Woman Around Town: KT Sullivan—
Bubbles in a Glass of Champagne
by Alix Cohen
“Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne” You Go to My Head (Haven Gillespie/J. Fred Coots)
If Con Ed could wire KT Sullivan, Manhattan would light up like Christmas. Vibrating even when perched, she might be a humming bird with wing speed too fast to observe. Her thoughts bubble up in short phrases, then move on quickly without looking back. KT says she knew she belonged here when, for the first time, she “finally met people who talk as fast as I do…My father talked fast, I guess. With so many siblings (seven), you have to talk fast to get anything heard, and briefly because you can’t hold the floor very long.”
Eight children were born to Elizabeth “Betty” and Jim Sullivan, who married at 16 and had been married 62 years when he died in 2009. The family began on a farm in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma. “When you have a chicken in the picture, it really shows you’re in the country,” KT comments about an early photo. The Sullivans grew up interdependent. Not only did siblings take care of each other and share chores, they shared a talent for music. KT attributes these genetics to her mother’s side of the family, all of whom, it seems, played and sang.
Eight children and their mother comprised The Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. All of them learned classical piano and voice from Betty. Her father “loved to sing, but had a challenge with pitch” and so became their biggest fan. Betty Sullivan and three siblings sing professionally. Twice a year the entire clan plus the extended family gathers to perform together in public.*
Interests in language, history, and literature lead Kathleen to matriculate in fine arts rather than music at The University of Oklahoma, though she studied German Lieder and French Art Songs. When a friend moved to Los Angeles, the time was right to spread her wings.
“Opera” singing waitress jobs at Sarno’s Café de l’Opera, La Strada, and Villa Lasagna “Yes, the owner’s name was Lasagna!” paid the rent between theater jobs. At Villa Lasagna, she met actor Howard Witt, who would be both boyfriend and mentor for five years. Then, Kathleen Sullivan landed on the television show, Match Game featuring contestants attempting to match celebrities’ answers to fill-in-the-blank questions. She was paired with the stage-whispering Charles Nelson Reilly who saw to it she won $10,000! She was then able to study acting with Nina Foch and opera with Giovanni Zavatti. Waitressing seemed a pleasantly distant memory.
In 1980, Kathleen was cast in the first of many commercials. A bride at the altar, she couldn’t say “I do,” until she’d had her Hershey’s Kiss. Applying for SAG and AFTRA memberships, she discovered there was another Kathleen Sullivan. “My mother’s maiden name was Fowler, so I was going to be Kathleen Fowler. Then Howard sat behind KT Stevens at a SAG meeting. He came home and said, I’ve got it. You’re going to be KT= Ka-tleen. K.T. Stevens was best friends with Nina Foch, so she liked the idea.” Small rolls on television series followed.
One night at The Rose Café, the newly “christened” KT sang an elaborate version of “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Owner, Deborah Rose suggested she do an act. She was “…terrified. He (Witt) played me a Barbara Cook recording. Before that, I thought nightclub singers all had sultry, low voices.” Cook was a soprano with similar range. In 1981, KT performed her first evening of cabaret. A single qualifier in the Los Angeles Daily News review was that she sang too many Barbara Cook songs! The show ran every Friday night over a year.
Eric Michael Gillett remembers that show. “She really was a small-town girl, come to the big city to make her way, so when she slowly sang the verse to Oklahoma—Gonna give you barley, carrots and pertaters, pasture for the cattle, spinach and termayters, tears would come to her eyes and her lower lip would tremble, a palpable sign that the girl she had been was always going to be a part of her, wherever she traveled. “
Her next venue was The Gardenia, still a mainstay in the Los Angeles cabaret scene. KT grew more comfortable with the genre. “I always say cabaret chose me.” Still, there was everything from The Merry Widow with the St. Louis Municipal Light Opera to L’il Abner opposite Joe Namath. Cabaret may have chosen her, but she would always have other flirtations.
KT finally made the move to Manhattan—well, Spanish Harlem. Given a short list of people to look up, her first pianist in New York became Buddy Barnes, who had played for Mabel Mercer. She sang at The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, and Danny’s Skylight Room.
Barnes was also music director of “The Songs of Bart Howard,” at Jan Wallman’s. Rita Gardner (the original ingénue in The Fantastiks) had been “the girl,” but was going out of town. “Because Buddy was in my act, I put in some Bart Howard. Howard came to hear me. It was kind of an audition. At the end, he came up to me and said For the first time in my life I wish I were younger and straight.” Needless to say, KT got the part. Bart Howard left KT his grand piano. You can’t see the top for dozens and dozens of smiling photos of friends. Open sheet music includes Where Do You Start (Marilyn & Alan Bergman), The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish (Harry Warren/Al Dubin/Johnny Mercer), and some Giacomo Puccini. One imagines her benefactor would be pleased.
After appearing as Suky Tawdry in the Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, KT was once again available to do cabaret. (This is not a woman who rests). Mark Nadler and his then partner were booking entertainment for a steakhouse on the Upper East Side called Adam’s Rib. KT went to see Nadler who reciprocated, booked her, and became her musical director for the show.
On opening night, what KT calls a “hub bub” rose from a banquette at the back of the room. The duo ignored it. At the end of the show, Nadler angrily questioned the serving staff. Apparently a woman was going down on her date at the table during the performance. “I was standing right there and, of course, heard the waiters’ description. Mark was scandalized for me. He thought of me as this really prim lady who sang classical music. Then, I asked during which song? I thought it must’ve been I’ve Got You Under My Skin. (She laughs. It’s full, rich, and open). Cole Porter brought us together.” KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler have created and performed eight thematic shows together since then as well as countless duets in concert. (They both have flourishing solo careers). “First we have lunch. Then we shop for my gown. Then his tie, handkerchief, and socks which match my gown…usually at Barney’s…”
I asked Nadler if he had a story particularly indicative of KT’s character. He described their doing the Gershwin show in Stuart, Florida. Nadler had gone down a day early. When KT’s original flight was canceled forcing her to fly into an airport an hour from the venue, they decided he’d do the first act by himself. Hopefully she’d appear by the second, but necessarily wearing on stage what she’d worn on the plane. “…at intermission, I went into the lobby with the audience to keep them amused. A limo pulled up, and out came a black and jeweled high heel, a black stockinged leg, a gorgeous black beaded gown, completed by feather boa. Her hair was done, her make-up was perfect and as she got out of the car, she broke into Summertime and the livin’ is easy, singing it as she walked to the stage. It was a dazzling second act.” KT had dressed and made up in the car on the way from Miami to the theater!
Her first show at The Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel was called Songs for a Summer Night. KT told me candidly that Stephen Holden’s review in The New York Times was awful. Rex Reed disagreed. Comic performer Sidney Meyer, now of Don’t Tell Mama, reassured her, “The word from the boys is they like you.” More importantly, Arthur Pomposello who ran The Oak Room, had enough faith to book KT consecutive summers. “I owe my career to Arthur.” It took five reviews, including one for The Rainbow Room, “for Holden to give me a passing grade…He just didn’t get me,” she muses.
That same year, she traveled to the lake district of Como, Italy with opera coach Carlo Faria. “We took the train from Zurich third class. I sang arias all the way through the Alps. People gathered in the hallway near the car. When we got off in Como, the Italians leaned out of train windows and applauded calling out Brava Diva! It was sort of like a Deana Durbin movie.” She lights up with the memory. “I don’t tell this story often because it sounds like such a big head, but it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had.” KT still checks in with Faria once or twice a year for a tune up.
It was on the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun, KT started wearing the hats. Having removed the production wigs, “the women in the show would take half an hour or more to get out of the dressing rooms because they were doing their hair. One day, I just put on a hat. I figure I save about 200 hours a year by putting on hats.” Now, she collects them. “First it was practical, then it became the look. People started giving me their mother’s vintage hats. It gets attention and I love it.” KT showed me her millinery collection. There must be 100, mostly black hats, many of them cocktail headwear. “Winter,” she explained, opening another closet piled with hatboxes labeled “Spring.”Her performance wardrobe is influenced by her own innate femininity and, she says, years of watching The Loretta Young Show with her mom.
Labor Day 1997, KT performed at a benefit for the National Musical Theater Network which took place at a private home. Stephen Downey, a business communications consultant, found her captivating. Something of a man-about-town, Downey was surprised when nothing came out of his mouth as she passed. “I was agog at the presence of beauty and talent in this nightingale,” he recalls. At dusk, they were both outside on the patio, when Downey saw a beautifully dressed man walk past “sartorial, or I wouldn’t have noticed” straight into the swimming pool! Reflexively turning to KT, he commented “Did you see that?!” Once he found his voice, Downey used it.
“I never aspired to marriage. As Noel Coward wrote I travel alone. But love found me… Steve still refers to the pause after the proposal.” They were married in 1999. KT wore an opulent red velvet gown. Hundreds of framed career mementoes and photographs of the joined Sullivan/Downey dynasties from the last century to the present fill the walls of their sunny apartment.
In addition to performing in cabaret, KT has given concerts all over the world, worked on Broadway and in regional theater and made her West End (London) debut in the bilingual Vienna to Weimar. One Spring day in 1983, she sang The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous (Irving Berlin) to an audience including President and Mrs. Reagan at The White House.
Since 2007 the multifaceted Jon Weber has been her Music Director and Accompanist. I asked Jon how they met. “I was playing obscure songs from the American Popular Songbook at a party, and some disembodied voice sang along – every word – every verse – in every key in which I chose to play. About 25 songs later, KT, the vocalist responsible for this vast knowledge and musicality, approached me and asked to see my calendar.”
I ask KT what she’d like for the future. “I think I could do a show on Broadway if I really loved it… You always want what you don’t have…Cabaret is a good life, especially if you get a show at The Algonquin every year.” She travels. Family is extremely important as are her friends. History and opera are particular interests. She’s President of The Dutch Treat Club at The National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South.
A pillow on a living room couch reads: Too Much of a Good Thing is Simply Wonderful.
That’s KT Sullivan all over.
All unattributed quotes are KT Sullivan
RHYME, WOMEN & SONG—KT Sullivan Salutes Music-Making Ladies
The Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel May 3-28, 2011
*On May 22, The performing reunion will take place during KT’s run in The Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel. One night only.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: West Bank. I like the food and I like to support Steve, the owner.
Favorite Places to Shop: Barbara Flood’s Closet; Off Broadway on West 72nd Street
Favorite New York Sight: The Statue of Liberty and the view from my balcony.
Favorite New York Moment: Bart Howard came back to see me after my show as a sort of audition for his show. Before he said hello, he said, “For the first time in my life I wish I were younger and straight.” It was one of those moments when I knew I had the part and everything started to happen to me. And nobody ever said that to me before.
What You Love About New York: People go OUT…they don’t stay in…they don’t sit alone in their rooms. They come out and support each other.
What You Hate About New York: Noise. I bring ear plugs with me everywhere. Sirens are so loud because people are deaf from sirens.