January 31, 1921– Carol Channing:
“The first 80 years are the hardest.”
News last week of Gay Icon Bette Midler’s return to the Broadway Musical stage after 50 years created quite the buzz fans of the genre. The announcement that she would be playing Dolly Levi in a new production of Hello, Dolly! Even caused some Musical Theatre fans to faint, and the comment sections of posts on The Facebook were filled with opinions, both smart and cruel, about the casting.
It was one of my most favorite musicals as a gay youth. I had the Original Broadway Cast album of Hello, Dolly!, and I augmented my collection with Hello, Dolly! cast recordings featuring Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman, plus the Japanese and Finnish productions, along with the London cast featuring Mary Martin as Dolly Levi. But none of them was better than the original with Carol Channing.
Channing is a singing, dancing, acting force of nature, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, a true Gay Icon, but even with all her fabulous talents, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is Channing’s appeal. Her face and voice are instantly recognizable, yet in her long career, she has worked in only five films, including the LSD themed comedy Skidoo (1968), often cited as one of the worst movie ever. Channing did make one good film, and she was rewarded with a nomination for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for her work in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). But, her true triumphs have always been on the Broadway stage.
Channing is a true original. She was never a bombshell, and she is rather demented without being risqué or grotesque. She’s a belter in the manner of Ethel Merman, but without being as brassy. She was often cast as a gold-digger even though is nothing seductive about her persona. I shouldn’t “get” her, but I do, although I am not quite sure her personality and appeal makes sense in the new Post-Gay world.
Channing’s contradictions made a little more sense when I read her engaging autobiography Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir Of Sorts (2002). In the book Channing is candid about her messy break up with her husband of 41 years, Charles Lowe. Carol discloses that she and Lowe had only ever had sex “once or twice in our 41-year marriage & that was 41 years ago.” She stuck to her wedding vows the whole time and didn’t have a liaison with anyone else. What opportunities did she pass up? Can you imagine? Channing might have slept with JFK, Frank Sinatra or Warren Beatty.
Lowe had spent most of Channing’s hard earned money, and to make her tale even more bizarre, her husband was a big ol’ homo. A Gay Icon with a gay husband is shocking, but it isn’t as shocking as that 41 year dry spell. After 36 years, even The Husband and I manage to knock one out once a year on our anniversary.
Channing’s memoir also reveals that her grandfather was African-American. In 1937, when she was 16 years old and ready to leave for Bennington College, her mother told her that her father’s birth certificate had marked him as “colored,” because his mother was black.
Even with her resilient image, Channing has had her hardships. She triumphed on Broadway as fortune hunting Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), but Hollywood cast Marilyn Monroe in the film version. Monroe saw the stage show over and over, borrowing Channing’s best bits. Channing really owned the role of Dolly Levi. She is the first and most famous star in the role. But director Gene Kelly thought casting her was too risky and gave the role to Barbra Streisand who was decades too young for the role (Streisand would be perfect now) for the much anticipated film version.
I love her so much in Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing wealthy, madcap matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, who makes her entrance flying in a biplane, quaffing champagne. She blew my little 13 year old gay mind with her two big musical numbers Jazz Baby, where she tap dances on a xylophone, and Do It Again which begins with Channing being shot out from a cannon. Channing taught me about Camp. I saw her live only once, in a tawdry mess of a musical Lorelei (1974), a sort of sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The show was a stinker and Channing managed to still wow with her crack comic timing and considerable star wattage.
Channing played Dolly Levi over 5,000 times to packed houses around the globe without ever missing a performance. I feel sorry for her understudies. On tour with Hello, Dolly! in the 1960s, Channing never missed a performance even while undergoing chemotherapy for uterine cancer. I did 28 performances of Hello, Dolly! at Seattle Civic Light Opera in 1989, playing Horace Vandergelder, not Dolly. I’m also noted for never missing a performance.
President Nixon’s infamous Enemies List included journalists, labor leaders, antiwar activists and civil rights activists; also listed were actors Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Channing.
The first Super Bowl Games in the 1960s only featured college marching bands for the half-time show. Channing was the first celebrity to entertain when she sang When the Saints Go Marching In at Super Bowl IV in 1970. Thankfully, without a wardrobe malfunction.
In May 2003, Channing married her fourth husband, Harry Kullijian. He was Channing’s junior high school sweetheart, who reunited with her after she mentioned him fondly in that memoir. They had nearly a decade together before Kullijian left this world at the end of 2011.The school’s auditorium was renamed The Carol Channing Theatre in her honor. The city of San Francisco proclaimed a Carol Channing Day, for her advocacy of Gay Rights and she has regularly acted as the host of the Gay Pride events around the country.
“The gay community is responsible for so much of my success, and I love them. It’s a mutual love affair, really. They make the better audiences too, because they laugh often and loudly. Applause is obligatory, but laughter is a reward, and gay audiences reward me often. Years ago, I was made their Queen in San Francisco, which is so much better than legend or icon. I was told that on that day, there wasn’t a blonde wig to be found in stores. Isn’t that wonderful? I don’t like to think of myself as a gay icon. The moment you do, then you’re not. There are so many talented people that have been called a ‘gay icon’ that have no similarities at all.”
I recommend the excellent HBO documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. Channing continues to perform in her 95th year. I have friends that know her and have let me know that she is a total sweetheart. Do not confuse her with Channing Tatum.