When I saw the early 1990’s revival of Hello Dolly!, I was excited but decidedly nervous. How in the world could its original leading lady, now in her 70’s, possibly handle the demands of the show?
But the moment Carol Channing hit the stage, all those worries were forgotten. Sure she was a bit frailer and the tempos were slowed to accommodate her tempo, but she was magnetic. She tore into the comic bits, stretching them out and making the audience beg for more. It wasn’t just our affection for her; she was hysterical. And at least once during the show, she made me feel like she was looking right at me, connecting. I’ve talked to other people who’ve seen her and they said the same thing; Channing would find moments to make eye contact with them, even if they were in the last row. Simply put, Channing is a born entertainer of the highest order.
If you haven’t seen her live, don’t take my word for it, check out the new documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life which opens tomorrow in New York and San Francisco (it opened in LA January 20). The film is a gently touching and very funny salute to Channing as she celebrates more than seven decades in show business. It is especially illuminating in its look at the “persona” she created and stuck to, even though she was quite capable of more diverse comedic roles (just watch her doing a Marlene Dietrich impression). At it’s heart, though, it is two love stories. First, it details the sweet reunion between Channing and her primary school sweetheart Harry Kullijian (who sadly passed away since the movie was completed). Second, it chronicles the love affair between Channing and gay men, particularly the chorus boys who spun, posed and leapt by her side. As the Hello Dolly waiters from her final revival (the one I saw) return to pay tribute and do one last dance together, there are real tears on screen and in the movie theater.
Let’s do some celebrating of our own and watch a little bit of Channing in action. Previously on the blog, we’ve seen her pump up the jam and dance with her boys for the Gypsy of the Year (the number prominently featured in the documentary); now here’s the movie’s trailer and a hysterically bewigged Carol getting down with her “Soul Sisters” on Laugh In….