Thursday, February 19, 2009

D-DAY: AN AFTERNOON WITH DIXIE CARTER

DixieCarter

Our week of cabaret interviews ended (last Friday already...oy vey, where have I been?) with the great Dixie Carter. Now most of you probably share my own ignorant view that Ms. Carter is nothing more than a legendary television star ("Designing Women", of course, but also "Different Strokes" for awhle and more recently her memorable turn on "Desperate Housewives"). But thanks to "Intimate Nights" author James Gavin, I'm now hip to the fact that Dixie Carter is, first and foremost, a singer of rare ability, a cabaret artist to the bone whose early work was in the small nightclubs that we're exploring in our documentary. (By the way, apropos of that "Desperate Housewives" mention: according to the above wikipedia link, Marc Cherry, DH's creator, began his career in Hollywood as Dixie's assistant during "Designing Women". There's a moral in there about not being a total dragon to your personal assistant who--it turns out--might well become your future meal ticket...)



Our interview revealed a number of interesting facts, including Dixie's first great ambition: to be a singer in the Metropolitan Opera. Indeed it was this dream that sent her to New York from her native Tennessee, though apparently her pipes weren't quite up to what the Met was looking for. Nonetheless, two men saw her potential and mentored her: the composer/pianist John Wallowitch and the great Richard Rodgers, who hired her to understudy a production of "Carousel". Rodgers noticed a quality in her that even she wasn't aware of; her humor. Indeed finding a woman as attractive as Dixie Carter who can also make you laugh is a casting bonanza and Rodgers quickly determined that her strength wasn't going to be in playing Julie Jordan (which is the role Carter said she considered "hers") but rather as Barbara Pettigrew.

Later in the sixties, she co-starred in several intimate reviews at the legendary Upstairs At The Downstairs in Greenwich Village with fellow "beginners" Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn. All three women of course went on to stardom. But Dixie's life took a curious turn; she married a businessman named Arthur Carter (no relation, though I wonder if she was tempted to bill herself as Dixie Carter and Carter). She had children and prematurely retired from show-business. In one section of our interview she remembered with melencholy sitting in her beautiful 5th Avenue apartment watching her former co-stars, now famous, on television...

Anyway, stardom was hers again in the eighties...and what did she do with it? Returned to cabaret, with a legendary show at the famous Cafe Carlyle (a show I never saw even though I live a block from the damn place), one that I believe Jim Gavin holds some kind of attendance record for (I think he said he went back 29 times one season). I find this particularly relevant since, in spite of finding her real success on television, Dixie clearly still feels the pull of the intimate nightclub--her true metier is, in fact, the cabaret environment she began in. This speaks to precisely the point that I'm hoping we make in this film; cabaret wasn't simply a "launching pad" (though it was a good one for many), but rather a way of life. Once tasted, the particular excitement of intimate performance couldn't be bested. By the way, Dixie's also very funny. The below picture of me, Dixie and our cinematographer Melissa Painter features us all cracking up. Why? Because right before Jim snapped the picture Dixie shouted out: "1...2...3...MONEY!"



One of the real pleasures of our interview was Dixie's extremely thoughtful reflections on her fellow performers. She clearly has thought deeply and analytically about performers she admires and what they do and how they do it. Thus her reflections on such cabaret icons as Felicia Saunders, Julie Wilson and the legendary Mabel Mercer transcended mere fandom ("Oh, she was wonderful!", "Ah, simply the greatest!") and instead led to real insight as to how these songstresses acted their on-stage personas--what their specific talents were and how this impacted their singing. Alas, Dixie's husband, acting GIANT Hal Holbrook, was out of town doing his famous Mark Twain show and so was unavailable to us. But that appears to be temporary; he's indicated a willingness to be interviewed for our film. What has Hal Holbrook to do with cabaret? Well, as few people know, Hal Holbrook's awesome acting career began as a cabaret perfomer in a downtown club called The Duplex...

Below is Dixie Carter camping up "Sweet Georgia Brown" from a 1990 episode of "Designing Women".



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3 comments:

J.C. said...

This comment is for the movie City Island. From this link:
http://www.westendfilms.com/WE_Hong_Kong_09.html

I found out that this movie will be screened in Hong Kong on 22-23 March and in the Cannes film festival. I live in Hong Kong and would like to see this movie. Do you have any more details? Will anybody from this movie come to Hong Kong to promote this movie?
I am so excited if I will be able to see this movie. Thanks!

Raymond De Felitta said...

Well, that's the first I've heard about Hong Kong--is there a film festival there? Cannes screenings are probably "market screenings" (showing the film to foreign buyers). No, I don't think we'll be in Hong Kong. But if you are and want to see it, just say you're a friend of the directors and see if they let you in!

Anonymous said...

So does this mean that Cannes is not the "spring film festival" that you were referring to earlier when you said that City Island would be featured at one?