Kitty Rea was usually found sitting at a piano bench or zipping across town in her signature yellow Volkswagen bug. Powered by her passion for music, the woman everyone knew as “Ms. Kitty” was a cyclone of creativity, bustling from one school to the next, sharing her magic with countless children and adults.
Today, that magic is a matter of memories. Rea, 69, died in hospice care on April 15 after a battle with ovarian cancer.
“She was so vibrant, just endless energy for everything she loved,” said Maddie Rea, Kitty Rea’s daughter, in an email to the Review. “She would light up especially when talking about her students or old theater career. Even when she was in immense pain or completely exhausted, she’d get so much energy and happiness from seeing her students. When she was teaching, I think we both forgot that she was sick.”
Rea grew up in Bermuda at the Kindley Air Force Base where her father was stationed.
“She was effervescent,” said Valerie Moon, a childhood friend. “She was always a very charismatic person, people were drawn to her.”
Always adventurous, they would traverse the island on motorbikes. As Girl Scouts they would camp in the backyard and once experienced an unnerving close call with some rats on a beach camp-out, waking to find rat footprints in a pan that was left outside their tents.
Rea left the island in 1965. After one year of studying music at the University of Miami, Rea, her mother, and their pet beagle drove from Miami to San Francisco where Rea continued her music studies at San Francisco State University.
In San Francisco Rea found the spotlight when she joined the cast of the original off-Broadway production of “Godspell” in San Francisco.
“What a joy it was to meet this ferociously bright, hilariously funny, wonderful spirit that she continued to be throughout her life,” said Peggy Gordon, fellow cast member, in an email to the Review. “There aren’t adequate words to describe the grateful joy of becoming her friend.”
After the San Francisco company run ended, Rea was asked to join several national tours before she joined the Broadway transfer of “Godspell” in 1976. She also starred in the title role of the “Peter Pan” production at the Peninsula Civic Light Opera.
“It didn't surprise me at all that Kitty's generous spirit chose to give the gift of music to children,” said Gordon. “I would just sit and watch Kitty sing. It was a transcendent experience to watch the sheer bliss Kitty would feel when she sang. And her generous heart needed to give that bliss to others, it's that simple.”
After years on the stage, Rea directed her talents to KCBS Newsradio in San Francisco where she was the first female radio engineer.
Later, Rea worked for KPIX as a video editor but also was the leader and founder of Kitty Rea and the Rea-lettes. This group of KPIX employees rewrote the lyrics to popular songs and performed them for birthdays, baby showers and other celebrations for their co-workers.
“I’m not sure how the newscast got on the air surrounding those performances because we put all of our creative energy into the show,” said Nancy Saslow, former KPIX co-worker, friend and member of the Rea-lettes. “Kitty brought the best sense of humor, talent, and was just an extraordinary human being who was as authentic as they come. She was a force, she was a touchstone, she was the leader of Kitty Rea and the Rea-lettes.”
Rea’s energy and talents were soon consumed with the birth of her daughter. Their home was lively with music and with the many dogs, cats and birds they cared for over the years. Maddie learned to walk by being pulled by their 100-pound mastiff, Taco.
Following the birth of her daughter, Rea decided to open her own music school.
“I’m not sure what sparked the music teaching decision, but when she came to it, she absolutely went for it 100 percent,” said Maddie Rea. “She found her ultimate passion.”
Rea started teaching full time in 2002 and over the years taught at Hatch Elementary School, Farallone View Elementary School and Hilldale School in Daly City. She also founded Ms. Kitty’s Harmony Road music school with locations in Moss Beach and Half Moon Bay.
“She brought music in a very, very special way to the coast,” said Shauna Pickett-Gordon who taught at Harmony Road. “She seemed to know how to get to structure through a bit of, or a lot of, creative chaos.”
Pickett-Gordon recalled a day when she was running late for a lesson with a student who had trouble concentrating, but upon her arrival Rea had the student at the keyboard and the two of them were playing black key improvisations.
“The student was completely mesmerized and her eyes were just so full of gold,” said Pickett-Gordon. “She and Kitty were laughing and looking at each other and playing these improvs. It was just one of those little moments, but it stays with you forever.”
Rea’s high spirits and her vigor for life touched hundreds of students across the Coastside and won’t be forgotten by her numerous friends and daughter.
“She literally would’ve been teaching until the day she died if she could’ve,” said Maddie Rea. “I think the evidence of her impact is evident in the response of support she received and that I now, someone who really hasn’t met a majority of these wonderful people, continue to receive.
“It’s absolutely overwhelming in the best way,” she said.