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Channing, Carol (1921—)

Channing, Carol (1921—)

Tony Award-winning actress best known for her roles as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! Born on January 31, 1921, in Seattle, Washington; only child of George Channing and Adelaide (Glazer) Channing; attended local schools in Seattle and San Francisco, and Bennington College in Vermont; married briefly to novelist Theodore Naidish; married Alexander Carson (an ex-football player from Canada); married Charles Lowe (her manager), around 1957 (divorced 1998); children: (second marriage) son, Channing Lowe (who would be adopted by her third husband).

Found first job on Broadway in her junior year in college; gained stardom with her creation of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949); cast as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (1964), a role for which she received the Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical and which she has since played more than 4,000 times on Broadway and on tour; awarded the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement (1995).

Stage:

No For an Answer; (lead understudy) Let's Face It; Lend an Ear; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Wonderful Town; Show Girl; (tour) The Millionairess; Pygmalion; Hello, Dolly!; Lorelei; Jerry's Girls; (tour) Legends.

Filmography:

Paid in Full (1950); The First Traveling Saleslady (1956); Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967); Skidoo (1968); (voice only) Shinbone Alley (1971); Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978); (voice only) Happily Ever After (1985); (voice only) Thumbelina (1992).

On October 19, 1995, Dolly Gallagher Levi reappeared on Broadway, sweeping down the famous steps leading to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant and the welcoming arms of its cadre of waiters in pin-striped vests. Carol Channing has stopped counting exactly how many times she has made the same entrance in Hello, Dolly!, although estimates stand at more than 4,500. She is Dolly Levi, readily admitting that she sometimes doesn't know where one persona ends and the other begins. Both she and Dolly are strong-willed, capable women wrapped in a pleasing façade of wide-eyed innocence. "World, beware," wrote Vincent Canby in his New York Times review of the new production. "It's possible this woman is a substance that should be legally controlled."

For Carol Channing, Dolly's 30th anniversary appearance on Broadway was only the midpoint of a tour of more than 40 American cities, with even more to come in Europe, Japan, and the Far East, all undertaken in her 74th year. She has been called "the greatest comedienne since Bea Lillie " and has a reputation as the understudy's nightmare for never missing a performance—except once, so she could accept her 1995 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. When journalist Leslie Bennetts asked why she drove herself so hard, Channing's reply was simple: "It's happiness," she said. "What am I supposed to save myself for? This is pleasure."

Her early childhood bore little sign of what was to come. Carol Channing was born on January 31, 1921, in Seattle, Washington, the only child of George and Adelaide Channing . Soon after Carol's birth, her father, a well-known Christian Science lecturer, took a teaching position in San Francisco, the city Channing would consider her hometown. Her parents' marriage was a strained one, and Adelaide often took her frustrations and anger out on her daughter. "Nobody understands if you're frightened of your mother," Channing once told Bennetts, claiming that her mother was, at the least, eccentric and possibly mentally unbalanced. "She would go to school and tell the teachers things I never said about them. I was absolutely petrified." Adelaide deliberately kept Carol away from other children and was jealous of any achievements her daughter could claim—even going so far, Channing later claimed, as to persuade one of her teachers to refrain from giving the girl an award for public speaking. "She completely possessed me," said Channing.

But Adelaide couldn't prevent her daughter from being elected class secretary at her grammar school, and it was then that the first indication of Channing's future talent came to light. Afraid of saying something in her acceptance speech that would make her seem above everyone else, Channing began imitating familiar school figures, gently but accurately enough to bring howls of laughter to the auditorium. She was utterly amazed that the same things she found funny everyone else did, too. "This is the most delicious feeling I ever had," she remembers thinking. "We're all alike!" Her imitations became a regular feature of Friday morning assembly at Commodore Slope Grammar School, enjoyed as much by the teachers as by their pupils.

When Channing was in her early teens, she was taken to see As Thousands Cheer, a musical revue in which Ethel Waters sang "Summer-time" from Porgy and Bess. It was Channing's first exposure to professional theater, and Waters' performance affected her profoundly. "It was like being in love," she later said, and the experience convinced her that she should pursue a career on the stage. Not long after, she found a summer job with the dance company of the San Francisco Opera and returned there each season until she was too tall for the troupe.

By now, however, she was ready for college. When her parents moved to Boston, Channing entered Bennington in Vermont, as a dance and drama major. New York was only a few hours away by train, and her visits there on weekends and holidays were frequent. By the time she was 19 and a junior at Bennington, Channing felt she was ready for a career. In 1940, William Morris was the biggest agency in the business, and Channing managed to get an appointment with no less than its president, the legendary Abe Lastfogel.

Her biggest hit during Bennington drama evenings had always been her stirring recitation of the funeral chant from Orestes. This failed to impress Lastfogel, who suggested she forget the "ethnic music" and try something more classical—"like Ethel Merman," recounted Channing to the 1975 graduating class at Bennington. She hit on a Yiddish song she had learned in an Eastern European seminar at Bennington. Lastfogel, still not entirely sold on this wide-eyed young woman from Vermont, nevertheless sent her off to audition for a very off-Broadway musical called No For an Answer. The answer in her case was yes. It was her first paid job in New York, though a short-lived one, the show closing after only a few performances. Her only job on Broadway was as an understudy for Eve Arden who, like Channing years later, never missed a performance. For the next six years, Channing was on the road—a tour of the borscht belt through the Catskills (she was fired, she claims, for going flat during one number), and an endless round of nightclub engagements that eventually brought her back to the West Coast. Along the way, there was a brief marriage to novelist Theodore Naidish who, she later said, died of drug abuse.

It was in her home territory that her fortunes would change; in San Francisco, Channing auditioned for a young director and choreographer named Gower Champion, then about to begin rehearsals for a show called Lend an Ear. After a successful run in California, the production was brought to Broadway in 1948. It was a hit and won her the Theatre World Award. But it was her next show that would make her a star overnight.

Over 20 years before, Anita Loos had published a novel featuring a good-hearted golddigger named Lorelei Lee. On December 8, 1949, the musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes premiered on Broadway, with a libretto by Loos, music by Jule Styne, and starring Carol Channing as Lorelei. The show introduced her signature song, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," along with "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock," and defined her stage persona as the notso-dumb dumb blonde. In 1976, when Channing was touring a comedy act with George Burns, the venerable comedian would say of her: "We all know today that the dumb blonde isn't dumb. She never was. Channing makes us understand that joke. Her dumb blonde becomes larger than life—like Jimmy Carter's teeth." Audiences loved the mixture of innocence, calculation, and kindness Channing brought to the role of Lorelei. In a pattern that has repeated itself throughout her professional life, Channing went on the road with the show and brought Lorelei to audiences across the country and overseas. Along the way, she met and married an ex-football player from Canada, Alexander Carson.

As the London tour of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was being put together, Channing discovered she was pregnant and subsequently had to withdraw from the production. She admits that the unplanned pregnancy was a blow to her professional hopes. "I was upset," she told journalist Bennetts. "I knew how ambitious I was." Her son Channing (in future, a successful political cartoonist) was born in 1953 and would spend much of his childhood, like his mother, on the road. Three years after his birth, while her marriage was suffering from her husband's excessive drinking, Channing met and fell in love with television producer Charles Lowe, and it is hard to overstate his influence on her future. Lowe expedited her divorce from Alexander Carson; married Channing and legally adopted her son; and in time took over the management of Channing's career, a successful collaboration that lasted for 40 years and was one of the most remarkable relationships in show business. Their secret, Channing explains, was simple—fill up the theatre, whatever it takes. But Channing made headlines in 1998 when she filed for divorce, claiming that Lowe was squandering her money and had not made love to her since the first year of their marriage.

With the tour of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over, Channing returned to Broadway for a revue called Show Girls; for the role of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion; and for the Betty Comden- Adolph Green musical, Wonderful Town. Then came an offer to take the lead role in a musical to be produced by David Merrick and scored by her friend Jerry Herman, based on Thornton Wilder's book The Matchmaker. Wilder had originally written it in 1938 as a dramatic play, called The Merchant of Yonkers, which had starred Ruth Gordon . It was Channing's good fortune that Gower Champion

had been asked to direct and choreograph the musical version, for he had insisted on Channing for the lead. On January 16, 1964, Channing took her first steps down those famous stairs as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the premier of Hello, Dolly!

The safest place in the world is the middle of a stage.

—Carol Channing

"I worked very hard in the beginning to become Dolly," Channing has said. "I was madly in love with the character, but I had never played anyone like her before." Even with her hard work, the road to Broadway wasn't a smooth one. Reviews were generally negative when the show tried out in Detroit, and librettist Michael Stewart had to trim many of the show's subplots and bolster the main storyline dealing with Dolly's grief for her dead husband and how she overcomes it. Because the cutting meant dropping several musical numbers, the show had to be restaged; as late as the critics' preview in New York, the cast was working with an entirely new ending for the first act with no costumes ready for its new closing number ("Before the Parade Passes By"). But by opening night, none of the frustrations and headaches mattered. The show was an instant success, and Carol Channing had won that rare thing for any musical comedy star—a second triumph, not to mention her first Tony Award. She would play Dolly for three years, finally closing—after 1,273 performances—in Houston, Texas, on June 11, 1967. By then, the show had grossed some $17 million at the box office, a record at the time. In a closing curtain speech, Channing said, "Maybe David Merrick will have a grand Hello, Dolly reunion in the year 2000, and we'll all come back!" But it wouldn't take that long. Channing toured with the show again in 1978, including another Broadway run, and eagerly accepted plans for the 30th anniversary tour in 1994–95.

Although some performers might have adopted a more leisurely pace after two huge successes, Channing was not one of them. She continued to tour her nightclub act. Along with spoofs of Marlene Dietrich and Brigitte Bardot , she featured such characters as the excessively sibilant Cecilia Sisson, a silent film diva mystified by her inability to make it in talkies, and Cuddles Heffelfinger, the chorine with little talent but big ambitions. There were, to be sure, some disappointments to offset the renown of Dolly and Lorelei Lee. A 1973 sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, called Lorelei, was a disappointment; as was an ill-fated show called Legends, in which Channing co-starred with Mary Martin . The show folded after doing badly on tour and never opened in New York. Hollywood, always baffled by Channing's wide-eyed bewilderment and gravelly voice, also proved a source of frustration. The film versions of both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! were cast without her. Marilyn Monroe appeared on screen as Lorelei, while Barbra Streisand , whose chance at a Tony Award for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl was lost to Channing's Dolly, starred in the film version of Hello, Dolly! Privately hurt by the announcement, a day later she sent a typical Channing telegram to Streisand's dressing room: "So happy for you and Dolly, dearest Barbra. Love, Carol." Undaunted, Channing continued to accept the occasional film role and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie. She appeared regularly on television specials and chat shows throughout the '70s and had her own weekly "The Carol Channing Show" on ABC.

But it was the stage that never let her down. Since Lend an Ear in 1948, Channing has never stopped working and touring, traveling with up to 20 suitcases in tow—one of which amounts to a small, portable kitchen, for Channing prefers to travel with her own food supply because of what she says are allergies to sprays and preservatives in commercially prepared food. She is notorious for appearing at the most sophisticated restaurants with a large handbag containing her foil-wrapped meals, and recalls with relish dining on her own roast pork with Princess Margaret Rose who, she remembers, was "stuck with shrimp scampi, the poor dear." Another suitcase once contained 20 pairs of false eyelashes, the loss of which on one occasion in Detroit resulted in a virtual civic emergency, with appeals on radio and television for their return, which happily took place. (She has since given up the false eyelashes because, she says, the years of adhesive have irritated her lashes and eyelids.)

Channing has also been active politically for the Democratic Party, especially during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society period of the 1960s. (Asked why she was a Democrat, Channing said it was because "the Republicans never spoke to me.") She appeared at the 1964 Democratic National Convention that nominated Johnson, singing "Hello, Lyndon," and the 1976 convention that nominated Jimmy Carter, singing "Peanuts Are a Girl's Best Friend." Later, during the Nixon years, she ended up on the infamous Enemies List, which was published only a week after she had appeared at a luncheon given by Pat Nixon , to whom Channing gave one of her signature "diamonds"—actually a rhinestone. "I guess the President had the diamond appraised," she suggested. The publication of the list was not without its advantages. The box office for the Cincinnati production of Lorelei shot up by $10,000 the day after.

Like her father, Channing has been a devout Christian Scientist all her life, and even her religious faith is grounds for some ribbing. "We Christian Scientists don't believe in age," she says. "It's my favorite part of the whole religion." To this day, Channing is unsure of her own parents' ages, although she thinks her mother was close to one hundred at her death. Despite the lightheartedness, her spiritual beliefs have informed her public life with a reputation for caring and hard work. "It's when we take the plunge we've been afraid to take," she once wrote, "deliberately putting ourselves in other people's shoes, involving ourselves in their struggles, that we make contact again with God." Nor does she abandon her faith when she steps onto a stage; she says it helps her face an audience that may not be in the most receptive mood. "These are the times I use a little trick," she says. "'I care about you' I say to myself as I face the audience. 'I know you're tired from working hard and that you've paid a high price for your seats.' The first thing you know, the laughter comes bouncing back and forth from audience to stage, like anodes and cathodes, and down near the orchestra pit comes a bridge of love you could walk over." That bridge has supported Carol Channing during a career of more than 50 years, and shows no sign of weakening.

sources:

Bennetts, Leslie. "All Lips and Lashes," in Vanity Fair. No. 422. October 1995.

Cagle, Jess. "Hello Again," in Entertainment Weekly. No. 277. June 2, 1995.

Flatow, Sheryl. "As If She Never Said Goodbye," in Play-bill. Vol. 95, no. 9. September 1995.

King, Larry. Transcript of interview on "Larry King Live," CNN, November 28, 1994.

Tynan, William. "Hello, Dolly!" Time. Vol. 144, no. 12. September 19, 1994.

Norman Powers , writer/producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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