Outside the venerable St. James Theater in New York City on the night of January 16, 1964, the temperature plunged into the mid-20’s. Inside, the atmospherics were considerably warmer.
A genuine, five alarm, red hot triumph, “Hello, Dolly,” was blazing through its Broadway debut.
The most revered theater critic of his time, perhaps all time, Walter Kerr, offered the following verdict the next morning in the New York Herald Tribune: “Hello, Dolly …is a musical comedy dream…don’t bother holding onto your hats, you’d only be throwing them in the air anyway.”
Regarding the star of the show, Carol Channing, Kerr raved, “She is glorious.”
Over at the New York Times, Howard Taubman concurred. “Hello, Dolly, which blew happily into the St. James Theater last night…throbs with vitality…it’s the best musical of the season.” Taubman was equally effusive about Channing’s work, saying she was “outgoing, big, warm, all eyes and smiles.”
Dolly scored a then-record ten wins at the Tony Awards that year (including the Best Musical, and Best Actress in a Musical, Channing). The original cast album shot to number one on the Billboard charts, staying there for seven consecutive weeks before reaching gold record status.
When Channing passed away at the age of 97 recently in Rancho Mirage, California, she had performed the role more than 5,000 times — and the love affair that began fifty-five years ago, was still, as lyricist Jerry Herman wrote of Dolly, “going strong.”
But the question of the moment is, will Dolly ever get back to the final resting place she deserves.
Channing, cremated following her passing, expressed a desire to be buried in the alley between two San Francisco, California institutions, the Curran and the Geary theaters.
The Seattle born Channing was raised in San Francisco and saw her first theatrical production at the Curran when she was in fourth grade– “As Thousands Cheer,” which featured Ethel Waters, was the origin of her desire to perform.
A phone call to Channing’s publicist, B. Harlan Boll, earlier this week confirmed that those connected to her estate were in talks with the theaters. Since the cremation precludes a burial, perhaps her ashes will come to rest somewhere nearby.
Or perhaps the alley could be named for Channing: San Francisco has a rich history of acknowledging their own or their adopted-own with plaques, statues and street names. Robert Louis Stevenson, Tony Bennett, and Dashiell Hammett have all been honored (even a few of Hammett’s fictional characters — Miles Archer, Sam Spade and Brigid O’ Shaughnessy, three from “The Maltese Falcon” — have been commemorated).
The uncertainty surrounding Channing’s final disposition reminds that several of the cast, crew and creative talents who were present on that January night in 1964 experienced poignant passings that contained some drama and irony.
David Burns, who played opposite Channing as Horace Vandergelder, was a grumpy/endearing/multi-Tony Award winning Broadway warhorse. His voice had been compared to “the horn on a Packard,” and his comic timing was precise. In March of 1971, Burns died on a Philadelphia stage during previews of “70, Girls, 70” — he was felled by a heart attack at the age of 68 right after delivering a strong punch line. The audience, already in a building laugh at the line, thought his collapse was part of the show and continued to laugh.
Michael Stewart, also a multiple Tony Award winner, who produced a string of hit shows in addition to Dolly — Bye, Bye Birdie, 42nd Street and George M among them — died of pneumonia just after his 63rd birthday in 1987.
The legendary producer/ impresario David Merrick, one of the most successful but least liked Broadway figures, died in 2000. He was 88, but the last years of his life were torturous and frustrating, owing to a stroke which severely debilitated him.
Eight time Tony Award winning director and choreographer, Gower Champion, who probably saved Dolly with his out of town changes (major surgery, not just tinkering) in Detroit and Washington, died a few months after turning 61. He had just directed his most successful show — 42nd Street, which ran almost 3,500 performances on Broadway. Champion never saw any of them: cancer killed him the morning of the show’s premier. In a final irony, Merrick, who was producer, managed to keep Champion’s passing a secret until he announced it following the first performance’s curtain call.
Now that Channing has passed, this preposterously talented Dolly company has been reduced to a notable few, including composer Herman and Michael Crawford (who went on to stardom in “Phantom of the Opera.”)
One of the lead Dolly dancers, who took a bow at that initial performance in 1964 and stayed for the entire 2,884 run of the show, recently recalled how lucky he was to have been surrounded by so many gifted professionals. He was clear about the anchor, the linchpin that made the show so magical — Carol Channing. She never seemed to have an off night, he remembered.
Channing did not want a funeral service, but according to her publicist’s office, she would have welcomed any support given to the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, California or the Carol Channing Theater at Lowell High School in San Francisco.