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Moss Hart

A love for musical theater would eventually propel one young boy into a trail-blazing playwriting career that would span the generations.  Born in New York City on October 24, 1904, Moss Hart worked on Broadway plays and musicals with the greatest talents of his day, including Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, and his lifelong friend and collaborator, George Kaufman. 

Hart's father was a cigar maker who lost his business when the mechanical cigar roller was invented, and his eccentric Aunt Kate began taking him out of school on Thursdays to accompany her to theatrical matinees.  He later called the trips "the beginning of a lifelong infection" with the theater.  Later, he would learn that his aunt suffered from mental illness and had a habit of setting fires in the theaters she visited. 

By the time Hart was a teenager, Broadway was at its Golden Age.  More than 90 major theaters called New York City home.  They produced an average of 225 new plays or musicals each year.  Plays and musicals were the most popular form of entertainment, surpassing movies by far.  Broadway was the most glamorous place in America, and Moss Hart wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. 

When the family's fortunes worsened, Hart dropped out of high school to take a job as a clothing folder at a garment factory.  He was so enterprising that his boss agreed to let him write and produce a musical review in order to highlight the company's latest clothing line.

A few years later, Hart took a job as the entertainment director for a series of summer resorts along the Borscht Belt in the Catskills.  He later said that keeping city folks sufficiently entertained when they are confronted with a few weeks of nature was the toughest job he ever had, but he learned a lot about drama from the experience.

But Hart's sights were set on bigger game.  He wanted to write big, sprawling plays the way his idol, Eugene O'Neill, did.  But all the major producers kept turning him down, telling him that they wanted comedies.  Eventually, Hart decided to give them what they wanted and wrote the play, Once in a Lifetime.  He enlisted legendary playwright George S. Kaufman to help fine-tune the script, which the two of them worked on for months.  They showed rough versions of the play to audiences and noted what made people laugh and what didn't.  When it was finally fully released in 1930, it was a huge success, and Moss Hart found himself rich and famous almost overnight.  He was only 25.

Over the course of his career, Hart created some of the best known and beloved musicals in Broadway history, including My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960).  When he came onstage opening night to introduce Camelot, which he directed, he announced: "Camelot is lovely.  Camelot is going to be glorious.  Camelot is long.  You're going to be a lot older when you get out of here tonight."  The play's first performance ran four-and-a-half hours, ending at 1:00 AM.  Hart eventually made several deep cuts to the show, and it became a hit.

Although he wrote with great humor, as in the 1939 comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Hart led a life that was often devoid of smiles.  He suffered from long bouts of depression.  Once, he had a nervous breakdown before the opening of one of his plays.  His illness became national news.  He isolated himself and slowly recovered, later calling the period of his illness his "siege," a part of the writer's life about which little has been written.

The main reason for the secrecy is Hart's surviving widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, an actress and game show participant who, as a remnant of New York's powerful showbiz society, chose to keep it secret.  She has often declined cooperation with Hart's numerous biographers and has reportedly implored friends to do the same.  The reason for her non-cooperation is that, although fathering two children, Hart was gay.  For the first few decades of his career in the theater, he was forced to live beneath the strain of carrying on two divergent lifestyles, an uneasy task that left the writer confused and depressed.

Even during the worst periods of his depression, though, Hart continued to write.  He worked with Kaufman on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can't Take It With You (1936).  The play was set in a living room where an eccentric family spends its time writing plays, playing the xylophone, making candy, and collecting snakes. 

In addition to writing plays for Broadway, Hart also wrote for Hollywood, mostly for MGM.  He wrote A Star Is Born (1954) for Judy Garland, and he wrote the script for Hans Christian Anderson (1952), a musical about the life and work of the famous Danish fairy-tale author.  He also penned the screenplay for A Gentlemen's Agreement (1947).  The film adaptation of a Laura Z. Hobson novel, starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire and directed by Elia Kazan, won three Academy Awards for Twentieth Century Fox.

Moss Hart said, "All the mistakes I ever made were when I wanted to say 'no' and said 'yes'."  In his own autobiography, Act One, he wrote eloquently and with great humor about his childhood in the Bronx--the formative years that eventually led to his introduction and acceptance into the world of the theater at the age of 26 and into Hollywood shortly thereafter.  The book is widely considered to be one of the best ever written about life in the theater.  Itís still in print more than four decades after it was first published.

Moss Hart, who once said that all successful people in the theater came from an unhappy childhood, died in 1961.

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