Celebrity Death Watch: Carol Channing
A very sad day indeed! An American original! A Broadway icon! She was 97, so this really WAS a deathwatch, for a few years. I'm going to honor her in the best way I know, by reprinting my account of the interview and performance I saw back in 2003. RIP, Miss Channing!
You know that *Thoroughly Modern Millie* is my favorite movie ever, you know that I’ve seen it 41 times. I read that Carol Channing was doing a show in the Village, and I had to be there, I’d never seen her live. The show is called *Singular Sensations* - - the host is Glen Roven, he interviews someone, they talk about his/her career, and (s)he sings a few songs with Glen at the piano. They have someone new every week - - next week it’s Donna McKechnie (who was the original lead in *A Chorus Line*), the week after that is Florence Henderson (an odd choice), and then Kitty Carlisle Hart (I’ve already seen her act). The one who caught my eye is Mickey Rooney, who’s doing it sometime in February.
I’ve always thought Carol Channing was a joke, a creature from another planet, and I thought I’d be in for a goofy, campy time. I was so surprised and thrilled to see that she’s a wise, warm, engaging person, who’s not just full of razzmatazz, she’s also full of beauty.
The show was at The Village Theater, what I would classify as a large small space - - about 150 or 200 seats. There were two stools, a table between them with water, and a baby grand behind them. Mr. Roven welcomed us to the show, and explained how he had come up with the concept: he’s artistic director of some big theater in Pennsylvania and he and his partner wanted to bring their favorite A-list Broadway performers to their theater, but couldn’t afford to hire or create a whole show to build around them. So they came up with this idea, which he describes as “*Inside the Actor’s Studio* for the Broadway musical stage”. His first guest, in Pennsylvania, was Patti Lupone. He was sure that half the audience didn’t have any idea who she was, but they loved her all the same because she told such funny stories and was such a gifted performer. He’s brought the concept to New York, and Carol is the first in the series.
He talked about how he had such a hard time writing an introduction for her, he didn’t know what to say and what to leave out, so he pared it down to five words: Ladies and Gentlemen, Carol Channing (oh my God, I’m tearing up just thinking about it). She came out onstage, wearing a silver sequined minidress, a darling set of silver heels, and most amazing of all, her own hair. I had no idea! The audience gave her a long standing ovation. They sat down and started talking about Greenwich Village.
CAROL: You know, my first performances in New York were at the Village Vanguard. Is it still here? I went there to see this group called The Revuers. Of course you’re all much too young to know who they are, but they were made up of Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Billie Holiday.
RANDOM GUY IN AUDIENCE: JUDY Holliday!
CAROL: Yes, thank you. JUDY Holliday. Billie Holiday, I’m sure, was playing at another club. Uptown.
They spent quite a while talking about her childhood in San Francisco.
CAROL: And then I went through my Russian Period.
ROVEN: Your Russian Period? Please explain.
CAROL: Well, San Francisco is a vibrant, wonderful city - - I call it an urban artist’s colony. The theaters there would get the most extraordinary acts you could ever see. My parents gave me a fifty cent allowance (which was a lot of money in those days), and I was able to buy a student seat for twenty-five cents, in the last row of the top balcony. I was just a child. One of the shows they had was a Russian revue called *Chauve Souris*, which is French for *The Smiling Cat* [In truth, it means Bald Mouse, but I wasn’t about to correct her], which was a strange title, because there was no cat in it, and it was all in Russian! I was so thrilled with the performance, I thought it was so extraordinary that one day I went backstage and asked to meet the man who had put together the show. I met him, he was very gracious, and I asked him to teach me one of the songs in the show, “Kalichka”. He took me into one of the rehearsal rooms where they had this rickety old upright piano, and I sat down next to him on this old brown wooden bench, and he taught me the whole song. I wrote it down, phonetically.
ROVEN: And we’re going to perform it for you now! [applause]
CAROL: Let me tell you what the song is about: it’s about this little girl named Kalichka and her mother and father, Mamichka and Papichka. Kalichka is sweet as can be, with braids and a little dress. Mamichka has a red circle on each of her cheeks, and black painted-on eyelashes, and a big [indicates a large bosom] and a big [indicates large hips]. And Papichka is a very large man and his voice sounds like [low, booming Russian bass voice] “Haw haw haw haw haw.” So Kalichka asks her mother if she can go dancing, and Mamichka says, “Of course, who are you going with?” And Kalichka says, “A soldier - - soldaten!” And Mamichka says, “Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet!” So Kalichka tells her father, and cries and cries, and says if she can’t go dancing she’ll kill herself. So the father (a very sensible man) says, “Oh, if she’s going to kill herself, then I guess she can go dancing with the soldier.”
ROVEN: Tell them about the last time you performed this song.
CAROL: Oh yes, that is a funny story, thank you for reminding me. I performed this song on television with Yul Brynner, and it was the second show ever to be broadcast on television! He had seen me perform in this Broadway revue and asked me to come on his show. We met, and he asked what I wanted to sing, maybe we could sing something together, and I said, thinking I’d impress him, “Do you know ‘Kalichka’?”, and his eyes got big as saucers and he said, “’Kalichka’! Of course I know ‘Kalichka’! Everyone in Eastern Europe knows ‘Kalichka’!” So this is how the song goes.
And then they performed the song, which was a total riot! It’s a funny song to begin with, but it was very odd to see Carol Channing, all 82 years of her, wearing a silver sequined minidress, doing his goofy old folk song in RUSSIAN! The audience was very enthusiastic, and she was genuinely touched by our reaction.
CAROL: Oh, thank you so much! I’m so surprised, I had no idea this number was going to be such a big hit! You see, when I did it with Yul Brynner, it was the second show ever to be broadcast on television, it was 1947, I think about nine people in the country had television sets at that point, and for all we know, they were watching something on another channel!
Next she talked about going to Bennington College, because it was the only college that had any kind of program in the arts. In the dialogue below, the vowel “aa” is pronounced like “apple”, the vowel “ah” is like “father”.
CAROL: My major was in Drahma and Daance. I pronounce them that way, you see because my Drahma teacher was from New England and my Daance teacher was from the Middle West. If it had been the other way around, I would have majored in Draama and Dahnce. [Laughter] So Bennington College had a program where every summer you were expected to go out and find a job in your chosen area. That summer I went to New York and went to the William Morris Agency and asked to speak with the President, Abe Lastfogel. [Bits of laughter] You won’t believe this, but they took me to his office. I said I thought they should represent me, and he asked what I could do. I said I was going to Bennnigton College, and I sang him a Gaelic dirge. [She demonstrates] He didn’t seem so taken with that, so I did a ancient Greek chant to Orestes in 9/5 time. The rhythm went like this. [She demonstrates on the piano lid] He wasn’t so wild about that either, so I did a number that was always a big hit, a Haitian song that the women sing while their crushing nuts under their feet, hoping to summon rain. It went like this. [She sings and dances a bit of it] He got up and started showing me to the door, and I said, “Wait a minute! I also know a Mittel-European lullaby!”, and I started to sing it, and it turns out it was something his grandmother used to sing to him. So the two of us sat there on the couch in his office, his arm around me, crying, and we sang this lullaby together. And he was my agent for my whole career!
Then when she graduated from college, she got a job in a revue directed by Gower Champion (who would later direct her in *Hello, Dolly!*). One of her numbers had her playing a flapper, and Anita Loos saw her in this show and decided she was perfect to play Lorelei Lee in *Gentlemen Prefer Blondes*. Then Carol and Roven performed “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”. Now, a brief digression about ME - - my parents had a three-record set when I was a kid, called *Your All-Time Hit Parade*. It had, among other things:
Rosemary Clooney, “Come on-a my house”
Louis Armstrong, “Mack the knife”
Johnnie Ray, “Cry”
Pearl Bailey, “Tired”
Wee Bonnie Baker, “Oh Johnny”
Some guy group, “Standin’ on the corner”
Some other guy group, “Moments to remember”
Johnny Mathis, “The twelfth of never”
…but most important to this story, it had Carol singing “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”. I went CRAZY for this song, and how old could I have been, thirteen, fourteen? I listened to it over and over and learned all the words, all three verses (I still know them). Of course this is when I developed my world-famous Carol Channing impersonation. I’ve since gotten quite skilled at doing her voice and mannerisms, and can do Carol singing things that she never even sang - - anyone can imitate a Carol Channing recording, but it takes an artist of great skill to do Carol Channing singing “Vissi d’arte” from *Tosca*. I once had Martha Fischer, Bill Lutes, and David Collins (all friends from the School of Music) nearly peeing their pants over my rendition of Carol doing Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinrade”. But I’m digressing on my digression. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I would sing Carol doing “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” any moment that I had out of earshot. My favorite time (I just doubled over with laughter at the memory of this) was while mowing the lawn, sitting on our old rider lawn mower. It made such a racket, how was I to know that my voice carried above it with no effort, and the whole neighborhood, from the Kennedys four houses away to the Schmaling pig farm down the other end of County Trunk P, they could all hear me singing, “But square cut or pear-shape/These rocks don’t lose their shape/Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”?
So there I was, twenty years later, sitting at the Village Theater, hearing the One and Only Carol Channing do this song herself. I was in tears. The audience was so enthusiastic that she and Roven decided to do “I’m just a little girl from Little Rock”. The crowd went wild when she kinda sexed it up.
Then came *Hello, Dolly!*
ROVEN: Tell them how many performances you did.
CAROL: Well, I was friends with Yul Brynner, you know. You all think I’m up here dropping names, but honestly, I’m not! These were my friends. When you’re in a hit show, the world comes to your dressing room. No, Yul Brynner told me “Carohl, I’fe done over five tousand performances of *King and I*. Someday you might do more than 5,000 performances of *Dolly*, but you must never tell anyone.” [Pause] But you know, now he’s Dead, Dead, DEAD - - and I did way more than 5,000 performances of *Hello, Dolly!* [Gales of laughter]
ROVEN: And you never missed a show.
CAROL: No, I never missed a show. Once I was in a wheelchair, I did nine months with my arm in a cast, because I have this proclivity, you know, for falling into orchestra pits. The chorus, they’re all used to it - - they see me go down, always over there by the drums, and they take a peek and say to each other, “Oh, she’s fine.” Yes, I never missed a show. Colds, flu, even cancer! I always said, once you get out there and start doing the performance, if you don’t feel better, you’ll be cured!
She talked a lot about her concept of Dolly, about how the whole show was about her re-entering the human race, and deciding that life was for living - - to paraphrase a line from *Millie*, instead of being on the bleachers looking at life, she wanted to be a player on the big field. Roven went over to the piano and she set up a monologue from the show. Up to this point the lighting had been fairly standard - - warm lights on the stage with a follow spot on her for her numbers. When she started the monologue, all the lights went out except for a tight spot on her, from her shoulders up. In the monologue, Dolly is talking to her dear departed husband and saying that he has to let her go and she has to move on. The spotlight picked up the sequins on her dress and she was sparkling all over the dark theater. She said the last few, poignant lines of her monologue and it led right into “Before the parade passes by”. It was incredibly moving, and I was dissolved in tears.
Of course she sang “Hello, Dolly”, which was marvelous, and we gave her another standing ovation. Somehow that led to Ethel Merman.
CAROL: I met Ethel when I was doing *Gentlemen Prefer Blondes*. We were introduced, and she didn’t say a word to me, it was like I was invisible. I asked someone about this, and was told that Ethel doesn’t like anyone who’s in a hit show. [Laughter] Years later, it was Sweeps Week, and she and I and Ann Miller were brought out to Hollywood to do a show. [She didn’t use the words *Love Boat*, but I knew that’s what she was talking about - - that two-hour episode brought new meaning to my life] Can you believe it, that the three of us were what they were thinking would bring the ratings through the roof? So anyway, I was picked up in a limo, and then we went over to pick up Ethel. She saw me and said, “HEL-lo, CAROL!” I was shocked! Not only was she speaking to me, but she knew who I was! [Laughter] And she said, “My flight in was VERY STRANGE. One of the PASSENGERS was BLEEDING from the RECTUM.” [Long pause for laughter] And I said, “Ethel, how did you know?” [More laughter] “Well, I’m a NURSE. I volunteer every THURSDAY at ROOSEVELT HOSPITAL.” Now, let me ask you, if you were a patient at Roosevelt Hospital, wouldn’t you just dread Thursdays? [Long pause for laughter] Imagine Ethel Merman coming into your room. “GOOD MORNING!” “Put THIS under your TONGUE.” “ROLL OVER.”
She sang one more number (after we stopped laughing, which took a while):
ROVEN: There aren’t too many performers who have two signature songs, and you’re one of those lucky few. And now there’s another song that’s just starting to be associated with you.
CAROL: Yes, I sang this song at a benefit a few weeks ago, and everyone agreed, this song is all about me!
And she sang “Razzle dazzle” from *Chicago*. She forgot the words a few times, and the song came to a screeching halt while Roven fed her the line. This was, of course, adorable. She apologized, and said she does it perfectly when she’s at home.
Give 'em the old razzle dazzle Razzle dazzle 'em Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it And the reaction will be passionate Give 'em the old hocus pocus Bead and feather 'em How can they see with sequins in their eyes? [A big laugh on that line] What if your hinges all are rusting? What if, in fact, you're just disgusting? Razzle dazzle 'em And they’ll never catch wise! Give 'em the old double whammy Daze and dizzy 'em Back since the days of old Methuselah Everyone loves the big bambooz-a-ler Give 'em the old three ring circus Stun and stagger 'em When you're in trouble, go into your dance Though you are stiffer than a girder They'll let you get away with murder Razzle dazzle 'em And you've got a romance
Give 'em the old razzle dazzle Razzle dazzle 'em Show 'em the first rate sorcerer you are Long as you keep 'em way off balance How can they spot you've got no talent Razzle dazzle 'em And they'll make you a star!
She talked about writing her book *Just Lucky, I Guess*.
ROVEN: And Carol is a newlywed, did you know that? [Applause]
CAROL: Yes, and it’s the dearest story. I wrote in my book about my childhood and mentioned this boy who was my sweetheart from the time I was twelve until I was fourteen. It was just something I thought I should mention, he was my first sweetheart, and I didn’t know if he was dead or what. Well, he got a hold of me and said, “Carol, I am not dead!” And we met, almost 70 years after we had last seen each other, and two weeks later, we were married. [Applause]
ROVEN: And now Harry, her husband, is going to make his New York debut.
CAROL: Yes, as a finale for the show, we’ve put together this little dance number. He’s a marvelous man, I love him dearly, but I should warn you that he dances like the great soccer player he once was.
It took me a second to figure that one out. Harry came out, an adorable 85-year old man in a dark brown suit. He and Carol did a little soft-shoe routine to “Tea for two”, and it was possibly the dearest, sweetest thing I’ve ever seen onstage. We all stood up and cheered like wild, the three of them bowed, walked offstage, and then Roven came out to say that she was signing copies of her book out in the lobby.
So I bought the book (just published last year, and she wrote it herself) and got to have a few words with her.
ME: Hello, thanks so much for the show, you are amazing.
CAROL: Thank you so much.
ME: My name is Christopher.
CAROL: Nice to meet you, Christopher. [Signs book]
ME: I’ve seen *Millie* 41 times.
CAROL: Oh, my dear! You have?
ME: Yes. When I was in high school, whenever I was feeling sad, I would watch that movie, and I would feel better.
CAROL: Oh, thank you, it means so much to me to hear that. It’s a good movie!
ME: Yes, it’s a great movie.
CAROL: And we had so much fun making it! I just love Julie Andrews. And Mary Tyler Moore, she was a joy to work with.
ME: Well, thanks again.
CAROL: Thank you, take care!
And that was that. I walked over to the subway station, on a cloud.