BWW Interview: Carol Channing- 50 Years After DOLLY!
On January 16, 1964, Carol Channing stepped off a horse drawn trolley at the St. James theater and into theatrical history books in HELLO, DOLLY! The show set a record by winning 10 Tony Awards, including "Best Actress in a Musical" for Miss Channing. The musical went on to play 2, 844 performances, making it the longest running musical of its time. Miss Channing was succeeded by Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman. It is Carol Channing who will always be associated with the role though, having played it well over 5,000 times in New York and on tour.
Next week, on January 20th, Carol Channing will bring a special show to New York's Town Hall and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions about it and her career:
Miss Channing, theater-goers will always remember you as Lorelei Lee and Dolly Levi, but you've done quite a bit of classical theater in your career. What are some of the classic roles that you've played and which ones gave you the greatest satisfaction?
My favorites roles have always been the one I'm doing at that moment. I'll always be grateful to Anita's Lorelei or Jerry's Dolly, but actresses are fickle because we are always falling in love again, with a new character ... and sometimes we return to our earlier loves, when we revisit them, as I did with Dolly. Dolly and I had an on and of again relationship during several different tours.
Is there one project you were involved in that, in retrospect, you wish you'd never become involved in? What are your reasons for that?
No. Well ... "Skidoo" [the Otto Preminger movie] was probably not my favorite experience. Everyone tells me that they enjoyed "The First Traveling Sales Lady," but Ginger [Rogers, who starred in the film] and I use to call it 'death of a sales lady' ... However, I did get to kiss Clint Eastwood during the making of the film.
It's a well-known fact that you replaced Rosalind Russell in the original production of WONDERFUL TOWN. Were you expected to give a carbon copy of Miss Russell's performance or did you create your own version of Ruth Sherwood?
I don't think so. I never expected any of the actresses that followed me in the role of Dolly to play her the same way I did. In fact, if they were wise, they made the role their own.
Many Broadway stars choose not to tour in shows but keep New York as their venue of choice. That's not true in your case. You've done lengthy tours of your hit shows. Why have you toured so extensively?
I think it was important, for both the longevity of the production for ones career. Probably more so then than today. We didn't have the internet back then, so you had to take yourself on the road to introduce yourself a wider audience.
For the longest time you were a mainstay on television's celebrity quiz shows. Which was your favorite and why do you think this particular form of entertainment has fallen from popularity?
I didn't realize that they aren't popular anymore. That is a shame, because they were so much fun ... to be play and watch.
You also did many guest roles in television comedies. Which was your favorite and do you have any special memories of these shows?
I couldn't think of anything and I just had to ask someone about my own career. I may have to do that on the 20th. I hope no one minds ... Well, anyway. I had a great time doing "The Muppet Show" where I got to sing with Miss Piggy. I also enjoyed working on "The Love Boat" with Annie [Miller], Ethel [Merman] and ... um ... Oh, Della [Reese]. She is a reverand now. Ethel and I rode into the studio together and little Annie was so funny.
It's hard to believe that the 50th anniversary of HELLO, DOLLY! is coming up. What is one special memory do you have of the show's Opening Night?
It was all special. I suppose that sounds cliche, but it's true. Every bit of the production, from opening night to the last night of the tour. I think that by the time we made it through the out of town try-outs, opening night in New York was just another night ... once you got past the urge to throw up, but Helen Hayes once told me that stage fright is God given.
While you were performing in the original run of DOLLY! did you ever think that this would be a role that you would go on to play over 5,000 times?
I think both Yul [Brynner] and I knew that we would be attached to our individual roles for a while, but I don't know that we realized that it would reach 5,000 when we started. He was touring with THE KING AND I, while we were on the road with DOLLY! and we would see each other when one came in and the other was leaving. When THE KING broke the performance record, he made me promise that I wouldn't tell anyone if we went passed them ... Well, he's dead now, so he won't mind, and we went way past 5,000.
In the 50 years since DOLLY! opened, have you noticed a change in the attitudes of the theater-going public? How so?
I've unfortunately not been able to see a lot of Broadway theatre in recent years. It seems to go in cycles and we keep bringing the classic productions back to the boards ... which, I suppose, has been good for Jerry. Herman.
What made you decide to come back to New York at this time in your career? Other performers may reach a point where they decide to sit back and enjoy what life has to offer. You, however, are more like Dolly, who keeps "glowin', crowin' and goin' strong". How is this so?
Why New York? Well ... they asked me. The theatre is the enjoyment that life is offering me at the moment. David Burns died on stage at a key moment in the show, while the audience was laughing. He would have loved that. I want to go the same way ... being sent off to my reward on a roar of laughter. And then they can bury me between the Geary and Curran Theatres in San Francisco, where I fell in love with the theatre.
What can audiences expect when they come to your show at Town Hall on January 20th? What will make that evening special?
I wish I could tell you, but I have no idea. I'm going to be experiencing the magic right along with the audience, just as it happens live on stage. I'm sure that the producers have this idea of a structured program for the evening, but I think you, the audience and I all know that isn't likely to happen. Who knows where we will end up?