The Carol You Don't Know
There's much more to Ms. Channing than Dolly and Lorelei
Everyone knows Carol Channing, right? The much-imitated star of stage and screen, the original Dolly Levi of Hello, Dolly! and Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie, the daughter of devout Christian Scientists, the student of Stanislavsky's approach to acting, the star of G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion and The Millionairess, the entertainer on Nixon's Enemies List, ... Wait. You're not familiar with all these aspects of Ms. Channing's life? That's understandable, given the longevity of her career she wasn't handed the 1995 Lifetime Achievement Tony Award for nothing and the prominence of Dolly and Lorelei in it. But there's much more to this star than her two signature roles, as this writer discovered in a telephone conversation prior to her arrival in Austin this week to perform her new show, The First 80 Years Are the Hardest, as a fundraiser for Austin Cabaret Theatre.
Channing grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of devout Christian Scientists. Her father, who had been a newspaperman on The Providence Journal and the Detroit Free Press wound up as editor in chief of all the Christian Science publications. Here's how Channing discovered theatre.
Carol Channing: My mother said, "Carol, would you like to help me distribute Christian Science Monitors backstage at the live theatres in San Francisco?" And I said, "All right, I'll help you." I don't know how old I was. I must have been little. We went through the stage door alley [for the Curran Theatre], and I couldn't get the stage door open. My mother came and opened it very easily. Anyway, my mother went to put the Monitors where they were supposed to go for the actors and the crew and the musicians, and she left me alone. And I stood there and realized I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly that this is a temple. This is a cathedral. It's a mosque. It's a mother church. This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards.
My father gave me 50 cents a week, and after that, I spent it all on the live theatre. The artists of the world were there. Sol Hurok booked everybody: Kreutzberg and Georgi; Mary Wigman from Berlin she was the forerunner of Martha Graham; Uday Shankar from India; the Ballet Russes; the Abbey Theatre Players from Ireland. I saw Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt in Amphitryon 38, There Shall Be No Night, The Pirate. I was thrilled with theatre.
Ethel Waters really hit me hard. She was in As Thousands Cheer. It was a revue, a great revue, written by Moss Hart and Irving Berlin. I saved up a month of 50-cent pieces. Anyway, Ethel Waters, she had a bandanna on her head, she started from the back brick wall of the theatre, and she moved forward, and there was behind her the silhouette of a lynching, a man hanging from a tree, his head hanging sideways. And she sang, "Supper time, I should set the table, 'cause it's supper time, somehow I ain't able, 'cause that man of mine ain't coming home no more." Well, I was on the second or third row of the theatre, and I sat there looking at this marvelous woman telling this story of lynching. I thought, "This is what Daddy talks about at the dinner table." Nobody up North knew about lynchings. My father said, "We weren't allowed to mention it [in the newspapers], we weren't allowed to say it." And this darn song broke through [the silence]. And oh, it wrung your heart.
Channing used school to train herself as a performer. A born mimic, she would imitate adults around the school for the amusement of the students and faculty. When she was elected secretary of the student body, Channing treated her time to read the minutes as a show.
CC: I lived for Fridays because we had student body meetings on Fridays, and nobody minded if the minutes were accurate or not as long as they were entertaining. So I did all the teachers, the faculty, the principal of the school. What a privilege to grow up with a captive audience. Children aren't courteous. They let you know if it's not funny or it's not interesting or you perform too long. They start making paper airplanes if you get boring, or they start throwing chalk around and erasers. The Commodore Sloat Grammar School auditorium wasn't big enough to hold the entire student body, so we had to do three shows. The first one, I wasn't very good [when] I'd read the minutes to them. The second one I was better, 'cause I was sitting in math class, thinking, "What did I do wrong?" By the third show, I was swinging.
In 2002, Channing wrote a memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, in which she described her first romance, with a young man she loved deeply but never saw again after junior high. After it was published, he contacted her, and the two were reunited and married.
CC: In junior high, I met Harry Kullijian. He led the school band. He was so beautiful. He looked biblical to me, like Moses sitting on Mount Sinai eating a fig. We went steady together for the seventh and eighth grades. I was 12, and he was 13 when we met. It was precious time. See, we formed each other at a formable age. He formed me, and I formed him. And his principles were solid. He comes from a very strict Armenian family. And then Harry went to military school, and I went on to high school, and I was hellbent to get on Broadway, and I had no idea that the happiness I had with Harry was rare. I wrote about my first love in my book, but I was sure he was dead by that time. So I wrote very freely about him. I said his name and how beautiful he was and how Biblical he looked and all that. And Mervin [Morris] of Mervyn's department stores called me and said, "Look, Harry's my business partner. I was reading [your book] on the plane, got off at Dallas-Fort Worth, and I called Harry and said, 'Harry, I've got her private number. For heaven's sake, call her.'" And he said, "She doesn't want to see me." But Mervin said call her, so he called me, and I said, "When do I see you, Harry?" He said, "Tomorrow morning." So he drove up from El Centro, on the Mexican border of California, and he walked right through my gate, and you know, two weeks later we were engaged to be married, and we got married at Mervin's house.
Between her double-barreled Broadway blasts in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and Hello, Dolly! (1964), Channing toured the country in Pygmalion and The Millionairess, both by George Bernard Shaw, whose work she'd studied as a drama and dance major at Bennington College in Vermont. It was there, "knee-deep in Strindberg and Dostoyevsky and modern poets and The Lower Depths," that Channing learned about Konstantin Stanislavsky and how to find the spine of a play, a tool she's "grateful for to this day."
CC: I played George Bernard Shaw for the Theatre Guild in New York and found out that [his plays] all have the same spine, and all his leading ladies are the same girl. Major Barbara was the same as Saint Joan. Eliza, they offered her [the chance] to go from the cockney classes to the upper classes, and she made up her mind that she was going to learn it. And she did! Well, that's the same as Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Mrs. Warren. They're all emancipated women. It wasn't his wife. I don't know who that was, but he always wrote about an emancipated woman. Have you noticed that the girl will say, "I love you and I'd love to marry you," and then the man says, "Yes, I love you, too, and I want to marry you, however let me tell you first how I feel about organized religion"? That's Shaw. Isn't that true?
Channing is renowned for not having missed a performance during her long career. It wasn't that she didn't get sick or hurt. But she found going on with that something extra to overcome frequently inspired her best performances, and it was therapeutic.
CC: I would get everything under the sun. I fell off the stage all the time because I'm nearsighted. Everything went wrong with me. I even got cancer. I did way over 5,000 performances we didn't count them after a while of Hello, Dolly! and 3,500 of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I was in some 10 Broadway shows, and I found that there's something healing about just going ahead and doing the show anyway, no matter what you've got. If it's walking pneumonia, go ahead and do the show anyway. And you know, at the end of the show, you either feel better or you're cured. You give a little of your soul to the audience, and they give a bit of appreciation back, and it builds as the show goes on, and at the end of the show, the doctor would say, "You know, it's the strangest thing, but you're healing." You're giving and receiving it has a strange reaction on the human body.
While Hello, Dolly! enjoyed phenomenal success once it hit New York, the road to Broadway was notoriously rocky, with the Detroit tryout so disastrous that producer David Merrick ordered massive changes to the book and score. As a blizzard raged outside his hotel room, composer Jerry Herman wrote what has become Channing's signature song, "Before the Parade Passes By."
CC: He called me about three in the morning and woke me up and said, "Can you come up and hear this?" which I thought was dear of Jerry, because he wanted me to hear it before Mr. Merrick did, before Gower Champion did, before anyone. And I ran down to Jerry's room in a flannel bathrobe in my bare feet thank goodness I didn't run into anybody and heard this. And I said, "Oh, Jerry," because that's the spine of Hello, Dolly! It's to rejoin the human race. It gets Cornelius out of that basement. He rejoins the human race. Mrs. Molloy gets out of that hat shop. She's going to rejoin the human race. And Dolly stops talking to her dead husband and rejoins the human race. I asked Thornton Wilder about it before he died: Is this possibly the spine? And he said, "By gosh, I didn't know it myself, but that's what it is."
Channing endeared herself to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson when the title song from Hello, Dolly! was reworked into a campaign song for LBJ's 1964 re-election bid. That led to a deep friendship between the performer and the Johnson family.
CC: This was the 1964 presidential campaign. Barry Goldwater was using "Hello, Barry" as his campaign song, but he forgot to ask Jerry Herman, who wrote the words and music, if he could use it. David Merrick, our producer, didn't like it. And it turned out that everybody in the company was a Democrat. Especially Mr. Merrick. We said, "Jerry, you gotta get your song back." Jerry's too sweet. He can't say no to somebody. So Mr. Merrick says, "I'll get it back, doggone it." So he got it back. And Barry Goldwater apologized. He was very nice about it. He didn't realize that he had to ask Mr. Merrick or Jerry Herman. Then, in Atlantic City, in this huge arena, they were nominating Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket, and I got to sing, "Hello, Lyndon." "Be our guide, Lyndon, Lady Bird at your side, Lyndon. Promise you'll stay with us in '64." The gratitude of the Johnson family was enormous. They invited me to the ranch. Liz Carpenter invited me to her house. So I got to know the Johnson family. They came to every opening night party they could. If they couldn't come, they'd send their children. Their gratitude was unbounded.
And Lady Bird was just lovely. She would say, [in a Southern drawl] "May I ask, do you have grandchildren?" Well, I don't. "I wish I had grandchildren, but I don't want to push them, Lady Bird." And she would say, "I would say, 'Pu-u-u-ush.'" She was real cute about it. The last time I saw her, she couldn't speak, but she clapped her hands together. And I thought, what a sweet way to let you know that she's glad to see you. She's wonderful. That dear lady.
In 1973, the investigation into Watergate revealed that President Nixon kept a list of his political enemies and critics. Among the few entertainers on it was Carol Channing.
CC: I read it in the paper, and it was terrible. There were no As or Bs, so I was the top one. My parents were Republicans, and my mother read this, and she almost verplotzed! I couldn't believe it. I didn't know what the problem was. Why didn't Nixon like me? I thought maybe he didn't like my singing because I sang "Hello, Lyndon." The press asked Nixon, "Don't you like her singing voice?" And he said, "No, no, no. It's just people who don't know how to act in the White House, they don't have enough manners." I thought, are you kidding?! Mary Baker Eddy wouldn't let me in the mother church if I didn't have enough manners. Well, there you are.
Austin Cabaret Theatre presents Carol Channing performing The First 80 Years Are the Hardest on Tuesday, July 26, 8pm, at the Driskill Hotel, 600 Brazos. For more information, call 453-2287.