Zippy, zany, and full of zeal, the 2012 documentary Larger Than Life, about the adventures of Carol Channing, finds this “Dolly” performing her signature role of Hello, Dolly! for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS—and at ninety years young yet, is out in theaters! Check out our 2004 interview with Carol Channing about her AIDS advocacy.
Stage Veteran Carol Channing Has a New Opening Number: To Give Is to Heal
by Dann Dulin
“A ll but one of the original Hello, Dolly! chorus boys are dead from AIDS,” says a surprisingly somber Carol Channing, recalling the 1964 original Broadway production for which she won a Tony Award. It’s a persistent memory as Channing has now played the irrepressible matchmaker, Dolly Levi, over 5,000 times. As a kid growing up in the mid-sixties, I remember what a thrill it was to buy the album of Hello, Dolly!, my very first original cast recording, for the hefty sum of $3.50 (show tunes and musicals always cost a dollar more than pop). Within months the vinyl record became scratchy with wear, but it didn’t matter since I had learned every song by heart. Incidentally, when the cast recording was released, it knocked the Beatles to second place on the charts.
Almost from the beginning of the AIDS crisis, Channing has tirelessly pitched in, and she presently works closely with several organizations, including TV CARES and Aid for AIDS. Her interests also expand to organizations such as the National Institute on Aging, Women of L.A., and The Actors’ Fund. In the nineties, during the Dolly revival’s national tour, every Thursday, for the entire run, Channing and cast would donate ticket receipts to local AIDS organizations in the city they were visiting. They would also lend a hand and perform at local AIDS benefits, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS in New York when Dolly played on Broadway.
One cast member on that last national tour, Don Ives, thirty-four, was battling AIDS. “I danced with him in the ‘Dancing’ number,” Channing reminisces, as she sings a few bars of the song to refresh my memory. “He would whisper exhaustedly, ‘Oh, Carol.’” She hesitates a moment while her head drops slightly. “He got thinner and thinner, and he would just hang on me. I’d think, ‘Thank goodness I’m so strong.’ He felt my strength because he’d come and rest in my dressing room.” She recalls: “[Vicariously] we all went through the birth of his niece, Alexandra. He would call her in the Midwest and say, ‘Hello Alexandra. When you’re older, life isn’t easy but remember sometimes we need to learn lessons. So don’t give up. Just keep going.’ He would talk to her like that until she was a year old. Then he died,” she says, immediately putting it in perspective, “New life came in and his life was gone.”
This legendary Broadway veteran is visiting Los Angeles today from her home in Palm Springs to do a book signing this evening for her autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess. During a career that spans five decades, Channing has won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and two Tony’s, not counting a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. Recently, she was honored with the first star on Broadway’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Speaking of which, she appeared in several films, including Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. Carol garnered an Oscar nomination for her performance—and, yes, she did most of those daring stunts herself! On a historic note, Carol was the second actress to ever grace the cover of Time magazine.
Raised in San Francisco, Channing has been married four times and has one son, a cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. Moments earlier, upon entering the hotel room, Carol wasn’t quite ready, so her new husband, Harry Killijian, eighty-four, and I had a few moments to get acquainted. He took pride in reminiscing about how they reunited just months ago after nearly seventy years of separation. Carol and Harry had been childhood sweethearts in San Francisco until their lives took different paths. Harry read about himself in Carol’s memoirs and decided to contact her. Each thought the other was dead. When they finally met, Harry’s instant reaction was, “That’s my girl!” They renewed their love, and married in May, 2003.
After a short time, Carol entered all snazzy in an elegant cream-colored pantsuit with a Nehru collar. In that low, gravelly, unmistakable voice, she apologized for being late. She’s as perky and smile-y as you would expect. And, for eighty-three, the Broadway grande dame looks exquisite and bursts with energy. Harry beamed, exchanged a few, sweet words with Carol, and then excused himself to the adjoining room.
Carol’s initial AIDS awareness came through a friend. “I first heard about it when Jerry [Herman, Hello, Dolly!’s songwriter; A&U, February, 1998] was diagnosed.He’s a miracle—the way he’s overcoming it. Just saw him yesterday and he just looks better than he ever did. It’s amazing what can be done now. He’s working like a little Trojan!” Seated on the couch, she leans a little closer. “I tried to talk to Jerry when he was diagnosed, but he couldn’t overcome it. He couldn’t hear anything positive at the time because he was so frightened. The cancer I had was frightening.”
Channing was diagnosed with uterine cancer during the original tour of Dolly, and underwent cobalt and chemo treatments. How did she handle the crisis? “I never missed a performance! Being creative is healing,” she explains vibrantly. “Theater people don’t give in. Nothing stops the show. It’s very healing to give to an audience. They kept me healthy, strong, and [proactive about] overcoming the cancer. After every show I either felt better, or I thought I was cured. That’s why I think working is so important. In the process of giving, you heal.
“Jerry did overcome the initial shock of his HIV status,” says Carol as she brushes bangs away from her eyes. “And now he reaches out to others to help lift their lives. His music lifts my life,” she declares. “The process is mental; it’s healing. Expressing how you feel is so important to healing. There’s a healing force when you give your soul to a creation,” notes Carol.
“I remember when L.A.’s Mayor Richard Riordan….” she stops, drops her voice even lower, and mutters—“a Republican”—“blocked off a street to exhibit paintings by people with AIDS. People bought them, which gave them a salary to live [on].”
Carol passionately describes one of the paintings. “It was wonderful. It was portals; a big doorway; another, smaller, doorway; then a smaller doorway. The artist, Mark Griffen, willed it to me, but [the executors] never gave it to me,” she says in a disturbed, feisty mode before continuing: “The painting was like death; stages of going into death. You go through this portal and you understand that. Each portal, you understand more. Maybe something superhuman you start understanding, I don’t know.” When Carol described her take to the artist, he replied, “You know, Carol, that’s exactly what it’s about. There’s only one thing. I’m gonna call it something positive. I’m gonna call it birth.” Channing agreed, and then questioned herself, “Why do I see it as negative?” But she tells me that she does not see death as negative.
“I was with Mary Martin [Broadway’s original Peter Pan and Maria von Trapp] near the end, and I just know that she felt total contentment when she died,” Carol heartedly reflects. “She was in a coma; I took her hand and talked about all the old jokes we had shared together. I told her I loved her, and she squeezed my hand! You can read about it in my book,” she says with a wave of the hand and a snigger. But does Carol believe in an afterlife? “I haven’t the slightest idea!” she responds dismissively. “Who am I to know? How can anybody stand up and say, ‘Well, this is what’s going to happen to you after you die.’ And I think, ‘How do you know, you old fool.’” We laugh, which she likes to do often, and she dazzles with that famous grin.
Her spiritual and upbeat attitude comes from her father, who was a Christian Scientist, as is Channing. Near the end of our time together this afternoon, Carol flashes to a childhood memory. “There was this little boy, Billy Williams. I used to call him ‘Bee Weeams’ because I couldn’t say his name. I was three and I’d take him by the hand and walk to Sunday school. He would get seizures where he couldn’t control himself. My father said he was spastic, and expounded: ‘Look into his eyes and see his soul, but don’t see the disease.’ And when Billy had seizures, he looked at me and would just come out of them.” Carol ponders. “So young I learned that, and I am grateful,” she boasts, and then fervently recaps:
“Don’t look at the disease. Don’t give it any power!”
Author and lyricist, Jerry Herman, wrote Mame especially for Carol.
Her first on-screen smooch was with Clint Eastwood in The First Traveling Saleslady.
Carol’s first starring role was as Lorelei in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a production that introduced the signature song: “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
In Thoroughly Modern Millie, Carol herself performed most of the daring stunts.
For four months, while Carol was filming Thoroughly Modern Millie, Eve Arden replaced her in Hello, Dolly!
Ethel Waters was godmother to Carol’s son.
Carol sang at Joan Crawford’s wedding to Alfred Steel, the Pepsi magnate.
Carol and Tallulah Bankhead shared the same birthday—31 January.
Still Goin’ Strong
Who could play you in the movie of your life?
I could play myself but they’ll need to find someone to play me in my later years!
Name one of your favorite beliefs.
We learn more from failure than success.
Name your favorite city.
Which city has the best audience?
Minneapolis! [She answers with no hesitation.]
From the fourth grade on, my only goal in life was to lift people’s lives. That’s it. It wasn’t to show off. [She pauses a moment.] And it comes back to me. It’s a healing process with the audience. It heals them; it heals me.
What is the best thing about growing older?
Experience—there’s a security in experience. It’s comforting.
Overjoyed and Overwhelmed
What comes to mind when I say these names of people who have touched your life?
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—warm glamour
Joan Crawford—reaching for friendship
Tallulah Bankhead—hot and cold motherliness
Lucille Ball—adorable; she brought out the best in me
George Burns—[immediately replies] “ ‘George, why are you so pleased when you don’t get the laugh and I do?’ ‘Carol, you forget. I wrote your line.’”
Barbra Streisand—undisciplined temper
Elizabeth Taylor—satirizing herself; she joked about herself, she felt all the fuss about herself was ridiculous; she loves to make fun of herself
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.