Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Diamonds Before Dolly

You should recognise one person’s name in the newspaper clipping to the right from April 22, 1933. That’s when she was in the San Francisco area before heading east.

A little later came the declaration: “Miss Carol Channing, as a nightclub singer, did a pretty fine burlesque on torch songs.” So wrote Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune in his review on January 6, 1941 of “No For An Answer” at the Mecca Auditorium.

A modest start for a woman who became one of the legends of the Great White Way, thanks first to the musical “Lend an Ear,” then “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” then her Tony-winning performance in “Hello, Dolly!”

We bid farewell today to one of Broadway’s greats at age 97.

We posted about Miss Channing HERE. So much has been written about her over the years, it’s hard to pick out something to reprint in tribute. I’ve settled on this feature article from March 20, 1959. “Dolly” hadn’t entered her life yet; she was still known for telling the world that diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Carol Channing Has Been Comedienne Ever Since Although Climb to Stardom Was Hard; Here on Tour
By Mary Kimbrough

Of the Post Dispatch Staff
A SKINNY BLONDE fourth grader in San Francisco wanted to be elected student secretary. When she got up to speak, they laughed. And there, on the platform of Commodore Sloat School, a new comedienne was born.
The skinny figure is slender now and the still-blond hair has a circular part, front to back, right to left, like a scalp-toned tiara. But Carol Channing is still luring the laughs. They meant votes and victory back in the fourth grade. Today, they mean money.
Carol is in St. Louis now, with her husband, Charles Lowe; her wardrobe mistress, Jane Fogt; her son's report card, and Lorelei Lee. Lowe, who produced the show starring his wife in the Chase Club, more or less manages things and orders her hamburgers on rye bread. Jane keeps the snaps on the 11 costume changes and makes sure the clothes are at hand's length for the back-stage quick changes. Young Channing Lowe's first-grade report card, with its A in French and C in physical education, perches on a cabinet shelf in the path of proud parental beams.
Lorelei Lee is supposed to be dead and gone, but don't count her out while Carol is still kicking. She isn't one to forget old and dear friends, especially the money-making type.
Lorelei, the little girl from Little Rock who loved diamonds, made Carol, the big girl from California, what she is today, and a Channing is no ingrate. When she goes into a night club revue such as her current engagement, she makes loom for Lorelei.
The audience wants it that way. To them Lorelei IS Carol.
We were off, plumbing the depths of how and why actors act and audiences listen, and the immense brown eyes achieved the amazing feat of growing even wider. It was a moment for quiet reflection.
"I have to feel my way along," she said thoughtfully, "and decide what path I can take to reach the audience. You reach one by one path, another by another. "But at the end I make a little speech. This is Carol, you see. And if I come out with Lorelei's flat twang, I'm home. The audience loves it. This is what they really think Carol is."
She gazed more deeply into the mental mirror.
"You know," she said, "I think every actor really creates a personality he thinks he really is. Lorelei really is a part of me. Some roles just seem to rub off on an actor, and thereafter the one is a part of the other."

As a matter of fact, her current tour is more or less an escape from type-casting. From Broadway to Carol's home kept coming a stream of scripts featuring a dumb blonde of the 1920s. They didn't hold a candle to Lorelei Lee. So back they went, read but unaccepted. Then the revue was suggested, and Carol gave it her energetic nod.
She does a series of characterizations in her act, even a respectable strip-tease starring the mythical Miss Bertha Blodgett.
But Carol can't keep from imitating people. It's a happy-type, chronic ailment, a kind of bonus you get when you wind her up and start her talking about the people she knows, loves and admires. Her low, husky voice speeds off on tangential journeys, and as her thought rests on other people, suddenly she isn't Carol Channing anymore. She's Sophie Tucker, or Tallulah Bankhead or George Burns or Lorelei.
With dramatic daring, she recently impersonated Sophie Tucker in Las Vegas, not too yards from another night spot where the redoubtable Sophie herself was holding court. Then came the evening when Sophie announced she would come to see for herself.
"I was ossified with fright," Carol recalled. "Sophie swept in, watched the show, then she stood up and applauded. She looked around as though to say, 'Anyone who doesn't laugh will have to face me'."
Today wherever Carol appears, Sophie's gift of orchids is there to greet her.
Even back in the fourth grade of Commodore Sloat School, Carol was imitating. She won the job she campaigned for, so she perforce wrote up and read the minutes. Now, as any club secretary knows, these can he as limp as a wet dishrag, but not Carol's minutes. They had a zing to them. She not only QUOTED Miss Finney, the teacher. She WAS Miss Finney, complete with the pushing up the sleeves. Even the harrassed principal didn't escape the Channing treatment.
This was not calculated to place the name of Carol Channing on Miss Finney's or the principal's list of favorite students, but to Carol's ears, the students' laughter was manna from heaven and a prediction of things to come.
From Commodore Sloat, she went on to high school and then to Bennington College in Vermont, a fashionable institution for young ladies which saw the last of Miss Carol Channing when she landed a minor role in the labor group musical, "No for an Answer."
The road ahead was rough indeed as she stumbled along from one understudy role to Gimbel's bakeshop to another understudy role to Macy's basement. Rough, underpaid and discouraging.
By chance or design, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Channing drove to New York about that time, and Carol climbed in the back seat, glad to go back to California. There again, she tried her hand at various jobs until her chance arrived in the form of a role in the musical, "Lend an Ear."
There's a legend about that which the tall comic with the mobile face doesn't deny. With 600 others on stage for auditions, she announced to the bemused producers. "To get a real impression of my abilities, you would normally have to see me do nine numbers. But I know you're pressed for time, so I've cut them down to six."
It worked. She got the role. And from that, she stepped into Lorelei's shoes in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Overnight she was a star, and diamonds were her best friends.
The role was a happy one, from all viewpoints. Gone were the days of poor pay. Time was when Carol, between roles, chose her living quarters cautiously. The blistering hot rooms in the summer, the cold water flats in the winter. The kind with low rent that no one else wanted.
Now she stays in hotel housekeeping suites, and there's an aura of well-being. Easily rests the stardom.
Her husband interrupted the interview with an apology, bearing a gift.
"From your son," he smiled. It was a wristwatch.
"Every time they buy me a gift," she said, "It's a watch."
But no diamonds. She seldom wears them off stage. The only jewelry to be seen as we talked was her wide gold wedding band.
Diamonds, though, have become Carol's hallmark of the theater and night club circuit. In tribute to the glittering Lorelei, she wears a white satin dress, liberally plastered with glass gems, for one of her club numbers, and showers the audience with rhinestone bracelets.
Channing will arrive soon to join his parents during his Easter vacation, a prospect to gladden the heart of any mother, especially one whose career separates her frequently from her child.
But Carol is not one to assume that nearness only means love and affection. She looked hack to her own days at home, and there was a childlike wilfulness in her tone as she remembered. Even now she speaks of her father as "Daddy."
As the Committee on Publication for the Church of Christ, Scientist and member of his church's Board of Lectureship, the late Mr. Channing was absent many times from the family's San Francisco home.
"Yet, somehow, I always knew that Daddy loved me," Carol said. "We didn't have to be together for me to sense that security. It's the same way now with Channing. We can't be with him very much, but he knows we're interested in his welfare and when he is here, he's an important part of the family circle. We don't talk down to him. When we're together, we talk about the theater or the club."
Mom and Pop Lowe couldn't help it. They both turned as one to the cabinet where Channing's report card stood in proud splendor, alone on display. "Look at that," she said. "And be sure to read what the teacher said on the back."
Channing, the teacher had noted, is progressing nicely. For a moment, the theater was far away.

P.S.: There is actually a second name in the clipping above. Louise Erickson starred in the radio show "A Date With Judy," was one of the actresses to play Marjorie in "The Great Gildersleeve," and appeared in a number of teenage roles on the air in the 1940s.


  1. Pretty much a staple on television in our house back in the 1960's. Anything from " Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town ", to doing a parody of Melanie's " Brand New Key " dressed in roller derby gear on " Laugh In " back in 1971. R.I.P Miss Channing.