COVER STORY : Good Golly, Miss Dolly! : At 74, when many actresses have taken their final bows, Carol Channing is taking ‘Hello, Dolly!’ back to Broadway and getting a special Tony. Maybe it’s juicy roles that are a girl’s best friend.
“My husband, Charles, has always written everything I ad-lib,” Bennington’s most famous third-year dropout says.
She modulates her gravel voice to a whisper. “He’s already thinking about what I’m going to say on the Tonys. And Chan, my son, is racking his brain.”
Carol Channing, who will receive a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement tonight in New York (on CBS-TV, at 9), gets up from the dinner table in her sprawling hotel suite overlooking the city.
“Here I am, working along, nose to the grindstone, and suddenly they tell me I’m getting a lifetime award,” she says. “I was flabbergasted. They invented that Tony for Jessica Tandy. They never had one until Jessica, which is great company. But I’m only halfway through my life. I mean, Jessica got it just before she went !”
Though arranged weeks earlier, dinner at midnight with the longtime Broadway star has the unrehearsed quality of a happy accident. We’ve just come from the Orpheum Theatre, where she brought down the house, as usual, with her hallmark portrayal of Dolly Levi.
Channing looks a bit naked now without her feather-duster eyelashes or her stage makeup. She has on her legendary wig, though --it’s platinum white these days-- and, oh yes, thermal underwear beneath a terry-cloth robe.
“I got it in a blizzard in Louisville,” she says, recalling an earlier stop on her current “Hello, Dolly!” 30-city tour. “Gee whiz, aren’t these something ?”
They are. Her silver long johns seem perfect for a black-tie UFO landing. But they are nothing compared to the something of Channing herself.
She turns “gee” and “whiz” into baby-doll sighs, then sends them drifting toward you in slow motion like the last boat to China. Her voice swoops and soars; she also shifts accents without warning. Sipping Diet Coke--from the can, “it keeps the bubbles bettuh than a glay-ass"--she makes leisurely conversational detours.
“Dolly, see, is from Secun’ Avenya,” Channing says. “She’s da biggest wheela-deela from da Battery tuh da Bronx. She’s da biggest little Hadassah leada evuh tuh hit da Island. You know when she marries Horace Vandergelder, he’s gonna be da mayuh of Yonkuhz.”
At 74, when most people are getting ready to take their last bows, this trouper is taking “Hello, Dolly!” back to Broadway, where she originated the title role a mere three decades ago. (The show opens Tuesday for a weeklong run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and plays the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena from July 26 to 30. It hits New York in October.)
Returning to the dining table, she proffers a circular piece of cardboard that looks like an illustrated paper plate.
“I got this for Mother’s Day,” she says, beaming.
Her son Channing Lowe, 40, a syndicated political cartoonist for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, has drawn the traditional masks of Comedy and Tragedy and surrounded them with block lettering: TONY AWARD FOR BEST MOM IN A DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT.
His “Tony” may be her most personal, but it’s not her first. In 1964, she won the Tony for best actress in a musical comedy, “Hello, Dolly!,” which won nine other Tonys as well. Her stiffest competition came from co-nominees Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” and Beatrice Lillie in “High Spirits.”
“The three of us were friends,” Channing reminisces. “We used to have dinner together. We’d each say, ‘You’re going to win.’ ‘No, you’re going to win.’ ‘No, you’re going to win.’ After I won, I didn’t have a relationship with Barbra.
“But I let it go, too. I stopped trying when she did Dolly in the movies. I didn’t like her a little bit. It was like somebody kidnaped my baby. At the time I wanted to jump out the window. I was miserable. I read it in the paper and I thought, ‘It just can’t be!’ ”
Channing’s voice rises to a high squeak. Her muddy brown eyes, as large as saucers, roll up in their sockets.
“Hollywood wanted to do an anti-'Hello, Dolly!’ movie. They said, ‘This piece of junk?’ I said, ‘Don’t do that to me. This is my cathedral. I believe in this. This is my home. This is more real to me than the factual world.’
“All I’ve got to offer is the original version,” she continues. “I’ve got a script that has every step written down, every move. They didn’t want to use any of the creative forces that made the Broadway show. Barbra Streisand can weather anything, and we know she lived through it. But where would I have been?”
For the current show, Channing says, director Lee Roy Reams and associate choreographer Bill Bateman have teamed with Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Hello, Dolly!,” to stage a production that has more of the show’s original spirit than any revival yet mounted--including her ballyhooed one that came to L.A.'s Music Center in 1982. She pauses to pick at her shrimp and pasta, which is cold by now and looking less and less edible.
“Barbra and I made up at the Marvin Davises. You know the Marvin Davises?
“Well, they give a Christmas party every year, and I get to go,” she says. “I’m on their guest list. You’ve really made it when you get to go to the Marvin Davises for Christmas. They have an 80-piece orchestra going up this marble stairway, and they play a theme song for every person who walks in--which is pretty frightening if you don’t have a theme song.
“I’m lucky. I have one. Barbra’s lucky. She has one. Anyway, we both happened to walk in at the same time. We’re standing at the foot of this marble stairway, and we look at each other and realize they’re not playing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ It’s a sore spot. We hadn’t spoken for years.
“They played ‘People’ for her and ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ for me. We laughed and laughed, and we threw our arms around each other. It was one of the happiest Christmases I’ve had.” Streisand was not available for comment.
“You know, we’re on the same side politically,” she continues. “She was on Nixon’s hate list, and so was I. Anyway, we’re friends now. And if she wants me to help her raise money for Clinton, I’ll do it any time.”
In fact, Channing campaigned for President Clinton in 1992, attended his inauguration and has performed twice for him at the White House. She keeps a small framed photograph of Clinton and herself, te^te a te^te, in the living room of her hotel suite. There are literally dozens of pictures of family and friends--some famous, most not--on two end tables. Though she and husband Charles Lowe have only moved in for a month, it looks like they’ve taken up permanent residence.
Channing is one of those stars who, if she does not live for her notices, certainly pays attention. In a corner of the dining room above a marble-topped breakfront, she has placed a city proclamation by San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan on the wall. It memorializes “international mega-star Carol Channing’s return to San Francisco.”
Born in Seattle but raised here from the age of two weeks--her father was an editor of the Christian Science Monitor--Channing discovered her talent for comedy in the fourth grade at the private Commodore Sloat Grammar School. She was nominated for secretary of the student body and had to give a speech in the auditorium on why her classmates should vote for her. Tall and gawky even then, she had never been on the stage before.
“Naturally I couldn’t think of one reason,” Channing says, recalling that her knees were knocking and that she was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words. “So I did imitations. I did the principal, Miss Barard, who was sort of a Julia Child forerunner. She said, ‘Vote for Carol.’ And everybody laughed. I didn’t even have to tell them who I was doing. They recognized her.
“Then I did Mr. Schwartz, the chemistry teacher, who blew up the chemistry lab on the average of once a term. And I did Miss Weaver, the social studies teacher. And I thought, ‘My God! What I think is funny, they think is funny. We’re all alike.’ Suddenly I wasn’t an only child any more. That laughter was closer than touching.
“I ran into this little cloak room behind the coats so nobody would see me, and I cried my eyes out. I told my father--he was my one and only confidant--'Daddy, you’ll never believe what happened to me. I got on the stage, and everybody laughed at what I think is funny.’ I would have done anything just to have that warm, cozy feeling again.”
Channing got a taste of professional theater during her third year at Bennington College in Vermont. The college had a policy that students should get real jobs in their chosen field during winter break. Channing, who was majoring in drama and dance, went off to the William Morris Agency in New York, which promptly sent her to see Marc Blitzstein.
He had already written “The Cradle Will Rock,” a radical American musical for the ‘30s, and in the winter of 1940 was putting together another show, “No for an Answer.” He needed someone for comedy relief. Channing was hired. She sang one song, “I’m Simply Fraught About You.” The show ran for three days at the Mecca Temple in Manhattan, now City Center, and the Bennington girl decided to stick around.
Her next big job was understudying Eve Arden on Broadway for Cole Porter’s “Let’s Face It.” In nine months, Channing got on once. By the time World War II ended, she had worked up a night club act impersonating Broadway celebrities. Unfortunately, there were few takers. It wasn’t until she returned to California and moved to Los Angeles in 1948 that she was discovered. Marge Champion found her. Her husband , Gower Champion, later to direct and choreograph such Broadway hits as “Bye Bye Birdie” and “42nd Street,” put Channing to work.
They were mounting a musical revue called “Lend an Ear.” Rehearsals were about to begin at the Masonic Temple on Hollywood Boulevard. “We had a wonderful cast, but we needed another comedienne,” Marge Champion, reached by telephone in Santa Monica, recalls. “Bill Ives was directing and Gower was choreographing.”
Marge Champion, who had her own career in show business, came across Channing sitting in the anteroom of Queenie Smith’s Beverly Hills office. Smith, who had been in the original “Show Boat,” was the casting agent for Rodgers & Hammerstein on the West Coast.
“Who is that sitting out front?” she wanted to know. She couldn’t help noticing the large woman with bleached-blond hair who was wearing very dark makeup and a very white dress.
Smith told her it was someone with talent, but probably not what they needed: “She does impersonations.”
“Do you mind if I take her with me?”
Channing had “the same face and eyes, the same voice, the same everything she has now,” Marge Champion recalls.
The first thing the would-be star said to Gower Champion was, “Do you mind if I take off my shyeeewz? " She meant shoes. He nearly fell down laughing. Then she started to do her impersonations. He said he didn’t want that.
“I told Gower to let her do them,” Marge Champion says, “and I kept egging her on.”
Channing confirms the tale.
“I said, ‘I’ve got 12 numbers.’ He said, ‘You’ve got about a minute and a half.’ I started to say ‘Mr. Champion'--and Marge told me to shut up and do Ethel Waters. So I did.
“Then she said, ‘Now do Gertrude Lawrence.’ So I did. ‘Now do Lynn Fontanne.’ I did. ‘Uta Hagen.’ I did. ‘Sophie Tucker.’ I did. ‘Carmen Miranda.’ I did. ‘Ina Clair.’ I did.
“He didn’t stop laughing. I was back in the fourth grade all over again.”
Channing spears another shrimp.
“Marge still bosses me around. She’s only one year older than I am, and she thinks she’s my mother. She has a right to. What she did for me was for a lifetime.
“But I don’t remember anything about taking off my shoes.”
By the time “Lend an Ear” went up in 1948 at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, Channing was doing British characters and French characters and spoofs of opera singers. But the character in the revue that catapulted her to stardom was the giant-sized ingenue who thought of herself as “the teensiest, weensiest girl that ever did the Charleston.”
I n a cloche hat, flapper dress and heels that made her nearly 6 feet tall, Channing struck such a funny bone playing delicate and dainty that when “Lend an Ear” went to New York, Al Hirschfeld caricatured her for a newspaper story about unknowns who were stopping shows.
“He captured everything I was thinking,” she remembers. “His drawing focused attention on me.”
The 92-year-old Hirschfeld, who has drawn theatrical caricatures of Channing throughout her career, discounts the role she believes he played in creating her image.
“She invented herself,” he says by telephone from Manhattan. “All I did was take advantage of what she invented. I think Carol is more important to American culture than the Internet. She’s more communicative.”
Noel Coward saw “Lend an Ear” and came backstage to meet Broadway’s new Wunderkind . He got down on one knee, Channing remembers. “He had this wonderful craggy face built like the Grand Canyon and he got all teary. Tears rolled down those canyons.”
Anita Loos brought composer Jule Styne to see the revue, along with set designer Oliver Smith. The three of them were in the planning stages of a musical comedy to be based on Loos’ 1926 play “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
“I had a character brewing and didn’t realize it,” Channing explains. “Anita said, ‘That’s my Lorelei.’ She’s a satire on the cutest, littlest, prettiest girl in town. I mean, what can you do? You just know when you’re pretty. You don’t have to speak well. And she didn’t. You don’t have to sing well. And she didn’t. You don’t have to do anything at all. She was bored but adored.”
If Channing is associated with any Broadway musical in addition to “Hello, Dolly!,” it is “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The show opened on Broadway in 1949 (book by Loos and Joseph Fields, lyrics by Leo Robin and music by Styne). She played the biggest little fortune-hunter from Little Rock, Ark., an uneducated, unsophisticated, sweet-as-pie man-killer who knew what she wanted--diamonds mainly--and how to get it.
Reprised in the movies in 1953 (with Marilyn Monroe in Channing’s role), “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” introduced “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” its signature song, as well as “Bye Bye Baby” and the song that Hillary Clinton asked Channing to sing at the Clinton Administration’s first state dinner: “A Little Girl From Little Rock.”
In 1963, when Gower Champion agreed to direct and choreograph “Hello, Dolly!” for producer David Merrick, he wondered whether Channing was too “flapperized” and “Loreleized"--too much the mincing caricature of the coy dumb blonde--to bring off Dolly Gallagher Levi.
Dolly was the opposite of Lorelei Lee. Dolly didn’t seduce; she meddled. Dolly wasn’t dumb; she was brassy. Dolly wasn’t young and she didn’t play the ingenue. Dolly was a widow who arranged other people’s lives for a fee.
“Gower had to be really sure Carol could play the role,” Marge Champion recounts. “So she came into New York to work with him. They spent a whole night until she convinced him. Once that was set and she signed, he started casting around her with bigger-than-life characters like Charles Nelson Reilly.”
The musical, adapted by Michael Stewart from Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” went on the road for two months before getting to Broadway. So many things were wrong with it that Champion and Jerry Herman practically remade the show in Detroit.
“It just wasn’t working,” Channing said, “any more than ‘The Matchmaker’ worked. They hadn’t realized it was not an ensemble piece. It was Dolly’s story the audience was following.”
Herman put in “So Long Dearie,” Dolly’s solo in the second act, and the first act’s big closing number, “Before the Parade Passes By.” He took out enough songs to fill a nightclub act: “Penny in My Pocket,” Horace Vandergelder’s song about how he made his money, and his clerk’s song, “One Perfect Day Is Worth a Half a Million Dollars,” among others.
“Gower started out telling me it was going to be a small, intimate show,” Channing says. “Then he would run to the back of the theater and look at Dolly’s restaurant number and say, ‘That looks dinky! Send more waiters! More cooks!’ The thing got bigger and bigger.”
But lack of size was not the problem; lack of time was. When “Hello, Dolly!” opened on Broadway--it premiered at the St. James Theatre on Jan. 16, 1964--Dolly’s 11 o’clock show-stopper “still wasn’t as good as it could have been,” Marge Champion says.
“Carol doesn’t want to hear this,” she adds, “but she’s better now than she was then. In this production you see a Carol that not everybody has seen. I mean, she gets down and dirty. She has also gotten deeper and funnier. And she looks extraordinary under those lights. I defy anybody to say this woman looks a day over 60 on stage.”
“Hello, Dolly!” ran for 2,844 performances, becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history at the time. Channing played 1,273 consecutive performances (including a road trip). The show grossed $25 million on Broadway and added another $15 million when Channing took it on a 25-city tour in 1978. To date, she has played Dolly more than 4,000 times.
The current tour came about, producer Manny Kladitis says, “because I made Carol an offer she couldn’t refuse. She and Jerry Herman are like brother and sister. They were talking about doing it, and I’m a friend of Jerry’s. So we all decided to do it together.”
After Broadway, Channing is to take the show to Japan for at least six weeks. “I’m finalizing that now,” Kladitis adds. Following Japan, “Hello, Dolly!” will tour Great Britain for 30 weeks, ending up on the West End. From there Channing will head to Amsterdam and, if current discussions work out, Singapore and South Korea. If her friend Lady Bird Johnson is able to pull the right diplomatic strings, she may even get to China with the show.
“She’s a remarkable girl,” Hirschfeld says of Channing.
An understatement, of course. He recommended her for the lifetime Tony in the first place.
* “Hello, Dolly!” plays Tuesday-next Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 740-2000 or (213) 480-3232. Tuesdays-Friday s at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $19-$47. Also, July 26-30 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, (213) 480-3232. Wednesday at 8 p.m.; Thursday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $35-$52.50.