Bruce Vilanch Interviews Ms. Carol Channing

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Greg In Hollywood
Carol Channing, in a lively conversation with Bruce Vilanch, charms huge crowd at WeHo Book Fair
By Greg Hernandez on Oct 6, 2009 12:03 am

At 88-years-young, Carol Channing can still draw quite a crowd and it was standing room only at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sunday when she showed up for a chat with funnyman Bruce Vilanch.

Someone give this pair a TV special! They are hilarious together! Bruce set Miss Channing up for a series of anecdotes from her nearly 70-year career highlighted by her Tony-winning role in Hello Dolly and such starring roles as Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Lorelei. She also earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Miss Channing keeps moving forward and for several years now has been dedicated to drawing attention to the importance to the arts in schools which she says are “like fertilizer for the brain.” She will be performing on Sunday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall to raise money for her foundation dedicated to raising money for arts in schools.

Rumor has it that this show, Carol Channing Presents Broadway Voices for Arts in Education, will likely be Miss Channing’s last major live stage performance so get your tickets! More information HERE.

Okay, back to Miss Channing and Mr. Vilanch at the book fair. Bruce kicked things off by remembering when he saw her on Broadway in a show called The Vamp which he said was life-changing for him as a 9-year-old boy.

“It was the first Broadway show I ever saw,” Bruce told the crowd. “In her mind, it was her big flop asnd in my mind it was a transformational moment because I had never seen anything like this … This creature who wore pink and gold and glittery and with a huge smile and gigantic eyes. She opened her arms and embraced the audience at the Wintergarden – it was a big Broadway theater – and I thought, ‘Well, this is what I want to do!”

“I fell madly in love and have been in love with her since. When I saw her in Hello Dolly coming down the staircase in the red dress I said, ‘That’s the ultimate.’ And then, 30 years later I did Hairspray on Broadway where I come down a staircase in a red dress and I thought, ‘I have become Carol Channing!’”

They then launched into as series of anecdotes about famous showbiz folk. Here are some of them:

Channing on legendary Broadway producer David Merrick (pictured with her and Florence Henderson in the 60s): “He was in the hospital sick and he wanted to get out and find out what was happening with his shows. He got a wheelchair, sat in it, went down Madison Avenue in this white nightgown thing they put on, everything blowing in the breeze. There were screeching brakes, they sent the fire department after him, the police. Nobody could catch up with him. He went down Madison Avenue. Isn’t that something? They took picture of him and put it in the New York Times.”

Said Vilanch of Merrick: “He (once) had a flop show and he found people with the same name as the critics and he ran a full-page ad of raves from all these people and the New York Times ran it and a critic called up and said, ‘Excuse me, would you mind looking at the ad? That’s not a quote from our paper!”

Added Bruce: “When (Carol) was doing Dolly, at 10:19 the Dolly number would happen every night and at 10:18 he would open the doors of the theater and people on 44th Street could just come in – because I did it a lot – and look at that number. Then he would emerge from the back of the lobby and shoo people out: ‘You want more? You gotta pay.’ It was hysterical. But he was a master.”

HAMMERSTEIN DEAD? The conversation somehow segued from Merrick to stage and screen star Ann Miller who Channing had worked with on Sugar Babies. Vilanch mentioned that Miss Miller was not always the brightest bulb which launched Carol into this little story: “We were touring and it was Oscar Hammerstein’s birthday so we were all waiting and finally she said: “Well, when is Mr. Hammerstein going to be here?’ And they said, ‘Darling, Mr. Hammerstein died 10 years ago.’ And you know what her answer was? ‘Oh, well I’ve been on tour.’”

Carol also shared Miss Miller’s speling difficulties: “The director would say to her, ‘Miss Miller, I want you to this and I want you to do that’ and she said: “Stop that! Please! You keep telling me what to do. I’m an S-T-A-I-R star!”

Miss Channing also dished a bit about the legendary stage couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and two-time Oscar winner Helen Hayes who had been a life-long friend of the couple.

“Did you know Helen Hayes was in love with Alfred before he ever married Lynn?” Carol asked Bruce. “Well, let me tell you, Helen is fighting Irish, nothing soft or gentle about Helen off-stage.. When Lynn died, all the announcers were saying, ‘There’s no record of Lynn Fontanne’s age.’ Everyone said, ‘No one knows exactly how old Lynn Fontanne was’ and Helen said: “She was a hundred!’ She broadcast that and it was a terrible thing to say but she was crazy about Alfred. Jealous!” afternoon session wrapped up with a hilarious anecdote about the great Ethel Merman who later took on Miss Channing’s role of Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly at the end of its original Broadway run. In the late 70s, Channing, Merman and Ann Miller were signed to appear together on ABC’s The Love Boat.

“My name was Sylvia in the script and she could never remember my name,” Carol recalled. “‘Hey! Shirley! Sadie! Then it’s really filfthy what she called me. I can’t say it.”

Vilanch: “Does it rhyme with Hunt?”

Channing: “Yes!”

“I loved her so and I couldn’t stop loving her,” Carol added. “She was brilliant and she’d say, ‘C’mere ya dumb cunt!”

That brought an end to this uproarious session with one of the greatest stars in showbiz who was mobbed as she made her way to a booth to sign copies of her new gospel CD For Heaven’s Sake and her memoir Just Lucky I Guess.

It was a magical afternoon with a magical lady.


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