Photo by John
Sunday, March 29, 1992
SINGS OF A JOURNEY THAT MAKES ALL LISTENERS ONE
by James Gavin
Carter, the Tennessee-born singer and actress, performs
Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" at the Cafe Carlyle in
Manhattan, the baby grand becomes the stage for a comic
reincarnation of Scarlett O'Hara. The song's lascivious
menagerie seems to overrun that sedate room, as she sits
atop the piano, mimicking refined ladybugs, courageous
kangaroos and giraffes on the sly.
On reaching the line "Old sloths who hang down from twigs
do it," she all but dangles upside down while kicking up
her legs toward the ceiling. Afterward she kneels on the
polished lid to take a bow, her mop of brunette hair thrown
back. "There's a lot to be said for stayin' up late and
carryin' on," she says.
The 52-year-old Miss Carter is best known as Julia
Sugarbaker, the intellectual Southern firebrand of the CBS
hit comedy series "Designing Women." But this Tuesday, when
she returns to the Carlyle for her fourth annual
engagement, she will spend a month indulging her greatest
love: singing. Her enthusiasm is apparent when she talks
about it. "When I start the show I feel such wonderful
anticipation," she says. "I want to say, 'Just wait till
you hear this one!' If I don't feel a song will tickle
everyone, or resonate in their lives, then I won't do it."
This year's choices range from Noel Coward to Bob Seger,
and her voice -- a soprano with an intimate, conversational
delivery -- gives them all an individual stamp. Unlike many
cabaret singers, who regard themselves with deadly
seriousness, Miss Carter considers herself an entertainer.
In her last Carlyle engagement she played tambourine and
harmonica for Bob Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and
I'll Go Mine)." Now she is brushing up on her
trumpet-playing for a number by the 1950's rhythm-and-blues
singer Little Milton. She will also sing several ballads
with which she feels a close connection, notably John
Wallowitch's "This Moment," a plea to wrest as much joy as
possible from a life that races by too quickly.
"My shows pretty much have the same story," she says.
"They're about the journey that takes us from innocence
through grief through maturity. While the show lasts,
everyone in the room agrees that sad things have happened
to us, that we all have our dreams and fantasies. Then we
go our way and become strangers again, but for an hour it's
as if I'm in my living room and we're all friends."
Her has helped spread her reputation beyond the television
audience, winning her fans like Elaine Stritch, her co-star
in the Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of "Pal
Joey" last year. "She has this extraordinary humor that has
great sadness in it," says Ms. Stritch. "I hate to see her
on 'Designing Women' too much longer because she shouldn't
be tied in."
Miss Carter says she felt the first stirrings of an
ambition to sing at an early age. She grew up in a
tightknit family in McLemoresville, a town of 200
residents. "My brother, sister and I had many chores," she
says. "We helped keep strawberries and peel peaches. My
sister would practice the piano after meals one day while I
did the dishes, then the next day we'd switch. When we had
finished our chores we were allowed to read. Can you
imagine? Now parents have to beat their children to get
them to read."
At the age of 4 she heard her first Saturday afternoon
broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera and immediately decided
that she would move to New York to become an opera singer.
She spent most of her teen-age years studying classical
voice and musical comedy. After graduating from Memphis
State University with a degree in English, Miss Carter
moved to New York in 1963.
A family friend had given her a letter of introduction to
Geraldine Souvaine, producer of the Met broadcasts. Miss
Carter auditioned for her with an aria from Puccini's "La
Rondine." "I stood up and, honey, I cranked it out," she
recalls. "Miss Souvaine looked at me with such intensity
that I thought, this is it. I've got her. She took a deep
breath and said, 'That was just . . . awful.' I gasped.
Then she said, 'But you certainly know what the words mean,
and you certainly should be on the stage. But I'm not sure
you should be on the operatic stage.' "
Two weeks later Miss Carter won the lead in Joseph Papp's
production of "The Winter's Tale," and her picture appeared
on the front page of The New York Daily News. "I didn't
know what had hit me," she says. "Mr. Papp had taken a
strong interest in me. I started to realize that this was a
big deal, and I became frightened." When the show closed
she accepted a job with the Music Theater of Lincoln
Center, which specialized in reviving classic musicals
until it ended in 1969.
The experience was a disappointment, for she never rose
above being a chorus member or understudy. She left in 1966
to join the nightclub revues at Upstairs at the Downstairs,
sharing the stage with two equally promising unknowns, Lily
Tomlin and Madeline Kahn.
Miss Carter's career came to a halt in 1967 when she
married Arthur Carter, a wealthy investment banker. He
prevailed upon her to give up show business to become a
full-time wife and mother (they have two daughters, Mary
Dixie and Ginna). The marriage undercut Miss Carter's
confidence to the point where she was afraid to sing.
"Eventually I lost the idea that I could have a career,"
she says. "I thought I was too old."
In 1973, near the end of the marriage, an actor friend
convinced her to meet with an agent, Dale Davis, who helped
resuscitate her career. She soon landed the part of a
lawyer on the ABC soap opera "Edge of Night." Several plays
and television roles followed, helping pave the way for
"Designing Women" in 1986. By that time Miss Carter had
married the actor Hal Holbrook, who urged her not to
neglect her earliest love. "I said, 'Dixie, you practically
lock the door on our dinner guests and hold a gun to their
heads while you go on singing, and they love it and so do
you,' " he says. "All she needed was somebody to encourage
her with the idea, which apprarently she'd had all along."
The Los Angeles-based pianist and composer Michele Brourman
helped Miss Carter assemble an act. Ms. Brourman
ingeniously added a violin to the standard piano and bass
accompaniment used in cabaret, giving the arrangements a
variety of colors from semi-classical to country. The show
had its debut in 1981 at the Gardenia, a club in Los
Angeles, and played for four seasons at the now-defunct
Freddy's Supper Club in New York to critical acclaim. Rene
Peyrat, the Cafe Carlyle's food and beverage manager, heard
her there and convinced the hotel to book her in 1989.
Since then her career has broadened beyond "Designing
Women." She has signed to make four videos based on her
health and fitness regimen. Last year she recorded the
spoken word edition of the best-selling novel "Scarlett"
and released "Dixie Carter Sings John Wallowitch -- Live at
the Carlyle," an album of songs written by the cabaret
performer, who became her coach and mentor in 1963.
Singing at the Carlyle for 10 hours a week is far more
taxing -- and less lucrative -- than appearing on
"Designing Women," but Miss Carter says it has become the
most cherished part of her year. "Situation comedy is a
wonderful forum for the writer's opinions," she says. "But
it does not necessarily speak for us as actors. Coming back
to New York really restores my soul. My husband calls it
'Letting the well fill up.' "