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This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the April 20, 2005

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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

career.

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

moment precious."

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

funds.

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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