It was one of my most favorite musicals as a gay youth. I had the Original Broadway Cast album of Hello, Dolly!, & I augmented my collection with Hello, Dolly! cast recordings with Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, plus the Japanese & Finnish casts, along with the London cast featuring Mary Martin as Dolly Levi. But none of them was better than the original with Carol Channing.
January 31st 1921: Albert Einstein was explaining his new Theory of Relativity, Charlie Chaplin's movie The Kid was released, Babe Ruth became the home run champ, President Harding dedicated the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie received its premiere on Broadway, & in Seattle, living legend Carol Channing was born.
Channing is a singing, dancing, acting force of nature, one of Broadway's major stars, a true Gay Icon, but even with her fabulous talent, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is Channing’s appeal. Her face & voice are instantly recognizable, yet in her long career, she has worked in only 5 films including the LSD comedy- Skidoo (1968), often cited as one of the worst movie ever. Channing made one good movie, & she was rewarded with a nomination for an Oscar & the win of the Golden Globe for her work in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie. But, her true triumphs have always been on the Broadway stage.
Channing is a true original. She was never a bombshell, & she is rather demented without being risqué or grotesque. She's a belter in the manner of Ethel Merman, but without being brassy. She has been often cast as a gold digger while there is nothing seductive about her persona. I shouldn't "get" her, but I do, although I am not quite sure she makes sense in a 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. In the book Channing is candid about her messy break up with her husband of 41 years- Charles Lowe. Carol disclosed that she & 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 & didn't have sex with anyone else. What opportunities did she pass up? Can you imagine? Channing might have slept with Jack Kennedy ,Frank Sinatra or Warren Beatty.
Lowe had spent most of her hard earned fortune, & to make matters more bizarre, the scandal reached its anti-climax when Channing broke the news that the husband was a big homo. A Gay Camp Icon with a gay husband is shocking, but isn’t as shocking as the 41 year dry spell. After 33 years, even the Husband & I manage to knock one out twice a year, at least on our anniversary. Channing’s memoir also reveals that her grandfather was African-American.
Even with her resilient image, Channing has had her hardships. She triumphed on Broadway as fortune hunting Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but Hollywood cast Marilyn Monroe in the film version. Monroe saw the show over & over, & borrowed Channing’s best bits. Channing really owned the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, she was the first & most famous star in the role. But director Gene Kelly thought casting her was too risky & gave the role to Barbra Streisand who was decades too young for the role (Streisand would be perfect now).
I love her so much in Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing a rich, madcap matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, who makes her entrance flying in a biplane, quaffing champagne. She blew my little13 year old gay mind with her 2 big musical numbers- Jazz Baby, where she tap dances on a xylophone, & Do It Again which begins with Channing being shot out of a cannon. Channing taught me Camp. I saw her live only once, in a tawdry mess of a musical- Lorelei, a sort of sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blonds.
Channing has played Dolly Levi over 4,000 times to packed-houses around the globe without ever missing a performance. Hello, Dolly! was the first Broadway musical to play China. I did 15 performances of Hello, Dolly! at Seattle Civic Light Opera in 1989, as Hoarce Vandergelder, not Dolly, but I could play her.
In May 2003, Channing married her 4th husband, Harry Kullijian, her junior high school sweetheart, who reunited with her after she mentioned him fondly in her memoir. They renamed the school's auditorium The Carol Channing Theatre in her honor. The city of San Francisco proclaimed a Carol Channing Day, for her advocacy of gay rights & her appearances as the host of the Gay Pride events around the country. Harry Kullijian passed away at the end of 2011.
Channing: "The gay community is responsible for so much of my success, & I love them. It's a mutual love affair, really. They make the better audiences too, because they laugh often & loudly. Applause is obligatory, but laughter is a reward, & 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.”
The Husband & I caught- Carol Channing: Larger Than Life on HBO earlier this month. Carol Channing is 93 years old today.