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This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the April 20, 2005
issue of U.S. 1
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Carol Channing at McCarter
Perhaps the most famous scene in American musical comedy is set in a
red plush Harmonia Gardens, when Dolly Levi decides to "rejoin the
human race" and descends a wide center stage staircase greeted by
spinning and singing waiters. Of course, she is wearing red, even a
large red feather tiara, and a wide, wide smile.
Well, hello, Carol! If you’re too young to know who Carol Channing is,
be assured that she was the mega-star, the first and foremost Dolly
Levi in the blockbuster stage musical, "Hello Dolly" by Jerry Herman.
For years she has reigned as the queen of musical comedy on Broadway
with one of the most easily recognized and highly imitated voices,
variously described as ranging from baby squeal to a baritone growl.
Margo Jefferson, in the New York Times, credits her "brilliance" as
reliant on her enunciation. "She handles each vowel, each consonant,
each syllable with the care and relentless glee Lorelei bestows on
diamonds" – Lorelei being another of her signature roles, in
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Moviegoers may remember her as Muzzy in
"Thoroughly Modern Millie," for which she was nominated for an Academy
award. Most recently, you probably saw the indomitable lady, still
smiling at the Oscars this year, standing between two rap stars. Maybe
she did look a little foolish trying to rap. But you have to give her
points for courage. And she has a lot of that.
Never a big movie star, Channing’s oversize eyes, smile, and voice
were made for the stage. And in her one-woman show, "The First 80
Years Are the Hardest," Friday, April 22, at McCarter Theater, she
promises to fill us in with the details of her life, including the
bumps and turns, and take us behind the scenes to learn about how the
highlights of her career were built. Of course, she will sing. She
opened on Broadway 14 times. That’s why she is often referred to as a
Broadway icon. She is modest about this label. "I suppose all the
icons died. That left me by default." Her adventures culminate with a
heart-warming romance that is the keystone of the "third act" of her
Anyone who is feeling old should spend a little time in her presence.
It can only boost your spirits and give you hope. This energetic
dynamic icon is 84 years old – and going strong. Her performance at
McCarter is for one night only, but is only one night of many in a
mind-boggling tour. Her promotional material says she’s 83, but when
we talked by phone (from her home in Rancho Mirage, California), she
claims to be 84. Records say she was born on January 31, 1921, in
Seattle. So, she’s the one who is correct.
A woman of remarkable stamina, Channing is also famous for performing
three separate times in "Hello Dolly," first in the Broadway premiere
in January, 1964 (for which she won that year’s Tony Award), playing
Dolly for a year and a half, then touring the country with the show
into 1967. Ten years later, she again returned to Broadway with this
signature show and again toured as the ultimate Dolly Levi. All
without missing a performance. That’s over 5,000 performances. "Not
that I was that all fired healthy," she says. "I caught every bug.
We’d pass it round and round the company, but we all staggered
through." She is also reported to have fallen into orchestra pits,
breaking various bones. She did play for a week in a wheelchair, and
she admits that her record isn’t perfect. "I missed half a performance
in Kalamazoo." She adds, "Folks say that if I was going to miss a
show, it should be in Kalamazoo as no one would ever hear about it."
For her, performing is her therapy. "It’s always healing to keep
working," she says. "I had cancer and everything, and I just kept
working. I give a little of my soul, and the audience gives it back. I
give a little more. They give a little more. At the end of each show,
I either feel better or I’m cured. It certainly helps to be in love
with your work."
When I called her, a man answered the phone and identified himself as
Channing’s husband. Having read that she had married her junior-high
sweetheart just two years ago, I wasn’t surprised to hear his response
to my greeting. "Lucky me. That’s all I can say." Theirs is a most
amazing love story. When they were in junior high school, Harry
Kullijian was the leader of the school band – "and I never got off the
school stage. as you can imagine." Channing sang with the band, Irish
songs like "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "Danny Boy," and "Loch
Loman." "Harry was a businessman even though he was only 13," she
says. "He booked our band for weekend performances." She adds, "He was
so beautiful. I just had to hug and kiss him."
Somehow, after being "inseparable" in school, they went their separate
ways. Channing, with impressive IQ scores, was off to Bennington
College where she studied dance and drama. Next stop: New York City.
She lived by herself and determinedly pursued jobs in the theater.
Meanwhile she worked as an usher in theaters and clerked at both
Macy’s and Gimbels. "I just kept at it. I asked myself, why can’t you
get some horse sense and stop? But I couldn’t." During these rough
times, she would think back to her school buddy, Harry. "One or two
sentences from Harry would straighten all this out." Years later, when
she wrote her memoirs, she included an entire chapter on Harry and the
time that she has described as "the happiest years of my life."
A mutual friend read the book and told Harry, "You’ve got to call this
woman." Both of them had lost their respective mates. "Harry had a
beautiful 60-year marriage, and I had a miserable 42-year marriage."
(Actually, records show that she was married four times, but I guess
she just lumps the first three together as one misery.) Taking his
friend’s advice, Kullijian called Channing. "He walked right through
my gate. We know it’s a blessing from above. We talked fast to catch
up." It had been 70 years. "In two weeks, we were engaged. What we had
learned together as youngsters had formed us and stuck through our
whole life." Buddies from their school band attended their wedding.
Now they do everything together. Retired from his business career as a
real estate developer in Modesto, California, and serving on the city
council, he manages her tour. "He knows how to handle my show, what to
tell the orchestra, augment the 7th or diminish the 9th. He can do
that. He can run up to the light booth and tell them, ‘Iris down on
her now.’ You know, that’s how we got started in school.
"I’m addicted to Harry," she says. "When I’m away from him for an hour
-" the rest of that sentence is implied. "At 84 and 85, we find every
When I ask what they like to do together, she says, "Everything is my
favorite thing when I do it with Harry. That’s the truth." (One can
imagine her wide eyes.) Trying to give me a specific, she explains
that this morning they had gone together to the grocery store. "This
is the most fun in the world: to giggle over what we’re going to have
for lunch." She continues, filling in the scenario of her day. "I’m in
the kitchen. Harry’s preparing the fish and putting it in the oven. I
love catfish and he likes – (she turns from the phone in one of her
numerous asides to Harry during our conversation to get a reminder) –
Alaskan white fish."
Both of them are serving on the chamber of commerce in Modesto,
California. "Isn’t that an honor? We need to clean up that town," she
says, adding that the town’s image has been besmirched by the Scott
Peterson case and a public official who absconded with the town’s
Her lifetime of life on the stage also includes some films and
television. She has recorded 10 gold albums. Not surprisingly, the
original cast album of "Hello, Dolly!" was an all-time best seller in
its field. After Channing tells me about being fired from the Borsch
Circuit and finally nabbing a "real" job understudying Eve Arden in a
Broadway show, she says, "Just one year later, I was on the cover of
Time magazine, and in those days they didn’t put actors on the cover,
only political leaders. The week before it had been Madame Chang
Kai-Shek; the next week, Mussolini."
Her award list is exceedingly long and diverse, but her web site
states that "she considers an appearance on Nixon’s ‘Hate List’ among
her greatest honors." When I ask her about that, she seems surprised,
and tells me about meeting him in Chasen’s Restaurant in Los Angeles,
where he was all smiles and greeted her as "the greatest Dolly of them
all." This gives us a clue that this lady isn’t going to "dish any
dirt" in her current show. I think this rose-colored-glasses syndrome
may be one of the secrets to her longevity. She even speaks lovingly
of the infamous Broadway tyrant producer David Merrick. She may be
alone in this.
"I thought the world of him. I thought he was a wonderful man, but you
see, I never missed a performance, and that’s enough to bring tears of
joy to any producer’s eyes." After each tour, he presented her with an
extravagant gift. Dolly was born when Merrick came backstage at a
performance she did in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and had told her that he
was going to find a musical for her. When Channing asked him what he
thought of this current show, she reports that he said, "I wasn’t
looking at the stage. I was counting the house. I want your box
office." Not the most heartwarming beginning, but it certainly set
theater history in motion.
"We are born with certain qualities. They are meant to be exercised.
That’s my credo. It works for me," she says. "I’ve toured all my life.
I don’t know any different. I never stopped working." If you miss this
opportunity to see her, you may well be able to catch her on her next
tour, perhaps in 20 years when she is 104. After all, her mother lived
to be 100 years old, and Channing always breaks records.
by LucyAnn Dunlap
Carol Channing, Friday, April 22, 8 p.m., McCarter. $30 to $55 ($55
tickets include a champagne and dessert reception with Carol Channing
after the show). 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
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