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.
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.
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.)
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 !!!
In the 1970’s and 1980’s I was what you call a “stage door Johnny.” I would haunt the stage doors of the theater district hoping to get an autograph of the greats of the time. Gloria Swanson, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Burton, Lauren Bacall, Anne Baxter, Eartha Kitt, Elizabeth Taylor, Ruby Keeler, Diana Rigg, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert and dozens more, it was a glorious time.
When the performance was over, I’d go into the theater pretending to look for something (not) left behind and grab a Playbill and then rush to the stage door to get an autograph. I was in high school and early college days and couldn’t afford the tickets to all the shows I wanted to see. What I could afford after my rendezvous with Gloria Swanson or Ingrid Bergman – was a hamburger at a long gone theater restaurant called “Charlie’s“. It was located on West 45th street, right off Schubert Alley between Broadway and 8th Avenue.
One of the waiters there was Rory Patterson. He had a magnetic charm and would always wink and give me a free drink from the bar. (He happened to be legendary actor George C. Scott’s favorite waiter and George would standardly tip him a $50 dollar bill no mater what the check came to.) Over the years Rory and I became friends. He was a cool guy to know because after the Broadway shows were over, many of the supporting casts would come to Charlie’s and sing around the baby grand piano. The walls were covered with framed posters of the shows, all of them autographed to the hilt, now worth a fortune. So Rory would invite me to stay at the bar and we would sing show tunes with the cast of “Applause” or “Sugar Babies” (sometimes Ann Miller herself would be there), “Sweeney Todd” , “Hello Dolly” or Eartha Kitt’s “Timbuktu”. I was star struck at the magic goings on after hours that many a theatergoer didn’t know about. There I was at one o’clock in the morning singing show tunes with Rory and Eartha Kitt!!
By 1978 I graduated college and life had to become a bit more serious and staying out all night till all hours weekdays wasn’t the smart thing to do, I had a job to go to. Rory continued on at Charlie’s and whenever mom and/or friends and I went to the theater, the natural stop afterwards was of course Charlie’s.
On Rory’s nights off he would appear in many of the local cabarets and night clubs, there were so, so many of them in those days. He was a talented singer and was developing a following, some of them famous. My family and I would have front row seats at many of his shows. He was finally ‘discovered’ for his great singing voice and good looks and was offered the lead role in a Broadway musical called (I think) “The Singer” (something like that…, but it never opened).
Rory was so terrified of the auditions he started to drink, heavily. So much so it became a detriment to his character and the part was taken away from him. He drowned what he felt was his failure and fears in booze and sex. Gay bath houses were in every part of town in those days and Rory would drink himself blind and wake up the next afternoon in one of the bathes. He’d show up late for his shift at work. His downward spiral caused him also to lose some of his friends. It wasn’t good to be seen with someone who slurred their words. “Wasn’t he supposed to star in that musical? What happened to him?” His mother couldn’t save him, his friends started to give up and slowly I must admit I drifted away too. As far as I knew Rory felt it was safer to just bar tend and wait tables than to face the terror of having to prove yourself to producers and backers and then audiences night after night.
Fast forward to September 26, 1985, it was opening night of Lily Tomlin’s brilliant one woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and mom and I were thrilled to attend this genius of a new show. The show was a comedic masterpiece and mom and I reminisced about Lily’s earlier days on ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’, so… feeling nostalgic we thought we would celebrate the night by going to Charlie’s and surprise Rory and to catch up. We happily went to ’his section’ and waited to see his cheery smile. We were brought menus. Drinks were served and finally a waiter asked us for our order. “Oh no,” we said, “We’re waiting for Rory”. Our waiter rushed over to the bar, we assumed to get Rory. Dead silence fell over the staff. They all seemed to freeze in their spots and they all just looked at each other and no one would look us. It was that kind of awkward moment you see dramatized in a movie. Our waiter returned, “I think may not have heard,” his look was so grave we knew it wasn’t that Rory had merely been fired. “Rory passed away.” He leaned over our table and whispered in the lowest whisper possible “It was AIDS.” The word was not said out loud in those days. Nothing else was said. We just pointed to the hamburger on the menu and fought back the tears because we had already drawn attention, it wasn’t easy. We ate in silence. As we left the manager came over and hugged us and said “We all loved Rory, George C. Scott is a little richer now.” It was an awkward joke but we know how he meant it. Mom and I walked home and were guessing what this new plague AIDS was about. We simply didn’t know, it hadn’t hit us yet. It was a night that changed us forever.
The next day I found my old address book and contacted his mother. After a long consoling conversation she ended the call by saying, “He’s on the quilt, you know.”
In those days the AIDS quilt was only in the beginning stages and not that large yet. I contacted a Broadway AIDS charity of the time and they offered me to come by their office to see a photo of his quilt.
One of the volunteers in this tiny office handed the photo to me, there was ‘Rory Patterson’ spelled out in little hand made cloth light bulbs and underneath, lots of Playbills. I smiled, Rory in a unique odd way, had finally gotten his name up in lights without the stage fright, safe and secure, finally not wrestling his demons, but resting in peace.
The idea for the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was conceived in 1985 by AIDS activist Cleve Jones during the candlelight march, in remembrance of the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. For the march, Jones had people write the names of loved ones that were lost to AIDS-related causes on signs that would be taped to the San Francisco Federal Building. All the signs taped to the building looked like an enormous patchwork quilt to Jones, and he was inspired. It officially started in 1987 in San Francisco by Jones, Mike Smith, and volunteers Joseph Durant, Jack Caster, Gert McMullin, Ron Cordova, Larkin Mayo and Gary Yuschalk. At that time many people who died of AIDS-related causes did not receive funerals, due to both the social stigma of AIDS felt by surviving family members and the outright refusal by many funeral homes and cemeteries to handle the deceased’s remains. Lacking a memorial service or grave site, The Quilt was often the only opportunity survivors had to remember and celebrate their loved ones’ lives. The first showing of the The Quilt was 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The Quilt was last displayed in full on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1996, but it will return in July 2012 to coincide with the start of the XIX International AIDS Conference, 2012.