In our most exciting interview yet, we are thrilled to bring you an interview with the legendary Carol Channing! Enjoy!
BB: Can you tell us briefly what made you become a performer and how you got your first Broadway job in Let's Face It!
CC: Oh my. Well, I fell in love with the theatre before I knew what it was. My mother and I were delivering copies of "The Christian Science Monitor" ... the trade where my father worked? And she took me to the backstage entrance of The Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Oh, I want to be buried between The Curran and The Gary Theatres. Everything I saw as a child in those theatres was exciting. ... Anyway, while my mother spoke to the manager, I walked out on the dark stage. I had no idea where I was, but there center stage in the dark, I knew I was standing on hallowed ground. It wasn’t until I was running for Student Body Vice President at Aptos Jr. High ... girls couldn’t run for President then ... My father would spend his lunch hours thinking up slogans for me. The one we used was "If Carol's your Vice, then it’s a virtue," isn’t that clever? ... Well, I was told that I had to make a speech before the class about why they should vote for me. My knees were knocking something terrible as I walked up those few steps to the stage. When I got up there, I just did what I did best and impersonated the teachers and the Vice Principal. They had such distinct voices, they were easy and fun to imitate. And they didn’t care because they knew I was doing it out of respect. Well, the audience laughed and I was hooked. I just love hearing people laugh. As an only child ... except for the time when my cousin Dickie lived with us ... I was always making up stories and interesting people in my room, using my imagination. My parents would have friends over and they would say "Who are those people upstairs" and my parents would just say, "Oh, that’s just Carol." I was an understudy for Eve Arden in Let's Face It!”... She and I were the same size. Later when she played Dolly, while I was filming Throughly Modern Millie, she mentioned that they hired her because she fit my costumes. Oh, she was so good to me. She let me go on for her in Let's Face it! opposite Danny (Kaye). I thought we had great chemistry together, but I think his wife thought it was too good ... or that I was upstaging him, because she complained. Danny however, was so gracious and encouraging. A popular critic of the time mentioned that "everyone should expect to hear more about a satirical chanteuse named Carol Channing." I kept that review in my pocket until I got the part of Loreli ... and I have been working ever since.
BB: What brought you to play Dolly Levi? Did you suspect Dolly would become such an iconic role for you and musical theatre as a whole?
CC: What brought me? Well, I suppose David Merrick and Gower Champion ... and, of course, Jerry Herman ... the wonderful Jerry Herman. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t the first choice. They had offered the role of Dolly to Ethel Merman, but I guess she was tired and wanted to quit ... or at least take a break. Thank goodness, because I just loved Dolly. I’ve worked on many Broadway productions ... ten, in fact. In addition to the two revivals in 78' and 95'... 95? Yes, 95. I have very fond memories of Show Girl, Wonderful Town, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ... Oh, Lorelei was such fun ... Oh, Lend an Ear ... and The Vamp. Bruce Vilanch says that was his favorite show. It's getting harder to remember them all. Sometimes I think I am going to embarrass myself on Fire Island, because I can’t remember everything. But everyone is telling me that at 92, I’m allowed to forget some things. Oh, but you were asking about ... oh, Dolly! I did over 5,000 performances as Dolly on Broadway and across the country. All those wonderful people coming out to see Dolly. That’s why I couldn't miss any shows. People made their plans around the show. Travel arrangements ... Babysitters ... Oh, I just couldn’t not be there for them. Besides, if you miss a show, then you've missed your best performance. As a stage actress you are lucky to have just one defining role. I was blessed to have at least two. Dolly and Loreli.
BB: Any Advice for others wanting to play Dolly Levi?
CC: Make it your own. Don't try and copy my Dolly or Carole Cook's Dolly, or Phyllis Diller's Dolly, or Pearl Baily's Dolly. Dolly should be played by everyone ... And I think she may have been. She is our King Lear.
BB: What kind of advice can you give aspiring actors about how to achieve longevity as a performer?
CC: I never know how to answer that. There is no one correct answer. As long as you love what you’re doing, then find a way to do it. I know so many wonderful performers, who may or may not have become famous, but they have worked all their lives in entertainment. That's longevity as a performer. And they all understand every aspect of it, the field they love. I rely on a lot of people, but I know what my lighting needs to be, I know what I have to wear to best convey myself and my character and ... oh well, you understand.
BB: What about any advice on how to keep a role fresh?
CC: Embrace your stage fright. Helen Hays used to say “Thank God for stage fright. It keeps us on our toes.” I think everyone I know gets terrified before walking on stage ... You think, maybe this is the night I forget my lines ... or the song or dance steps ... or the night the audience isn’t going to get it. I was always discovering new things about characters I played. In fact, it was only a few years ago that I realized that the spine to "Hello Dolly!" was that fact that all of the characters were rejoining the human race. It wasn't just Dolly. Ms. Molloy wants to get out of that hat shop ... Cornelius wants to get out of the basement of Horace's Feed store. If you care about your work and your characters, you'll always make new discoveries about them and how you relate to others .... that keeps it fresh.
Bio in Brief
Carol was born Jan 31, 1921 in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a prominent newspaper editor, who was very active in the Christian Science movement. At just two weeks of age, her father's work took the family to San Francisco, where Carol was raised, schooled and eventually found work as a model. Through determination, hard work, and her family's support (not to mention a mandatory IQ test for which she scored one of the highest recorded results) Carol was able to attend Bennington College in Vermont that had one of the few existing arts programs in the country, majoring in drama and dance.
A recipient of the 1995 Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, Ms. Channing has been a star of international acclaim since a Time magazine cover story hailed her performance as Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes writing; "Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to re-illumine the whole gaudy legend of show business." Since her 1948 Broadway debut in Blitzstein's No For An Answer, her Broadway appearances include So Proudly We Hail, Let's Face It, Lend An Ear, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Show Girl, Pygmalion, The Millionairess, The Vamp, Four On A Garden, and Wonderful Town. In addition to receiving a special Tony Award in 1968, she won the Tony Award in 1964 for her legendary portrayal of Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly!
Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children made their first public appearance after JFK's death by seeing her perform in Hello, Dolly! and later visited her backstage. She has since played the role in over 5000 performances, without missing a single performance. She then toured with her own revue, Carol Channing and Her Ten Stout Hearted Men and critically acclaimed tours of Jerry's Girls and Legends, in which she co-starred with Mary Martin.
Ms. Channing's happiest film project was in the role of Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award. Other films include Paid In Full, The First Traveling Saleslady (giving new comer Clint Eastwood his first on screen kiss), Skidoo, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Archie and Mehitabel and Thumbelina.
Ms. Channing TV specials, include Broadway at the Hollywood Bowl, Carol Channing's Los Angeles, Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey on Broadway, George Burns - His Wit and Wisdom and to millions of children worldwide is best known as the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Other television credits include popular game shows as What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, Password, and Hollywood Squares; variety shows such as The Dean Martin Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Milton Berle Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, The Muppet Show, as well as many Tony and Grammy broadcasts. A partial list of Carol's Episodic work consist of Playhouse 90's Three Men on a Horse, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., The Nanny, Touched by an Angel, The Drew Carey Show and Family Guy.
As one of the most easily recognized and highly imitated voices in the world, Carol's unique sound has been established as characters and narrative in both TV series and documentaries like JFK: The Day the Nation Cried, The Adam’s Family (voice of Granny), Thumbelina, Free To Be You and Me, Space Ghost, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers and The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars. Ms. Channing also cut twenty children's albums of classic stories including Winnie The Pooh and Madeline.
Ms. Channing has recorded ten gold Albums and including the original cast album of Hello, Dolly! released in 1964. Ms. Channing has appeared in most every grand ballroom and concert hall in the country. Among her other acknowledgements is a Best Nightclub Act of the Year Award, Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year Award, the Oscar Hammerstein Award for lifetime achievement and the Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award from the Actors' Fund of America, but is most proud in the role of mother of Chan Lowe, who is a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, who has the distinction of being a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
In 2003, the octogenarian released of her best selling memoirs, "Just Lucky I Guess" and started touring world wide with her one woman show entitled "The First Eighty Years are the Hardest," after the very successful preview given to New York audiences that prompted the New York Times to say "Back Where She Belongs: Carol Channing Reminisces . . . The audience jumped to its feet more than once. We were watching a master performer" and Associated Press declared "The audience clearly was there to worship, and Channing did not disappoint." In 2004, Broadway's "first lady of musical comedy," received an honorary doctoral degree becoming Doctor Carol Channing from the California State University, Stanislaus Commencement (only the third Honorary Doctoral Degree given in CSU Stanislaus 45-year history).
In 2009, Carol was inducted into the Smithsonian Institute in D.C., along with eight other legendary ladies of stage and screen. Her original diamonds dress from the Broadway production of “Lorelei,” worn while singing “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” and the “Hello Dolly!” gown (from the 95’ tour), as well as her TONY Award for her portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levy, are currently part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institutions American History Museum.
In 2010, Carol returned to the Great White, performing at the New Amsterdam theatre on 42nd Street, with many returning “Dolly boys” from previous “Hello Dolly!” tours and receiving the “Gypsy Award” from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.” Ms Channing released her new CD, “For Heaven Sake,” in early 2010, featuring many of the spirituals she came to know and love as a child. In 2012, Carol released a new patriotic CD titled “Carol Channing: True to the Red, White & Blue.” In January 2012, mutli- TONY winning director and producer, Dori Berinstein, released the critically acclaimed and award winning documentary entitled “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” highlighting Carol’s 70 plus year career.