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REMEMBERING CAROL CHANNING By Peter Filichia

I’ve always wondered what got her on Richard M. Nixon’s
famous Enemies List.

In fact, some years back when I interviewed Carol Channing
for the Theatre on Film and Tape Archives at The New York
Public Library for the Performing Arts, I even began the
taping by mentioning the condemnation.

For a while, Ms. Channing had been concluding her Playbill
bios by citing the damnation and adding “which she
numbers among her highest honors.”

Before our session ended, I had planned to ask the question,
but when Carol Channing started talking, she continued. I’d
learned that some years earlier. I’d interviewed Ms.
Channing at a Drama Desk luncheon at Sardi’s and found
that getting a question in edgewise was very difficult.

The legendary star metaphorically had 9,000 or so cassette
tapes in her head which she put in, played and abruptly
removed before thrusting in another which might have a
story that was at its beginning, middle or end.

No, reining her in wasn’t easy. Most of the questions I’d
carefully laid out in chronological order had to be thrown out
with the leftover cannelloni.

I didn’t mind. Her editor at Simon and Schuster apparently
felt the same way, for he reportedly let Ms. Channing’s 2002 memoir JUST LUCKY I GUESS be published as is. There wasn’t a single blue-pencil mark from him.

I understand why. Since its publication, I have urged the
students I address twice a year at the University of
Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music – and all other
students I speak to, too – to read this incisive book. It
sharply deals with the courage one must have to be an
individual. It shows why dedicating yourself to a part is so
important. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s even
contemplating an onstage career.

Orson Welles often pointed out that “You only need one” big
hit to cement your reputation and livelihood. Ms. Channing
had two.

HELLO, DOLLY! is, of course, the one we know more.
Director-choreographer Gower Champion initially sought
Nanette Fabray; she wanted the part outright and wouldn’t
audition. Ms. Channing was more than willing to audition
and won the part Champion didn’t originally feel suited her.

It did. Ms. Channing played a year-and-a-half to start the
show’s then-record-breaking run, toured and brought it back
to Broadway in 1978 and 1995. Whether she or Yul Brynner
played the most performances of a role should be left to the
theatrical bean-counters, but Ms. Channing seemingly
brought the show, as Margo Channing sang, “from New York
to Kokomo.”

Over the years, hundreds of ardent playgoers have told me
that their gateway elixir to musical theater was seeing Carol Channing as matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in their hometowns.

Jerry Herman didn’t know when he wrote the title song –
long before Ms. Channing would come on the scene – that
he was essentially writing of Ms. Channing’s life story. For
when she came down that staircase in that famous red gown
and headdress in either of those revivals, yes, indeed: it
WAS so nice to have her back where she belonged. She
looked swell, was glowing, crowing and going strong as the
band was literally playing one of her old favorite songs from
way-back-when.

When the song unfurled on Sunday, Jan. 28, 1996 at the
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, one detail was incorrect. Ms.
Channing’s singing “Dolly’ll never go away again” was not to
be the case. The audience, filled with musical theater
enthusiasts (including me) fully knew that the star who’d be
seventy-five in only three days was saying goodbye to us
instead. Aside from a GYPSY OF THE YEAR in 2010, Carol
Channing never again appeared on Broadway.

We still have the original cast album, which was the last
traditional-sounding Broadway musical to reach Number One
on the album charts and stayed on the list for fifty-eight
weeks. This happened in the same year when The Beatles
were very much dominating the scene.

True, some of the sales probably came as a result of Louis
Armstrong’s Number One recording of the title song. The
ditty even entered that year’s political arena. Granted,
President Johnson didn’t need much help to defeat Barry Goldwater and be elected in 1964, but Ms. Channing’s rendition of “Hello, Lyndon!” couldn’t have hurt.

It may have hurt her. Some say that’s the reason why she
made Nixon’s list.

The HELLO, DOLLY! album reminds us that Ms. Channing’s
strength was her personality, not her singing voice. She was
unconditionally unafraid when she sang and that made us
listen and appreciate.

How well she established her character in “I Put My Hand
In.” She unapologetically brayed the words “March, march,
march!” in “Motherhood.” In “Dancing,” she took the bull by
the horns and taught the oafs how to waltz. Note the
poignancy she gave to “Before the Parade Passes By,”
showing us that, yes, those who drop out of the human race
must rejoin it. What razz-ma-tazz she gave her eleven
o’clock number “So Long, Dearie” with struts worthy of the
greatest vaudevillians. All this surrounding her introduction
to “Hello, Dolly!” which still ranks as the best production
number that many theatergoers have ever seen.

But Ms. Channing had experienced her first smash hit
fourteen years before in 1949. GENTLEMEN PREFER
BLONDES
became the sixth longest-running book musical in
Broadway history.

Ms. Channing played Lorelei Lee, who matter-of-factly
believed that marrying for money was a perfectly fair trade
for a young woman who could offer her husband her
youthful body

This was also a time when men liked their women to be
sexualized children; Ms. Channing could baby-voice with the
best of them in “Bye Bye Baby” when setting off on a cruise
to Europe that her beau had of course paid for.

After she set sail, Ms. Channing had Lorelei confide to us
about her days when she was just “A Little Girl from Little
Rock.” She let us know that “the one who done me wrong”
was really to be thanked for getting her out of Arkansas and
into a far more lucrative part of the world where opportunity
knocked quite loudly for attractive young women.

Ms. Channing was quoted in 1964 saying that one of the
best perks of having this new smash hit in DOLLY occurred
when she entered a room where a live orchestra was
playing. For fourteen years, the conductor would have his
band play “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” as soon as she
walked in. Now, finally, Ms. Channing was hearing a new
song upon her entrance.

Little did she know that for the next fifty years whenever she
walked into anywhere with a live orchestra, she’d hear the
band play “Hello, Dolly!”

Still — you only need one.

On both occasions that I interviewed her, Ms. Channing
mentioned that she was most pleased when a certain star
came backstage to visit her after she’d taken GENTLEMEN
PREFER BLONDES
on the road and appeared in Los Angeles.

“Marilyn Monroe,” she said proudly. “And I was so happy
when she said ‘You really played that part so well.’”

By this point, there’d been talk that Monroe would assume
the role of Lorelei Lee in the film version, which indeed she
did. Ms. Channing seemed to hold no rancor that
Hollywood’s hottest property would take her place.

To be frank, that was not the case when HELLO, DOLLY!
was to be filmed. By this time in the late ‘60s, Ms. Channing
had already scored an Oscar nomination for her Muzzy Van
Hossmere in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. The picture
had starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Beatrice
Lillie, but the Academy thought that only Ms. Channing was
worthy of recognition.

She won the Golden Globe for that performance, too, so
with a Tony Award for Dolly Gallagher Levi – a prize for
which she beat out Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL – Ms.
Channing had every right to believe Hollywood would give
her the part. It didn’t, but instead chose the also-ran in the
1963-64 Best Actress in a Musical Tony race.

Richard Skipper, the best of all Carol Channing
impersonators, in his act would have his Ms. Channing rasp
that “HELLO, DOLLY!” was made into a movie starring Walter
Matthau.” It never failed to get a titanic laugh.

On a far more serious note, though, Skipper tirelessly
lobbied for years to have Carol Channing win a Kennedy
Center Honor, all to no avail.

And now it’s too late. At least the lights of Broadway will dim
precisely fifty-five years after the opening of the original HELLO, DOLLY! This is one of the few times in recent years that the honoree truly deserves it.

If there is a heaven, here’s hoping that when Carol Channing
entered it on Thursday, January 15th , everyone there who’d
ever been in a Broadway show – male or female – was there
to welcome her by singing “Hello, Carol!”

Every Jerry Herman lyric would be in place except, of
course, the one that states “It’s so nice to have you back
where you belong.” And if Richard M. Nixon did make it to
heaven, wouldn’t it be something if he donned a waiter’s
uniform, let his trivial bygones be bygones and joined in the
number, too?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at
www.mtishows.com . He can be heard most weeks of the
year on www.broadwayradio.com.