Carol Channing Comes to Town
by Tony Phillips
My favorite quote about Carol Channing goes, famously, if she didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent her. The last time we spoke, she didn’t. The plucky octogenarian was holed up on a golf course in Palm Springs for four and a half years writing her remarkable “pencil and eraser” memoir Just Lucky I Guess and emerged cranky as a Yosemite bear on the first day of spring.
You see, Carol is a “people who needs people” type to borrow a lyric from the chick that snatched the movie role of a part she refined over a staggering 5,000 performances. But Carol’s not bitter about a young upstart named Barbara Streisand donning Dolly Levi’s finery for the 1969 bomb. And I suppose if she is, she need only dust her three Tony Awards, the first for her 1964 turn in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. All she’ll say is “poor Thornton Wilder thought he wrote a comedy.” Channing doesn’t have time to be bitter. She’s on tour. And like Mrs. Brolan, she’s a newlywed in love. In May of 2003, she married her high school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, or “Harry my husband” as she says as if the phrase is one long word.
Last time around, the obvious question was why a book and not a one-woman show? “You know,” she said, “I didn't know I had such a fabulous life. I talk about all these things all the time and people say, 'Gosh, you should write a book.' They say that to everyone, but I began writing mine, that's all. It takes from the time you wake up in the morning until midnight: every minute of everyday and you can't do another damn thing. I wouldn't let myself answer the phone or even turn on the television set. My editor told me I had a talent for writing so that's why I wanted to write it.”
At this point my notes are interrupted by a knock on Carol’s door. “It’s flowers for Christmas,” she explains and I can hear the florist gush, “Your work really means a lot to me.” Palm Springs florists, go figure, but Carol receives him warmly, even flirts a bit, asking if the flowers are from him and sends him off with a “Merry Christmas!” for both himself and his family. I should also explain that the editor she casually mentions as if it's some junior assistant buried under galleys in a cube at Simon & Schuster is none other than the storied overseer of presidential autobiographies Michael Korda. She claims it’s the first time he ever passed a book though with the note: “No edits. Absolutely none.” Channing says it wasn’t for lack of trying, but then, “He gave a verdict and that's the first time that anybody's ever heard of such a thing.”
“That was a strange question to ask me,” she muses three years later about why a book and not a one-woman show, “because a lot of things from the book are in the one woman show.” She’s chatting to me again from Palm Springs, still doesn’t know her White Party from her Morning Party, although this time is able to offer, “Oh that thing with the kids and Dinah Shore!” She’s just finished a lunch with Harry and George Burns’ best friend. She’s happy, but claims “the comics still sit in the corner and act superior.”
As far as what else is in her show, the names keep coming. There are reminiscences about “My old friends like Tallulah, Merman, and the Queen of England. The Qu-eeeeeen,” she repeats, drawing out the word with relish. She claims her biggest problem is length. “I’ve cut a lot of things because the show can’t go on that long, it gets longer and longer each time because the audience says, “Tell us about Ethel Merman” or they yell things at me or ask for Cecelia,” this last comes out in a half-whistle.
“Did you ever know about Cecilia Sisson, the whistling girl?” she asks, faux-innocently, all her s’s coming now in a frantic whistle. She proceeds to tell the story of a long forgotten silent film star whose career tanked as Hollywood transitioned to talkies. Of course I know Cecilia, but I can’t wait to meet her in person. Of course, the ever-incorrigible Channing attempts to do the rest of the interview in character. I rush her to the punchline and she sighs, “Cecilia, old girl, you could have been a major star if you’d only kept your big mouth shut!” Not true, our girl Carol, who is “still crowin',” to borrow a lyric from Mr. Herman, “still goin’ strong.”