Broadway legend Carol Channing could've been knocked out during a knock-out performance of Hello, Dolly! on tour. It was one of the most memorable nights of theater I've ever experienced. It was also a memorable week because I got to interview her in her dressing room.
I saw the show three times. The second time I saw it, a tragedy nearly occurred.
I had a great seat up close in the orchestra section. Broadway veteran Lee Roy Reams was in the cast. The company had just started the "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" number when I saw stagehands that I knew from my usher days gather in the wings. They looked seriously anxious and worried. They were also looking up at the ceiling. Above the actors was a long, thick brown roll of material. It was long like a tree log you'd find in a sawmill. And it was dangling precariously above Carol Channing. It had become unhinged.
She never missed a step or a lyric in the number during that mishap. She kept right on going and she stayed in character. The audience loved every single thing she did even more from then on. Folks cheered the title number as if Milwaukee had won the World Series.
I'd seen the movie starring Barbra Streisand. The screenplay, not surprisingly, changed the book of the Broadway show to suit the image and different vocal talents of Streisand. The movie was a big budget, colossal 20th Century Fox musical in the late 60s helmed by production team veterans from the famed MGM Freed unit of the 1940s. Director Gene Kelly, producer Rogers Edens and music director Lennie Hayton were on the movie's team. The Broadway play was more intimate, more touching. At the press conference, Channing detailed the essential dramatic heart and wisdom of Thornton Wilder's source material that served as the basis for the musical. I saw it three times because her performance was like a master class in musical comedy acting. Eddie Bracken was her leading man.
How'd I get a one-on-one interview? Well, I was the only black person at the press conference on opening night and I had introduced myself to her then-husband, Charles Lowe. He was also her manager and publicist. I thanked him for inviting me to the press conference. He was impressed that I knew he'd once worked with Gracie Allen. He saw me in the lobby about to purchase a ticket to see the show a third time (after the onstage accident) and he stopped me before I got to the window. I told him I was seeing the show again. He told me to come backstage after that show to see Carol. I asked if I could do a short interview of Miss Channing for my radio show. Not only did he say "Yes," he went to the box office window and told the clerk to give me a house seat.
Carol Channing is tall. Taller than I. And a gracious pro. She greeted me at her dressing room door with an energetic "Bobby Rivers! Thank you for coming to see the show again." She was wearing black pants and a sheer black blouse. Very sheer. Let's just say see-through. And she wasn't wearing a bra.
She gave me a lovely interview. I was so lucky. And she was extremely lucky onstage. The Theater Gods definitely had her in a protective circle that day in Milwaukee. Carol Channing turns 95 on January 31st. Our interview was one of the things that helped me move up in the early days of my broadcast career. Obviously, I've never forgotten her generosity -- and the greater respect she gave me for the theater. She didn't just promote her show, by the way. She promoted others shows that were running on Broadway and urged us to see them if we could. She was passionate about people experiencing live theater.
I wish a most Happy Birthday to Tony winner, Golden Globes winner and Oscar nominee Carol Channing (Best Supporting Actress for Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews).
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