Carol Channing Is
“Larger Than Life”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
To me, she will always be Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker in “Hello Dolly!” Others will think of her as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
This is bright-eyed Carol Channing, who originated those roles on Broadway. No matter that Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Monroe usurped them on screen.
Fact is, Carol Channing won a Tony for “Hello Dolly!” – but Streisand was only nominated for a Golden Globe for the movie version.
Channing also snagged a Grammy Hall of Fame award for the original cast recording of “Hello Dolly!” She was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role as a flapper in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Back in 1981 she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. And in 1995 she received a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. She also received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre in 2001.
I used to watch her on TV, the old black-and-white Emerson flickering as she did guest stints on “What’s My Line” and other near-forgotten shows. Her thickly lashed eyes and clownish smile looked like a Hirschfield caricature. In fact, he did one of her.
In the world of show business, she was what you called a trouper, always displaying an on-with-the-show attitude. She has been called a “Broadway diva extraordinaire,” as a compliment.
Carol Channing is now in her 90s. And director Dori Berinstein has made a documentary about her that’s aptly titled “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.” It’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema.
The doc traces her story from childhood in San Francisco to her life on Broadway, with a few stopovers in Hollywood, right up till today.
The director knows the territory. Berinstein’s films include “Show Business: The Road to Broadway” (2007) and “Gotta Dance” (2008).
Put this documentary in the same category as the recent “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” A show biz bio that actually lets you get to know the subject, rather than glossing over their life like a chintzy TV E! Channel biography.
You get all the behind-the-scenes Broadway hoopla. But the heartwarming story here is that of Channing’s last marriage, after three previous husbands. Turns out, her junior high school sweetheart read in her memoir “Just Lucky I Guess” that she remembered him fondly. So Harry Kullijian got in touch with his old flame and after 65 years apart they rekindled their romance and wed at the age of 82. Working together on foundations that support arts education in California schools, they found a true happiness. He passed away in December 2011 on the eve of his 92nd birthday.
Yes, you’ll leave the theater feeling good about Carol Channing. And about growing old, with her as the cheerleader for a satisfying life.
She once famously said, “...if you're lucky enough to have two hit shows, the world passes through your dressing room.” Carol Channing has enjoyed quite a parade. You’ll met her friends and admirers, among them Loni Anderson, Marge Champion, Tyne Daly, Tippi Hedron, Rich Little, and Phyllis Diller.
As the lyrics to “Hello Dolly!” go: “You’re still glowin’/ you're still crowin’/ You’re still goin’ strong.” That’s the smiling, goggle-eyed nonogenarian we meet in “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.”