mold, some include "The Women of Brewster Place," "Strange Fruit," Cover," and "Dirty Laundry" in response to "piling on further the script dealt with strong issues the black community rarely if ever explore...homosexuality.
Very touching. If I had money I'd invest in the project. I hope you don't give up. You can dedicate it to Eartha.
I may have seen Eartha Kitt in one of her last major stage performances; and it was a show-stopper - pure and simple.

During the 2007 summer season at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, Kitt appeared as Esmeralda, the fortune teller, in WCP's production of "All About Us". This was a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of our Teeth", written by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Kitt opened the second act in full, smoky, chanteuse fashion - complete with feather boa and tights - provoking and teasing her way around the stage, and, eventually, down into the audience.

I was lucky to have a seat a mere ten rows back in the center, and I watched Kitt as she sang in front of the stage to people in the first few rows, bathed in a follow spot, vamping with both men and women, and especially, with a few very amused men.

It was magic. A seduction.

Then she returned to the stage, ending the number and bringing the house down.

My real point in mentioning this, while paying tribute to Ms. Kitt, is to underline what I took with me that night, after seeing her work.

I knew she was around 80 years old then. More than anything else, I gained so much respect for her because - as an experienced stage performer myself - I knew she could not have pulled off that powerful, demanding number in that musical had she not been in top form.

I saw a trouper that night in Westport and will never forget it.
Good Morning it's 2 pm!

Felt like I was drunk dialing you guys last night and moments ago I woke to a fantastic rum and eggnog hangover. The wife is on the way with Advil and a giant helping of water!

I suspect many could share similar stories about this extraordinary person....people like her tend to leave a trail of grace. Thank you for the kind words.

Jeffrey...I won't debate you on his one!

Coyote...She may the last of a dying breed of "entertainer"...other than maybe Tony Bennett???

Design...You're right the human condition is a universal condition and particularly poignant in minority women of Eartha's generation. She was a fighter!

Chandra...The black experience is the most powerfully neglected story in American cinema. Thank God for the theatre!

Frenchi...I've felt like I made the movie through the process...I lived it unlike any other project. the casting sessions were so powerful...actors sobbing over the characters who were so close to them, a resounding "it's time for this picture"...so I saw it and I am ok with that.

Krissi...still think there is a film in that liquor store of yours!

Suede...Things are changing slowly but surely which is part of the reason I wrote this...to keep the evolution moving forward. The comments about homosexuality and sexual abuse content were things I wasn't really aware of until black actors pointed it out to me.

Seattle...thanks for the support.

Dirigo...Nice story, I'd love to hear more.

Once again thank you all in sharing this moment with me.
Harry, thanks for sharing that story. NOT self-indulgent in any way, shape or form. Very beautifully told and sounded like a film I would have lined up to see.

Kudos on this tribute to Miss Kitt.

rated
Harry -

There's not much to add to my anecdote about Eartha Kitt at Westport last year, except to hint at what might have been.

I was the guest of a member of the production team and was aware of hopes to get the show to Broadway. The show was being put in trim with that in mind I think. It ran at Westport for about eighteen days.

It didn't happen, and from what I could gather, indirectly, there either wasn't enough money, or there wasn't a will to spend enough money, for some star leads. Maybe some strong backers, or "angels," were hanging back, or were expected to step forward but didn't, or something like that. I don't know.

Except for Shuler Hensley, playing Mr. Antrobus, Kitt was the only other star in the show. You could argue the two romantic leads, and perhaps the parents (Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus), all should have been stars, if the intent was to get to a Broadway house.

Too bad. It could have been Eartha's last, great turn on the Great White Way.
This is somewhat presumptious, but I think you're being too hard on yourself. It was the investors who ruined this, not you. With all that I must say that this was a very compelling and emotional story. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Brak...film is one of the few combustible businesses on the planet...mostly because the creative spirit mixed with a healthy dose of ego usually leads to some intense thumb sucking! BUT historically those pictures that resemble a disaster on the outside are typically the best films made...go figure...nothing is easy.

Dirigo...more great stuff.

Rob...most producers forget that we're in the business to make money and consequently burn investors....I think was on the end of one of those investors. Knowing that, today I favor an investor first approach which protects investors.
and yet movies like Dude, Where's My Car? can get made no problem- shame, isn't it
Beautiful, wonderful! I enjoyed every moment of this. rated.
Wow! A truly moving story - thanks for sharing it!
Greg...as always thanks for the kind words.

Hyblaean...With the lionshare of revenue now coming from DVD sales rather than the box office expect to see the market flooded with "Dude, Where's My Car I, II, III, IV...However the is a trend in Hollywood that nobody is talking about...moviestars are not selling movies anymore which could be a sign of the consumer need for substance.

Idaho...thanks for reading.

Julie...Glad you liked it.
A great read.
Thank you.
Last post I read today and the best! Thanks for getting this one out of your head and into OSland. Appreciated. Rated.
Wonderful memory and wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing a little touch of Eartha. She was quite a lady.
Damn...thanks for sharing. Glad you had the experience even if the market was stupid. It is all our loss.
A slight correction on Ms. Kitt's 2007 appearance at Westport. It was during April that she appeared in "All About Us".

It's also worth mentioning that, at this time, the theater itself was in turmoil. I don't know all the details and so can't elaborate and won't speculate; but, a big change in the management of the theater occurred then as well.

You can read about it.
Harry, what a well written story. Your story captivated me and I was engrossed in all the details. What a disappointment, to say the least. And what an experience. Eartha sounded wonderful and you've ended up writing a tribute to her. Well done.
Great story, Harry. Many thanks.

I was a regular attendee at Harlem's Apollo Theatre in the 50s and 60s. One night, I arrived early, and as I was waiting in line to be seated, I saw this skinny little urchin in a knit cap scamper into the theatre. Later, inside, someone very different slinked on to the stage, glaring at the audience, and daring it not be blown away by what was to come. They were.
Hers was a unique persona. Whereas others begged for approval, sometimes even demanding it, Eartha could afford to be totally indifferent. Her talent and intelligence were that great.
It's nice when a story resonates with folks...

Grif...too kind...OS is great therapy for people like me.

Madcelt...she was a presence for sure. I've spent time with many actors and few actually live up to the hype and most tend to disappoint.

O'Stephanie..."experiences" are the only reward we really get from this business. We give always months away from our families to practice out craft and left with moments.

Mary...fuuny you bring up the "details" because I'm always trying to avoid the details here on OS and give the broad strokes. This story could have been 20 pages but I have been wondering what the threshold is here on OS???? Anyway as always your comments are always great.

GordonO...Priceless memory...I grew up watching the Apollo and have often wondered what it must have been like in those days...great story.
This look inside the legend was a wonderful tribute to a great lady. I think you might try to revamp the project, pitch it to some black investors there certainly enough millionaires of color out there that may want to invest in such a venture.... Keep the original script, recast the part and make the film in her honor. She's gone, but we need to help keep the spirt of black women likeButterfly, Ertha, Pearl, Ella, Josephine, et al immortalized. How else will the younger debutantes and instant celebrities know...who paved the way for the likes of a Beyonce Knowles.
UrbanMs...of course that is the plan...that also brings up a disturbing part of the story. During the casting period a very wealthy black woman came to me and said she would invest in the film if I changed the step-Black grandfather who molests the young girl...now Mom in the film...to a White guy. I refused but it did somewhat validate the sensitivity in the community...maybe she didn't think Blacks could take yet one more hit...not sure but I would love if this film could be financed with Black money. However Black investors are a bit more savvy when it comes to the entertainment business than most or we would see this rend disappear much faster.
Barry...speaking of Ian...have you been in the new Gramercy Park?

On film...a new paradigm needs to emerge which allows filmmakers to explore great stories...maybe a feature film model of PBS? otherwise we shall be lulled into mindless crap...like the $26 mil action picture REDLINE I produced...never should have been made-garbage!!! Paycheck garbage...but nonetheless garbage. I would have traded a non-paycheck over Redline to do Cherrys!!!
"Her show business break came on a lark, when a friend dared her to audition for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. She passed the audition and permanently escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined her life till then.
"But she took the steeliness with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her career, except once. In 1968 she was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: 'You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.' The remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt's career.
"As bookings dried up, the was exiled in Europe for almost a decade. But President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House in 1978, and that year she earned her first Tony nomination for her work in 'Timbuktu', an all-black re-make of 'Kismet'."

--- Eartha Kitt
--- obituary
--- The New York Times
--- 12/26/08
" ... she was exiled ... "
What a wonderful story....thank you! I stumbled upon this site a few moments ago and I'm glad I did. I hope you still stop by and read the comments. I am a black woman and actor who left LA two years ago. I left for a number of reasons, one being the disrespect STILL afforded us. Black buffoons can still get green lighted projects faster than creative, thought provoking dramas. Even Denzel Washington's the "Great Debators" did not get the respect I felt it deserved....but people will rave and carry on about "the Blindside" and anything Mr Tyler Perry touches is gold. Not taking away from their success, but it shouldn't be at the expense of other creative projects with "Black" themes...which bottom line, can still be, and often are, universal. All I wish to say now, Mr Knapp, is that I hope you have not let go of your project. You may have to recast, well you certainly will in the case of Ms Kitt. But if people like you who hold fast to their dreams (not like me who threw in the towel) the timing may just be ripe. I wholeheartedly wish you the best!! Persevere!
Hi Harry, I stumbled across your story as I was googling Eartha, because she was in mind on Monday real strong (i don't know why), then when i visited my mother yesterday, she started talking about Eartha (which has never happened before). So with Eartha in mind I decided to google her, i knew she passed but didn't know when, then I came across yr beautiful story and just had to write to you to say that i hope you haven't given up as I am looking forward to seeing this story on screen someday. When I was reading yr story I couldn't wait to google 'Cherries' until i realised it hadn't happened.....as yet. So I am thinking have you contacted Oprah?........maybe she would be interested.....no she would be interested ...........she makes films as well.....i'm sure she would put up the money for it. All I'm saying is don't give up....i hope yr still working it. All my love....Sparkle1
Hi Harry, I stumbled across your story as I was googling Eartha, because she was in mind on Monday real strong (i don't know why), then when i visited my mother yesterday, she started talking about Eartha (which has never happened before). So with Eartha in mind I decided to google her, i knew she passed but didn't know when, then I came across yr beautiful story and just had to write to you to say that i hope you haven't given up as I am looking forward to seeing this story on screen someday. When I was reading yr story I couldn't wait to google 'Cherries' until i realised it hadn't happened.....as yet. So I am thinking have you contacted Oprah?........maybe she would be interested.....no she would be interested ...........she makes films as well.....i'm sure she would put up the money for it. All I'm saying is don't give up....i hope yr still working it. All my love....Sparkle1

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