The Broadway legend and tireless advocate’s message: ‘When you cut funding for the arts, you are creating the fall of the Holy Roman Empire.’
When I asked Broadway legend Carol Channing to talk about the importance of arts education during a 2010 visit to Fort Collins, she broke into a song that had been written for her by a truck driver. She was 89 at the time, she had it fully memorized, and it went a little something like this:
Yes it’s fact you’ll find.
The arts expand the mind.
In science, history, English, math, biology, zoology and even sociology.
Psychology, mythology and also genealogy!
Bombasity, verbosity … I’m losing my velocity!
But let’s keep the arts alive!
Channing, whose three decades of performances as the matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! made her a Broadway legend, joked that day that she was cursed to live to be 100, blaming good genes. “I can’t get out of it no matter what I do,” she said to laughs.
Channing made her final bow a little earlier than she expected. She died early today at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 97.
Channing appeared in Denver several times over her career. She came here in 1973 in the pre-Broadway tryout of Lorelei, Jule Styne’s musical adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Channing had originated the role of the gold-digging Lorelei Lee back in 1949. In those days, plays and musicals typically toured the country before going to Broadway, and Channing toured with Lorelei for a year before spending another year with the show in New York.
Channing returned here in 1994 to launch the 30th anniversary international touring production of Hello, Dolly!
“She was the real deal,” said former Denver Center Attractions Marketing Director Nancy Rebek. “What I recall most during that run of Hello, Dolly! was a moment backstage. As she entered her dressing room after a thunderous ovation on opening night, surrounded by friends and family, she caught sight of me in the hall and stopped dead in her tracks to wave. In that unmistakable voice, she yelled out, ‘Oh, hiiiii, Nancy!’ Thinking of her makes me smile; she was a pro and a delight.”
Channing attributed the decision to open that tour in Denver to the producers’ good experiences with late presenter Robert Garner, the people of the Denver Center “and those great Denver audiences,” she said then in an interview with theatre journalist Sylvie Drake.
As for her own enduring love for the musical, Channing said then: “Every time I put the show down and pick it up again, it seems to marinate. I’ve been re-memorizing it and I realize we have a neat little classic on our hands – which is something we didn’t fully realize when we were rehearsing the original in 1964.”
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of the one and only Carol Channing,” the production said in a statement. “She was a Dolly for the ages, and a true icon of the American theatre. Betty Buckley and the cast will dedicate tonight’s performance in San Diego to her memory.”
Channing came to Fort Collins in 2010 as part of her own national campaign to restore an arts curriculum in the public schools. Her love for the arts began, she said, with her father singing to her as a child. She called the arts “fertilizer for the brain.” She said when you cut funding for the arts in the public schools, “you are creating the fall of the Holy Roman Empire.”
Channing, who is survived by a son, established the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts with her husband, who died in 2011. “We are not trying to save the arts,” she said, “we are trying to help the arts save our children.”
Channing presented a master class for students and faculty of Colorado State University. The afternoon was in effect a career retrospective led by retired theater professor Morris Burns, followed by questions from students. Channing spoke of her love for DCPA founder Donald Seawell and his wife, Eugenia Rawls. “They made Denver come to life theatrically,” Channing said.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Online bonus from 1994: Carol Channing: Back where she belongs
The following are excerpts from Sylvie Drake’s 1994 interview with Carol Channing for the 30th anniversary tour launch of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ in Denver:
Carol Channing never attacks a character without adding plenty of herself into it. This began in 1949, when she created the famous Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Lorelei secured Channing, as we know her, for the ages: Those round question-mark eyes, the blonde chili-bowl mop, the gravel-bottom voice and the scarlet-rimmed mouth.
There is, however, another side of Channing that is harder to identify. Would you think of her as the author of a thesis on George Bernard Shaw? Or as a lady who was told by Sir Laurence Olivier that she is a true Shavian heroine? She has, in fact, played the leads in Shaw’s Saint Joan, Pygmalion and The Millionairess. She was once fired from the chorus line because she didn’t fit in with the chorus line.
“Fitting in has always been important to me,” she said, “because when you are an only child, all you want to be is part of a team – a cog in a wheel. I would do anything for friendship.”
Channing was born in 1921 in Seattle to George and Adelaide Channing. He was then editor of the Seattle Star. Carol grew up mostly in San Francisco after her father was appointed editor of all Christian Science publications.
Her first taste of musical theatre came at age 14 when she saw the Irving Berlin/Moss Hart musical As Thousands Cheer, and it was galvanizing to her.
“I was in such a fever pitch of excitement that I was glad it was dark so no one could see me,” she said. “I was like a woman passionately in love for the first time. When Ethel Waters moved down to the footlights for her big number, ‘Heat Wave,’ I felt it coming, and I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m ready to die for this.’
“When I was in the fourth grade, I ran for secretary by doing imitations of the principal and teachers telling everyone to vote for me. I was elected, and when I read the minutes at the assembly every Friday, I made a holy show out of it. Well, of course no one else ever got elected secretary until I finished high school.
“My father was wonderful. I never said anything about wanting to act, but he would slip me books on theatre – Martha Graham, Uday Shankar, Mary Wigman, Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi, Yeichi Nimura, Tatiana Riabouchinska. At first, as you can see, it was the dancing that got me. I was with the San Francisco Ballet summers starting at 13.
‘Getting fired from your chosen profession and being told you don’t belong in it by someone you trust isn’t exactly like getting fired from Macy’s.’
Channing went from San Francisco’s Lowell High School to Bennington College, where her free spirit and imagination thrived.
“Part of what I was expected to do in my third winter period was go out and get a job,” she said. “So I went to the William Morris Agency in New York and, by some mistake, I was sent to see the head of the agency, Abe Lastfogel.
I was doing Orestes’ funeral chant in ancient Gallic French, which I thought was so thrilling, and Abe was chewing on his cigar saying something like, ‘I don’t know how I can book you at Leon and Eddie’s with that.’ Well, I could see he was losing interest, so I told him I had another number, a Haitian corn-grinding song that I did for him and he didn’t understand. Finally, I remembered a song I had come across in my Middle European Studies class, which happened to be in Yiddish.
“I started to sing it and he said, ‘My grandmother used to sing that for me when I was a little boy. I think I begin to see a glimmer of talent in you, but you’d be smarter to stick to someone better known than Orestes. Like Sophie Tucker. I took his advice, and I’ve been doing Sophie Tucker ever since.”
Lastfogel, who eventually became her agent, sent her to see Marc Blitzstein, who was casting for No for an Answer in 1941.
“For my audition, I did all the great theatre ladies of the time: Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman and Lynn Fontanne, which was exactly what he wanted because he had a song for me to do about a girl who thought she was all three of them combined, but didn’t know herself. And I certainly didn’t know who I was, so I was perfect for it. “
An encouraging one-line review in the New York Times made Channing believe she had arrived. She quit Bennington, the show closed in three days and, except for understudying Eve Arden in the Danny Kaye musical Let’s Face It in 1941, she spent the next two years looking for a job.
“I didn’t fit in the starlet bracket, and I didn’t fit in the chorus. For size alone, I didn’t fit in. It’s different now, but back then you had to look like the assembly line. And, of course, if you did fit into the chorus, you never got out of it.
“I finally got a job on the Borscht circuit with Max Liebman. He was the oracle. If he approved, you were in show business. I auditioned, and he hired me. Finally, he fired me. I was just that bad. He’d say, ‘You’re off-key.’ I’d ask where I was off-key and he’d answer, ‘I don’t know. You just are!’
“After he fired me, he wrote a letter to my parents telling them not to waste their money on me. It was awful. Getting fired from your chosen profession and being told you don’t belong in it by someone you trust isn’t exactly like getting fired from Macy’s.”
To recover, Channing returned to the West Coast and started doing whatever came along. “I started looking at myself, developing my own style, learning about audiences,” she said. By the time she auditioned for Lend an Ear, a musical Marge and Gower Champion were opening in Hollywood in 1948, she knew she was ready.
Marge Champion was sufficiently impressed that, even though Lend an Ear was by then fully cast, she insisted that Gower take a look at Channing.
“I had boiled my style down to 12 numbers and Gower said, ‘Twelve numbers? I’ve been giving people a minute and a half!’ But I just started and kept going. When I finished, he made me start over. Finally, he just made room for me in Lend an Ear.”
The show opened successfully in June. When it hit Broadway in December, Channing’s future beckoned.
She was offered three shows. Cole Porter was writing Queen Leda (later to become Out of this World); George S. Kaufman was turning Dolce into a musical; and Anita Loos, Joseph Field, Jule Styne and Leo Robin had just completed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She picked Blondes.
“Opening night, the Lunts came backstage as friends of Jack Wilson, the director,” she said. “They stayed until 2 a.m. After that, I never let the friendship go.”
Other shows followed, including Wonderful Town, Showbusiness, a one-woman show of her own, and Lorelei. Her second-biggest hit, of course, was Hello, Dolly! in 1964, a personal triumph she stayed with for four years, never missing a performance.
Now, 30 years later, the lyrics from the title song of Hello, Dolly! apply as much to Carol Channing as they do to Dolly Levi: “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”
Sylvie Drake is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a translator, a contributor to culturalweekly.com and American Theatre magazine, and a former Director of Media Relations and Publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.