Photo by John Gregory

Sunday, March 29, 1992


WHEN DIXIE 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.' "