My quandary yesterday: be a day late with a tribute to Carol Channing (1921-2019), or be very late and wait until her birthday, which is just two weeks from today, when I was already planning to do one anyway. (She would have been 98 this year!) I opted for today, as I found myself champing at the bit to do this yesterday but was forestalled by a family emergency and then the death of a friend.
It is a measure of Channing’s extreme reach in popular culture (aided by her highly unique personality) that, though she was primarily a creature of the theatre, everyone knew who she was. In mulling this tribute, I immediately thought of particular impersonations of her I’d seen people do over the years. My sister did one in the school talent show. Illeana Douglas did one in a comedy workshop we took together in the late ’80s. A theatre friend told me a backstage anecdote about her — and did the inevitable impression of her. EVERYONE does an impression of her. Give me enough drinks and I’LL do my impression of her. And yet we didn’t all grow up attending Broadway theatres or listening to cast albums. Carol Channing is indelibly associated with the original Broadway productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! yet she appeared in neither movie. And yet we in the hinterlands all knew her in those roles. How?
Television. My word, this woman did a lot of television. I don’t know how you measure such things, or if it’s even worth it or necessary, but it seems to me she was one of the first and biggest celebrities who gained major fame by relentless working of that TV circuit: variety shows, talk shows, game shows, and her own TV specials. Good Lord! Hollywood Squares, The Carol Burnett Show,The Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, David Frost, Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Dean Martin roasts, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Love Boat...she has close to 200 TV credits. Her theatre work was frequently mentioned in these appearances, and she did numbers from her repertoire, and this is how many of us knew about her stage career.
As she grew older, Channing grew increasingly eccentric in her mannerisms, almost as sui generis as, say, Buddy Hackett. Self-parody would be too strong a phrase; we’ll call it “going with a strength.” When I was a kid, and we inevitably ridiculed her, our parents told us that when she was younger she was beautiful and she wasn’t quite as extreme. I saw this myself for the first time when I saw her in the movie The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) with Ginger Rogers. (There are several reasons to see this interesting comedy, BTW: 1) to see see a younger and less mannered Carol Channing; 2) to see one of the very last films made by RKO; and 3) to see young Clint Eastwood in one of his first film roles).
Speaking of movies, she’s scarcely in any at all. Besides the one I just mentioned, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and Skidoo (1968) are about it. The fact that musicals went out of fashion has got to be one reason. And the other is that perhaps (much like Bert Lahr, for example) people considered her too “big” for the screen.
Adding to her appeal (although no one knew it for years) was that she was multi-ethnic. It warms my heart this morning to find both the Jewish Forward and Black Enterprise magazine claiming her as one of their own with pride and real justification in both cases. Her father, a newspaper editor, was half-black, and her mother was Jewish (as was Carol’s first husband, whose immigrant family she lived with for five years in Brighton Beach. She also performed in the Catskills during those years. So if Channing strikes you as too goyish for Dolly Levi, too bad. She’s just “West Coast”!). And there’s a strong bond between her and the gay community, as well. With that husky voice, the nutty hairdo, false eyelashes and thick lipstick, she was a drag queen’s dream, and one of the nicest tributes I read about her yesterday was Charles Busch’s — about the pair of them sharing a dressing room before an AIDS benefit, putting their “drag” on together.
That voice! It continued to be her bread and butter in her later years, when she worked primarily as a voice-over artist on animated shows and in films like Where’s Waldo? (1991), The Addams Family cartoon reboot (1992-93), Thumbelina (1994), The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998), and Family Guy (2006 — her last credit).
Something else you may not know: after Gracie Allen retired, George Burns worked with Channing as a comedy partner off and on for several years. Channing was extremely different from Gracie as a performer, but they made it work for a time, at least until Burns found his own voice as America’s “senior” stand-up.
In addition to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and Hello, Dolly (1964), Channing’s other Broadway credits included Lend Me an Ear (1948), Wonderful Town (1953), The Vamp (1955), Show Girl (1961), Four on a Garden (1971), and Lorelei (1974) — and of course, endless revivals and tours of Hello, Dolly! They’re dimming the lights on Broadway for her tonight. As well they should.