Broadway legend Carol Channing died Tuesday at age 97. Tribune reporter Josh Krane interviewed the star of “Hello Dolly” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” about a decade ago, as she prepared to bring her one-woman show to San Luis Obispo . Here’s the article, originally published May 29, 2008.
It was almost 80 years ago, but Carol Channing still vividly remembers the moment she fell in love with the stage.
It came in fourth grade at a school assembly, she recalled, when classmate Bobby Schmaltz nominated her for class secretary. Finding herself at a loss for words as she stood in front of her fellow pupils, Channing awakened the performer inside of her when she decided to give her stump speech impersonating the voice of the school principal, Ms. Berard.
“They laughed and Ms. Berard laughed because she knew there was no malice in it,” said Channing, 87, who grew up in San Francisco. “And everybody laughed, and I was encouraged, so I did Mr. Schwartz, the chemistry teacher, who blew up the chemistry class an average of once a term. And then I did Ms. Weaver from the Bronx — ‘Shut up you brats!’ I did all the faculty.”
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Channing won the election, and after school that day told her father she was devoting her life to performing.
Needless to say, the decision paid off. In a career stretching more than 60 years, the singer and actress has performed in 11 Broadway productions — making her name in roles like Lorelei Lee in 1949’s “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Levi in 1964’s “Hello Dolly” — and nabbed three Tony awards along the way.
Channing has recorded 10 gold albums, won three Emmy Awards and starred in numerous television and film productions, earning a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Muzzy in the 1967 film adaptation of the musical comedy, “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
She will take a look back at her career Sunday when she brings her one-woman show, “An Evening With Carol Channing,” to the Cohan Center, singing some of her most famous tunes such as “Hello, Dolly” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” She’ll also recall stories from her childhood and of rubbing elbows with some of her generation’s biggest stars including Ethel Merman, Joan Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead.
Channing is never sure exactly how her concerts will play out. Instead, she said she takes her cues largely from the audience.
“I don’t ask them for requests,” she said. “I say, ‘Wait a minute, what was I going to tell you? And they say, ‘You were talking about Ethel Merman,’ or they yell ‘Tallulah’ at me or ask for some of my own experiences.”
Whether funny, bizarre or both, good stories are something Channing has plenty of.
A couple of gems come from her interactions with Tallulah Bankhead, the free-spirited stage and film star from the 1920s through the ‘50s, who died in 1968.
“I have to prepare the audience that she had a peculiar deficiency,” she said. “She couldn’t keep her clothes on.”
Channing recalled the time when she sought the advice of Bankhead, a lifelong insomniac, after not being able to get to sleep for several days.
“She said, ‘Well, take a sleeping pill,’ “ Channing said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to get into that addiction stuff.’ She said, ‘They’re not addictive. I’ve taken them every night of my life for 36 years, I ought to know.’ “
Other stories come from Channing’s years-long run performing in Broadway’s “Hello, Dolly,” the story of Dolly Levi, an ambitious widowed matchmaker, who through a series of adventures sets up her friends and lands her own man, wealthy businessman, Horace Vandergelder.
Some of her favorite memories from the show, she recalled, came backstage, where she received plenty of famous visitors, such as Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, who made their first public appearance after the assassination of John F. Kennedy at “Hello, Dolly.” Another special guest was the Queen Mum (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who died in 2002).
“You do have to wear gloves when you meet the queen,” said Channing, who won a Tony Award in 1964 for her portrayal of Dolly Levi. “I don’t know what she thinks we’ve all got, but we’ve got to wear gloves. And I couldn’t get them on because they were suede, and I had just finished the show, and the queen came, and it was a mess.”
Along with singing and telling stories on Sunday, Channing will be promoting a message near and dear to her heart: the importance of having arts in California’s public schools, from kindergarten up through college.
In support of the cause, Channing has established an arts scholarship at each state university in California. She and her husband, Harry Kullijian, also started the Channing- Kullijian Foundation.
“Arts fertilize children’s brains,” she said.
The concert is sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, part of Cal Poly’s continuing education program, which offers classes, programs and activities for those at least 50 years old.
Channing, who now lives in Modesto, said her passion for performing is as strong today as it began that day in fourth grade.
“From the time I first got onstage, I’ve felt it deeply — I want to lift peoples’ lives,” she said. “I’ve been lifting peoples’ lives as best I can ever since. That’s my only goal and I’d like it on my tombstone: ‘She lifted peoples’ lives.’ “