Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
The recent passing of Eartha Mae Keith, better known as Eartha Kitt, reminds me that, to date, I have met quite a number of Catwomen in my life.
The first one was in May of 1997, at a toy promotion convention called the Syndicate Promotions Toy, Music & Horror Expo, held at the Garden State Exhibit Center, in Somerset, NJ. At the time, Bernie Kugel, his wife Tink, and then very young son Ben (now graduating college, fer krissake), would go to many of these kinds of gathering to check out the merchandise (comics, records, memorabilia), meet the actors of either grade-B-thru-Z films or those on their way up or down, and maybe run into people who were also attending like Johnny Ramone (who we often saw at these jamborees of the bizarre).
Along with a bunch of wrestlers (Taz, Kimberly, and Diamond Dallas Page), actors (the angry Candy Clark, whose career rightfully should have been bigger than this), and generally cool merch, we met a number of the participants in the ‘60s version of television’s Batman.
One of the people I was most excited to meet there was Julie Newmar (Julia Chalene Newmeyer), the original Catwoman on the show. Hell, I had quite a memory of her growing up, in films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (one of my mom’s favorite film, which we’d watch it on TV), Ii’l Abner (in one of her defining roles as Stupefyin’ Jones), and Mackenna’s Gold, but especially in television appearances on just about everything, like Get Smart, Star Trek, The Monkees, F-Troop and The Beverly Hillbillies. However, it was Catwoman that was the defining role for us at PS 128. She was a stunning woman with a voice like syrup. Statuesque, a strong intellect and a very sharp timing for comedy that was overlooked due to her appearance, many of us pre-pubescent boys put her up there with the likes of Inger Stevens, Elizabeth Montgomery, Barbara Eden, Yvonne Craig, and Marta Kristen. By the time of this Syndicate Promotions show, she was in the range of nearing Social Security. She seemed to have had a number of “procedures,” and possessed what we now know as a “Cher” face. I must say, she was very sweet to all who came to say hello, and there were plenty of people on line to meet her, especially us men.
At the next table was Robin, himself, Burt Ward (Bert John Gervis, Jr). He came across as totally cool in his Hawaiian shirt and easy manner. While the role of Robin both made and broke his career, he seemed kind of breezy, and was definitely more attentive to the women who were dropping by (and there were many middle aged giggly women there on line to get him to sign something). From what I know of his autobiography, Boy Wonder: My Life In Tights getting women excited was not something he either had a problem with or turned away from. Still, his multiple charity work and convention signings seems to have worked out for him. Mostly, he seemed to be having a lot of fun, and I totally respect that.
The last Batman-related star at this convention (no, the future mayor of Quahog was not present) was Frank Gorshin. I think I was more excited to meet him any the other two. While his Joker was one of the characters most associated with him, I was a fan of his other projects, as well, especially his comic mimic work on The Kopycats, part of the ABC Comedy Hour in the early ‘70s. Along with the likes of powerhouses Rich Little, Charlie Callas, and the lovely Marilyn Michaels (I still have her LP), Frank stood out for his pure manic energy. People like Jim Carey owe him a huge debt, much as Robin Williams does (and acknowledges so) Jonathan Winters. Every week the players would do comedy sketches while mimicking famous actors (Frank would often do, for example, Kirk Douglas). But he was also strong as a dramatic actor, such as on the classic “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode of Star Trek, which focused on race relations. He was one the humanoid black & white cookies, Bele, giving that great, memorable line “It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed…I am black on the right side…Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side. “ But even before that, he had appeared in a bunch of grade D films that I remember watching on television growing up, like Hot Rod Girl, Dragstrip Girl, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry Lewis’s first post-Dean solo endeavor) and especially, Invasion of the Saucer Men. He had a pretty lively career until his death in 2005. In 1997, he was totally accessible, and looked more like a family uncle than a movie star. I took a picture, and then he looked at me and smiled as I snapped the second. I was nervous and my hand was shaky, so the picture is a bit blurry.
In November that same year, at the Halloween edition of the Chiller Theatre gathering in Secaucus, NJ, I had the chance to run into the third woman to play Catwoman, Lee Ann Meriweather. I remembered her as much for playing the film (1966) version of Catwoman, as I had for her cinematic roles like in 4D Man, and in multitude of television shows like Star Trek. Even before that, she had been one of the original members of the Today Show and elected Miss America the year I was born. Later, should would become popular again for roles in the likes of Barnaby Jones, All My Children, and for reprising the character of Lily in the mind-numbing The Munsters Today. While I always found her to be the blandest of the Catwomen (until Michelle Pfeiffer – despite the leather outfit – whom I have not met), my opinion of her changed when our paths crossed. Anyone who has been to these kinds of shows knows that most of the artists attending are there, basically, to sell their signatures or photos, to the point of greed (I believe stemming from the anger that their career was at the point where they needed to be doing this rather being able to get jobs acting). I have had many people glare at me for taking photos of them. Not Lee; rather she put on the biggest, sincerest smile and melted my heart. She came off as incredibly genuine. After I took the picture, someone walked over and started talking to her about earlier roles. Her complete attention was directed at this individual, and she answered openly and in a non-rushed manner. From that moment on, she had and has my total respect.
The last Catwoman I came across was by sheer accident, and I did not get a photo, even though I had my camera in my hand. Thanks to connections, in May 1998, Bernie managed to wrangle two tickets to see Ringo Starr and his All Star Band play at the Bottom Line in a pre-tour tryout. It was, of course, a great show. We sat over to the right side (at a table next to Michael Moore). When I had the chance, with camera in hand, I went over to the center of the room to squat in front of one of the pillars to get a picture of the band. Between shots, I looked at the table to my left, and there was someone who looked familiar, despite the darkness through the red lights. At first, I thought, “Is that Eartha Kitt?” as I squinted. She saw me looking (pretty sure not seeing me squinting, and thinking I was staring), and gave a small smile and did a cat claw motion with her hand at me. Smiling, I took some more pictures of Ringo, and went off back to my seat, and to tell Bernie. The reason I didn’t take the picture is because it was too dark, even for 400 ASA; there announced that taking flash pictures was forbidden, and cameras would be confiscated if a flash was exploded. Eartha Kitt was a legend beyond the Catwoman role (which I’m sure she got because more because of her famous growl), but having someone of color in that role at that time broke more barriers than she (or the producers) is given credit. After all, the sexual tension with the very lily white Adam West was even more palpable than between Uhura and Kirk. Kitt was the natural progression starting from Josephine Baker, and fitting somewhere between Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll as the African-American woman white men fantasized about.
There were two other Batman related actors I have seen that I can think of, but am only mentioning them in passing due to the circumstances in which I met them. Vincent Price played the villain Egghead in the television series, but I saw him portray Oscar Wilde on Broadway in his one-man show, Diversions and Delights, in 1977. Similarly, I actually got to shake hands with the second Joker, Jack Nicholson, at a press screening of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. His Joker, which was meant to be so much more like Heath Ledger’s, came out closer to Frank Gorshin’s, and to date, I feel his was the worst because so much more was expected. We got a load of him, indeed.