October 17, 2024

An Evening with Carol Channing!

Last night Brian and I sat raptly as Carol Channing, the last living dinosaur of the stage (Brian would say a velociraptor), delighted an adoring crowd with some senile ramblings, a little Ethel Merman dish, and gravelly renditions of her old standards. It was an evening that went from resembling a pentecostal revival to exercise hour in the nursing home rec room.

The following post was written by Brian...


Her entrance alone was worth the (considerable) price of admission. Carol Channing, the 83-year-old stage legend, walked out onto the stage of the Pantages Theatre in bright read stirrup pants, oversized red blazer, and a red sequin shirt, her hair done up in silver Pippi Longstocking pigtails, flashing a smile that is copyrighted as hers forever. It is an almost unnatural grimace, too big for her head, like a cross between the Cheshire Cat and a Pez dispenser.

But she can talk, too. We’ve been informed before Ms. Channing’s entrance by her pianist/prompter that the evening will take a sort of Inside the Actor’s Studio format, with him playing James Lipton and her playing, well, Carol Channing. Really, the show, entitled appropriately enough, “An Evening with Carol Channing,” is more like your great uncle prompting your goofy, slightly senile great aunt to tell stories and sing songs over family Christmas egg nogs. “Tell’em the one about Ethel Merman!” “Should we do that song you sang in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?”

Now, if you’ve never heard Carol Channing speak before, you should know that she’s famous for her raspy articulations. Even if you have heard her before, you probably haven’t heard her lately. A woman who already sounded like she’d been gargling with gravel every morning 40 years ago, today sounds positively stegosaurian. “Oh! What lovely people!” she kept squawking after she walked onstage, like no one had ever given her a standing ovation before. Actually, I didn’t care if she was sincere or not. We had left the realm of sincerity, and I was enraptured by the spectacle. Carol Channing, you see, is my camp icon.

She first came to my attention as a young child watching Sesame Street. Yes, the leftist PBS force-fed thousands of innocent young children a dose of campy, queer-loving Carol, all funded by taxpayer’s dollars. In this particular Sesame Street skit she sings to a Muppet snake named Sammy. The tune is her trademark, “Hello, Dolly!” although Jim Henson and his homosexual operatives changed the lyrics to “Hello, Sammy!” to take full advantage of Carol’s legendary lisp. The moment my four-year-old-ears heard her serenade that serpent, I could feel my wrists go limp.


And here we were, almost 20 years after our first introduction, and she was 50 feet in front of me, looking a little weathered, yes, I’ll admit it. But let me tell you something: bright, brilliant, Ziegfeld Follies showbuisness razz-ma-tazz was shining through every pore on that women’s wrinkled, makeup-caked face. One of the first musical numbers she did was a song that she learned from a traveling show while she was growing up in (where else) San Francisco. It was a three-part number in Russian, and of course Carol sang all the parts herself. I think the gist of the whole thing is that a little girl named Katzinka is very spoiled and is trying to get her way with her parents, Papinka and Maminka. Like I said she sang all the parts in flawless Russian, changing her posture and pitch for each part. Papinka’s parts were so low that Carol sounded like Boris Yeltsin on the borscht-belt circuit.

Remember, the woman is 83-years-old. The effect on the viewer is similar to what would occur if you stuck a big key in the back of your grandmother, wound her up, and watched her proceed to high-kick and thrust her pelvis while belting out “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” About that number. Carol introduced it by saying it was her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is a wonderful way of putting it, don’t you think? What would your “Battle Hymn of the Republic” be? I’m still thinking, but mine might be the theme from Golden Girls. And did I mention the high-kicks and pelvic thrusts? The raunchy move she did while shouting “Diamonds! Diamonds! Diamonds!” looked like an audition tape for Showgirls.

In between the songs, though, she started to really show her age. Her James Lipton-wannabe pianist had to repeatedly reign in her ramblings and jog her memory. All of this lent a slightly horrific edge to the proceedings. Most of her stories were actually quite funny, like Ethel Merman’s encounter with a man’s bleeding rectum aboard an airplane, for instance. But she would get lost and start spinning her yarn in circles. At one point she had a coughing fit that lasted for several minutes until someone fetched a glass of water. “Is she gonna make it through this?” is a thought that I’m sure passed through half the audience’s mind. I didn’t even mention the audience yet. It was roughly half senior citizens off a tour bus wearing laminated nametags around their neck, clutching walkers and strongly of Heaven Scent. The other half was middle-aged gay men in black leather jackets with botox cheeks and hair implants. Oh, and Jason and me. A couple of homos laughed loudly and inappropriately when Carol mentioned the giant cyst on Ethel Merman’s head when she was visiting “La Merm” on her deathbed. I’ll admit I was suppressing a snigger myself.


But that was about the only time I suppressed it, because for the rest of the show I was howling, my mouth agape a la Channing herself. Which is what she is, really: an imitation. Of herself. There is no real Carol Channing. She is a funny voice you do when everyone’s had a bit too much to drink, a costume that gives you permission to be absolutely fucking ridiculous. After the show, Jason and I waited outside the stage door with about a dozen other losers for a chance to meet the woman in person. I had a funny idea of getting a picture with her and sending it out as a Christmas card. After about a half an hour the door opened, a security guard cleared the way, and Carol Channing walked past me, a flash of red getting into the back of a town car. No autographs, no pictures, no real acknowledgement that we were waiting there at all. I’m sure she was tired, and it was cold out. But I’m really not that disappointed. I like her better from a distance, on the stage or on my TV screen late at night. I have no idea what I would have said to her anyway. How does one address a punch line? You don’t say, “Hello, I think you’re really funny and I’m a big fan.” You just yuck it up and clap and wait for the next joke.

Towards the end of the show, she got to the one song everyone expects her to sing, her greatest hit. During “Hello, Dolly!” she pantomimed the actions and costumes and I was there, back on 14th street with her. “Stairs” she said softly at the beginning indicating her famous grand entrance in her famous feathered red hat and dress. Ladies and gentlemen, Carol Channing can still belt one out. When she sang “Ra Ra Ra, Fellas! Look at the old girl now, Fellas!” I knew we had arrived at the gates of homo heaven and St. Peter was wearing sequins.

Posted by jason at October 17, 2024 08:15 PM

I'm happy that Brian explained how it is that anybody under 50 could even have heard of Carol Channing. I mean, this woman was considered too old to play Dolly Levi in the movie version of Hello, Dolly--in 1969.

Myself, I always suspected that Carol Channing was really Sylvia Sidney trying for a comeback in camp drag. But since Sylvia Sidney is now certifiably dead (1999), and the real Carol Channing must also be dead, assuming she ever actually existed, my theory now is that what Brian and Jason saw was actually David Gest in drag on the rebound from his failed marriage to Liza. Has anybody ever seen the two of them together?

Posted by: glen at October 18, 2024 01:00 AM

Yes, well, given some of Brian's more ribald comments last night--fantasizing about Carol pleasuring herself, etc. I'm afraid he could become a David Gest himself.

Posted by: jason at October 18, 2024 01:07 AM

Dentures. Didn't she do the Poly-Grip commercial? If so, that's my intro to Ms. Channing. If Brian fantasizes about her onanistic pleasures, I, a kindred spirit of the serial kiler in Red Dragon, imagine those dentures falling to floor as she cackles "Rasberries!"...

Posted by: Tom at October 20, 2024 12:35 PM

holy shit i'm not sure if she ever did a superpolygrip commercial but if she did, i want video-on-demand! Expert Brian, can you confirm this???

Posted by: jason at October 20, 2024 12:41 PM

Oh, Tom... so close, but no, err... cigar. You are thinking of fellow octogenerian June Allyson. She did many denture and adult diaper commercials. Carol would be perfect for such a venture, but I think too much of (what's left of) her career is staked on her famous smile to ever insinuate that it was fake.

Posted by: Brian at October 20, 2024 09:22 PM