Carol Channing shares herself
Carol Channing was singing to me, courtesy of AT&T. The great actress, 89, was preparing to join an incredible line-up of celebrities this Sunday for Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s annual fundraising concert and gala, Help Is On the Way XVI: That’s Entertainment .
Raised in San Francisco, Channing now lives in Modesto with her fourth husband, childhood friend and former bandleader Harry Kullijian, 90. Harry began the conversation, passionately explaining why the couple has spent many of their seven married years campaigning vigorously and organizing nationally to return arts to the public schools. After discussion of a national telethon, Carol addressed her plans for the benefit. Each story was preceded by a story, with other stories interwoven. It felt as though the most intricate of personal tapestries was being unveiled.
"My dear friend, Jerry Herman, has AIDS," she said. "He wrote the music for Hello Dolly. He was diagnosed when we were still in New York, and he’s still with us. I’m simply going to do the part in Hello Dolly that Jerry and I worked out. It’s where Dolly says, almost as a prayer, ’Ephram, I’m going to get married again. I’m going to rejoin the human race.’
"I found the spine of Hello Dolly, and we discussed it. I found it buried. It has to be a verb: to rejoin the human race. And the spine has to relate to every character in the show. That’s when she makes up her mind to go back to the Harmonia Gardens, come down that golden stairway, and sing ’Hello Dolly’ with the waiters. But nobody knew it except Jerry Herman and me. We talked it over and got it together, oh boy."
Her enthusiasm is infectious. No wonder she was elected Secretary of the Student Body at Commodore Sloat Grammar School when she was seven. She was supposed to make a speech about why the student body should vote for her.
"It was my first time onstage. I came down the center aisle, up the five steps - the last time I went to Commodore Sloat, the steps were still there. I was frightened to death, and I thought, oh this is embarrassing, my knees are shaking so. But Bobby Schmalz, who nominated me, later said they couldn’t see my knees shaking because I had a full skirt on."
Little Carol stood there and didn’t know what to say.
"I’m an only child, and I used to have favorite people I wanted to be with whom I’d bring home with me in my imagination. I was crazy about anyone who had a fascinating walk of talking, or had a certain look or a way of walking.
"Miss Berard, who was the Principal of the school, I just loved, because apparently she was the forerunner of Julia Child. I would find every excuse to go in her office. Finally, I thought, I know what. I’ll do what I do best. I’ll turn into somebody else. I’ll turn into Miss Berard, because they all know the Principal. So I lowered my voice and said [in Miss Berard’s Julia Child baritone], ’Go to the polls, and vote for Carol.’
"You know, they all laughed, and she laughed, too. And I said, how could you laugh at yourself? And she said, because I knew there was no malice to it. I knew you were crazy. And it’s true. I was crazy about Miss Berard, because she had this crazy way of talking."
Carol shared a story she otherwise keeps to herself. "I had ovarian cancer. Well, the show starts at 8 o’clock every night. I can’t wait for [the cancer to heal]. So I went to my doctor, and he stood in the wings to help. He said, if you reach to the heavens to get the show out, the heavens answer you. Every time I went onstage, I reached to the heavens to get this show out.
"They took out whatever it was that caused the cancer, and that was it. I never missed a show. But the world turns against you when you mention anything about this, so I’ve never mentioned it to anybody. After that, we toured, and I was flying in every other weekend for chemotherapy and all that. Boy, I came crashing through, and got the Tony Award that year. But they were there, when I reached to the heavens to get the show out. And those were my best performances."
Toward the end of our 80-minute interview, I dared ask, "Have you ever been so busy playing characters onstage that you have lost track of yourself? How do you keep in touch with yourself - Carol Channing, the real person inside - in the middle of all these characters?"
"What a penetrating question you just asked," she exclaimed, then proceeded to tell story after story rather than answering directly. But I kept persisting. After 10 minutes, we got closer.
"Harry keeps saying to me, ’I’ve never heard of a life of such agony.’ I made more mistakes - more stupid mistakes - because I didn’t watch carefully about my personal life. I married all the wrong people. They didn’t care about me. It was miserable, but I was fine onstage."
As she veered off into another fabulous story about performing for Marc Blitzstein, she acknowledged she was side-stepping. "I’m off the subject again. I married people that didn’t love me. They wanted to write a book, or they wanted to use my little salary of $60/week that I got to play in the Village Vanguard and places downtown, uptown and all around. I played with the Almanacs and all these groups, and they wanted to live on my salary. I was high, wide, and handsome, as long as I was doing creative work."
I repeated the question. Has she found a way to be okay without doing creative work or playing characters?
"Well, it’s the first time I’ve been totally loved. I mean, except by my parents. All the way. It was there the moment we reconnected."
I wanted to cry. The real Carol Channing was right there, all the way. And she was talking about love.
Richmond-Ermet’s star-studded gala at the Herbst Theatre, benefiting four AIDS organizations, kicks off at 5 p.m. on Sun., Aug. 15. Tickets: www.helpisontheway.org or (415) 273-1620.