Last month, we lost a legend, and the lights of Broadway and Hollywood got a little dimmer. Carol Channing was one of the most beloved of Broadway greats.
She had me at “Raspberries!”
I don’t recall when exactly I found out about her, but I learned about the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie in the ’90s. I was excited to see a movie musical starring Julie Andrews, who I grew up watching in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. Carol Channing’s portrayal of Muzzy van Hossmere was the stuff of legends. From her completely random first word in the movie (“Raspberries!”) in that very distinctive voice, seated in a biplane and holding a bottle of wine, I knew I was going to love her. Her willingness to try anything was truly inspirational and hilarious. She had instructors for dancing, piloting (in a musical set 15 years before Amelia Earhart’s legendary flight, and 64 years before Beverley Bass became the first female captain on American Airlines), playing multiple instruments, being shot from a cannon, weaponizing song and dance, giving important life tips, and so much more. Her low notes (in the musical, anyway) could shatter glass.
Then came the Broadway version. I fell in love with the musical anew with the new casts and songs. I believe that was my introduction to Sutton Foster, and I have been a fan of her ever since. When the show came through Seattle in its national tour, they had a promotional event at the Bon Marché (right around the time it was purchased by Macy’s), and it was perfectly timed during my lunch break. I got to meet and get autographs from Darcie Roberts (Millie) and Pamela Isaacs (Muzzy). Each of them sang a song from the show (“Gimme, Gimme” and “Only in New York”, respectively, if I remember right). I recall Isaacs being particularly friendly and asking me questions. When she found out I loved the movie, she informed me, “I play Carol Channing.” Not Muzzy. Carol Channing.
I didn’t get the pleasure of meeting Carol, but I know someone who did, and we will be hearing from him later in this blog. In fact, he came up with its title. I have asked some of my fellow bloggers to share their memories and impressions, and they have graciously agreed.
I never expected to love Hello, Dolly! as much as I do, so naturally I respect Carol Channing as the original, legendary Dolly Gallagher Levi. She set the standard for the rest of the Dollys that followed. Even though I never saw her perform the role live, I can hear her in the score, no matter who sings the role. Her voice is unmistakable.
My main memory of Ms. Channing, however, comes from the animated Don Bluth film Thumbelina, where she voiced Mrs. Fieldmouse, and urged Thumbelina to "Marry the Mole" through song. I also enjoyed her performance as Muzzy in the Julie Andrews film Thoroughly Modern Millie. It's kind of fate (and amazing) that two of my favorite stage musicals (Dolly and Millie) have a connection to Carol Channing.
Rest in peace, Ms. Channing. Your legendary performances will live on forever.
“So, I’m sure you know Carol Channing is coming to town in Hello, Dolly!” my editor at Southern Voice said to me. “Since you’re our resident theatre person, how would you like to interview her before the show?”
I threatened Devin with bodily harm if he gave that assignment to anyone else. Fortunately, since I was also the newspaper’s lead feature writer at the time (only because I could churn out a full-length story in an hour), I landed the gig.
Interviewing the legendary Carol Channing. Seeing her in Hello, Dolly! thanks to my other theatre post in town as the critic for WABE-FM (which meant running up the aisle at the Fox Theatre, jumping in my car, and writing the review in my head for broadcast the next morning).
I mean, like, what more could you ask for than this?
The thing is, it was much more than I expected—both the interview and the show.
I had seen others in the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, and they had acquitted themselves well. But why was her performance the one people clamored to see, I asked her.
“Well,” she said in that unmistakable growl, “I guess I’ve become identified with Dolly, which is not a bad thing. But maybe I had one small advantage over the other ladies—who were all fine. See, when we were working on Dolly on the road, [Producer] David Merrick called in Thornton Wilder to consult, since he had written the original plays The Merchant of Yonkers and The Matchmaker [the bases for Dolly]. He created Dolly Gallagher Levi.
“Thornton was such a dear. He gave Michael [Stewart, the book writer] and I tremendous insight into Dolly. It really helped me a lot.”
At the time of our interview, Carol was a sprightly 72 years old. And Dolly is a tough role for an actress of any age. Yet here she was, doing eight a week. How?
“It’s simple, Michael,” she told me, “I sleep 20 hours a day and I keep to a strict diet. That’s my secret; don’t tell anyone. I sleep. Get up. Go to the theatre. Do Dolly. Take my final bow. Then go back to sleep. A girl’s gotta keep her energy up, you know.”
We talked at length about the covert anarchy in Dolly, something most people miss. “Oh, that’s Thornton. Such a dear man but very complex.” Yeah, that’s true if you think about his body of work.
Still, there was Carol Channing on a stage performing the role of a lifetime, and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Onstage she wasn’t 72; she was maybe 30—tops. She was funny, touching, energetic, precise, magnificent in her red dress—and magical. That’s the only word I think can adequately describe her performance. Seeing her perform Dolly Gallagher Levi was one of those rare theatre moments you cherish.
After all, she was Miss Carol Channing. Goodbye, Dolly. It was nice to have you here where you belonged. The world has lost something very special.