It’s 44 degrees as I write this Diary at midnight, 44 degrees warmer than it was only two nights ago. Yesterday was not as cold also, although the skies were mostly grey and the winter mood was in the air.
Women remembered. As the world knows, Carol Channing died in Rancho Mirage on January 15th, two weeks before her 98th birthday, January 31st (same day – not year – of Franklin Roosevelt). Her great career began in 1941 at age 20. She made her last public performance in 2018, completing a 77 year career. That must be a record!
I saw her on stage only twice in my life. I was familiar with her when I was a kid from her role as Lorelei Lee in the original Broadway musical of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” which opened in 1949. I never saw the show of course but we had the cast album in our house. I was mesmerized by her strong, yet girlish voice well projected, singing about “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
That’s where I first heard of Tiffany’s, and diamonds, and how: “Men grow cold as girls grow old…” but “square-cut or pear-shape, those rocks don’t look their shape…”) which Marilyn Monroe made even more famous to us in the world out there, in the movie version.
She was born in Seattle, an only child. Her father who was a newspaper editor had changed his last name from Stucker to Channing before his daughter was born. Shortly after she was born, the Channings moved to San Francisco where her father worked as a newspaper editor and Christian Science teacher and practitioner. When she was 18, graduating from high school, she enrolled at Bennington College in Vermont.
It was at that time – going away to college – that her mother told her that her father’s mother was African-American and his father was German-American. She was told of her genetic background because her parents realized she was going out into the world on her own, and they didn’t want her to be surprised if she one day had a child who was black.
The information fit her consciousness. She recalled being emotionally drawn to performing when she was in the fourth grade. She alsowanted to sing when she was a child of ten and she’d seen Ethel Waters perform. This was long before she was told about her genetic background, and later on she had the intelligence to comprehend and embrace it. She celebrated it and brought us the joy we felt in her performance.
She got her first job on stage in New York City in 1941 when she was 19 (almost 20) years old in a show called “No for an Answer”. She then went to Broadway for a show called “Lets Face It” where she understudied Eve Arden. Ironically, Arden, who was thirteen years older than Channing, replaced her many years later playing the role of Dolly in the road company after Channing had left.
When she was 27 she got into a show called “Lend An Ear.” It was during that run that the great Al Hirschfeld did a rendering of her as a flapper that she later said helped her career enormously. It was that Hirschfeld image that led the producers of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” to cast her in the part of Lorelei.
The first time I saw this great lady perform was on January 17, 1964. I was 22. It was the second night of “Hello Dolly” which had opened the night before to rave reviews and was quickly sold out. All of it was very impressive to this new New Yorker, starry-eyed and fascinated, by what seemed like greatness of the world all around me.
In my memory’s eye I can still see the moment as Dolly Levi she appeared on the top of the staircase, and came slowly sauntering, down slowly to center stage, her arms wide as if to embrace the audience, serenaded by the chorus singing the title song. She was a star, larger than life who came to you, the audience. She was not a star from afar. She was your friend.
At that moment, as she was gracefully, melodically uttering her greetings, the air in the entire St. James Theater became electrified by her enormous presence. That in itself was a thrilling experience for this young man. It filled the vast theater. Over the next three decades she performed the role in several different productions, seven thousand times! A true trouper, she was!
Watching her that first time on stage of the St. James Theater was pure delight, irony, glamour, and hilarity. She was a star of a magnitude way beyond compare to anything today because it was the live performance, and the lady was at home with her talent; it was her natural heritage. Her performance was a romantic notion for this very young and inexperienced man, first venturing out in to manhood – an entirely unfamiliar sense of self and life at the time.
The next time I saw her was almost twenty years later one weekday afternoon in Los Angeles when I was driving home, up Doheny Drive when I saw a blonde, older woman slowly trekking up the hill on foot. I slowed down to offer the woman a lift since I knew from experience, it was a climb and she was taking it slowly and carefully. When I stopped the car to ask, and saw the woman’s face, I was surprised to see it was Carol Channing!
She thanked me for the offer but told me that this was her way of getting good exercise (I’ll say).
The only other time I saw her perform was in the early 2000s when she made an appearance in the Michael Feinstein club at the Regency Hotel. She was already in her early 90s. There were remarks in advance that the lady was too old to be up there. Ha! Her presence in the spotlight with that smile, and that voice, and those brightly vulnerable eyes, and that energy that took hold of her imagination eight decades before, was still working gladly and happily.
It was a thrill again to be mesmerized by this amazing talent of charm and humor and humanity. That was her gift to all us who were watching and listening.