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 !!!