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A Broadway icon hits Hawaii
Audiences are being invigorated with a zest for life that the iconic Carol Channing exhibits in her one-woman show, filled with memories, stories and several signature tunes, including "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Little Girl From Little Rock" and, of course, "Hello, Dolly!"
Channing has also recorded 20 children's albums of classic stories (with 10 going gold) and, in 2003, she wrote her best selling memoirs, "Just Lucky I Guess" and received the Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award from the Actors' Fund of America.
Just over a year ago, she recently married her junior high school sweetheart, businessman Harry Kullijian, after a 70-year separation.
Channing's family moved to San Francisco from Seattle, where she was born, when she was just a baby. Her father was a newspaper editor and active in the Christian Science movement.
After attending Bennington College in Vermont, where she majored in drama and dance, Channing made her Broadway debut in 1948 in a show called "No for an Answer."
Over her career, Channing has performed twice at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Her first visit to Hawaii was at age 16 after she won a statewide high school oratorical contest in California. The prize was a trip to Honolulu aboard the Lurline.
The Star-Bulletin caught up with the 83-year-old stage icon by phone from her Las Vegas home.
Question: What do you remember about that first trip to Hawaii?
Answer: The Lurline was top heavy and everyone was seasick, but when you're 16, nothing happens like that. I loved every minute. I learned the Hawaiian war chant here, and I'm doing that in the show, and will dance the hula with a grass skirt wrapped around me.
Q: You'll turn 84 at the end of the month. Why are you still working?
A: I was never interested in doing anything else, and this show is what I've dreamed about doing all my life, because I get to jump from one character to another and play myself.
Q: How hard is it to play yourself?
A: Difficult! Nobody has perspective on himself. You have to be in your 80s before you can realize who you really are. The moment you're aware of yourself, the whole thing is over because then you're doing a pattern of who you think you are and it's not true.
Q: What's been the most surprising thing about this show?
A: I didn't know my life was that funny or interesting. I talk about having a Command Performance and working with people like George Burns and people laugh a lot.
Q: Why do audiences want to spend an evening with Carol Channing?
A: I haven't the slightest idea. And I don't want to know. I don't set out to make people laugh. I just talk. My voice isn't that funny, is it?
Q: How do you feel about being sort of a gay icon?
A: They protect me all the time. That's my reaction to a gay audience. If gays don't think you're funny, you're not funny.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be in show business?
A: Fourth grade, when I was running for student body secretary. You were supposed to tell your fellow students why they should vote for you, and naturally I couldn't think of a reason why. So I impersonated the principal and the chemistry teacher, and Miss Weaver, who used to yell, "Shut up, you brats!" It was holy chaos. Everyone laughed, and I won. My father said, "You can lay down your life at 7 or 77 or 107, it doesn't matter. These are the happier people -- those that are carrying the banner for something."
My parents wanted me to take piano lessons, but I never wanted to practice. I wanted to take dancing and music lessons.
Q: Why are you funny?
A: I do people who are funny to me. That's the secret. Ethel Merman, Sophie Tucker, Tallulah Bankhead and the Queen of England. So if I bomb one night, I like to think it's their fault. I've met everybody. If you're lucky enough to have three smash hit Broadway musicals, the traffic of the world goes through your dressing room. Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children made their first public appearance after JFK's death when they came to see "Hello, Dolly!" and later visited me backstage.
Q: What was it like to work with Otto Preminger on his film "Skidoo"?
A: He was difficult. He knocked the confidence out of every actor in it, and I didn't understand him. His wife was wonderful, and he was devoted to her, so he could be sweet.
Q: I hear you fall off stage occasionally during your performances.
A: I'm nearsighted. I usually fall on the drums. I've broken every bone in my body. I did 5,000 shows of "Hello, Dolly!" and never missed a performance. But I had to do three performances in a wheelchair and other times work with my arms in a sling.
Q: How do you prepare for a role?
A: Self-hypnosis before that first entrance to play a role convincingly. I would stand offstage and say to myself, "I am not playing Lorelei Lee. I am not pretending to be Lorelei Lee. I am Lorelei Lee!"
Q: What's your opinion of comedy today?
A: It's fine. The world turns and you'd better turn with it. My audiences don't want to hear me tell dirty jokes, so I don't have to worry about Billy Crystal and Chris Rock.
Q: You're the oldest living comedian still working.
A: Yes, I am, but it makes no difference to me because I was born into a Christian Science family and they don't believe in birthdays. The only time I ever had a birthday was in the White House under Clinton during a governors' dinner, and he made every governor stand up and sing "Happy Birthday." He said officially it was my first birthday. I don't know how my second birthday will ever top that.
Q: What one line do you want on your tombstone?
A: "She lifted people's lives, but audiences have returned the giving twofold."
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