The world-renowned performer talks about stage fright (even after 4,000-plus performances as Dolly), the state of live theater yesterday and today, her first theatrical experience, and–of course– one of her latest ones at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
© 1995 By William Campbell
That hair. That smile. Those teeth. That voice. To see and hear Carol Channing just once is to have her image indelibly stamped into your memory. The funny thing though, is it’s hard to remember the first exact time you’ve seen her. It’s almost as if she has always existing in your mind, like an early childhood recollection that’s just inexplicably there.
But beyond remembering her, Channing is a person not easily forgotten either. Not just a remarkable entertainer, in possession of a fantastic amount of verve and energy that springs forth from a seemingly never-ending supply, but a gracious, charming and down-to-earth lady as well.
So don’t call her a legend, she doesn’t think too much of that term. As a matter of fact, she says when people call her that, she just figures she’s over a certain age.
“That’s all it is,” she adds. “I’m sure I wasn’t a legend when I was young.”
But again, there’s that smile, that voice. Attributes of an icon who represents a golden era of entertainment. An era whose footlights are said to be rapidly dimming.
Channing scoffs at that. “For some strange reason, the first thing I learned at Bennington (College, where she was a Drama/Dance major) was that live theater has been dying since mankind began. Everybody wants to bury it and they certainly buried it in 1938. But you know in that year when everybody said ‘Well, these are the nails in the coffin, Broadway’s really dead now,’ that was the year Abe Lincoln In Illinois came out, and Our Town, and I Married An Angel, and Tobacco Road, and a lot more than that came out and lasted forever. Nobody knew.
“What with things we’re looking at now, somebody will come along and say ‘Broadway’s dying, do you think it’ll ever revive?’ Of course it’s not dying! That’s just something that human beings like to say. Why do they want it to die?
“You know what I think it is? When the first Victrola came out with that dog, George Burns lived through all these eras, and he’s a friend of mine, and he said that everybody said ‘This is the death of live entertainment.’ And then came radio and then they said ‘Well this is the death of live entertainment.’ And then came television and records and on and on and everybody still says ‘Well this is the death.’ Well it isn’t!
“Once you’re exposed to live theater I do think it’s a human necessity. We’re dealing with these very people in front of us (the audience) and they’re breathing, and we have to find out what their metabolism is. So, you don’t know what the audience is going to do–or how they’re going to reac–and we deal with them and they feel it, and they deal with us, and it goes back and forth from us to them and them to us. It’s real people up on stage who know whether the audience is enjoying it or not.”
And with more than 4,000 performances in her Tony Award-winning role as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, 12 other Broadway shows, for all of which she received Tony Award nominations, an Emmy award and four additional Emmy nominations, an Oscar nomination for her role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, a Golden Globe Award, and a Best Nightclub Act of the Year Award, it’s safe to say that Channing knows how her audience feels about her. But does she still get nervous before the curtain goes up?
“Always. It’s not a good feeling to be that nervous before a show, but there it is and it finally goes away with the first time that you can get the character across to the audience — even the first line. If they can understand who it is and its Dolly, and what she’s like and what’s so amusing about her and what’s so wonderful about her. . .that’s the first time the nervousness goes away. But it’s funny, I do believe that adrenaline and fright — pure panic — is God-given, and the reason that I guess that acting is so uncomfortably nervous is because the next performance could be the audience that we never reach. It could be the first audience that we can’t seem to communicate to. Anything can happen, it’s live theater.”
With this being her first performance in her trademark role of Dolly in more than a decade, Channing said that it was nothing less than demand that brought her and this international tour of Hello, Dolly! together.
“Across the country, theater owners were being told by their clients, ‘If you can get Carol and Hello, Dolly!, we’ll buy tickets for all the shows for the year!’ Across the country they were deluging Manny Kladitis, our wonderful producer, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll take it on.’ But some theaters, like in Atlanta, they just put posters out anyway saying that we were coming and they didn’t tell us. They didn’t even ask us!
“So Jerry Herman (composer-lyricist and artistic director) and I figured maybe this means something. Maybe this is the time for us to do our Grand World Tour. So we did, and it’s been the happiest tour I’ve ever had. It’s the happiest year of my life and that’s because the company is so good. We’ll be traveling to Japan and China and Australia.
“We’re a blessed company. We don’t know who’s blessing us, but we do firmly believe that, right down to the drummer. He said, ‘You know, you’re right, there’s something about this company. I don’t know what it is, it’s all harmony. We’re all equally dedicated to the show.
“And they’re all used to me. The first day of rehearsal, our choreographer, Bill Batement, said to the chorus, ‘Now here’s the red stairway, I want you all to turn and look at what’s-her-name as she comes down.’ So it stuck, and they all call me ‘what’s-her-name.’ They even gave me a present of a plaque that says ‘what’s-her name’ on it for the door of my dressing room, and we move that plaque to every city onto the door of my dressing room there.”
As to what makes Dolly special, Channing calls her a classic character who could have lived in any era, not just the turn of the century.
“We’ve all met women who could have happened anytime. They make their own code of living, their own mores, their own standards. Dolly happened in 1898, trying to make a living and exist in an era when women were ornaments and breeders and great homemakers–which is a great talent. But it wasn’t Dolly’s talent.
“It’s interesting for me, having gone through so many generations with her. She does seem more now than in other times. And the audience changes her. That’s all any actor can do is mirror their audience and it makes Dolly a now woman.
“And the audiences are so welcoming. They seem to applaud and applaud when I first come out. And I’m just cheap low-tide show business when it comes to that. I just accept it. I want them to know how happy I am to be here, so I just go ahead and blow kisses back again.
Asked about what led her to seek a career as an entertainer, Channing remembered her first time in the audience.
“The first musical comedy that I ever say was with Ethel Waters in As Thousands Cheer, and I remember every move she made. I was 8 years old at the time. I had saved my allowance to go to a Saturday matinee, and a lady said, ‘You can’t see the stage, don’t you want to sit on my lap?’ And I did and I saw Ethel Waters and I’ll never forget her.
“Later, my husband used to escort her all over Los Angeles and I said to him ‘Do you know Ethel Waters?’ And he introduced us. She later became our son’s adopted grandmother, which is a great heritage for our son.
And what about when the curtain rings down on the closing night of this tour?
“Well, you know, it’ll be about two years before I’m back home. And you know, I’ve gone through that every single time I do Dolly. I mean at the end of every production I cried my eyes out and I finally realized, ‘Now really Carol, all that suffering is ridiculous and you’ll probably be doing it again.’ I mean I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know that it would be in such demand.
“But it’s so nice to be wanted, don’t you think so? I do.”