Carol Channing: Lifting People's Lives
Her name has been synonymous with musical comedy ever since December 8, 1949, when the curtain at the Ziegfeld Theatre rose on her performance as Lorelai Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Ever since that red-letter date, Carol Channing has been revered as one of the brightest stars in the theatrical heavens. She went on to create, and play more than 4,000 times both on Broadway and on the road, the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, arguably her most famous role. She earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for her performance as Muzzy in the movie of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and has served comedy as both an impersonator and the impersonated. In honor of this massive resume, on May 29th, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from California State University, Stanislaus. On June 7th, the newly-minted Dr. Channing will receive the Oscar Hammerstein award for lifetime achievement. Yet in spite of these honors, in spite of her Tony and Golden Globe awards and Oscar nomination, in spite of a stage career that has spanned more than half a century and made her recognizable to millions, Carol Channing does not consider herself to be what she has clearly been for years: A veritable Broadway legend.
"I don't think of it from that angle," she says with simple modesty and a bit of surprise. "If you imagine you're a legend, the whole thing's over. The appeal is gone... Nobody's aware of such a title, nobody in the theatre. The Lunts were shocked when they dimmed the lights all over the world when Alfred Lunt died." She holds onto the memory of a cold, lonely Christmastime that found the young, unemployed, aspiring actress gazing longingly into the warm windows of the apartments around her. "I thought, 'Someday, maybe, I can knock on any one of those doors, and they'll open the door and maybe they'll say, "Oh, Carol, we know who you are! Won't you come in and be with the family?"' And I was terribly lonely as people are... [but] I just kept trying. And now that day has come!... People come out of the woodwork, and they say, 'I want to thank you for the happy hours you've given me,' and that feels just wonderful. They welcome me into their home. If that's what you mean by being a legend, I certainly enjoy it."
Perhaps her humble self-perception comes from her refusal to do star vehicles just for the sake of starring in a show. "It has nothing to do with making me important," she says, and, like a true comedienne, explains that the audience's enjoyment is her only goal. "The whole thing is that I'm lifting their lives. The whole thing is to make them feel that life is worth living, and there's a wonderful show here. It's not to advertize me!" Fame, then, is less important than the show itself. "I think good work is the only thing that matters," Channing says, "and I think a good script... matters a good show written by people who can write! That's terribly important. Nobody's good in a bad script."
It is not only the actors and writers who make a show work, however. Without an audience to play for, a play loses its main purpose. And no matter how well-written and well-performed the show is, there will always be audiences who do not appreciate all of the work that has gone into entertaining them. "The next audience coming up could be the one that just doesn't get this magnificent message at all," she says. "They don't realize the monumentalism of this character you're playing." In fact, she says, the bad audiences can outweigh the good in hindsight. "I will go to my grave with the audiences I've lost," Channing says sadly. "[It's] suicidal, when you get an audience like that."
A bad audience is only one of the problems actors must learn to overcome. Carol Channing knows firsthand the many trials through which aspiring actors must suffer before finding any success in their art. With so much inherent difficulty in the craft, she believes that if an actor can do anything else, he will. "It has to be beyond human endurance," she says earnestly. "It has to be almost like a calling. Beyond all sanity, you keep trying to get into the theatre... auditioning, watching charts, getting turned down for having no talent, sometimes getting fired, but you just keep at it.
It's beyond me why I kept at it," she adds with a laugh. "I was so discouraged about it when I was trying to get jobs. It took quite a while." She herself tried another kind of art form before finding success on the stage. "Painting is what I would have done." An accomplished artist, she painted portraits of children and the elderly in Brooklyn. "However, you have to make money in the meantime. Painting takes quite a while. An audition takes four hours.
You can do auditions and still work in Macy's," she chuckles. As a visual and theatrical artist, Channing uses many of the same skills, giving the same creative spark to the two genres. "Instead of [creating characters on canvas,] I do them on the stage."
On Monday, when she is awarded the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement, Carol Channing will be far away from the cold street where she dreamed of being a welcome presence in people's lives. She will be far away from the audiences who do not appreciate all the hard work that goes into creating a character. And whether she believes it of herself or not, she will be recognized formally for being the star and legend she is, and has been.
While she is honored and grateful to accept the award and the Doctorate from CSU, all of the recognition has a simple meaning for their recipient: "I must have done good work," she says simply. "I must have been able to reach my goal, which was always, from 4th grade on, to lift people's lives."