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Monday, March 29, 2010

Deeper Dish with Carol Channing

Last week I had the great pleasure to chat with the legendary Carol Channing and her husband, Harry Kullijian.  It was a conversation that I will treasure forever.  She's 89, he's 90, and together they make an adorable couple.  Carol even sang a few bars here and there, and she is a delightful mimic as she offered up fabulous impressions of Julie Andrews, Mary Martin and Noël Coward.  If you've read her 2002 autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess, you'll already be familiar with some of the stories she shared during our interview - but actually hearing her tell them is a whole nother experience.  I just sat there on the phone in a state of bliss.

Obviously I think the world of this lovely lady, who is best known for her brilliant performance as the matchmaking widow Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, for which she won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.  She's played the role over 5,000 times, which is simply amazing.  Her other stage credits include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), Wonderful Town (1953), The Vamp (1956), Show Girl (1961), Lorelei (1974) and Legends (1986) with Mary Martin.  Carol also received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her memorable performance as Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).  In the last few years, she and Harry have spent most of their time promoting arts education in California schools through the Dr. Carol Channing & Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts as well as providing musical instruments for low-income school districts and funding scholarships for students and teachers in the arts.  The couple is now planning to launch a nationwide awareness campaign to get the arts back into public schools all across the country.  These two kids are not slowing down anytime soon.

I could not be more thrilled and honored to have the fabulous Dr. Channing (she received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from California State University, Stanislaus in 2004) here on the Dish today to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with your new CD, For Heaven's Sake. What was your inspiration for it?
My father sang some of these songs, which are 200 years old - and nobody has ever heard them.  And whenever I sing one for an audience, I can hear my father singing with me, and then I ask the audience if they can hear my father and they always say, "Yes" [Carol sings a snippet from "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal"].  They are songs that several generations have never heard before.  I have them all stored up inside me, and I just had to get them off my chest.

What is the most memorable moment you have had while performing onstage?
This happened more than once.  We traveled everywhere with Hello, Dolly!, which has that runway.  And since I'm nearsighted to begin with, I would often fall off the stage into the drum of the orchestra below.

You've appeared in so many interesting film, television and theatrical projects over the years.  What's the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Gentleman Prefer Blondes?

We had lovely chorus girls, and I would dance with them [Harry mentions that Carol is a really good dancer].  Jule Styne wrote the music, and it was such a great pleasure to work with him.

Wonderful Town?
We ran for two years in Chicago at the Shubert Theatre - and Claudia Cassidy [the drama critic for the Chicago Tribune] called me a genius, which I never forgot.  She saved the road for theater with her support of shows.  I performed in Chicago a lot.  Once I was at the Drury Lane Theatre in the round, and I was so close to the side of the stage that an audience member lit my cigarette for me.  Chicago has great audiences! And [critic] Richard Christiansen - I loved him to pieces - and I adored Irv Kupcinet's wife Essie, who helped to build up theater in Chicago.  I was also welcomed by Mayor Daley, who put me on a year-long commission to clean up the theaters.  Before the matinees, I'd go to all the theaters and pick up programs and Coca-Cola bottles, and Mayor Daley later gave me a little medal for my hard work.  I think he was semi-teasing me.

Hello, Dolly!
There's a spine to every play, movie, book - but very often the author doesn't even know what it is.  But I found the spine to Hello, Dolly! - to rejoin the human race.  Dolly can't stay talking to her dead husband - and I told [director] Gower Champion and he worked it into the "Hello, Dolly!" number.

Thoroughly Modern Millie?
It ran for 10 years in Paris, and they had a little girl do my voice.  Julie Andrews is the greatest star.  Her and Mary Tyler Moore - we still keep in touch.  And I'll never forget it - Julie made up her mind that I was meant to get the Golden Globe award.  She came in on her first day off since Mary Poppins had opened - in jeans, no makeup or wig.  I told her, "Julie, I was going to play my scene to your stand-in."  And she said, "I know this - that's why I'm here."  So she sat there and held my hands - and that scene won me the award.

Skidoo (1968 film)?
[Director] Otto Preminger couldn't stand me, and I couldn't stand him.  He loved being the big producer - but I loved Jackie Gleason.  We were in bed together in one scene, and he said, "I kind of like this."  That was a great compliment.

Carol Channing & Pearl Bailey On Broadway (1969 TV special)?
Pearl and I got along perfectly.  We were just about to make our entrance when a camera broke down.  Now Pearl's father was a minister, and my father was a minister, so Pearl's father put his arms around me and my father put his around Pearl, and we held hands until the camera was fixed.

I loved Mary Martin.  I stayed at her home in Palm Springs to rehearse the play, but there were so many interruptions from her dog and the housekeeper that I finally said, "Look, we can't have all these interruptions, so let's dismiss the housekeeper and tell her to take the dog with her."  "Fine", said Mary - she was from Texas.  But later when we got hungry, I asked Mary:

"Is there any food in the house?"
"I don't know."
"Maybe we could cook something."
"Well, I don't know how to cook."
"Do you have any canned goods?"
"I don't know."
"We could open a can of soup."
"I don't know how."
"I'll open the can.  Where's your can opener?"
"I don't know."

So finally we went to the Morningside Country Club, where we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner and Mary signed the check for most of the meals. Then when we got to L.A., I wanted to make it even between us, but Mary told me:

"I didn't pay for all our meals at Morningside.  Did you?"
"No, Mary, I thought you did.  I don't belong to the club."
"Neither do I."
"Oh, Mary, we didn't pay our bill.  We could be arrested."

Then last night my cousin invited us to go to Morningside for dinner, and I'm like, "We can't go there.  Mary's gone now, but they're still looking for me."

Mary was funny.  She would always say to me, "Where's my baby girl?" - and she came up to my waist.  I was six feet tall, and she was just a little thing.  And when Mary was in The Sound of Music on Broadway, the nuns in the show would go out on the fire escape in the summertime to smoke cigarettes, guzzle bottles of Coca-Cola and wave their skirts in the air to get cool.  Well, some people standing down below complained to the Archbishop of New York about these nuns, and it was a big mess.  Mary finally had to go see the Archbishop and explain that they weren't really nuns.

A friend of mine would like to know if you ever did an audio recording of your autobiography.
Yes, I did. It has never been distributed, but you can get a copy through my website.

If you could go back and give your younger self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell her what Noël Coward once told me on how to get a response from an audience: "In your mind, put someone you love and someone who loves you out in the audience and play to them.  But it only works if that person truly loves you."  I once put someone in the audience whom I loved and lost all my laughs because they did not love me.

In high school I:
Never got off the school's auditorium stage so they had to name it after me - The Carol Channing Theatre of Lowell High School in San Francisco.

My favorite comfort food is:
I love food, so my favorite comfort food is everything! Anything! [Harry says that she can outeat him].

One of my favorite movies is:
Way back when I was a little girl, my first movie was The Guardsman with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt.  That was perfection.

My favorite show I've ever seen is:
As Thousands Cheer.  It was a revue that played San Francisco, and Ethel Waters was in it.  She sang "Supper Time", which was about all the lynchings in the South.  Behind her in silhouette was a man hanging from a tree - and that moment stopped all the lynchings.  I'd never heard such music before - it was the beginning of "rock".  And I later got to know Ethel Waters, who became my son's adoptive grandmother.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
They're all dead - Noël Coward, Ronald Reagan and Lynn Fontanne.

What's next for Carol Channing?
We are launching a national campaign of our foundation's program at a fundraiser in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 11.  We want to get the arts back in the schools not just in California, but all over the country.

Harry adds: They're also trying to get a Broadway Walk of Fame in New York City like they have in Hollywood - I believe actress Arlene Dahl and her husband are heading it up.  Carol, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli would be the first to receive sidewalk stars.  And Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller, Florence Henderson and others are part of a group to get Carol selected for this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

Thank you, Carol and Harry, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish.  To learn more about Carol, check out her website at, and for further information on the Dr. Carol Channing & Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, go to And click here to join the Facebook page, Carol Channing should be a Kennedy Center Honoree.

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