Carol Channing on the enduring Dolly Levi and what she really thought of Streisand’s movie

With all apologies to Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler and Betty Buckley, all supreme talents, Carol Channing was Dolly Levi.

The Tony-winning actress, who died Tuesday at 97, was so identified with the signature matchmaker role she originated on Broadway in 1964, the character basically lived inside her she said in an interview published in the Miami Herald on Nov. 22, 1994.

Channing, then 71, was starring in a road revival of “Hello, Dolly!” The production played the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in November 1994 and moved to the Jackie Gleason Theater for the Performing Arts in Miami Beach in December 1994.

She talked about what Dolly Levi had meant to her and the generations of fans. How she felt when Barbra Streisand won the part over her for the controversial 1969 film adaptation, and her show-must-go-on work ethic.

Here is that article from the Miami Herald archives:

Hello, Dolly! Well, hello, Dolly! It’s so nice to have you back where you belong. You’re looking swell, Dolly! We can tell, Dolly. You’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’, you’re still goin’ strong.

— From “Hello, Dolly!”

Thirty years ago, when Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman wrote those now-familiar lyrics, he couldn’t have known he was foretelling Carol Channing’s future.

Or could he?

dolly channing.JPG
“Hello, Dolly!” cast album with Carol Channing in 1964. Songs by Jerry Herman. 1964 Miami Herald File RCA Victor

Three decades and 4,000 performances later, Channing is reprising her most famous role — as the irrepressible, meddlesome Dolly Gallagher Levi — in “Hello, Dolly!”, which opens tonight at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, moving in late December to the Jackie Gleason Theater.

The indomitable spirit that brings Channing back to a role she last played 12 years ago was there from the start.

At 71, Channing says she doesn’t feel any different from the younger woman who created Dolly Levi at Broadway’s Saint James Theatre on Jan. 16, 1964.

And she insists age isn’t an issue — though it comes up in every review.

“They say it’s better when you’re older, (but) I just don’t see it,” Channing said recently by phone from New York. “To me, I’m doing it exactly the same way.”

Pressed, though, she does allow that her role has evolved.

“None of us knows while we’re learning. When I think I’m learning, I’m not learning anything,” she says. “But when I pick up that ‘Hello, Dolly!’ script after 12 years and look it over, I realize: My God! That’s why she says that line. That’s why he says that to her. This is why Thornton Wilder wrote that speech.

“I realize I must have grown and didn’t know it. Or she marinated.”

Channing’s voice grows luminescent. “That’s what happened! Dolly has marinated inside me! I guess in my subconscious I was always thinking about her.”

And well she might.

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend — as Jule Styne wrote in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, another Broadway classic starring Channing —then a good role is an actress’ bosom buddy.

In Dolly Levi, Channing has that role.

“I get rejuvenated in this show. I send out the anodes and the audience sends back the cathodes,” she says. “Of course, I’m blessed with genes that just won’t quit. They’re endurance genes of some sort.”

They must be. Over the years, Channing has performed with broken bones and assorted ills. She has to, she says.

“If I miss one performance, it closes the show,” she notes. “Lying in bed being sick, . . . you think of the people saving their money, getting a babysitter, coming in from miles in the country . . . and it makes you much sicker. So I always feel: ‘All right, I’ll go out there, and I’ll die in the middle of the stage, and then they’ll all be sorry!’ “

And sure enough, you don’t die, you never do.”

Carol Channing thanks the audience during her curtain call after the matinee performance of ``Hello, Dolly!’ at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York on Jan. 10, 1996. AUBREY REUBEN AP

That attitude has stood Channing in good stead, particularly when “Dolly” and “Gentlemen” made the move from Broadway to Hollywood.

Channing, who had originated Dolly and “Gentlemen’s” Lorelei Lee, lost the roles in the film versions: to Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and to Barbra Streisand 16 years later in “Hello, Dolly!”

Monroe, who studied Channing’s performance from the same theater seat every night for weeks, eventually became identified with “Diamonds,” “Gentleman’s” signature song. But time — and a charmed meeting with the famous sex symbol — helped ease Channing’s disappointment.

“At the end of the three weeks, she came to my dressing room and said, ‘I just want you to know that every morning, I woke up and thought, ‘Oh I’m gonna see that wonderful show again. I never got bored with it.’ . . . I thought that was an awfully sweet thing to do. It helped a little bit with the sting -- but, boy, I was ready to jump out the window.”

Her experience with “Dolly” — and Streisand — was more wrenching.

Streisand’s stage career took off with “Funny Girl” in 1964, the same year Broadway’s “Dolly” debuted. “Funny Girl” launched Streisand into movie success, something Channing has yet to accomplish (despite an Oscar nomination for 1967’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie”).

When Streisand won the Dolly role, “it was suicidal for me,” Channing says. “It’s like somebody taking your baby. I was there when it was created. . . . I’ve never really dwelled on it; it’s painful to me.”

Of Streisand and the film, she says, “It wasn’t one of her victories. It’s hard to make a movie of a hit show. Thornton Wilder (who wrote “The Matchmaker,” upon which “Hello, Dolly!” was based) was unlucky with movies . . . It’s hard to capture that strange magic of Wilder.”

Channing has captured her own kind of magic, through “Dolly” and other shows and TV appearances. And though she swears she’ll say a permanent goodbye to the role once the revival wraps next year on Broadway, she clearly takes delight in her continued broad appeal.

“The fun is that children are coming,” she says. “They squeal and squeak over the horse car and train, and they just love it.”

So, it appears, do drag queens, who often impersonate Channing’s trademark look — the blond wig, large, heavily mascaraed eyes and ruby red lips she has sported since “Gentlemen.”

“I know they have to like me. Usually it’s because they want to be you, and that is a great compliment. Of course I don’t know who they are doing, because I have no perspective on myself. Sometimes these boys look like my father, but I don’t see me.”

She does, however, have a clear view of her flamboyant alter ego: “There is an end of the rainbow, and you can (reach) it if you . . . won’t lie down and die because life dishes it out pretty cruelly. But that’s what Dolly is, a survivor.”

Carol Channing, center, rehearses for the CBS television program “Crescendo” in New York on Sept. 23, 1957. Channing, whose incandescent performances as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! made her a Broadway legend, died early Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 97. SAM FALK NYT
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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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