From the Archives: Carol Channing Talks About 1971's Broadway Comedy Four on a Garden

From the Archives   From the Archives: Carol Channing Talks About 1971's Broadway Comedy Four on a Garden
The late, great theatrical legend spoke openly about her busy schedule, losing out on the Hello, Dolly! film to Barbra Streisand, and more in this 1970 interview.
Carol Channing and Sid Caesar in <i>Four on a Garden</i>
Carol Channing and Sid Caesar in Four on a Garden Martha Swope

The Sunday before Carol Channing opened out of town in Four on a Garden she spent her last free day trying to resolve an over-committed schedule. Phones rang unceasingly in her Waldorf Towers suite, trilled against the masses of bright fresh flowers and silver framed photographs of presidents and movie stars. A Swedish chef—who prepares all Miss Channing’s organic food no matter where Miss Channing is in the world—was banging pots in the kitchen while inexplicably room service had just delivered a large order of iced tea. And in the background a huge TV set projected some forgotten 1940s film onto the carpet. The sound was off but the images glided on and on through the hazy New York sunshine.

Miss Channing herself sat poised in the midst of this confusion studying her bewigged reflection in a lighted mirror. Every so often she would gaze up at the two Vidal Sasoon assistants who hovered over her and she would plead, “It’s got to be more like this.” And with that she’d tug the curls into an even wilder mop. At length both hairdressers tugged and combed along with her until the gigantic poof of ringlets had achieved almost Afro proportions. “Heaven!” Miss Channing gurgled. “Now it has that divinely sloppy look!”

Before the hairdressers trotted off with four wig boxes in tow she conferred briefly with them and then she tried to concentrate on being interviewed. “Now what would you like to know?” she began.

At this point her husband-manager Charles Lowe poked his head in the door and sing-songed, “You run lines with the stage manager in half an hour.”

“Mercy,” Miss Channing wailed good-naturedly. “I cannot keep track of what is happening next. Every morning I ask Charles things like, ‘Do I go on the Tonight Show tonight and is the Today Show tomorrow?’ I can’t remember a thing except my lines and I’m having trouble with them. I rehearse all day, appear on TV, go to fittings…but listen…,” she leaned forward clasping her hands together. “I don’t want to talk about my schedule. I want to talk about my new show Four on a Garden. It’s four one-act plays or a four-act play—depending on how you want to describe it. I have four fat roles to play—in the past I’ve been associated with flappers or Gay 90s heroines—never anything modern. I’ve done contemporary impersonations—like Dietrich, Monroe and Bardot—which happens to be a favorite of mine. I had her as Lady Macbeth sitting in a bathtub wiping off all her little spots.

Carol Channing and Sid Caesar in a scene from the Broadway play %22Four on a Garden_Production_Photo_Carol Channing_HR.jpg
Carol Channing and Sid Caesar in Four on a Garden Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

“But this is the first time I’ve ever created four distinct 1970 women in all their glory and paranoia.” She paused and then went on in confidential tones, “You see I play four New York women with sex problems. None of them has the same one of course…” she trailed off. “Abe Burrows told me I mustn’t say anything more specific about the characters.”

When pressed she admitted that love did enter into the situation as did money, power plays and the generation gap. “But isn’t sex mixed up in everything?” she demanded, batting her enormous goggle eyes. “I have no idea whether the script alludes to Women’s Lib. It’s a terrible thing to admit but I’m not sure I know what Women’s Lib is. Just the other day somebody said to me, ‘Carol, you are the true liberated woman. You have a career, a good marriage and an intelligent well-balanced son.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you mean I’m happy?’ The distinction between male and female will never stop existing. We are not alike and I wouldn’t want to be. And I wouldn’t want to be equal in all situations. It’s fun to be different. I intend to stay that way.”

She doesn’t have to work at it. Once described as “a cross between a Rockette and one of the Pirates of Penzance” she’s also been called a “dizzy blonde,” “a lovable eccentric,” and the greatest comedienne since Bea Lillie.”

People are taken aback by her gaudy wardrobe—typical outfit: red and blue mini and hip-hugging red patent boots. In her last TV special she wore a white ribbed sweater—size 48—as a costume. “But my clothes are an extension of my personality,” she argued now. “I’d look awful in ladylike dresses. My favorite outfit is my Yves St. Laurent tux. I may look big but I feel like air in my tux.”

When she was growing up in San Francisco she was the tallest person in her class so eventually she began—out of nervousness—to mimic her teachers and she made everybody laugh. “I think I got elected class president because of that.” By the time she was a senior she was starring in all the school revues. Even then she’d already begun to imitate stars like Mae West and her idol Gracie Allen—but never with malice—always with warmth and zest. Years later when she teamed with George Burns at Vegas he helped her hone her comic timing to perfection.

However, long before she’d graduated from high school, Carol was obsessed with acting. “I thought about it, dreamt about it—I read every book on theatre but I never told anyone I wanted to be an actress—it meant so much to me I was afraid to be discouraged.”

Just before she left for college she did tell her parents, half expecting them to be disappointed. But on the contrary they applauded her decision and her father “who was the most influential person in my life” said, “Be careful what you set your heart on—you’re sure to attain it.”

At Bennington she majored in drama and dance and spent her first winter grinding out a thesis on George Bernard Shaw. Her second winter was spent making the round of New York agents in the hopes of getting into a show.

She auditioned for Abe Lasfogel, head of William Morris, spoofing Orestes’ funeral chant. “I thought everyone knew Orestes but Abe didn’t laugh. He said, ‘Why don’t you take off Sophie Tucker?’ Which I did for Marc Blitzstein at City Center and Marc put me into an operetta called No For an Answer.”

It ran for three performances but every reviewer noticed the gawky blonde with the voice so husky it almost cracked, and Carol was encouraged enough by the response to quit college and concentrate all her efforts on theatre. After months of auditions she won a job on the borscht circuit but was soon fired by Max Liebman for singing off key.

Subsequently Gower Champion hired her for the musical revue Lend an Ear. The rest is theatrical history. Anita Loos saw her and decided Carol was the only actress who could play Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. That show ran 740 performances on Broadway and two years on the road. And anyone who heard Channing’s rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” will never forget it.

Next she played on Broadway in Wonderful Town. She starred in her own one-woman revue Show Girl. She played Vegas and she toured in Shaw’s The Millionaires. In between she did TV specials and movies. “Ginger Rogers and I closed RKO with The First Traveling Saleslady,” she laughed. “The song I sang in the picture ‘What a Corset Can Do For a Lady’ was voted the worst song of the year by the Harvard Lampoon. And then I did Skidoo—you didn’t see that did you? Oh thank you—neither did I!”

The biggest disappointment of her career but one she doesn’t mind talking about was not getting the movie Dolly. “I felt like jumping out a window when I heard Streisand was doing it,” she admitted. “I’d played it four-and-a-half years—I thought Dolly was mine. But after the initial shock wore off I realized no great part is ever exclusively anybody’s. Audrey Hepburn played My Fair Lady in the movies instead of Julie Andrews and Julie went on to be a big big star. I started Dolly off in the musical but Ruth Gordon originated the role in The Matchmaker. Yes I saw the movie and now I’m frankly glad I wasn’t in it because I wouldn’t have been allowed to play it the way I wanted. The style 20th chose for Dolly was unfortunate. It was like another version of Sound of Music only more ponderous. Hello, Dolly should crackle—snap—never stop moving. But I don’t mean to criticize. Streisand is a great artist and I enjoyed watching her.” She paused, “It’s hard sometimes to find the good side to people and events but it’s worth the effort. Once my father told me don’t waste your energy, your brain, your strength on the little things. Because the more you love, the more you’re interested in, the more you’re angry about—the more you have to give when anything bad happens.”

Just then Charles Lowe came in and announced, “Time to run lines.” With that Carol Channing jumped to her feet. Then she stopped and asked, “What do I do after that?”

“Then darling,” her husband answered, “We have some dinner and after that you try on the Norell for the last time and then…”

They were still going over her schedule as I slipped out the door. And in the background the TV set was playing without sound—rolling out that forgotten 1940s movie on and on across the carpet.

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