Happy Birthday, Carol Channing!
In recognition of the inimitable Carol Channing’s 93rd birthday, we have excerpted a portion of her interview from Eddie Shapiro’s forthcoming book of interviews with the leading ladies of Broadway, Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater. This portion of the interview begins with a discussion of production tension between prolific Broadway producer David Merrick and other members of the production of the Detroit run of Hello, Dolly! in 1963, which opened there to mediocre reviews. (The show went on to open on Broadway in 1964 to rave reviews, ultimately winning 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Channing.)
Eddie Shapiro: In his book, Jerry Herman said that both Gower Champion and David Merrick were monsters to him during the out-of-town run of Hello, Dolly! in Detroit. Even though you didn’t personally have a bad experience with any of them, did that affect the environment for you?
Carol Channing: I was focused on the character of Dolly. I had to find her. I was totally focused and consumed with that. Anyway there was nothing wrong because Mr. Merrick said, “You listen to her and do exactly what she wants.”
So you weren’t aware of tension?
Carol Channing: I didn’t think of the environment. I was focused on Dolly. My job is to change character with every show. You’d never recognize Lorelei Lee next to Dolly. It’s not the same person. It’s just the opposite. Dolly was running everybody’s life. Well, so was Lorelei but she didn’t let anyone know. But the thing is . . . you hire a great actor like Jimmy Stewart to just be Jimmy Stewart. And they are fabulous. People like Gary Cooper. They are whoever they are playing. That’s who they are. My job is like a revue artist. You jump from character to character and you don’t recognize me from one character to another. That’s my talent. But it’s different from being John Wayne. Except I just heard him sing on The Dean Martin Show and he was marvelous! Almost as good as Dean! He was a great singer! Isn’t that something? But he never used it because they liked him the way that it was. Dumb businessmen.
I wonder if John Wayne chose not to sing because he had chosen this tough guy image for himself and that’s what he was selling throughout his career. That’s what he knew was marketable.
Carol Channing: No. We don’t think “what’s marketable and what’s not.” No. Never. No actor does. That’s phony. You’ve got to get this character that you are playing now, across to somebody who will understand what you are trying to do. And believe me that I am Dolly, that I am Lorelei. The most wonderful character was Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town. While you are doing that character there isn’t any other character. That’s all you were born with.
You’ve seen other people play Dolly, after you…
Carol Channing: I saw Pearl Bailey and I thought she was wonderful as Pearl Bailey. And why not? Why shouldn’t Dolly be Pearl Bailey. You know who did a good job in the movie? Shirley Booth [The Matchmaker]! She was soft and sweet and entirely different. A whole other Dolly. She was just heaven. But look, I have no perspective on myself. So if I sound phony . . . I can’t see myself doing it. I only see Dolly. I just have my eyes on Dolly and Thornton Wilder.
You have to have known the response to your performance.
Carol Channing: Oh yes. It’s quite a feeling. At the end of the “Dolly” number, it used to hit me right where I carried my son. It would go right to my waist, to my tummy. It knocked me over backwards the first time. I had to get used to standing there and standing straight.
Jerry Herman said that the night Dolly opened on Broadway, he knew that his life had changed forever. Did you have that same sense?
Carol Channing: No. There are critics who can look straight at you and say, “That’s not what I think Dolly should have been.” So you always have that to face. Betty White tells me she was there opening night and she knew she was witnessing history. We didn’t know. I was focused on Dolly’s salvation.
Somewhere during the run, though, you must have realized that this wasn’t your average show.
Carol Channing: Yes, we knew that we were a hit.
In more than thirty years of playing Dolly around the world, how did the experience of playing her change for you?
Carol Channing: What do you mean?
Over the years, was it different?
Carol Channing: It could have been but I don’t—Oh, I would check with critics. Christiansen was with the Chicago Tribune, I would check with Elliot Norton in Boston. These are the great critics. And critics can be great. Claudia Cassidy was the meanest, rottenest critic in the whole United States and she said, “In Wonderful Town, Rosalind Russell played the leading character for intelligence, Carol Channing played her for genius.” My God! She came to New York to see Dolly before she died [in 1996]. But before she died I called her and thanked her for raising the level of the theater across the United States. I said, “Miss Cassidy, I want you to know that I keep touring.” If you are fortunate enough to have a show run, to have it be enough of a hit, the whole world hears about it. You can tour with it. That’s the privilege that you get and it’s a privilege to work in the theater but you’ve got to recreate the Mona Lisa every night.
Eddie Shapiro is a freelance writer and theater journalist whose work has appeared in Out Magazine, Instinct, and Backstage West. His books include Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater and Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks.
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Image credit: Publicity photo of Carol Channing and David Burns in Broadway play, Hello Dolly, 1964. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons