Great Moments in New York Theater: Carol Channing and Hello, Dolly!
A few years later, I was old enough to check out books from the grown up section of the local library. Records, too. It was (still is) my habit to get “thing” about something and then research them. When I discovered the drama section of the library, I began checking out Random House playscripts published in hardcover format. One of the first ones I checked out was Hello, Dolly. The dustjacket was paper and brown and had an illustration of a huge feathered hat. There were sepia toned photos printed inside the book on the tan pages with brown typeface. I looked at the sepia photo of the lady who played Dolly Levi on Broadway. It wasn’t Barbra Streisand. I wanted to know more….
I went to the record albums and found the record of Hello, Dolly. It was not the lady in the photo that I saw in the pictures there: it was a black lady and the name on the record was Pearl Bailey. The original cast album was checked out. Weeks later, I found the original cast album of Hello, Dolly, starring the blonde lady on page one of the book. I checked out that record and took it home with me and my education about Hello, Dolly and about the American musical theater had begun…
I spent years listening to Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey and Barbra Streisand’s recordings of the famed Jerry Herman musical. All of them have merit. I saw clips on tv (and tapes given me be friends over the years) of Channing as Dolly Levi. I saw Channing in movies and on tv shows. I saw productions of Hello, Dolly in high schools, colleges, community theaters, regional theaters. I read, saw and performed in the original play The Matchmaker. I feel that I know about Hello, Dolly.
I was wrong.
I read in the paper that Carol Channing was coming back to Broadway in Hello, Dolly! AGAIN. Oh my gosh, I thought. She has been doing this play forever. Isn’t she tired? Doesn’t she want to do something else? Then I thought WHAT are you THINKING??!!! You will, FINALLY, get the chance to see Carol Channing play Dolly Levi?!! Shut. Up. Get on board. GET. EXCITED. So I did.
I don’t remember how many times I saw Hello, Dolly! I think I saw it once with Pat, once with Tony and Jim and once with my mother. This is what I want to say about each of those visits:
When Pat and I went for our first visit to the Lunt Fontanne Theater, we were like a couple of giddy teenage girls. We were so excited to see Carol Channing live (for the very first time, I might add); and, frankly, I can always see the play Hello, Dolly!
It turns out I had never seen Hello, Dolly! All those productions of this musical that I HAD seen, all those years of watching that movie, all those years of reading that hardcover of the play in now way prepared me for seeing Hello, Dolly for the first time. Because I never got it before seeing it with Carol Channing. On this night, I got it.
There is a charm to The Matchmaker that you might get if you saw the play, you would probably get if you read the play, you would definitely get if you saw the film version in which Shirley Booth plays Dolly Levi (born Gallagher). This production of Hello, Dolly had all the charm that Thornton Wilder wanted his original play to have, all the charm that one gets out of playing with an old music box while eating a vanilla ice cream cone on a summer day with the sounds of children laughing in the background. It was just an old fashioned backdrop musical with sweet little underscorings as the characters left their lives to turn toward us, their audience, walk downstage and speak directly to us about the proceedings in their simple, complicated, delightful, lyrical lives. Set pieces whirled by as quickly as the swirls of fabric on the chorus kids as they filled the proscenium arch, musical notes and rhythmic phrases flowed around our heads and into our ears and an entire theater filled with people sat for two hours with smiles THIS BIG across their faces. It was a fun, romantic, silly and touching journey with a simple message: live and love – it is what is important – and the entire trip was driven by a woman whose talent was so uncontainable and indescribable that each venture in front of a film camera has been unable to, sufficiently, capture it.
Carol Channing ate that stage. She cradled it and caressed it and teased it and chased it and she filled up every single nook and cranny, rolled it all into one enormous ball of delight and rolled it out over the audience like a blanket, designed to make us happy. What extraordinary comic timing that woman has! At a rather advanced age, she was able to project her voice so that we heard every single note, every single word ( something I miss from people half a century her juniour). She possesses a wistfulness that makes her monologues to the audiences as though we were having late night chat with our mother (or grandmother) over tea. We all want our maternal figures to be happy and this big hatted, feather bedecked mama was no different. When she made her declaration that she wanted to rejoin the world again, came a collective cheer from the audience, the exact emotion of which was “you go, girl!” She had us in the palm of her hand and we were with her, every step of the way.
Pat and I left the theater, remarking on how we finally GOT it! We were so elatedly happy that we knew we had to take Tony and Jim to see this; we needed to be there to watch them experience it. We called them the moment we got home.
Tony and Jim are a more sophisticated, more affluent version of us. They have been a couple exactly 22 years longer than we have and they are still as in love as we are. Theater aficionados, they were living in the days when you could go to the theater and see Ethel Merman in GYPSY and, indeed, they did because Ethel Merman was their best friend. When it comes to the theater, they know what’s good and what goes and they applaud and support it. We were not going to let the opportunity to witness their glee at this happening.
And glee, we got.
The four of us sat in out seats with our hands covering our mouths as we roared with laughter and clapped til our palms were sore. When the lights came up for intermission, we didn’t leave our seats: we stayed put and discussed the artistry of the legendary star and the joy to be had in these seats. When the lights came up at the end of the play, the conversation was just part two of the same as we walked out into the summer night, sated and singing.
One day my mother said she wanted to come into the city from Jersey to see Hello, Dolly! Really? I asked, a little surprised. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “It’s Dolly. It’s the real Dolly. Of course I want to see it – she’s the real Dolly. We’re going. I’m not going to miss seeing the real Dolly.”
Something you should know about my mother: she gets excited over nothing. She is a happy person who is made especially happy by her children and her grandchildren; but nothing excites her.
The day I took her to see Hello, Dolly (from really good seats, I might add), she was so excited! Beforehand, she kept saying “I’m going to Dolly… I’m going to see Dolly…” In fact, she was sort of singing it like a child awaiting the start of their birthday party. And inside that theater, my mother, who gets excited by nothing, was the first person to applaud when Carol Channing appeared. My mother, who gets excited by nothing, was the first person to begin clapping AND the first person to rise at the end of the title number, the first person to rise for the curtain call. Seeing my mother this excited, this happy, is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
The following Saturday she and I were in the grocery store and, as she pushed her cart down the aisle, she kept singing to herself: “ it only takes a moment….. it only takes a moment… it only takes a moment.. it only takes a moment…” Those are the only words she could remember. So I bought her the cd. A few years later, when Jerry Herman’s book of lyrics came out, I got the great Mr Herman to sign a copy for my mommy.
As the years have passed, I have continued to listen to my cast album from that production and treasure those three nights in the theater and, as I do, I smile and remember those nights with my loved ones watching a true Broadway legend. And I remember, specifically, these moments:
When Carol Channing sang So Long Dearie, it was a performance of such force that I held my breath, waiting for it to be over, not wanting to miss a moment by taking my focus off of her.
After Florence Lacey sang Ribbons Down My Back, Pat turned to me and whispered “Is that song new?” “No.” On the walk home he said “I never heard that song until Florence Lacey sang it.” That, after all those years of living with me – it took the brilliance of one of Jerry Herman’s best interpreters for him to hear the music.
And, finally, comes the moment I will always remember and hold to my heart as pure artistry, as complete genius; and anyone who has seen it should begin nodding their head in agreement, now. The potato puff scene… Absolute Genius. As Carol Channing ate what must have been twenty little potato puffs in what seemed like four or five minutes, the twitters from the audience became giggles, became laughs, became guffaws, became howls, became gales of laughter. It was so masterfully orchestrated, executed and stage managed that a room full of strangers were clutching their sides and clutching each other, tears rolling down their faces.