Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Fond Farewell: A Carol-ing We Go!

Zany. Zealous. Infectious. Unique. These are but several of the hundreds of words that could be used to describe the truly one-of-a-kind performer Miss Carol Channing, who passed away on Tuesday, January 15th of natural causes at the tender age of ninety-seven. Lean and lanky at 5'9" (though in truth she always seemed about 7 feet tall!) with a shock of blonde hair and an unmistakable voice that sounded as if an alto was grinding coffee beans with her throat, she was a force of nature who seemed as if she'd be here forever. In some ways, she always will be. We celebrate her life and legacy today with a set of pictures.
Born January 31st (she was almost ninety-eight!) in 1921 in Seattle, Washington, Channing was the child of a mother with German ancestry and a father who was half-German and half-Black, something she necessarily kept to herself for the greatest part of her life (and, in fact, was not informed of herself until she was sixteen) if she wanted to pursue a mainstream performing career. With driving force, she made an impression in high school, performed in the Pocano resort arena and soon headed off to The Big Apple, truly on the other side of the nation.
Channing toiled dutifully in many stage productions, including three Broadway shows, until landing the role of a lifetime in 1949's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (opposite Yvonne Adair as seen here.) No one ever heard of Adair again in the wake of this show, but Channing was soon to become a household name.
As the wide-eyed, jewelry-crazed, yet kindly, Lorelei Lee, Channing introduced the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to the world and played the role until 1951. The 1954 film was done with Marilyn Monroe (unforgettable in her own right) with nary a question of Channing being granted the part. (The studio bought the property for Betty Grable, but went with the far less expensive Monroe in the end.)
Nonetheless, a Broadway star was born and thereafter Channing built a reputation for appearing in dazzling, oversized jewels and performing all sorts of songs with gusto.
It became such that to see Channing in anything other than a flashy evening gown, dripping in diamonds and wearing a huge smile was a jarring anomaly.
At last in 1956, Miss Channing was given the opportunity to try a costarring role in a movie, The First Traveling Saleslady opposite Ginger Rogers and Barry Nelson.
The middling comedy was not a success and it would be a decade before Channing appeared in another Hollywood feature film, but it did give us the mind-blowing combination of the effervescent blonde brushing up against a fledgling Clint Eastwood!
Licking any possible wounds that her failed big-screen attempt might have left, Channing nonetheless kept busy back on Broadway and on countless television variety shows. She's seen here with Tennessee Ernie Ford during on of many such appearances. In 1956, she was Tony-nominated for her part in show called The Vamp, but the statuette went to Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees! A second nomination came in 1961 for her revue Show Girl, but the award went to Elizabeth Seal for Irma La Douce (who also won over Julie Andrews in Camelot.)
Her place in Broadway iconography was secured forever, though, in 1964 when she essayed the title role in the smash musical Hello, Dolly! As matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, she won the hearts of hordes of theatregoers and also took home the coveted Tony Award.  Dolly! would carry Channing all over the world as well as bring the world to her.
Every imaginable celebrity of note (in this case, Joan Crawford) came to see Channing portray Dolly Levi. In the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy and her two young children made their first public appearance at one performance. The show won ten of its eleven Tony nominations, tying a record with South Pacific that stood until The Producers broke it in 2001. (Charles Nelson Reilly was the lone loser, with the Tony going to Jack Cassidy in She Loves Me.)
Having departed the show (for now!) in 1965 to a raft of other ladies including Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman (who'd turned the role down at its inception!), Channing was on to other things.
Still a staple of television variety shows and quiz programs (including all the classics such as I've Got a Secret, What's My Line?, Password and To Tell the Truth), she was riding high on a wave of love and adulation.
To pause for a moment on the subject of love, Channing was married four times. Her first marriage, to a Jewish writer, was from 1941-1944. Her second (to a pro football center!) was from 1950 to 1956 and yielded a son, Channing. Channing was almost immediately adopted by her third husband and manager Charles Lowe (the three of them shown here.) Their union lasted until his death in 1998 (though she had filed for divorce prior to that!) Chan Lowe became a successful cartoonist. From 2003 till 2011, she was wed a fourth time to a long-ago sweetheart from high school to whom she'd become reacquainted.
In 1967, she took another flying leap into cinemas as the dazzling, wealthy, outre aviatrix and socialite Muzzy Von Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie. The film starred fellow Broadway sensation Julie Andrews who was now a top film actress.
This time out was triumphal, resulting in a Golden Globe Award and even an Oscar nomination, though Estelle Parsons was granted the statuette this time for Bonnie and Clyde.
Millie was followed swiftly by the crazed and badly-misfired Skidoo (1968) which found her married to former mobster Jackie Gleason, cavorting with hippie John Phillip Law and doing a striptease for Frankie Avalon. She donned a pirate get-up to sing the title song during the finale. One year after this, the belated film version of Hello, Dolly! (1969) came along and the title role went to one of the actresses Channing had bested at the Tonys the years she won, Barbra Streisand, now an established movie actress, indeed one with an Oscar under her belt.
But for voiceover work (and a fleeting appearance in the finale of 1978's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!), that was the end of Channing's career on the big screen. She nevertheless was a tireless performer on stage and TV. She was one of the very first celebrity performers to take the stage at halftime during a Super Bowl in 1972 (as part of a salute to Louis Armstrong.) My how times have changed...
Among her later Broadway appearances was the collection of one-acts, Four on a Garden, a musical called Lorelei, based on her earlier hit (and which garnered her another Tony nomination, losing to Virginia Capers in Raisin) and two more turns as Dolly, the final one ending in 1996, more than three decades after her debut in the part!
There was also the infamous debacle Legends, a comedy that paired her with Mary Martin and whose highly-troubled tour (on the way to, but stopping short of, Broadway) became the source of a book all its own!
In the late-1950s, Channing had done the near impossible in taking over the part of Gracie Allen's dim bulb persona alongside George Burns when his wife became terminally ill. The two formed a long friendship over the years and she may have learned a secret or two about career (and life!) longevity from the funnyman.
Channing even worked with Underworld legend Irwin Allen, though not in one of his many disaster epics. She played The White Queen (to Ann Jillian's Red Queen) in the star-packed television project Alice in Wonderland (1985.)
Channing seemed omnipresent and ever-effervescent, seen here as Santa Claus with Loretta Young.
Always a delight to everyone in her path, she won a Golden Apple award for her accommodating presence with the press, seen here with Patrick Swayze. Was there anyone anywhere who she didn't know...?
The answer is a resounding "NO!" She was spotted with anyone and everyone. Seen here are Mitzi Gaynor, Peggy Lee, Ringo Starr, Gilbert Gottfried, Mary Martin, Lena Horne and even Mark Hamill.
I suspect my own first encounter with Miss Channing was during one of her appearances on The Love Boat, which in this two-hour edition had her performing alongside Della Reese, Van Johnson, Ann Miller and Ethel Merman. They don't make 'em like this anymore...
No star was too great to come backstage and visit with Miss Channing. She was given a second Tony in 1968, a "Special Award," and a third one for Lifetime Achievement in 1995. She portrayed the iconic role of Dolly more than 5,000 times and was a devout fan of the story's underlying message to "rejoin the human race."
Treasured as she was by virtually everyone over the course of her staggering six-decade career as a performer, it blows my mind that she was never selected as a Kennedy Center Honoree. (Take a gander at some of the people who won that honor when she didn't sometime...)
Channing was a tireless advocate for AIDS patients and out-of-work actors, but one of her other less-heralded gifts to the world was her consent to interviews. Whether to promote a project or (more deliciously!) in lending her voice to a documentary about a fellow performer, she made anything, ANYTHING, she said instantaneously captivating, insightful and hilariously her own. I could never count the many times she nearly made me spray my family room with Coke Zero. My own favorites were of her recounting a production of Hello, Dolly! at her old high school which happened to be filled with Korean children and her last visit to Ethel Merman's hospital bed (in which the stroke victim was utterly unable to speak, but suddenly could get across what she wanted by bursting into song! - shades of Private Horowitz!) Imitators are abundant, but there will only ever be one Carol Channing...
Farewell, Dolly! You will never truly go away!

12 comments:

Gingerguy said...

Poseidon bless your heart for this lovely and loving tribute. I have been reading nothing but Carol tributes on FB and her NYT obit since yesterday, and yours is filled with interesting facts and photos I haven't seen before. I recently read her hilarious book "Just Lucky I guess" in which she achieves the impossible feat of dishing on other actors without a mean bone in her body. The captions under the Streisand photos are worth the price of admission.
I never heard that Betty Grable was to be the star of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" although she sure was a big star then. Marilyn as the poor man's Grable is a funny idea.
I was very, very lucky enough to see Dolly onstage recently with Bette Midler and I feel the ghost of Carol is all over that show, and the movie as well.
"Millie" taught a generation of gay men to say "Raspberries!"
"Confessions of a Mad Playwright" is a really interesting book, about the tour with Carol and Mary Martin in Legends. That poor man, but I like her own autobiography as my version of Carol Channing. For years I have played a CD of her singing "Tea for Two" amongst other retro tunes as a way of clearing a party of stragglers. I will continue to do it in a spirit of adoration for one of the most unique talents America has ever been blessed with.

D ODay said...

Another warm, delightful tribute to a true one-of-a-kind. I had the pleasure of seeing her do "Dolly" in the mid 90's at the Kennedy Center. It was an absolutely charming production loaded with heart. Ms Channing needed a bit of discrete guidance getting on and off stage, but no matter. The affection between her and the audience was palpable.

There are a lot of technically proficient singers around (Michael Buble and Jackie Evancho come to mind) who leave me absolutely cold. They hit all the notes but never touch the heart. La Belle Carol was among those non-singer singers like Elaine Stritch, Louie Armstrong, Noel Coward, Jimmy Durante, and Marlene Dietrich, who, strictly speaking may not have had great voices but, boy, could they sell a song.

I expect that instead of a halo she will be handed a tiara - "Don't you just love finding new places to wear diamonds?"

Unknown said...

I'm so grateful to haven seen Miss Channing as Dolly Levi. That is something I've held dear since then. May your star continue to shine.

Nautical Wheeler said...

A wonderful tribute, thank you for all the photos and information. I saw Carol in HD in Chicago during her last revival and she brought the house down again and again. RIP Dolly we love you! And yes I remember the Love Boat episode too....what a hoot.

Robert Weidle said...

What a Beautiful tribute! You always have such wonderful information and photographs. You need to write a book!!!

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, a friend once lent me Carol's auto-bio, insisting that I would adore it and I have to say it almost killed me to give it back to him!! Hilarious. As for Grable, Darryl Zanuck was prepared to use "Blondes" as a vehicle for his top star but she was being paid $150,000 per picture and he had the newly-burgeoning Monroe under contract for just $500/week (!) so he rolled the dice on her and took on Jane Russell to bolster the project. LOL about "Tea for Two."

D ODay, how neat that you were able to see her in her signature role! I agree with you about performers who can "sell" a song. I always say that there is a difference between a singer and a vocalist, and sometimes I'm in the mood for one versus the other. :-) Love the tiara image.

Unknown, again, very neat that you got to see her!

Nautical Wheeler, you're yet another reader who got to enjoy Channing in person. Very great! As for "The Love Boat," what do we have like that now for stars on the wane? Nothing, really, except for exploitative reality crap. I adored it and "Hotel" and "Fantasy Island," just to be able to see the great stars again.

Thanks, Robert! I appreciate it. (Who has TIME to write a book? I can barely get to this blog every once in a while...! LOL)

* * By the way, I might have told this story at some point on the blog before, but I'll do it again here. Just because Miss C. was an effervescent, ebullient person and performer doesn't mean she couldn't occasionally put her foot down when warranted. One time, while she was here in Cincinnati with Dolly!, the actor playing Barnaby was getting a lot of laughs with his physical comedy shtick. That's all well and good, but he began to get carried away with himself and was stealing (or trying to steal) scenes involving others, including Channing, hamming and mugging mercilessly all the time. One afternoon, she had the whole cast lined up and asked them, "What's the name of this show?" and they mumbled, "Hello, Dolly!" Then she stood directly in front of him and looked him in the eye and said coolly, "I just wanted to be sure that everyone here understands that." Problem solved....!

paintbrush said...

Lovely tribute to an incomparable star. Interesting that she never received a Kennedy Center honor considering who they do give it to. I believe they gave one to Tina Fey BEFORE they gave one to Carol Burnett!

Shawn McGuire said...

I didn’t know much about her, was born too late I guess. But I do remember laughing out loud seeing her do her corn joke on a comedy documentary. I was immediately impressed by her. The book sounds great. Though I have to admit, I’m a gay that hates most musicals. I know, I know...Hello Dolly, I could never, would never watch.

Poseidon3 said...

paintbrush, as has been evidenced here many, many times, I was always a person who adored awards and award shows, but in recent years they've irked me to the point that I watch none of them at all. I would watch the Kennedy Center program even now, but I usually forget when it's on, but it does bother me that they don't seem to have enough rhyme or reason as to who warrants one and that in time takes away its value as far as I'm concerned. Thanks!

Shawn, I think despite her popularity she is a bit of an acquired taste. But a friend of mine linked me to this commercial and just the way she says the word "litter" had me belly-laughing... See what you think!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEFUP3fsp3k

D ODay said...

I'm with you regarding award shows. There are so many of them and they are all so self-congratulatory. Plus, I just don't know who anyone is anymore.
The Ken Cen Honors were intended mostly as a publicity and fund raising tool, which is why honorees are required to attend the ceremony. There was controversy right at the start in 1978 when Irving Berlin, of all people, was passed over because he was too frail to travel. I understand Doris Day has not been honored because she doesn't want to travel east.

It is the Mark Twain Prize, also presented by the Ken Cen but a separate thing entirely, that was given to Tina Fey in 2010 and Carol Burnett three years later. Go figure. Carol got the KenCen Honor in 2003.

There is little doubt some honorees are chosen in hopes they will boost the show's ratings, which may explain why the Hamilton crew were honored this time around.

Laurence said...

It is sad that Carol had to conceal her background in order to succeed in the 40s and 50s, but that's the way it was in those days.
No matter, she was a larger-than-life talent whose gift for comedy brightened anyone who saw her on stage, screen or TV.
The old cliche "one of a kind" definitely applies to Carol. It is too bad that she could not have starred in the motion picture version, since she was ideal for the role.
Streisand is a brilliant talent, but she was totally miscast as Dolly, and the overblown film flopped.I just wish there was a filmed version of the stage play, with Carol in all her glory, captured for future generations, to see what a true entertainer was like.

Poseidon3 said...

Yes, that's very true. The closest I ever got was listening to the Broadway cast album (with Eileen Brennan and Charles Nelson Reilly!) and trying to match their voices to the pictures on the album cover...!