On January 16, 1964 theatergoers at the St. James Theatre first experienced what was to become perhaps the most memorable scene in musical comedy, when the curtains part atop the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant and Dolly Levi appears in her red Freddy Wittop gown to begin her descent to "rejoin the human race." Forty-seven years (not to mention over 5,000 performances) later and 3,000 miles away, patrons of the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles were able to revisit a little bit of theatrical history as Jerry Herman's first Dolly, Ms. Carol Channing, again entered through parting red curtains and took the stage wearing her original 1964 gown in celebration of her 90th birthday.
One of the evening's guests was overheard saying "Wow - she looks pretty good for 90! She looks the same as she did when she did the guest spot on the "Love Boat." Good for her!" The evening, which sold out in a matter of days, was directed by John Bowab and co-produced along with Martin Wiviott. Among the noted friends and colleagues in attendance were Mitzi Gaynor, Anne Jeffreys, Charlotte Rae, Patricia Morison, Ruta Lee, Richard Skipper and Barbara Van Orden, while on stage personalities included other Dolly alumni such as Joanne Worley (Who proudly pointed to her credit in an original 1964 playbill as Carol Channing's standby), Carole Cook, Davis Gaines and Mary Jo Catlett, as well as the evening Emcee, Bruce Vilanch. Vilanch, who was taking a break from his Oscar duties, remarked "I first saw this stunning creature (Channing) on stage in 'The Vamp' and decided if I couldn't be her, I at least had to be part of that world." The evening began with the typical Red Carpet arrivals, but began to pick up speed as audience and onlookers gathered around as Channing posed with her Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame that coincidently sits directly in front of the Pantages Theatre.
There was no shortage of Channing anecdotes, both on and off stage as the program began. Vilanch, bedazzled in diamonds, entered in true Channing style from the top of the Pantages red staircase as Gaines sang, "Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend." The famous theme song from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which made Channing a star of international acclaim when a Time magazine cover story hailed her performance as Lorelei Lee by writing; "Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to re-illumine the whole gaudy legend of show business." The evening continued to escalate with Worley's performances of a spoof on "Memory" from Cats and "Ribbons Down My Back" from Hello Dolly! followed by Carole Cook's "Queen of Equity" and an "Ode to Carol." Both Davis Gaines and Mary Jo Catlett offered perspectives of working with the theatrical legend and in song with "It Only Takes A Moment" and then leading the audience in Channing's self-proclaimEd Battle hymn "Hello Dolly!" During her first standing ovation, Channing herself took the stage to perform her Dolly soliloquy to Efrem followed by "Before the Parade Passes By."
While the audience came to their feet again, Channing took a moment to introduce her husband, who offered stirring and heartfelt comments on the need for arts in America's public school system and their effort to restore them through the Channing/Kullijian Foundation. Most recently, they successfully worked on resolution HR 275 authored by Congress Woman Jackie Speier, which passed the House prior to passing the Senate in Dec, 2010. For more information visit ChanningArts.org.
As one of the most easily recognized and highly imitated voices in the world, Ms. Channing has recorded ten gold Albums, has appeared in most every grand ballroom and concert hall in the country, done numerous television specials, made films such as Thoroughly Modern Millie which garnered her a Golden Globe and an Academy award nomination, as well as Broadway credits that include Blitzstein's No For An Answer, So Proudly We Hail, Let's Face It, Lend An Ear, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Show Girl, Pygmalion, The Millionairess, The Vamp, Four On A Garden, Wonderful Town and, of course, Hello Dolly!, receiving three Tony Awards in the process. Ms Channing released her new CD, "For Heaven Sake," in early 2010, and releases a new patriotic CD titled "Carol Channing: True to the Red, White & Blue," in 2011.
One of the evenings highlights, was the silent auction which featured two signed limited edition Hirschfeld prints of Channing in Jerry Herman's "Hello Dolly!", donated by the Margo Feiden Gallery in New York and garnered over $11,000 to be split between both the Channing/Kullijian Foundation and The Actors Fund. THE ACTORS FUND is a national human services organization that helps everyone - performers and those behind the scenes - who works in performing arts and entertainment, helping nearly 12,000 people directly each year, and hundreds of thousands online. Serving professionals in film, theatre, television, music, opera, radio and dance, The Fund's programs include social services and emergency assistance, health care and insurance, housing, and employment and training services. With offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, The Actors Fund has - for over 125 years - been a safety net for those in need, crisis or transition. Visit www.actorsfund.org
Photo credits: Daniel Lam
John Bowab, Carol Channing and Martin Wiviott
John Bowab, Davis Gaines, Joanne Worley, Carol Channing, Bruce Vilanch, Carole Cook, Mary Jo Catlett and Martin Wiviott
Jomarie Ward, John Holly, Joanne Worley, Davis Gaines, Carol Channing, Bruce Vilanch, Carole Cook, Mary Jo Catlett, Keith McNutt, Meg Thomas and Louie Anchondo
Barbara Van Orden, Anne Jeffreys, Carol Channing and Ruta Lee
Ali Rahimi and PaTricia Kelly
Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian
Carol Channing Mary Jo Catlett, Carole Cook and Tom Troupe
Patricia Morison and Carol Channing
Richard Skipper and Mitzi Gaynor
Tom Griep (at Piano), Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Bruce Vilanch, Carole Cook, Joanne Worley, Mary Jo Catlett and Davis Gaines
Channing's Birthday Cake