The room goes silent when I mention who I interviewed.
Admittedly we’re 75 percent gay men, so the response may not be typical, but the magnitude of my subject hadn’t really struck me.
I was interviewing Carol Channing, a Broadway diva with a legendary gay following. She was the first to sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, and originated the title role in Hello, Dolly!
But beyond that, I didn’t really know her. I have never seen any of her Broadway shows. I couldn’t name one of her movies. I wasn’t going to Vegas when she was there. I don’t even own any of her recordings.
But then, how do I know her? From television, obviously. I have seen her in clips in different Broadway retrospectives on PBS. I remember her on The Muppet Show and The Carol Burnett Show. I’m sure she chatted with Mike, Merv, or Johnny on their shows. No matter. As evidenced by my friends’ response, she still has a hold on her audience.
You might think that someone of Channing’s vintage would be happy to rest on her laurels. When asked about retiring, she counters, “Into what, death? You see I’m in a business that I’m in love with, so it’s hard to stay away from it.”
In fact, in the last five years, Channing has been quite busy and collected many accolades. She has received two Honourary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from universities in California, published her autobiography Just Lucky I Guess, received the Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award, married for a fourth time (this time to her childhood sweetheart after spending 70 years apart), taken her one-woman show, The First 80 Years are the Hardest: The Carol Channing Experience, on tour to strong reviews, and picked up the Oscar Hammerstein Award for lifetime achievement in musical theatre.
Channing is coming to Vancouver in April as part of the Unique Lives and Experiences lecture series. This will not be her first visit. She performed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “That was so long ago; I think it was about 1953,” she says. She also toured with Wonderful Town and Hello, Dolly!
“It was a gorgeous city,” she remembers, “and very Asian.”
Channing doesn’t have any specific memories of those visits, though. “All we ever saw was our hotel room, the backstage dressing room, and going to television stations to let people know we’re in town. Mary Martin and I had a deal that we were going to all the cities we played and see them for the first time,” she shares.
Her stage work led into her recent lecturing career. “People had questions,” she explains. “They yell at me from the audience, and tell me what they want me to do. I let them know as much as I can about my past, and how it’s been devoted to the legitimate theatre.
“You see, I’m 85 years old,” she offers without a trace of apprehension. “I know what [vaudevillian] Ethel Waters was like, and I can duplicate it. I did what [comedian] Danny Kaye used to do in Let’s Face It way back. I saw Sophie Tucker in George White’s Scandals. I saw all these people and I’m able to not just tell, but also do it for them. I’m thrilled with it, absolutely thrilled.”
I ask her about the oft-used epithet “the first lady of musical comedy,” but she’ll have none of it.
“Oh, they give it to everybody! Really that’s ridiculous. There are too many first ladies of musical comedy. How can they say that? We’re all so different from each other you can’t compare us.”
Her autobiography is a veritable “Who’s Who” of the gay community. From Noel Coward and Tommy Tune to Rock Hudson and Leonard Bernstein, from John Gielgud and Rudolph Nureyev to Cole Porter and Jerry Herman, she has worked with them all.
Yet surprisingly, Channing admits that she never knew much about their personal lives. “That’s none of my business. It’s never been a problem to me. I never asked them. I don’t share my private marital relations with them,” she declares.
She then goes on to acknowledge her gay devotees. “I never stop being grateful for them. Truly, I feel they know who’s funny and who’s not.
“They’re the most wonderful people to play to, because they truly appreciate everything,” she adds.
Does she think that performers coming out today suffer any repercussions?
“I haven’t the slightest idea, I never think on that subject. It’s not my life; it’s their lives. You keep asking gay questions. I am just very grateful that they like me,” she replies.
I keep asking gay questions because I want to explore her thoughts on gay marriage.
Last year, she apparently ruffled some of her fans’ feathers when she declared that she does not “believe in it.” She does, however, “believe in equal rights, in civil unions.”
She seems reluctant to wade into that debate again with me. Having already settled the question in Canada, I let it go.
Instead, I ask about how she feels seeing herself portrayed by drag queens and female impersonators.
“It’s an honour. I used to do Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead and Bea Lillie. I can turn into them. I know you can’t do that unless you love your subject completely. They love me, that was the only reason they do me.
“If you do somebody you don’t love and there’s a trace of criticism in your impersonation of them, nobody knows who you’re doing,” she notes.
Channing is legendary for her performances and stamina. “I had ovarian cancer while I was in the second year of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. I never missed a show in way over 5,000 performances,” she states matter-of-factly.
“I found that after each show I felt better. The doctor examined me, ‘My gosh, you’re getting cured.’ I give a little of my soul to the audience. They give a little of their appreciation back again, and it builds and it builds. It spreads over the theatre like rubbing two sticks together and it takes fire. It heals the audience and it heals my fellow actors, and it certainly healed me.”
As our conversation ends, always the pro, she concludes, “I can’t wait to get to Vancouver. They were a wonderful audience.”