Carol Channing — 12 days shy of her 93rd birthday — unsteadily crossed the stage of Town Hall Jan. 20, buffered by two solicitous chaperones. After a wave of vociferous applause and a full two-minute standing ovation — "Dear, dear people," she said over the noise, "I love you, too!" — the star returned the favor with a highly entertaining (if slightly shaky) 50 minutes-worth of recollections and reminiscences.
Responding to supportive and patient questioning from Justin Vivian Bond, Channing buzzed from presumably familiar responses to what seemed to be unclear but delectable tangents. After commenting that she wanted to be buried in the alley between the Curran and Geary Theatres in San Francisco, Channing flashed back to her days as a seven-year-old scraping together her allowance so she could buy theatre tickets. (She would go to the Curran alone, she said.) Looking for a memory, she latched onto the 1928 visit of Nikita Balieff's Chauve-Souris, a Russian-language revue of émigrés that was a major hit on Broadway in 1922 and successfully toured the country for years. At first she couldn't remember the title of the show, although she told how she knocked on the stage door and visited Balieff (and gave a droll impersonation of the fellow). Then she remembered the title, but forgot Balieff's name.
Channing talked about her Broadway debut in the 1948 revue Lend an Ear, mentioning how Noël Coward visited the unknown backstage and got down on his knees. "You wait, madam," he said, "you just wait, you're gonna see what's gonna happen to you." She reminisced about George Burns; gave an impression of Sophie Tucker — the long-gone "Last of the Red Hot Mamas" — singing "Some of These Days" with a parody lyric about gambling; and told a story about Jacqueline Kennedy bringing her children to see a matinee of Hello, Dolly! After the show, John (age 5) took a ride on the onstage train. Caroline (age 8) asked if she could have Dolly's oversized purple purse, which Carol, of course, gave her (causing wardrobe and props to scramble for several performances until they could build a new one). Channing went on to say that Jackie called to say that Caroline would take the purse around the halls of their apartment building, ringing on doorbells and saying, "My name is Dolly Levi, old corsets reboned." "And," Carol related, "the people gave her money!"
The act started with four minutes of film footage and included videotaped questions from fans as well as greetings from stars including Sandra Bernhard, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters and Lee Roy Reams. (Channing seemed unsure as to whether they were actually somewhere in the audience.) Questions included one about why Legends — the James Kirkwood play that starred Channing and Mary Martin — didn't make it to Broadway. ("Well, it was a terrible show!") Another fan asked what she would want if she could ask for anything for her birthday. Her response was: "Mr. Merrick back again." ( David Merrick, that is, who produced Hello, Dolly! — which opened at the St. James 50 years ago this month.) The most touching moment came when Channing was asked to recite the "Ephraim" speech — about the faded oak leaf — from the first act finale of Dolly. Channing jumped into it without a moment's hesitation; whether it was word-perfect or not is hard to say, but watching this 92-year-old icon delivering it from the heart was a fitting cap to the evening. The event was first produced last August at the Ice Palace on Fire Island as part of Daniel Nardicio's "Icon Series." Channing was preceded by a 40-minute set by Bond, accompanied by Lance Horne and a three-piece band. Bond's voice is an acquired taste, which a large portion of the Town Hall audience seemed to have already acquired. Most effective was "Sentimental Song," with music by Duncan Sheik and lyric by Bertolt Brecht, which Bond is currently performing in the new production of A Man's a Man at CSC Rep.
But it was Channing's night, altogether, with Broadway's first and authentic Dolly back where she belongs.