I knew this day would come, but it’s still hard.
Carol Channing has died at age 97, her publicist said Tuesday.
Pictured above: Carol Channing knew how to connect with an audience. Photo: Tams Witmark
First memory: In eighth grade, I took a class trip to New York City. The bus drove up from Williamsburg, and our first view of Manhattan was in the golden hour, just before the sun set. As we drove through Times Square, we passed the theater where “Hello, Dolly!” was playing. The name “CAROL CHANNING” blazed on the marquee, above the title, and I thought to myself: “This is what it means when people talk about a name in lights.” I didn’t get to see the show — our obligatory Broadway outing was Frank Langella in “Dracula” — but I knew “Dolly” was where I wanted to be.
Second memory: My parents took me to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre to see Channing in the national tour of “Dolly.” Branded on my brain: the sustained applause upon her first entrance and the way she didn’t break character but still managed to give a “non-wink wink” to the audience; the waiters leaping over the netted orchestra pit; and begging my folks to buy the LP in the lobby after the show. I treasured that record.
Third memory: I got to interview Channing on the phone — and meet her in person — when she came to Fresno’s Tower Theatre in 2004 to stage two benefit performances for the Armenian Home for the Aged. (Her sister-in-law, Lucille Pilibos, a Fresno resident and ardent supporter of Armenian causes, helped make it happen.) The opening paragraphs of that story, written for the Fresno Bee, are fun for me to reread:
She offers a scoop of trademark gravel with her first cheery greeting over the phone.
That voice — recognizable to generations of Broadway musical-comedy fans, along with a sizable contingent of 1970s-era television watchers who never quite figured out why she kept popping up on “The Love Boat” — is raspy. It’s distinctive. It’s endearing. It’s like taking a shower in itty-bitty pebbles. It’s an aural national landmark, as much a part of the cultural consciousness as Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” or Richard Nixon croaking “I am not a crook.”
And today, over the phone, that voice is preoccupied at the moment with Carol Channing’s new favorite topic: reuniting with her first love. “I always liked the sound of my name,” the 83-year-old Channing says in that chirpy, gravelly growl. “But I think Carol Kullijian is just as euphonious.”
(First of all, isn’t the word “euphonious” wonderful? Who talks like that?)
Channing had married Kullijian, 84, her sweetheart from junior high school, the year before. They’d lost touch for a whopping 67 years.
The Bee has a roundup of Channing’s visit to Fresno for that Tower Theatre performance.
After covering the event for The Bee, I wrote:
The lights went up on Carol Channing and the shortest, most shimmering dress ever seen on an 83-year-old. I’d just spent nearly two hours laughing, nodding, fretting (when Channing forgot a few lyrics to “Razzle Dazzle”) and, yes, wiping away a few tears.
As the audience filed out, a woman sitting behind me in the Tower Theatre tapped me on the shoulder. “I can tell you really enjoyed the performance,” she said, “just by the look on your face.”
Afterward, I went backstage to say hello to Channing — something I don’t normally do at an event, but during our interview, she’d insisted I come and say hi. For a full 30 seconds, I’d say, I was the sole recipient of that dazzling smile. I don’t usually get star struck (and I’ve interviewed Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, the list goes on), but this time I just sort of gulped and said, “It’s such an honor to meet you.”
Some performers simply have “it” when it comes to connecting with an audience. Channing was electric. You felt it. And she knew it, and loved it.
She was like a hostess who wanted her guests to have a really good time. And if you were having a good time, then she was, too.
The tributes are pouring in today, and I’ll let Broadway pundits and historians do their thing as they catalog a long and vibrant career. But I wanted to add my little part, too. It’s a chance to say “Hello, Carol” one more time — and then goodbye.