Friday, December 02, 2011

A Carol Channing Christmas

Whenever an ancient celebrity pops up in the news, who one could have sworn had already gone through the pearly gates, they invariably turn out to be living in Rancho Mirage. Such is the case with the 90-year-old performer Carol Channing above, who was arriving in Palm Springs' downtown Frances Stevens Park to light a huge Christmas tree on Thursday evening.

Channing was seated in a plastic chair behind the podium, looking a bit like a Pekingese that had been half-swallowed by an Afghan hound. It was a bitterly cold, windy evening and the fact that she had even shown up was a testament to her indomitable trouper status.

The newly reelected gay Palm Springs mayor, Steve Pougnet above, mildly berated the small crowd for not being livelier, and told stories about his adopted children and Carol Channing, where he sounded like a handsome version of former San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty. "Carol and I did the tree lighting three years ago at the top of the tram, and while going up the mountain, my three year old daughter wrapped herself in Carol's white boa and Carol couldn't have been nicer to her."

Santa arrived on a fire truck and Channing was helped to the podium where she pushed a button to light the giant, rotating tree. We heard a rumour from a gentleman who seemed to be in the know that Channing was wiped out financially by her second husband/manager, Charles Lowe, who she divorced in 1998 after 42 years of marriage. Whether or not this is actually the case, Channing is still working at the age of 90. (Click here for details of her upcoming concert at the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage.)

There's a wonderful quote from a 2006 article in the Austin Chronicle where Channing describes her initial mystic realization about the theater:
"My mother said, 'Carol, would you like to help me distribute Christian Science Monitors backstage at the live theatres in San Francisco?' And I said, 'All right, I'll help you.' I don't know how old I was. I must have been little. We went through the stage door alley (for the Curran Theatre), and I couldn't get the stage door open. My mother came and opened it very well. Anyway, my mother went to put the Monitors where they were supposed to go for the actors and the crew and the musicians, and she left me alone. And I stood there and realized – I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly – that this is a temple. This is a cathedral. It's a mosque. It's a mother church. This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards."

The 1956 photo of Channing by Carl Van Vechten above looked strikingly different from her 1960s incarnations, so it was fascinating to read the following in her Wikipedia entry:
"According to Channing's memoirs, when she left home to attend Bennington College in Vermont, her mother informed her that her father, a journalist who Carol had believed was born in Rhode Island, had in fact been born in Augusta, Georgia, to a German-American father and an African-American mother. According to Channing's account, her mother reportedly did not want Channing to be surprised "if she had a black baby". Channing kept this a secret to avoid any problems on Broadway and in Hollywood, ultimately revealing it only in her autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess, published in 2002 when she was 81 years old. Channing's autobiography, containing a photograph of her mother, does not have any photos of her father or son. Her book also states that her father's birth certificate was destroyed in a fire."

Suddenly, Jazz Baby in the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie makes some kind of demented sense. Click here for a Christmas treat.

1 comment:

Matty Boy said...

Wow, that picture from 1956 is unbelievable. I wonder if it's youth or just the fact she isn't grinning from ear to ear.

Good stuff, Michael.