Autumn in New York glitters with Broadway legends this year, what with Chita Rivera coming to Broadway in “The Dancer’s Life,” and Elaine Stritch selling out her debut cabaret engagement at the Carlyle. As if they weren’t enough, the ageless, supremely imitable Carol Channing is appearing in “The First Eighty Years are the Hardest.”
Possessed of a genius IQ—something those only familiar with her raspy Lorelei Lee/Dolly Levi persona are unaware of—Channing was a dream interview, warm as toast, sharp in recollection, and utterly honest.
“This isn’t really a cabaret show,” she admitted. “It’s a theater show, but we go where they want us, when we want to, which is heaven. Feinstein’s wanted me for six weeks, but I’m booked in Branson, Missouri, so can only do two. Of course, I’ll be singing ‘Hello Dolly, ‘Little Rock,’ and ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,’ but the rest of it is telling about lifelong friends, like Cecelia the silent film star and Sophie Tucker.”
Friends are something Channing has had in abundance, many of them legends, like Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, and Noel Coward, who adopted her early on, when they saw in the young actress a spark of genius akin to their own.
“The Lunts didn’t have any children, so I believe Lynnie just wanted a strong American daughter, like me. All actors who met them felt like they were their parents, that this is where we come from. They would come to my shows dressed to the teeth, in black tie and evening gown and that was the age when hippies were all over the place. They would dress and I thought, ‘Now, I know, you overdress when you go to somebody else’s show to let them know the respect you feel for them.’ It was an honor, and I’d introduce them in the audience from the stage and oh, she took the grandest bow! She would step out and wave to the balcony and wave to the sideboxes. Oh, I loved them so, they were so tender.”
“Noel Coward came backstage during ‘Lend an Ear’ , got down one knee and I looked into his craggy face. He said, ‘Whenever you feel you’re losing your audience, love, put me in the audience.’ I do that to this day, with either Noel, or my father. You have to perform to somebody you feel completely understands you, wants to hear your story, and never tires of seeing you on the stage. Before you know it, the whole audience understands you as well as your own father or Noel Coward. I can also do it with Charlie Gaynor.”
Gaynor wrote “Lend an Ear,” the revue in which Anita Loos spotted Channing and subsequently cast her in her star-making “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Gaynor, a talented composer/ lyricist “who died too young,” also wrote a sketch for Channing in which “I did a satire of Judy Garland. Charlie was sort of vicious about the movie stars who came to the Palace Theatre and performed their songs. I sang about bluebirds. ‘Somewhere, I don’t know where/Somehow, I don’t know how/Someday, I don’t know when/I’m gonna find my little bluebird once again.’
“After that I was invited to a party, and there was Judy, outside all by herself, waiting to go in. I came up and she said, ‘Hello, Carol,’ and she knew I was doing this biting satire on her. But she was so kind. I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is a lesson,’ and I stopped doing it right away. Judy was so elegant and funny when she wanted to be—those stories she told about Marlene Dietrich listening to records of her own applause were just heaven. And she taught Liza Minnelli to stand up every time I came in. I walked into Spago once, and Liza stood right away and I thought, ‘Oh, Judy taught her to do that, for heavens sake!’”
Channing had less pleasant encounters, as well. I recall being delighted by her appearance on the Johnny Carson show but she said, “I wasn’t crazy about him, but everybody else was. I flew all the way from New York to be on the Carson show because we were a smash hit with ‘Blondes,’ and he wouldn’t let me mention it. He just kept asking me about everything else so finally I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to tell my mother that we just opened and are a smash hit. She adores you and I know she’s watching this, so I want to tell her to bring any of her lady friends.’ And that made him mad and he never had me on again, but that was fine because I was on with Merv Griffin and everybody else. Now I keep reading he was on drugs and things, so maybe that was it.”
Channing survived losing her “Hello Dolly” role on film to Barbra Streisand: “That was devastating. I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Toronto when I read in the paper that Streisand was doing it and [composer] Jerry Herman told me personally, ‘Carol, she’s the greatest voice of the 20th century.’ I couldn’t say no. Do you blame me? Imagine, my score being sung by the greatest voice of the 20th century!’ He was the one who relinquished it. So I guess he didn’t realize it was a comedy [laughs] I saw the movie once. It wasn’t anything like the stage show. They changed every word of it. Poor Thornton Wilder: he thought he wrote a comedy.”
The one role Channing would have loved to do was Herman’s “Mame,” “but actually, Jerry isn’t too crazy about my singing voice because after doing eight shows a week, along about the second year you’re threadbare. I hear these croaking people say, ‘This is an imitation of Carol Channing,’ and I think, ‘Oh, but gee, I could have been so much better.’ My problem is that I do characters and those aren’t my own vocal chords and I have to stretch them into being somebody else’s, like Lorelei Lee, [sings] ‘I’m just a little girl from Little Rock.’ They get worn out, but that’s not my voice.”
Told that, along with Ethel Merman, Channing must be the most imitated of stars, she said, “The only people I ever wanted to imitate were those I was crazy about—it’s the sincerest form of flattery. At one time, there were seven men doing me in Las Vegas at the same time. Every one of them was as dear and loving and respectful as anyone could be. I saw one of them with George Burns and he laughed his head off: ‘Oh, Carol, that’s exactly like you!’ I couldn’t see that it was, but I used to do Tallulah Bankhead for Tallulah. We had the same birthday so we’d celebrate together and I’d do her and she’d sit there and say, “Dahlings, I don’t know who the hell she’s doing!” And she didn’t.”
Channing rocked the 2004 Tony Awards when she rapped with LL Cool J.
“Wasn’t that fun, and I still don’t know who came up with all that! I think it was LL. He was late getting to the rehearsals, it was Sunday with bad traffic, and we only had 15 minutes to rehearse. But I think he has something of the greatness of the Lunts, and what a fine young man, taking kids off the street and giving them educations. He has four children of his own. As for me, I was born rapping!”
When not on the road, Channing is happily ensconced in Modesto, California with her fourth husband, Harry Kullijian, whom she met when she was 12 and he was 13. They reunited after she mentioned him fondly in her memoir, and were married in 2003. The 84-year-old star recalled, “I really consider this my first true marriage. I now realize that it is a beautiful institution, God-given and blessed. I have the most beautiful family life at my age Harry had lost his wife and was suddenly alone and just praying. And I was out on that golf course in front of my bungalow in Rancho Mirage, saying, ‘Now, are we the sons of God? Now, we are the children of God. We are!’ I believe in everybody’s religion, and it’s a shocker to find out how prayers get answered. I was praying, too, and my gosh, the next thing Harry walked right through my gate!”