24 January 2008

Carol Channing

In a mellow mood

The great stars of the heyday of Broadway musical comedy were not merely talented, they were dangerous. As Peter Pan, Mary Martin persuaded thousands of children that they could fly. Some died trying, and NBC had to take the televised version of her show off the air. Remember that, the next time somebody poo-poos the art form.

But by the time I got to New York, the heyday was well past its sunset. With the exception of Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, I missed out on the whole phenomenon. Mary Martin was still performing onstage, but in a straight play, Legends, that never came to New York. Ethel Merman died about five minutes after I arrived in the city; Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand were in self-imposed exile in Hollywood. But Carol Channing was still around, co-starring with Martin in Legends and perpetually touring in her biggest hit, Hello, Dolly. Not entirely by accident, I managed never to see that show. Word was that the production was pretty tired by the 1990s, and Channing later depicted it as something like spousal abuse, a job that was forced on her by her late husband, Charles Lowe. As many a critic observed, “Dolly will never go away again” began to sound like a threat. I kept my distance.

I’ve seen plenty of great performances in musical comedy, from Bernadette Peters to Donna Murphy, from Betty Buckley to Christine Ebersole; I’ve heard Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch in concert; I was johnny-on-the-spot when Julie Andrews returned to Broadway in the Sondheim revue, Putting It Together. Superlatives are too poor to describe their work. But it’s not the same, I am certain, as experiencing the raw power of those old-time Broadway stars the first time around, in their natural habitat.

I did get to meet Carol Channing once, in a most unlikely setting.

A day or so before the Democratic Convention in New York, in 1992, Bill Clinton spoke at an event at the Four Seasons restaurant. The dining tables had been cleared away to make room for extra chairs, in long rows packed with party luminaries and press, including all three network anchors. And over in a corner was Carol Channing.

All of us little network lackeys were abuzz: Carol Channing! We’d grown up watching her on TV, and we adored her. There was not a great deal of difference between her and a cartoon or a Muppet, at least to the undiscerning eye of a child, and her otherworldly voice and eccentric behavior were one definition of pure fun. And there she was! We tried not to stare. Suddenly Bill Clinton and Bernard Shaw and Pamela Harriman were a lot less compelling.

At the end of the afternoon, the event broke up, and the machers cast aside their chairs pell-mell in order to congregate in little shmoozing gangs. Miss Channing was already delicate, shall we say, and was having a hard time picking her way among the chairs as she made her exit. I leapt forward to clear a path for her.

“Why, thaaaank you,” she said, in that astonishing voice.

“I know why you’re here,” I said.

“Oh, dew you?”

“It’s because you’re just a little girl from Little Rock,” I said, quoting a number from her first hit show, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Her immense eyes began to twinkle. “Why, yay-ess!” she crowed.

In truth, there was no mystery to her presence. She’s an immensely intelligent woman (as a student at Bennington College, she specialized in medieval literature) who’s interested in almost everything, so why not politics, too? Her special brand of high-energy zaniness may even be an extension of her innate curiosity. It’s as if she wants to find out about everything, to go everywhere, to try anything, all at once.

The only art form ever devised that could contain that kind of passionate personality was the Broadway musical comedy. I’m sorry I missed out on it, yet I’m proud that I didn’t settle for its somnambulent reawakenings and mechanical refabrications (viz. not only Channing’s 5,000th Dolly but Yul Brynner’s King and Rex Harrison’s Higgins). And I’m grateful that I got to meet one of its most distinctive practitioners anyway.