By Eddie Shapiro
When I began work on my book, I knew I would be fortunate enough to experience a few moments of “Pinch me. This can’t really be happening.” There were, as it turned out, so many that I’d be black and blue if there was actual pinching going on. But of all of those moments, I think the highlight would have to be spending a day at Disneyland with Carol Channing and her late husband, Harry Kullijian, who were then 90 and 91 respectively.
I had interviewed Carol the day before in front of an adoring audience at the annual Gay Days at Disneyland. But it had been decades since Carol had been in the park and the last time she was, her tour guide was, um, Walt Disney. She had a picture to prove it. Carol, Walt, and Maurice Chevalier on Main Street, USA! I couldn’t exactly beat that, but I did what I could. I mapped out the day with a full compliment of attractions starting gently enough with “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,“ an indoor show at which a robotic Abe recites the Gettysburg address. Carol was moved to tears. “It’s Walt!” she exclaimed. “This whole attraction is his spirit. Exactly who he was.” We emerged just in time to hear the Disneyland Marching Band emphatically playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” We clapped along before we hopped on “The Disneyland Railroad,” a steam train that circles the park. Carol grabbed my hand as we approached and began singing at full voice, “Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out…” the song from Hello, Dolly! that culminates with the full company boarding a similar train. We sang together as we chugged along. I died.
We rode the Peter Pan ride and the tea cups, we met Mickey Mouse (who literally got on his knees and bowed down to Carol), and we had our own boat on “It’s a Small World.” It was all just as I had planned it until… the unexpected. As we were walking through Fantasyland, Harry kept staring in the direction of the carousel. I hadn’t planned on an attraction as simple as the carousel because, well, it’s a carousel. But I couldn’t help but notice Harry’s interest. “Harry,” I asked, “did you want to ride the carousel?” “I’m lookin’ at it,” came the reply. “Well Harry,” I said, “we’re here! If you want to ride it, let’s ride it.” We boarded and I went off in search of a nice bench for Carol and Harry. Carol seated herself but Harry was determined to mount a horse. At 91, however, he needed a hand or two, so I put my shoulder under his lower back and hoisted him up there. I then ran around to the other side and manually swung his leg astride the horse.
He was beaming, positively giddy. And in that moment, I realized that I was getting a major life lesson here. Carol and Harry were frail (he, in fact, passed less than three months later); one misstep could have been hugely consequential. A jostle from someone in the crowd could have been dire. But here they were, not just tasting everything life had to offer, but gobbling it up. If there was life to live, they were going to live it. And I thought to myself, “How does one become lucky enough to age into these people? Is it genetic? Is it a choice? What can I do to insure that when my golden years are upon me, I make them as golden as I can? Because these people have figured it out. They are who I aspire to be.”
When the sun was finally setting, we headed back to the hotel. I left them sitting in the lobby next to the grand piano while I went up to the room to retrieve their luggage. I returned just as the pianist was arriving for his set. He spied Carol and in no time he was gently tinkling the notes of “Hello, Dolly!” Before I knew what was happening, Carol was on her feet, one hand on the piano, the other aloft, belting out “Hello, Dolly!” for anyone who happened to be passing through the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was something to behold and a moment I will never, ever forget.
For months afterward, Harry would call me, just to say hello. “You don’t know the gift you gave us that day,” he would always end with. “Harry,” I’d always reply, “you don’t know the gift you gave me.”
Eddie Shapiro is the author of Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater. His writing has appeared in publications such as Out Magazine, Instinct, and Backstage West. He is also a producer of Gay Days Disneyland and the author of Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks.