A few months ago my beloved friend Scott saw something online about Carol Channing (CC) and Justin Vivian Bond (JVB) doing an evening at Town Hall in January, and immediately forwarded it to me. Scott, thanks so much for alerting me to that, it was a total lovefest, I was so thrilled to be there.
You probably know that I’m crazy for Carol Channing. I’m world-renowned for my impersonation of Carol. And I’m no slouch, I don’t just do her singing “Hello, Dolly!” - - I do her singing Schubert! CC and JVB did their first public conversation at Cherry Grove on Fire Island this summer (JVB calls it “that gorgeous tropical island”), and they had such a good time and were such a hit that they brought it into the city. And they were celebrating CC’s 93rd birthday next week, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the premiere of *Hello, Dolly!*. It was quite the occasion.
You might not know JVB - - he came into the world Justin Bond and built a career as the female half of Kiki and Herb, a drag cabaret act in which he played a boozy lounge singer, singing Cher and endlessly needling her pianist. I saw this act downtown not long after I moved here, and they were a scream. JVB retired the character of Kiki in 2004, had a showy role in John Cameron Mitchell’s film *Shortbus*, and has been sprinkling fairy dust all over God’s creation. I checked out wikipedia, and JVB prefers the honorific Mx., rather than Mr. or Ms., something I’d never heard of. I’ll use the initials JVB as much as I can, but will also “she” and “her” (since the presentation is decidedly female).
The audience was nearly as entertaining as what happened onstage. There’s a piano bar downtown called Marie’s Crisis. Richard used to be a habitué, when he lived in the Village, and he’s taken me there a couple times. In most piano bars, the guy at the piano would sing, “You coax the blues right out of the horn”, and the barflies would sing, “MAME”. At Marie’s Crisis, it goes like, “You COAX THE BLUES RIGHT OUT OF THE HORN - - MAME.” The audience last night was like last call at Marie’s Crisis for the last forty years.
But with lots of celebrities! Michael Musto, John Cameron Mitchell, Jackie Hoffman, Sandra Bernhard, Alan Cumming, and Ian McKellen. And those are just the ones I saw in my section!
They piped in Liza before the show started - - “Cabaret”, “Some people” (which she does unimaginably fast), “My baby and me”, “My own best friend”. I was distracted by the people behind me, so I almost missed “Ring them bells”, the best number in *Liza With a Z*. The two men and one gal behind me were too hilarious. A few choice bits:
“Did you see him? He’s so cute, he’s like a little old homeless guy!” “Check yourself before you wreck yourself!” “There are so many bears here!” “If I ever wear that shirt or wear my hair like that, promise me you will shoot me.”
JVB did the first half of the show with her band - - a cute drummer looking very *Mad Men* in a suit and skinny tie, a very young pianist wearing a black shirt and suit, and black sequined necktie, a dragadelic guitar player wearing a buff-colored halter dress, hiking boots, two-inch false eyelashes, and a hideous feathered hat (conjuring up Mamie Eisenhower), and a violinist who I never saw (he or she was obscured by the feathered halter hiker).
JVB made her entrance, wearing a two-tone blue sleeveless shift (navy in the front, muted medium blue in the back), gathered at the waist, jeweled open-toe wedgies, an upswept blonde ‘do, artfully twisted in the French manner, held with a cluster of white silk lilacs. She looked like a cross between Dina Merrill and that broad who played the hostess on *It’s a Living*. Her first song was “Love” - - “Love can be a moment’s madness / Love can be insane / Love can be a life of sadness and pain”. She raised her arms at big finish to show off her beautifully shaved armpits. There was no hair anywhere on that girl, we saw a lot of leg in the second half, and the gams were divine.
A few helpful bits from wikipedia: JVB describes her voice as “kind of woody and full with a lot of vibration.” Out magazine describes the overall effect as “hilarious, heart-wrenching, vulnerable, sardonic, Wiccan, and world-weary all at the same time.” What more do you need?
Her second song was a sweet song called “Perfect love song” - - “Give me your love and I’ll give you the perfect love song.” She screwed up the beginning and had to start over. She said, “As my friend Taylor Mac says, ‘Perfection is an asshole.’ “ I should mention that the crowd was crazy for JVB, laughed heartily at every joke and applauded vigorously after every song.
The band slipped into a sexy groovy groove for the third song, “The look of love”. JVB did a monologue: “Some people say the 60s ended when the Manson family killed Sharon Tate and those other people. Joan Didion says the 60s ended when she sold the house on Hawthorne. For me, the 60s ended when Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson divorced, in 1983.” JVB said she first heard the song on AM radio, sung by Claudine Longet, and conjured up Claudine in her performance. Of course she worked in Claudine shooting Spider Sabich. “Don’t go away. Don’t ever go. I love you, Spider - - BANG BANG BANG! Don’t go away. BANG BANG BANG.”
She did a Barbra Streisand song called “Love in the afternoon” and told a funny story about living with five lesbians in San Francisco - - “I was the pretty one. Don’t laugh, it was true! And it’s them who called me that!” One of them was crazy for Barbra, and would go into her room with a glass of red wine, play “Love in the afternoon” over and over on her turntable, and only come out she needed new batteries for one of her appliances. Email me if you need more detail, I’m being G-rated.
She did a Kate Bush song called “Love and anger” and dedicated it to the queers in Russia. She did “A sentimental ballad” from her current show, Brecht’s *A Man’s a Man*, playing at the Classic Stage Company downtown. And she ended with “What do you get when you fall in love”, another Bacharach number. She said that whenever she says his name she feels like she needs to say it like Dietrich, by throwing her arm in the air and barking his name out with great fervor: BURT! BACKRACK! Try it, it’s fun. At some point, she worked in her credo: Keep it shallow, keep it pretty, keep it moving.
They took a break so JVB could change her frock. Of course the audience took a full twenty minutes because they had to either a) smoke, b) get their look together, c) strut, or d) all of the above. They brought people back to their seats by showing a mash-up video of Carol Channing singing “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” on some early TV show, leading directly into her singing it with Miss Piggy on *The Muppet Show*. And her on *The Love Boat*, doing a number with Betty White. And some other priceless clips. Then: ladies and gentlemen, Miss Carol Channing! CC came out onstage, with two handlers, one for each arm. The audience went berserk. I swear the standing ovation went on for at least five minutes. It was so touching.
CC was wearing white slacks and a white jacket with silver sequin piping. Didn’t notice the shoes. JVB had changed into a blue and purple Pucci dress and hot pink heels. You know how I love me some Pucci! No hose, and gams for days.
JVB had a bit of a hard time keeping CC focused on what she was saying, though who knows, maybe it was part of the act.
CC: What was I saying?
JVB: You were a little girl in San Francisco and you went to the theater.
JVB: And then I think you became popular in school by doing impersonations of your teachers.
CC: That’s right. How did you know that?
JVB: I’ve read your book.
CC: Oh, I’ve never read it myself.
JVB: Well whoever wrote that book sure knows a lot about your life.
She told a cute story about working a Sophie Tucker impersonation into her act in Vegas, and how she wrote new lyrics to “Some of the these days” so it was all about slot machines. She had a hard time remembering the lyrics, but then they all poured out of her.
She said she wants to be buried in San Francisco, in the alley between the Curran Theater and the Geary Theater. She said, “There’s just a fire escape in that alley, they might need to move that out.” JVB said, “Well, depending on where you’re going, the fire escape might come in handy.”
They had questions from people recorded ahead of time, which they played on a big video screen above their heads. It came on by mistake in the middle of the interview. JVB hollered at the technician, Rafael, and apologized to CC. CC said, “I had no idea what it was. I thought it was the voice of God.” Major laughter. One of the questions was, “What was it like working with Mary Martin in the show *Legends*, and why did it never come to New York?” Her answer: “It was a lousy show.” Brought the house down.
A few celebrities made prerecorded tributes. CC was a little confused that Sandra Bernhard made a prerecorded tribute, but was also there in person, hollering at her from her seat. Bernadette Peters told a rather dull story about sharing a dressing room with CC for a benefit, and being so touched that she said something that made CC laugh. Chita Rivera’s message was very sweet. She said, “The world is a better place because you’re in it.” The most touching tribute was by Lee Roy Reams, who did *Lorelei* and *Hello, Dolly!* with Carol, and directed the 1995 Broadway revival of *Hello, Dolly!*. He said what a thrill to have her back in the theatre - - “It’s so great to have you back where you belong.” Oh Lord I’m getting teary already.
The evening ended with CC doing the Ephraim monologue from *Hello, Dolly!*. The monologue is delivered to her late husband before she sings “Before the parade passes by”. Richard asked if she did it from memory, and jeez, she did over 5,000 performances of that show, I would hope she still knows it! Here goes:
“Ephraim, let me go. It's been long enough, Ephraim. Every night, just like you'd want me to, I've put out the cat, made myself a rum toddy, and, before I went to bed, said a little prayer thanking God that I was independent. That no one else's life was mixed up with mine. But lately, Ephraim, I've begun to realise that... for a long time... I have not shed one tear. Nor have I been for one moment... outrageously happy. Now, Horace Vandergelder, he's always saying the world is full of fools. And in a way, he's right, isn't he? I mean, himself, Cornelius, Irene, myself... But there comes a time when you've got to decide if you want to be a fool among fools, or a fool alone. Well, I have made that decision, Ephraim, but I would feel so much better about it if... if you could just give me a sign, any kind of a sign that you approve. I'm going back, Ephraim. I've decided to join the human race again. And, Ephraim, I want you to give me away. “
Applauding and screaming like you’ve never heard before! We all sang “Hello, Dolly” to her and then, at JVB’s request, sang “Happy birthday”. CC was clearly very touched by the love pouring out from the audience to her. Her handlers came onstage and walked her off. She bowed by just lowering her head, but for her last bow one of the handlers stood behind her, with her heels against his toes - - he held her hands and she bowed from the waist. It was the cutest thing ever, and I’m sure they rehearsed it many times.