R.I.P. Kathi Moss: A Beautiful Woman Is Lost To Us

Posted: February 9, 2013 in Broadway, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

kathiWhen Grease first opened Off-Broadway at the Eden Theater on February 14th, 1972, barely anybody including its stars (headed by an unknown fellow named Barry Bostwick and a gal named Carole Demas, besides a couple of ladies by the names of Adrienne Barbeau  and Ilene Kristen, and a chap named Alan Paul) remotely imagined that that the show would not only saunter to Broadway, but by 1980 become the single longest-running show in the history of New York when it displaced Fiddler on the Roof. It has since retained distinction as the fourteenth-longest-running Broadway show of all time. The show has had two very successful revivals since then, in 1994 and 2007 respectively, not to mention the mega-smash film version that was the undisputed hit of the summer of 1978, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. And among the other legendary talents to be borne from the show was a very robust young lady by the name of Kathi Moss, who memorably created the role of Cha-Cha Di Gregorio and managed to virtually walk off with the entire second act of the show when she steals Danny Zuko (Bostwick) from Sandy Dumbrowski (Demas) and wins the high school dance competition as televised live.

If her work in Grease hadn’t already cemented Moss loudly and clearly as a Broadway legend, she won the chance to prove it all over again in Nine in 1982, directed by Tommy Tune and which would go on to win a Tony for Best Musical (in the season in which Dreamgirls was heavily lauded to sweep the entire shootin’ match).  She spent most of the first act dressed as a nun in full habit, singing backups in her rich female tenor,  and then almost disrobe completely to embody the role of the whore Saraghina on the songs “Ti Voglio Bene” and “Be Italian” with a chorus of four young boys. It not only stunned the audience at every performance, but Moss made theater history when she and the kids performed it on the Tony Awards in 1983, tambourines in tow.

Other than a brief turn in Grand Hotel in the early 90s, Moss didn’t return to Broadway again but stayed busy in regional theater, and kept her friends close, among them your humble reporter. She once said, “Nobody will ever know how hot it was to wear that nun’s habit night after night under those  goddamned lights . Whenever I got to remove that wimple and that tunic and finally feel the cool breeze through the lace shorts, I was the happiest woman on Broadway.” And then she fell into blissful marriage with her husband Tom Quinn, who she loved more than life itself.

Which is why it was so awful, just a mere matter of weeks ago, to learn that she’d fallen victim to a fatal blood disorder known as cardiac amyloidosis. Her families from Grease and Nine rallied together to put together a benefit concert at the Signature Theater on January 14th to help with the costs of the illness, but Kathi shuffled off her mortal coil just a few days later, peacefully and painlessly and in the arms of her cherished Tom. As it rightfully should have been. And once again, her families from both shows gathered to share their memories with The Andrew Martin Report.

Alaina Warren Zachary, who created the role of Ilsa von Hesse in Nine, was one of the rare few who worked with Moss in both shows. “Of the Grease experience,” she says, “Pat Birch will corroborate that Kathi was an amazing dancer, for a large woman. For this reason, she was made the official dance captain of the show. She traveled to London and other places, to teach the original Pat Birch choreography to many Grease companies. In the program, and according to the union, Kathi was listed as Dance Captain. BUT in typical Kathi style, she insisted on being called the Dance Queen. So you will find that listing in our programs. But wait, there’s more; Kathi, being Kathi, wanted more than the acknowledgement of Dance Queen. She also requested a tiara. Probably both Pat Birch and Louis St. Louis can back me up on this. And if memory serves, she was presented with a tiara. Kathi had her own expressions, as any one who knew her well can tell you. One that lingers (and it usually referred to timing for a step or who knows what all) was “block-a, block-a block-a.”  She, so fond of telling stories, was the first person I ever heard who said “long story short.” And one of my favorite facial expressions was when Kathi would close one eye and look at you. Outside of our onstage/backstage times in Grease and Nine. I was the person who recommended her to Tommy Tune, when we learned the Saraghina from the workshop would not be continuing on to Broadway with us. So Kathi auditioned and became the Broadway Saraghina. But she never shared the royalties that the workshop folks received. As I was saying, outside of our Broadway adventures, we played together as girlfriends. Kathi had a car and I was starting to think about buying a weekend place in the Hudson Valley, so Kathi decided we’d take a drive and look at real estate upstate. Probably the year was 1983 by then. I remember we stopped at a little antique shop in Cold Spring, where I found a lovely simple gold and amethyst bracelet, which is my favorite to this day. But that’s not the story I wanted to share. We had so much fun looking at houses that we decided to get a motel room, and continue looking at houses the next day. Of course it was a spontaneous decision, so we hadn’t packed anything. We bought toothbrushes and toothpaste, but we had no pajamas and no other clothes than what we were wearing. It was Kathi who suggested (and I still laugh about this) that we take down the drapes and wear those around the motel room. Which we did. Toga style. The last story I’m sharing was a phone conversation I had with Kathi. After becoming a weekender upstate around 1984, I sold my Chelsea condo and moved full time to the Chatham area. I knew at some point that I would need to return to the city in order to pick up one more year to qualify for an AFTRA pension, and that year turned out to be 1997. I’d been away from New York for a long time, away from my performing pals, my agents, the casting people and all the Broadway society that had been a vital part of my life from 1971-1985.  So, naturally, I had trepidation about returning. How would I pick up the threads of my active, prosperous performing career after an absence of more than ten years? What would I say to everyone? Kathi, on the phone, had the advice. She said, ‘Coma. Tell them you’ve been in a coma for ten years.’ So typical of Kathi humor.”

Alan Paul, who of course followed his marvelous success in Grease as a member of the Manhattan Transfer, has equally wonderful memories of Moss. “She was such a great talent,” he says, “with a dynamic voice, that needed no mic to reach the far corners of the balcony. She was also a great swing dancer. We shared a little secret while in Grease. When we started out Off-Broadway at the Eden Theatre, the entire cast was on a favored-nations clause, making a big $280 a week. Kathi’s role as Cha-Cha, and my characters of Johnny Casino and Teen Angel, didn’t make our appearances until the second act, so we figured we were getting paid the same amount as everyone else while putting in half the time. On many occasions, we would sign in an hour before the start of the show and then sneak out to do whatever we wanted. It used to drive our stage manager, Tommy Smith,  completely nuts. But we never missed a performance, so he gave us slack.” Paul continues, “Another fond memory of Kathi was with her dog, Chichornya, named after the Russian folk song. He was an Afghan, absolutely beautiful, but the stupidest dog I ever met. Kathi lived in an apartment downtown that was on the third floor, and had a balcony overlooking the street below. One day, Kathi left her dog on the balcony to run some errands, and when poor Chichornya saw Kathi exit the building, he jumped three floors to get to Kathi, breaking both his back legs. Fortunately, they were able to pin together his legs and he was his jolly self again, except he now walked with a limp. Seeing how traumatic this must have been for Chichornya, it was a logical assumption on Kathi’s part that the probability of this scenario ever happening again was nil to slim. Well, unfortunately, that was not the case with Chichornya. Three months later, he once again jumped off the balcony, three floors in order to get to Kathi, and once again broke both his hind legs. He healed again and, as far as I know, Kathi never put him out on the balcony again and they lived happily ever after.”

Entertainer Nancy Hillner, now a sought-after theater teacher in Rhode Island, never actually worked with Moss but chimed in, “In 1974 after seeing Grease, I used to ‘second-act’ the show often. I had auditioned for the national tour a year or so earlier before I had even seen the show, and wanted to see what I had missed out on. I enjoyed it so much, and I kept going back because they looked like they were having so much fun, especially Kathi. I can still see her hand-jiving!” She continued, “I knew Kathi from Charlie’s, a theater restaurant across from the Royale. I worked the coat room, and Kathi and the rest of the Grease gang would sit at table twelve, a big round table near the front. She enjoyed her cocktails and liked to stay late, and we would chat/dish about mutual friends. One good friend (whose name I won’t mention) at one point did the show with her, and when I asked Kathi how she was, she didn’t pull any punches; she said she was awful! I truly loved how honest she was, but just in case people might know who it is, let’s just say I loved her brutal honesty about people. I also remember when she lost all of her Cha-Cha weight. What a difference! If I had to sum her up, I’d say she was always there with a smile, she loved having a good time, and her talent was a knockout.”

Dee Etta Rowe (now Dee Etta Rowe Ferraro), also from the original cast of Nine as  Olga von Sturm, said, “I didn’t know Kathi at all, until she joined us in the workshop. But I thought she was perfect for the role. She was very professional, fit right in with all of us even though she joined the cast later on, and was always very nice to me. And oh, how she loved to laugh. Nothing ever seemed to bother her at all!! Kathi was very kind, and loving, and talented. It was a pleasure to have worked with her and shared the stage with her!!”

Though Walter Charles wasn’t an original cast member of Grease, he became the first original replacement as Vince Fontaine and later scored success in Sweeney Todd, Cats and La Cage Aux Folles. Kathi and I were close friends during the years I was with Grease, in the first National & Broadway companies,” he says. “Although, we hadn’t seen each other for some years and had lost touch, I was, like all her devoted friends, devastated to learn of her illness and passing. It just seems so inconceivable. For the years I was in Grease with her,  she shared one of her Christmas traditions with me; we’d get into an old station wagon she had, a Country Squire or something, and she’d drive to this Christmas tree stand downtown that she liked. We get our trees, tie them to the roof of the car, then drive back uptown, park, and go to a sweet shop that used to be on Central Park South called Rumplemayer’s. We’d sit at a table and have a hot chocolate together, with whipped cream!  Then she’d drop me at my place, I’d unload, we’d get back into the car, and help her unload at her place. We laughed the whole time. We were also the “fact-finding committee”, which was part of a larger Equity committee during the musician’s strike during the 1970’s, and which closed down the musicals for about twenty-seven days, I think it was. Kathi and I were on the phone constantly with each other, or meeting up at her place or mine. She was a loyal, trusted friend during that time in my life, I will never forget her, and will always hold her memory close to my heart.”

Colleen Dodson (now Colleen Dodson Baker), who created the role of the Gondolier, says, “My favorite memory of working with Kathi on Nine was her grace under pressure at the rehearsal for the 1982 Tonys. Anita Morris and ‘A Call from the Vatican’ were rejected because it was too risqué, so the producers decided to go with Kathi and ‘Be Italian.’ I’ll never forget waiting for our rehearsal to start; we were in the house at the Imperial watching the Dreamgirls cast rehearse, and when Jennifer Holliday started singing her heart-stopping number, “And I Am Telling You,” we fell silent. You could tell by how somber the Nine girls got that we all had the same thought – how are we EVER going to follow THAT?! But then our time came, and Kathi took the stage. Nothing was going to intimidate her. She was a total star. Powerful and radiant. She owned her talent, her love of our show, and she reveled in the chance to perform her number. She showed us all the way that day, the night of the Tonys, and every performance she did during her run of Nine. I can’t see the YouTube clip of  ‘Be Italian’ on the 1982 Tonys without thinking back to that afternoon.”

Nancy McCall created the role of Arabella in Nine, later finding fame as the booking manager for both Palsson’s and Steve McGraw’s on West 72nd Street, the home of such Off-Broadway hits as Forbidden Broadway, Forever Plaid and Bittersuite. “It is easy to remember Kathi’s generosity. One night, she treated a group of us to dinner at Barbetta. And her opening night present of the mini-tambourine, with ribbons in the Italian colors, was a treasure. There are stage memories, but a standout was her generous, radiant smile, when I was an ensemble tambourinist.”

As if none of this was enough, Katie Hanley (the original Jan in Grease and later a star of the movie Godspell and heavily featured in Xanadu) said, ” I will never forget the first rehearsal for the cast of Grease at the Eden; the opening night memories are still with me every Valentine’s Day. As each actor walked into the room, I was struck by the amazing casting. Kathi and Tim Meyers walked in together, and their enviably deep friendship was apparent from the beginning. When Kathi read her first line, the power and talent in that gal had us exploding with laughter, along with every audience she played to. One of the highlights of the show was her entrance into the prom in her outrageous poofy yellow dress, booming out,  “They call me Cha-Cha, ’cause I’m the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s.”  And was she EVER! She took that stage and filled it with so many delicious moments, and was a major contributor to the success of Grease.  I just wish she’d been in the movie!! Selfishly,” she continued, “my favorite moment in the show was just before ‘It’s Raining On Prom Night.’ There were only a few of us onstage, and I was fortunate enough to have been positioned with my back to the audience, frozen, and looking up at Carole Demas. It was great to be part of the audience, soaking up Kathi’s intro. I go to YouTube for a listen every now and then, and get fed by all that is in her voice. I should point out that I didn’t see Kathi again after I left the show, but in spite of all the years that have gone by, my memory of her is fresh.  Those intelligent, big eyes…the face of a doll, her powerful voice, amazing dancing feet, and a presence that exuded generosity of spirit, authenticity, no-nonsense wisdom, and a refreshing sense of humor about herself, all rolled up into one who is impossible to forget.”

Linda Kerns created her own stir in Nine as Helga von Sturm, and remembers, “As well as the many laughs (and Kathi had the greatest, heartiest laugh of anyone I know) we had in our dressing room, during the run of Nine, one of the things I remember with great fondness is the ‘Champagne Saturday Nights.’ Kathi started a tradition of someone (usually herself) bringing in a bottle or two of Freixenet to wrap up the week. Then one holiday (I think it was a Christmas), she presented each of us with the greatest tallest champagne glass, which I STILL HAVE! Thru several moves, one of them across the country, that glass has gone with me to remind me of the wonderful times we had. It sits proudly on a shelf in my home, and using it is never out of the question.”

Even Raul Julia’s intrepid dresser, Susan Wright, has her memories of Moss. “I think of our Nine year with so much fondness and happy memories, and Kathi was a big part of that. I loved her number in the show. She sparkled and shined with joy, and was so lusty. The lust absolutely poured out of her! Sometimes I wonder what those kids really thought was going on. I know Raul thought she was wonderful, and so great in that role. We all did. Who couldn’t?”

Jim Wann wasn’t even a member of either cast; he was busy starring in Pump Boys & Dinettes in ’82 at the Princess Theater. But he, too, absolutely adored her. “I am remembering, with a big smile, Kathi Moss paddling around on that little round thing on wheels that Pat Birch put her on at the Kennedy Center in Hot Grog. Talk about a low budget! She also sang her ass off in Country Cabaret and especially in Nine. She made me, a country boy, want to be Italian just to hang out with Saraghina. And well, maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but everyone thought she was brave for dating Roger Howell. Who I love, too.” He continued, “I have thought of Kathi often through the years. We worked together a few times, and I never had a bad moment in her company. She was always great-hearted and generous with me, and she always made my work come alive in a way that made folks want to laugh and applaud. To me, she was a true theater person, who reminds me of all the best reasons to have friends in the theater.”

And Carole Demas, not merely a legend of Broadway for creating the role of Sandy in Grease but also of children’s television, and who is still knocking it out of the park in concert as recently as just a few weeks ago in the Westchester town of Irvington, said, “My husband, Stuart Allyn, owned a recording studio on Broadway and West 58th Street years ago. He was engineering and producing an album with our St. Croix friend and client, Llewellyn Westerman, a tall, broad shouldered sailor by trade (never a motor-ever!) and ‘Calypso King Of The Virgin Islands’ several times over.  Llewellyn plays guitar, sings in a sweet, deep voice and writes true Calypso; the poetry of the islands, full of his observations of life, the beauty of his home, his political ideas–his songs were (and still are) the real Calypsonian deal. I was singing backup, creating the soaring, mysterious soprano voices of mermaids for his song, ‘Underwater.’ All was well, and I was having a great time, until he decided I should sing some Calypso stuff–not exactly my ‘ting,'” she laughed. “He also needed a low, rich woman’s voice to join with mine. But it was after 10 PM. Who to call? I hadn’t seen Kathi in ages, but I called her, full of apologies for the hour and the short notice. In fifteen minutes, she was in the studio. Llewellyn met my weak protestations that ‘I wasn’t sure I could sing Calypso’ with a hearty, ‘Take off your shoes, girl, and just sing it!’ Kathi wasn’t exactly experienced singing Calypso, either, but her shoes were off in seconds and we wailed, rocked and crooned, swaying and stomping in our bare feet, screaming with laughter, until well into the early morning. Unforgettable.  Kathi was absolutely fearless, and I will be grateful to her forever for helping me find my groove. The woman had a direct connection to the joys of life.”

Long story short, as the lady herself would say, Kathi Moss will remain sorely missed by the Broadway community as well as the legions of fans she so completely embraced with her talents. One more angel now sings with the feathered choir, in a rich deep tone that will caress the clouds forevermore and always steal the show. Ti voglio bene, mia cara signorina.

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Comments
  1. Stephan says:

    Being a Westcoaster, I only ever saw her on the Tonys doing “Be Italian” and I will never forget how she had them all cheering. Me included. What a powerhouse!!!

  2. Louise (Guilietta) says:

    Andrew – thank you for a wonderful expose about wonderful Kathi – As you can see, everyone loved Kathi. I don’t know a soul who disliked her – it wasn’t that she was meek, she was opinionated, but she voiced who she was ALWAYS with humor and laughter and kindness. She will be missed.

  3. Kathy was so lovely. She came in, for no pay, to sing a song for a musical I had written the book, HARRY CHIN AND THE HONG KONG TONG. She was so sweet and kind and talented. I treasure that demo tape. She sang O’BANION’S BLUES and knocked it out of the park on one take. Great talent and great lady.

  4. Linda Kerns says:

    Oh thank you for this. My heart aches when I realize again that she is gone from us. But I know that she is having a blast, and dancing and singing with all those great angels in heaven. Linda K (HEIDI von Sturm)

  5. Kathy Maxwell says:

    I saw the magnificent Kathi Moss in NIne the year it opened on Broadway, I along with Robin Williams who was sitting in front of me, leaped to our feet as “Be Italian” ended, what a night in the theater. I had longed to be apart of the New York theater community my whole life. I was a theater major in College, had small parts in my local summer stock theater but upon moving to Los Angeles I chickened out and eventually became a successful executive in the fashion industry. So what does any of this have to do with Kathi? In 1984 my family performed an intervention with regard to an eating disorder that has plagued me throughout my life. I entered a treatment facility in Naples Florida and there met Kathi. We shared the same name and initials, the same sense of humor, many of the same demons, we even looked alike, it became a recipe for an intense and solid friendship which was the source of a lot of healing there in Florida. While we stayed in touch for many years, we lost touch in the 90’s. I randomly googles her today thinking it might be time to reach out and touch base. Sadly it is too late, I share this with her friends and husband only to say I am so sorry…..I knew her in a totally different milieu

  6. Mark Winkler says:

    WOW…How sad to hear of Kathi’s passing. Kathi lived directly above me on West 75th in the early 80’s. At that time all I knew was that at 5:45PM every night I would hear a women vocalizing scales…. up and down with every vowel combination known to mankind. I never understood why this women choose this peculiar time religiously every night. I soon discovered who she was and we became friendly enough that we would say hi when crossing paths at the incinerator. A few years later I moved to Greenwich, CT. In that summer I decided to start a musical theater program as I needed money desperately. Well wouldn’t you know who agreed to give a workshop for 35 children for next to nothing? Not only did Kathi give a brilliant workshop, but she taught all 35 kids how to to play the tambourine with “Be Italian playing in the background. In a few very short hours, she was able to teach a room of children what it meant to give it your all. It was an incredible morning that I shall never forget. I have a picture of her right after the class posted on my website https://sites.google.com/a/markwinkler.net/www/home/still-moments/my-teaching-moments. I will miss her smile, talent and generosity.

  7. Steven Reiss says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing Kathi Moss perform in Grease, Nine, and The Jack the Ripper review, but the first time I met her was through my friend Dee Etta Rowe. A friend of mine and I had just seen Nine, and we were eating at Joe Allen. Dee Etta and several members of the cast came in, and I was introduced to Kathi for the first time. I met her a second time when I auditioned for a dinner theatre production of Grease – Kathi was the dance captain. The third time I had the pleasure of being in the company of this amazing woman occurred when I was working at Circle in the Square. Kathi had come into the theatre to audition for the revival of The Rose Tattoo. She was waiting to be called in to read when I almost passed her in the hallway. I stopped, looked at her, and said “You’re Kathi Moss. I love you.” She let out that deep laugh that seemed to issue from somewhere within the bowels of her soul, and we stood there talking for a good long time. Kathi was not cast in the production, but I was probably more disappointed than she was because I missed out on the opportunity of getting to know her so much better. God bless you, Kathi Moss. Heaven is a much better place now.

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