December 2004
By Steven M. Housman

Carol Channing On Stage: Back Where She Belongs!

Carol Channing is one of the all-time great Broadway Musical actors of the past fifty-plus years. She is a true original. She has been a star ever since she first stepped onto the Broadway stage in 1948 in Blitzstein’s No For An Answer. It wasn’t long before she conquered the Great White Way in the original lead role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Several hit shows later, she found another role of a lifetime, playing the irrepressible Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! It’s a show she played more than 5,000 times without missing a single one. In those days, they called actors like her “troupers.” In today’s world of “stars,” they would call her a miracle! In between over a dozen Broadway shows, she found time to play a few movie roles as well, most notably, her Oscar-nominated role as Muzzy in the 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. While I was preparing for this interview, I knew I’d better know my stuff because I was about to speak to Carol Channing, the Broadway legend! I have done many interviews with many different performers in various aspects of the entertainment world. I have only spoken with a star of Ms. Channing’s magnitude a handful of times. By the way, to say Carol Channing is humble would be a gross understatement. As far as the word “legend” goes, she replies, “I don’t consider myself a legend. The moment you do, it’s all gone.” But she tells you stories of others she considers legends and stars she’s in awe of. That’s what she brings to the stage in a limited tour that began last month in Palm Springs, California, along with a wonderful repertoire of songs. Carol Channing and Friends, with The Pied Pipers, Pete Barbutti, and the Big Band All-Stars is a knockout! Channing delivers an evening of musical revue and comedy, a musical tour through her unique and truly amazing career. She said, “I don’t know what people find so interesting about me… It amazes me to hear people laughing when I’m being myself.” Besides her monumental talent, Carol Channing being Carol Channing is absolutely heartwarming. This Q&A turned into a wonderful conversation, and by the end, I no longer felt as if I were interviewing a legend – I felt as if I was speaking with an old friend.

For your new show, what can the audience expect? Will you be performing your most famous songs?

This is the funniest thing. Your interview is the first one where I actually have to talk about myself, because this is what the show is all about. My interviews have always been about the music and lyrics and Jerry Herman, and the choreographer, Gower Champion, and Thornton Wilder, the original “Matchmaker.” How can I sell myself? I’ve never seen myself! I’ve never seen my own show and I don’t know whether I’m doing it right or not.

You’re doing something right. People have been coming to see you for a long time.

But I’ve always been playing these monumental characters, and all I had to do is step into her shoes. Now I’m playing myself and I don’t know if it’s that palatable or not. It amazes me to hear people laughing when I’m being myself. I’m telling you the honest truth. It’s the audience that guides me. I remember one time in Minneapolis, I had forgotten what I had been talking about and one guy from the audience yelled out, “You were talking about Ethel Merman!” I said, ‘Oh yes, thank you very much, then I went on and told them about Merman.’ I get to tell them about live theatre and my stories and they listen and they laugh!

Well, you are very interesting and entertaining. You’re a legend. You must know that?

Well, the moment you do, it’s all gone.

Well then you don’t know it, because whatever you’ve been doing, you’ve been doing it right.

(Roaring laughter) Okay, I’ll continue not knowing! But it’s really true. As long as you are still struggling, and trying to let them know of these wonderful experiences.

Looking back on your career, what is your personal favorite role that you’ve played on stage?

Well, let’s see. Blondes [Gentlemen Prefer Blondes] was 3,500 performances and that was also my first star billing. Hello, Dolly! was just over 5,000 performances and I never missed a show. It’s not that I was so entirely healthy, I just wasn’t. Each state we would go to, and around the world, had a different virus, and I would get it. Then I pass it around the company and we’d re-infect each other. That’s the way it went. If you believe very strongly in what you are doing, you are able to come through. But if it comes down to a favorite, it’s always the show that I’m doing at the moment. Whatever show I’m doing at the time, that’s my favorite. It’s like being in love. You can’t remember any other love. I remember when I was in Sugar Babies, oh, I adored that show. All of those marvelous burlesque comics. They were fabulous! Then I remember doing George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, and I thought that was my favorite show when I was doing it. They really varied. So, I get to take pieces of that and tell the audience exactly how I found the spine of the play, how the director and I worked on it. I tell the audience that it’s a thrill to play a show 5,000 times. I tell them how to keep it fresh, and I’d never know all of this without playing shows over 5,000 performances. And for some reason the audience likes it and they are entertained and they are laughing. They think it’s funny. The secret I think is that I’ve never stopped working and that’s wonderful. I think it’s what every actor wants. There was a time during “Dolly” when I had cancer and the more I gave to the audience, the more they gave back to me. It was a healing experience.

Is there anything new that you’d like to try in your career?

Lots of things, but I just throw it into this show when I want to try something.

What music would you have liked to record that you never did - and are there any shows you would have liked to appear in?

Oh, yes! Razzle Dazzle! I’m doing it in this show! It’s the story of my life. I have to dig up Marlene Dietrich, too. I love doing a revue of Dietrich and the audience loves it. You have to love what you do in order for the audience to love it. I get to do “Before The Parade Passes By,” which is my favorite number from “Dolly.” The song is about this widow who decides to rejoin the human race. It’s a great message, and it’s the message of Thornton Wilder and Jerry Herman.

Speaking of Jerry Herman - Is he your favorite Broadway musical composer?

Yes, Jerry Herman! I know more of his work than anyone else.

What do you consider to be the finest era of Broadway?

That’s something I have no perspective on because I was always a part of it. That’s why the Actors Fund is the darnedest thing. We have the Fund every Monday when we are all off and we think everything is wonderful. It doesn’t have to be a good show, but we’re all so dedicated. It’s a miracle they get some of the shows on at all.

You won the 1995 Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. Have you seen any new talent that you consider to be exceptional?

Oh, yes. The girl who plays the part I played in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I really liked her. I hear that Brooke Shields is very good in Wonderful Town. I played that part! It’s the hardest part I ever played.

You have won so many prestigious awards. Is there any one in particular that meant more to you than any other?

The sweetest thing in the world was, well, it was adorable! A few years back, my awards were stolen and the Tony Award committee gave me a new one. Isn’t that wonderful? I thought that was so touching. I also received the Oscar Hammerstein Award this past year.

I also know that you received an Honorary Doctoral Degree from California State University-Stanislaus a few months ago.

Oh, you know that! I also make house calls!

You do?

Sure, it’s a doctor’s award. I’m thinking of teaching at the University of California near Modesto. We’re going to put on a musical, so I tell them everything I know. I mean, I’m no director, that’s not my racket, but I can teach them from my experiences. It’s a privilege.

Besides Broadway, you’ve also been very successful in films. I understand your Oscar-nominated role of Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie is your favorite - and your role in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is a film you refuse to see. Why?

Julie Andrews was in Thoroughly Modern Millie. What a great star! She’s so wonderful. That’s when we first met. She told me that she made up her mind that I was going to be nominated for an Academy Award, and I was! When the audience wants to hear about Julie, I love telling them. She is really my favorite. She is a natural born star. A great story is when we made “Millie.” My first day was her day off, so I had to speak to her stand in. Well, all of a sudden Julie walked in, hair not done and in jeans and I said, ‘Oh Julie, I wouldn’t talk the same way to a stand in,’ and she said, “I knew that and that’s why I’m here.” The director (George Roy Hill) kept saying, “don’t move, don’t do this, don’t do that,” and Julie said to me, “You know Muzzy better than anyone here, because you are Muzzy. You know her better than I know her, and better than the director knows her,” and I said, ‘That’s right,’ and I never had a problem after that. Julie held both my hands with her back to the camera and I spoke just to Julie. I went on to win the Golden Globe, and I was told by many that it was that particular scene that made people vote for me. I never made too many other movies, I thought they were all terrible, especially Skidoo. I had such a bad experience with Preminger. I cried every day in my dressing room. I find that if you are not crazy in love with the character you’re doing, and if the director isn’t crazy in love with the show and doesn’t love his company, not much gets created.

You have such a large gay following. Do you have an opinion on gay marriage?

On gay marriage, I don’t believe in it. And my gay friends don’t believe in it. I do believe in equal rights, in civil unions.

Do you know why you have such a large gay following?

I don’t know why, but I do know that gay people are my favorites, too. Gay people just know people that are talented. They just know. I’m their queen! This goes way back to the old days. A lot of young people don’t know this. In my hometown of San Francisco, there used to be this very tall man called “The Empress,” and every Halloween he would dress up as me as Dolly. Since it was just Halloween, I just remembered this. My son used to say, “Do you know what’s it’s like to see your mother seven feet tall when I go out on Halloween, in that red dress and the fan on top of your head?!” We laughed.

Is it true that you consider being on Nixon’s “Hate List” to be one of your greatest achievements?

Yes! I was among some great company. We used to meet all the time at Arthur Schlesinger’s house, and the football player, what was his name?

Joe Namath?

Yes! He didn’t even know who the President was! Rosiland Russell was there too. Oh, we all used to get together. I tell these stories in my show and people think it’s funny.

Well, you are being yourself, and that’s what people like.

I’ll bet if you were being you, you wouldn’t think it was devastatingly funny.

I’m not a performer.

Being me is not exciting to me, so I don’t know what’s so exciting to others.

I understand that you and your husband Harry were married after a 70-year separation. Could you explain how that happened?

Yes, 70 years without any communication. It was because after high school he went to San Francisco State University and I went to Bennington (Vermont), because it was the only place where you could major in the arts. We had to separate. Then I wanted to be near New York so I could go on the weekends and see the shows. I wrote about him in my book and I was sure he was dead! Everybody remembers their first love. He was a year older than I am, so I was sure he was dead! He got in touch with me after that and here we are.

You are such a favorite performer of so many. Your fans hope you don’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

No, no, no. Neither does Harry. Oh, he’s wonderful! I think it’s something to do with age. People seem to think I won’t be around so they feel free to love me.

This was an honor speaking to you.

Well Steve, you’re one of the few people I’ve leveled with because I feel you’ve been with me all of the way. You know your stuff and it’s wonderful not to get a sports writer that asks questions they know nothing about. That’s happened! Thank you for doing your homework, and thank you for making me feel so good today!

And you know what? She meant it.

© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.