Carol Channing, known as the ‘First Lady of the American Musical Theatre’, is probably one of the most recognized and impersonated entertainers in around today.
At 90 years old, when many people would be happy to accept accolades for past career achievements, Channing made the conscious decision to remove the diamonds, set aside the lashes and discard the wigs in order to dedicate the rest of her life to restore the arts back in our America’s public schools.
In the new documentary, Carol Channing: Larger than Life (which opens this weekend in New York and San Fransisco), director Dori Berinstein (ShowBusiness, Gotta Dance), follows Channing both onstage and off…past and present.
The film is both an intimate love story and a rarefied journey inside Broadway’s most glamorous era. It is, above all, a look at an inspiring, incomparable and always entertaining American legend.
In this Q&A, she talks about the documentary, what performers she admires and what continues to motivate her.
What do you think of Carol Channing: Larger Than Life? Did you enjoy the filmmaking process?
Carol Channing: Oh, it’s wonderful. There have been many who have approached me over the years, asking to do a documentary. However, they discovered how much work it was going to be and it never happened. Oh, Dori Berinstein was so patient with me as the director. Sometimes my schedule would change at a moment’s notice and I’m sure it would completely mess up her plans. I don’t think most actors think in terms of looking at what we’ve already done, rather than what can I still do now. They don’t write their memoir until someone pushes them and it takes a very special person to go through all the archives … or junk, and I have a lot … to weed out the important things that the audience will want to know. I’ve always relied on those around me, knowing and caring about what they are doing to make me look good. It’s a team effort. You don’t take those people for granted. The really good ones truly love what they’re doing and believe in it. I was just lucky enough to have someone like Dori, who believed enough in me, to do it. And do it so well. There were times when I thought, isn’t it done yet? But, Dori wanted it to be perfect and I think she accomplished it … even if I wasn’t wearing my eyelashes in that one scene.
Are there any roles you would have liked to have played, in either a recent or a classic musical or play? What are they, and why?
Carol Channing: I don’t know that I’ve ever had time to think about what or whom I would like to have played. I would, of course, dearly loved to play Dolly in the movie version. I remember thinking, Oh Jerry’sMame would have been fun. But how could you top Angela’s performance? Although she and I did switch roles ever so briefly… oh years ago, during a tribute to Jerry when she came out as Dolly and I as Mame. Oh, that was fun!
Which performers today do you particularly admire, and why?
Carol Channing: I wish I could answer that with more knowledge. So many times I’m introduced to someone whose work I know I should know and I don’t. I’m always so embarrassed that I haven’t kept up better. I’m awfully impressed with Catherine Zeta Jones. It’s pronounced Zeeeeeta, you know … Oh, and Kristin Chenoweth. I’m impressed with her. There is also a young man I met from a show called “Glee”. I’ve never seen him on the show, but have worked with him on stage. Oh, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember his name. Anyway, him.
Had you not become a performer, what field would have interested you?
Carol Channing: Oh! Ahhhhhh, I don’t know. I’ve wanted to be a performer since I was 7. I imagine if I hadn’t, I’d have found something associated with the industry.
You’ve led an extraordinary life, on stage and off – what continues to inspire and motivate you?
Carol Channing: Others. When I see someone who’s passionately working on something, whether on stage or for the community, it inspires me. My motivation is always that next show, that next character or that next appearance. I’m always so sure that it will be my best performance or my greatest accomplishment.
Imagine if they were real people who met each other, what would Lorelei Lee have thought of Dolly Gallagher Levi, and vice versa?
Carol Channing: Isn’t that odd, no one has ever asked me that before. I imagine they would have gotten along wonderfully. They were both and are such strong personalities that I think off stage they would have been tremendous friends, but on stage …well, the poor audience would have difficulty focusing on just one of them. They would overpower each other.