Photo of the day: HELLO DOLLY!!! – There are certain voices that when you hear the first note you know it’s them. At the top of the list is Carol Channing. Yes, there’s Cher, Bette Davis, Hepburn, but Carol’s voice and accent is absolutely irreplaceable. Who else can go from a squeaky inquisitive voiced googely eyed girl to a jazzy baritone in a split second. No one, period – Carol Channing can.
Monday night, January 20th, that unmistakable charming infectious voice filled the Town Hall on Broadway in a dual celebration of the 50th anniversary of opening night of the classic musical “Hello Dolly” – the role she originated and played uncomplainingly over 5,000 (yes…5,000) times AND her upcoming 93rd birthday on January 31st.
Hosted by performance artist Justin Vivian Bond, it was a love fest that likely will not be equaled for a very long time. To have been there was a privilege that will not ever be forgotten. The star studded audience included Folies Bergère/musical “Nine” star Liliane Montevechi looking absolutely stunning in her bright red fur coat, Carol’s dear friend and champion Richard Skipper, Sandra Bernhard, John Cameron Mitchell, Alan Cumming, Jackie Hoffman, divine John Lypsinka Epperson and Lady Bunny, Michael Musto (of course) as well as countess LuAnn de Lesseps and none other than Sir Ian McKellen.
Her entrance on stage in her crisp white pantsuit resulted into thunderous applause that would not end, no matter how they tried to start the show the audience persisted with their enthusiastic welcome. Upon first sitting down in her chair she was concerned that there was a microphone on a stand next to her and tried to grab it, it wouldn’t release. Justin explained it was ‘a back up mic.‘ “Oh! A bAAAAAAAAAAckuuuup mic!“ she exclaimed setting of a gleeful roar in the audience. No one can say “back up mic” and be heard all the way in San Francisco! San Fran is also, btw, where she wants to be buried, between the Curran theater and the Geary, she has already gone and measured and it seems there is just enough room in the narrow alley between the two theaters. “There are fire escapes there – but they’ll have to get rid of those.“ Another roar. She’s as sharp as tack, when she can’t recollect a name or story she will digress into another story with glee. She has no filter, she just blurts out her truth. When Justin intimated she performed 5,000 times in Dolly for the love of it, she interrupted him, looked down and said “noooooo, I wanted the money too.” Hysterical laughter and applause.
Sandra Bernhard with her idol
In one not technically well functioning segment with taped video questions for her, Carol didn’t catch on there was a giant video screen behind her and was startled by the booming voice overhead. As Justin explained it was a video she said with great relief, “Oh, I thought it was God” (perhaps eluding to her age). Each time a video segment came on, Carol just flung herself sideways in her arm chair, legs over the side and sat there like a little schoolgirl of seven years old.
Carol Channing sideways
She told of Sophie Tucker teaching her songs and sang ala Soph, excusing herself saying “I can sound nicer, but that’s just not how Sophie sounded!” In baritone voice she sang an ethnic milkman’s song as well. When asked about her pairing with Mary Martin in the ill fated show “Legends” she just drawled “it was a terrible show!”, thought a moment and added, “that was a bitch remark.” More gleeful roars. If any fan or Justin brought up highlights of her long career, she would always (feign) be astonished “”you remmmmmmberrrr…..were you there?!” One of the most touching answers she gave when asked what she would want for her 93rd birthday, she quickly answered “David Merrick.” Nothing more needed to be said.
When it was time to bring the program to an end, Carol recited her closing speech from “Hello Dolly”, in which she asks the spirit of her beloved late husband, Ephraim Levi, to “Let me go!” so that she might fully rejoin the living and marry again, there was not a dry eye in the house. As a ‘thank you’, the audience spontaneously broke out into “Hello Dolly” led by a high school group in the balcony. The (mostly gay/theatrical) crowd sang the song to Broadway production perfection! The magic of the moment was, when the part came for Carol to sing “wow, wow, fellas, look at the old girl now!“ the audience instinctively lowered their voice in wait for her refrain – it was absolute theater magic that no flash mob could ever replicate. When ever are you going to get another chance to stand in a theater and serenade Carol Channing with “Hello Dolly“?! I’ve not seen so many beaming faces with joyful tears in an audience since I can remember. She was deeply moved, and in one very rare split second she let her guard down and looked as if she would break down and cry, she quickly caught herself and the beaming Hirschfeld Carol returned to take it all in, her eyes even bigger than usual, if that is at all possible. (Carol also has the distinction of having been drawn more times by Al Hirschfeld than any other personality ever.)
Host Justin Vivian Bond and Carol feel the love
As she was led off the stage, the audience was not ready to let go of her, and quickly broke into a strong “Happy Birthday” song. She turned around and the look on her face as she took it all in, is one of the most priceless gifts she has ever given to me or an audience, it is a magic moment that flares for those brief seconds in a theater, you and the artist sharing this heartfelt strong love and you are the richest person on earth for having caught it. We are all richer for having Carol Channing in this world. Raspberries !!!
Photo of the day: CHRISTMAS DINNER AT BENDEL’S WITH LIZA, SARAH-JESSICA, WOODY, MARILYN, CAROL AND AL HIRSCHFELD – Since I was a little boy the magical drawings of Al Hirschfeld have absolutely fascinated me! The fact that a few twists of the pen could totally capture a person and their character was astounding to me. Every Sunday I would get up early to run to the corner store to get a Sunday New York Times and pull out the Arts & Leisure section to see who had been ‘Hirschfelded’. That was a steadfast tradition from about 1964 till Al Hirschfeld’s death in 2003. I have boxes and boxes (and boxes) of clippings of all the Hirschfelds I could find from then till now.
The great Hirschfeld
My dream of meeting him came true one day in the year 2000, in the theater that was later to be named for him, The Martin Beck now The Hirschfeld. The story of meeting him is a story unto it’s own. I had met the greatest of the greats until then: Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Elvis, Elton, Cher, Liz Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, but meeting Hirschfeld had topped them all. I had met the man that had documented close to 100 years of America’s entertainment history. It was the most humbling and breath taking moment of my life.
Jerry Stiller meets ‘Jerry’ with Margo Feiden and Bendel’s
When Hirschfeld died, I bought many of his possessions at the 2011 Doyle Galleries estate sale, his pens and pencils, his large wooden pencil box, his shoulder bag and many, many other items, all lovingly displayed in my home.
Fast forward to November 14, 2013 and I am standing in front of Henri Bendel’s windows waiting for the grand unveiling of their Christmas window featuring a three dimensional tribute to the great beloved Hirschfeld.
Bendel’s president and top executives and creative team
I waited front row, clutching my Hirschfeld owned shoulder bag which still has his handwritten name tag attached written in his trademark squared signature. Due to arrive were Jerry Stiller who is featured in the window and Margo Feiden, the sole curator of the Hirschfeld collection. They were followed by the president of Bendel’s, the artistic director, and by Tom Carroll who created the pieces and Bendel’s Assistant VP of Visual, Gilberto Santana. Once inside, I showed the president of Bendel’s my Hirschfeld bag, “You must meet Margo!” (Shades of ‘All About Eve’!!) She welcomed me with open arms and warmth. There I was, after 49 years of collecting, sitting with Margo Feiden, holding hands and telling her my Hirschfeld stories. She so very much reminded my of my dear aunt “G” (see older posts here.) I told her: “Back in the 1960’s and 70’s I was the quintessential stage door Johnny. I had met Bergman, Davis and Crawford…” Margo squeezed my hand and cut me off, “but when you met Hirschfeld…” she interrupted. “Yes!” I proclaimed, “how did you know?” “I can see it in your eyes, it’s still there.” She held my hand tighter. I will not forget that moment. Bendel’s has a limited edition ($100.) poster available for sale commemorating the evening which I asked Margo to sign. “I hope you can read this,” she said as she rolled it up before I could read what she had written to me. I was on cloud 9 as I thanked her and left.
Hans, Jerry Stiller, Margo Feiden
I called mom and told her of the wonderful evening and how my Hirschfeld story had come full cycle. “Well what did Margo write to you?!” mom asked. I didn’t know, because shortly thereafter it was tied up in the traditional brown/white polka dotted Bendel bow and into to fancy large shopping bag it went. “I’ll stop by your apartment on the way home and we can unveil it together.” I rushed home holding onto to it for dear life.
Once in mom’s living room, we carefully untied the bow and unrolled the large parchment poster, our eyes transfixed on the small handwriting on the poster, trying to make out the inscription. Then we both looked at up each other and were speechless when we saw what Margo had written: “To Hans, with your enthusiasm Bendel’s won’t need lights, Margo Feiden.”
My heart is full.
The celebrated party guests translated into three dimensions in the window include from left to right: Whoopi Goldberg, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Allen, Matthew Broderick, Liza, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jerry Stiller, Bernadette Peters, Carol Channing and Hirschfeld himself. (Omitted in error is Margo Feiden.)
The Margo Feiden Gallery
15 East 9 St Between 5th Ave & University Place
Photo of the day: MY EVENING WITH FRANK COSTANZA/JERRY STILLER – Last night the upscale department store Henri Bendel’s Christmas windows were unveiled revealing a tribute to the greatest caricature artist of all time and one of the greatest artists ever – Al Hirschfeld. Bendel’s Christmas window revealed the ultimate fantasy gathering for Christmas dinner with some of the most famed New York personalities, Jerry Stiller among them. After some glasses of champagne and discussing today’s TV shows “our show is better than that vampire crap today!” said Stiller, I asked Frank Costanza, er, ah, Jerry if we could pose for a few photos together, this is my favorite. More of the event to follow.
Mondays on Memory Lane: PLEASE HELP GIVE CAROL CHANNING A 2013 KENNEDY CENTER AWARD – If you are of a certain age, or you know your entertainment history, there are certain voices that on first note you recognize instantly. The Brooklyn of Jimmy Durante, the heart of Louis Armstrong, the belt of Ethel Merman, the breathiness Marilyn Monroe, the growl of Eartha Kitt, the shaky quality of Katherine Hepburn, the accent of Marlene Dietrich, the staccato speech pattern Bette Davis and above all the big hearted gravely “hello” of Carol Channing!
Carol is larger than life, she is a living caricature of herself, a favorite of the best caricature artist of all time Al Hirschfeld. She is also living Broadway history having created two of the most iconic characters in theater history, Lorelei Lee of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and Dolly Levi of ‘Hello Dolly’. No matter who you remember playing these characters on screen, Marilyn Monroe or Streisand – Carol originated them! But above all, there is no other creation like Carol herself. You fall in love with her the moment you set eyes on her.
At age 92, nothing has changed, her saucer eyes, her broad grin, that bowl cut hair style, the platinum blonde hair, that child-like enthusiasm with a heart of gold and above all, above all – that voice! I have had the thrill of seeing her on stage many times in my lifetime: 3 times as Dolly in 1970, 1978 and 1995. Once as Lorelei Lee the ultimate diamond loving gold digger the 1974’s ‘Lorelei’, the musical stage version of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. In film she will be forever remembered as Muzzy Van Hossmere in Julie Andrews’ ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ as Carol sang in a vocal range from a high ‘C’ to the lowest note possible in ‘I’m Just A Jazz Baby’ and ‘Raspberries!’
On April 30, 2011, my good friend Jeffrey Shonert and I had the thrilling absolute surreal honor of sitting in front of Carol Channing and her late husband Harry Kullijian at the premier of her life story documentary “Larger Than Life” at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. This was thanks to the larger than life heart and love of my dear friend, entertainer and author Richard Skipper. As the film ran I could hear Carol commenting on the film to her husband – two Carol voices at once – surreal!! Richard, I am forever indebted to you!
Once a year The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C hands out lifetime achievement awards to the greats of entertainment. Since their inception in 1978, in all this time, Carol Channing has never been honored. How they have overlooked and bypassed this legend is a travesty and embarrassment. What to me makes it worse, last year seemingly having run out of names to give it to, they gave it to mad magazine poster child David Letterman. How throwing watermelons off a roof while stupidly grinning into the camera merits a lifetime achievement award over the life’s work of Carol Channing is beyond me! She has entertained us since the 1940’s, has worked tirelessly for Arts In Education. She IS theater!
Thank you !
Hans Von Rittern