Thursday, January 24, 2019

A Tribute To Forest Hills’ Own Carol Channing

By Michael Perlman

Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!" Courtesy of Carol Channing Productions
America is bearing homage to Carol Elaine Channing, a definitive singer, dancer, and actress on Broadway and internationally, the big screen, and television, who is indeed “Larger Than Life” after her passing on January 15 in Rancho Mirage, California at age 97. She was born on January 31, 1921 in Seattle, Washington, and as of 1955, she was one of numerous diverse artists to call Forest Hills home. This columnist featured her in the book, “Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park,” as one of 200 notables. 

Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!" Courtesy of Carol Channing Productions
Among her numerous accomplishments, Channing starred in the Broadway show “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” as Lorelei Lee, and most notably as Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” (also a famed song) which debuted in 1964 and consisted of over 5,000 consecutive runs. The Broadway musical earned ten Tonys, including Channing’s for “Best Actress in a Comedy.” She also played Muzzy in the 1967 film “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” resulting in a Golden Globe Award. She entertained on television variety shows including “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Hollywood Squares.” In 1995, she was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2009, she was a Smithsonian Institution inductee. Another milestone was the 2012 documentary “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.”

Carol Channing & her husband Harry Kullijian, junior high sweethearts, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa
 What better way to pay tribute than through the memories of entertainment industry experts who were fortunate to work with Channing! Television host Bill Boggs, who can be viewed on BillBoggsTV on YouTube, has interviewed everyone from Carol Channing to Frank Sinatra to Burt Bacharach. “The word icon is overused, but it is accurately applied to Carol Channing,” said Boggs, who is proud to see that she is being remembered by a celebration of happiness that reflects how her performances affected people. “You could not watch her on stage or meet her and not smile, and people are smiling as they speak of her,” he continued. 

Boggs called her a 20th century defining Broadway star, and questions the future. He explained, “Due to cultural shifts, it’s unlikely that we will see another star who will dominate Broadway by selling tickets for years and years without having a major career in film or TV.” Although it can pose a challenge to define what makes an individual truly unique, he said, “Whatever ‘it’ is, she had it.” “She possessed the ability to get a laugh and hold your attention just by her presence on stage. In a way, she created a caricature of herself that became her on-stage persona no matter what she was doing, and technically, she really knew how to use her voice.”

Boggs will always be grateful for interviewing Channing on television on a few occasions, such as for the Jerry Herman compilation show. Relating to her originality and sense of humor, he reminisced, “She would show up on the set with a round light gray circle of makeup, smudged on the end of her nose. When I mentioned to her that she had something on her nose, before we started taping, she told me she did that to make her nose look longer.” 

Chip Deffaa with Carol Channing, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa
“To the world at large, she was a Broadway legend since the 1940s, and to me she was an extraordinary friend, as in a fairy godmother who I was so grateful to have in my life,” said Chip Deffaa, a playwright, author, critic, writer, and director. He will always recall her generosity, such as in the case of creating recordings, which appeared on Deffaa’s album productions and in “Theater Boys,” his musical comedy. “She did that as a gift and would not take a dime,” he recalled.

Deffaa draws a blank to think of anyone more dedicated to work than Channing. “Whenever I direct a show, run a recording session, write a script, or hold an audition, I do so with her guidance,” he said. He looks up to her for achieving a record. He explained, “No other actress in America has played any role as many times as she played Dolly Gallagher Levi in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ on Broadway and national tours.” She fought a brave battle against cancer during her first national tour, which she kept confidential at that time, and would fly to and from Sloan-Kettering weekly to undergo treatment. Deffaa said, “I’ve seen her go out on stage on sheer nerves, putting mind over matter, despite fierce health challenges, and she would play her role over 4,500 times before ever letting an understudy go on.”

Channing was the foremost in musical comedy, according to Deffaa. “She would tell me ‘Any actor is lucky if he gets to originate one great role. I got to originate two,’ he reminisced, in reference to Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” and Lorelei Lee in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” 

Art Nouveau poster by master illustrator John Alvin for Carol Channing's show "Lorelei"
“She always felt larger-than-life, even simply sitting quietly backstage, applying or removing her makeup,” said Deffaa, who loved observing how she drew eyelashes on herself with mascara, which read well on stage.

Deffaa still hears in her “inimitable deep voice,” “We do our best work when challenged.” “She was like an oracle, and I took her words very seriously,” he reminisced. He strongly embraces his work ethic and never missed a deadline, owing that discipline to her. “I certainly wasn’t disciplined by nature in my youth, but if she could do eight shows a week while fighting cancer, I could damn well write copy for the New York Post or another chapter of a book with the Flu.”

When Deffaa booked singers for a recording session, he would invite extras. “She taught me that some singers would inevitably bail out at the last minute, sabotaging themselves by giving in to subconscious fears, and she was right.” He also learned to be tougher while producing recordings and directing shows. He can still hear, “Chip, you have to be a benevolent dictator.” He said, “She had little tolerance for mediocrity. If she was not happy with, say, the conductor on a tour she was starring in, she’d see to it he was replaced.”

“She encouraged me to dream big, grab opportunities when they came, and work full steam and not to wait, because none of us know how much time we have,” said Deffaa. A case in point was when she planned to write memoirs and requested to meet with him. He reminisced, “She said she couldn’t possibly write a book by herself, and asked if we could do an ‘as told to’ book, with her telling me stories which I could put into book form. She shared stories for hours that night, saying she hoped I could start writing the book at once.” However, Deffaa just moved at the time, and mentioned that he would need six weeks before beginning. “Carol said she’d begin jotting down recollections until I was ready, but by that time, she actually finished writing the entire book in longhand, and it was terrific,” he continued.

Deffaa remembers her as a “consummate trouper.” He explained, “When she recorded the audio book of her autobiography, she spent hour after hour in front of the mic. She knew that time is money in a recording studio, and did not want to take any breaks. Her producer, Steve Garrin, had to call breaks. She recorded the entire book and not an abbreviated version as many might do, spending 40 hours to record the complete book, plus some extras.”

Deffaa can still hear her motivational words, “Create something every day. When we create, we’re closer to being whole and well.”

Carol Channing, first performer invited to entertain at the Superbowl, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa
A similar version of this story is featured in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: 

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