It’s just been confirmed that on March 23, 2019, the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, California will host a gala tribute to Carol Channing with a program of special performances and testimonials.
The question is whether Channing, who died on January 15th at the age of 97 in the Palm Springs area, will have a fitting final disposition by that date.
Following her death, Channing was cremated — her wish was to have her cremains buried in the alley between The Curran and Geary theaters in San Francisco. She was raised in the Bay area, and the first theater she ever appeared in was at Lowell High School, a theater now named after her.
Channing’s renowned publicist, Harlan Boll, in an email exchange, says that some type of arrangement is in the works between the city and representatives of the estate of the Broadway legend.
In her charming, discursive and mis-titled memoir, “Just Lucky I Guess,” (read the book: Channing worked hard to earn all that luck), the Curran and the Geary played major roles in the journey she took.
Channing first went to both theaters with her mother on a Saturday, not to attend a performance, but to deliver complimentary copies of The Christian Science Monitor.
When her mother opened the huge stage door of the Curran, Channing stepped inside and could not move: “I was overcome with the feeling that here was hallowed ground…it came over me that I was looking at the stage and backstage of a cathedral, a mosque, a mother church.” She felt like she was in the real world, the world of creativity.
For the next ninety plus years, Channing never did give up that belief, or stray too far from that world. It was perfect match for her and for those who consider her to be among the finest stage artists ever.
Boll points out that one of the great ironies of Channing’s life was that she suffered from terrible stage fright — right up until the time that the spotlight hit her. At that moment, Boll reports, she instantly felt like she was in the safest place in the world: center stage.
Famous for not missing shows, even in the grip of serious illness (she was treated for cancer during two runs of “Hello, Dolly”), Boll notes that Channing frequently said that if she missed a show, she may have missed the chance of giving her best performance to her most receptive audience.
The other great irony in Channing’s life was that her two greatest stage roles, Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly,” were ultimately essayed on film by other actresses.
Marilyn Monroe was Lorelei in the Howard Hawks production of Blondes, and Barbra Streisand played the lead in Dolly.
Channing actually had little problem with the movie version of Blondes: it was a complete rewrite of the Broadway show and, according to Boll, everyone concerned thought that Monroe put her own stamp on the part. Channing played it more for laughs — but both stars shine in their turns on the show stopping, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
The Dolly casting was a different matter. Streisand’s vocal work was sterling, but she was simply mis-cast as the veteran matchmaker (the film was a box office disappointment.)
Although Channing was initially disturbed, Boll maintains that she eventually came to terms with the snub: Streisand is simply extremely talented, a fact Channing recognized.
Today the public probably identifies her most with Dolly — she performed it live more than 5,000 times – but, the truth is Blondes solidified her career thirty years before that.
Anita Loos, who wrote the bestselling Blondes book and was a co-writer of the musical, was keen on the then little-known Channing from the get go, even though it was a tough sell to Broadway producers.
Channing, in heels, was well over six feet tall, not exactly the Lee in the book. So Lorelei was re-conceived in a more comic mode: Loose said, “She can play Lorelei like a Great Dane under the delusion she’s a Pekingese.”
It worked. The role ended up landing Channing on the cover of Time magazine, only the second actress then to be so featured — she must have been quite proud of this, as in “Just Lucky I Guess,” it rates three separate mentions.
A closing anecdote: Boll brings up the “Tiffany Tupperware” in which Channing always carried her special diet (even to the White House). Turns out that Channing didn’t really have all the food issues she was convinced she did have — it was a gimmick that her husband at the time created for publicity.
The only pressing issue now is where Channing’s cremains finally come to rest. Here’s hoping that the city by the Bay is that final destination, back near those cathedrals of imagination.
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