Nearly everything about the musical comedy “Hello, Dolly” is legendary. It’s a nostalgic time capsule set to music, not only of the early 20th century but of Broadway’s golden era. And yet, it remains timeless to audiences. Bette Midler has been playing to sold-out houses in a recent revival and in January Bernadette Peters will step into the iconic role. Both Carol Channing and Bette Midler won Tonys for their performance. For me, there is only one Dolly Gallagher Levi: the original.
It has been about a year and a half since the SRO 95th birthday celebration for Carol Channing, held at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, California, just a few blocks from where I live. She was there, of course, seated in the center of the front row, right next to Tommy Tune. For the next two hours, there were film clips of her many comedic TV and film roles interspersed with live performances of her notable songs. There were even more celebrities in the audience. Among the celebrants on stage were Lucie Arnaz, Lily Tomlin, Florence Henderson, Carole Cook and Alan Cumming, all Broadway veterans themselves. There were video bouquets from Broadway’s biggest stars and even a message from Barack Obama, read by local resident Gavin MacLeod. Both Henderson and Cook have since died and now, at 96, Channing is likely not far behind.
The event sold out quickly, I’m told, so I was lucky to secure a box seat on the third level, stage left. From my lofty vantage point, I could see the fragile-looing Channing in profile as she greeted her many admirers and friends before the show. It would be perfectly reasonable to say I went to pay tribute, too, to see the glittering array of talent. But it’s more truthful to admit I wanted to relive one of my own most unforgettable moments.
I was 21, alone, adrift, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was in New York for five days on my way back to Los Angeles after an ill-fated short-term employment with a Boston newspaper. New York City always seemed to have my heart, even if I had only visited once before with my family years earlier. I was a lifelong show biz buff, but I had never seen a Broadway show.
As it turned out, the year 1964 was a stellar one for musicals. Channing had opened ten months earlier in “Hello, Dolly,” Barbra Streisand was starring in “Funny Girl,” Sammy Davis, Jr. was lighting up the boards in “Golden Boy,” and Zero Mostel had just created his role as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” I wanted to see all of them, even if it cost me every bit my paltry savings. Who knew when I’d get another chance?
My first day in the city, I walked up to the box office of the St. James Theater as soon as it opened and asked if there might be a ticket left for ‘Dolly.’ The man behind the glass snickered and told me he was sorry but it was sold out for the next four months. As I started to walk away, he called me back.
“Wait, young lady. There is one ticket left. It’s for tonight.”
It was the last seat in the last row of the last balcony, nosebleed stuff. Scaling the endless stairs, I wondered if I would be able to make out the actors and hear the dialogue. The lights dimmed; I realized I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to drink up every drop of this sacred atmosphere, relishing the fact that I was actually sitting in a Broadway theater.
The spotlight shone on the conductor, the audience went silent. He signaled for the downbeat, lowered his baton and the orchestra began the overture. By the end of the second bar, my body had stiffened, my face flushed and tears were flowing down my cheeks. The sound engulfed me, devoured me, surfeited my senses. I thought I may pass out or explode. Then the curtain went up to reveal dozens of singers and dancers in colorful period costumes, a visual blanket of unbelievable beauty. I wiped my eyes so I could see it all clearly. By the time Carol Channing made her entrance, I didn’t think I could feel any more intensity; my pulse couldn’t possibly race any quicker. But I was wrong. My eyes never left her for the rest of the show. I could easily see her oversized theatrical eyes and flashing ear-to-ear smile all the way up there in the hinterlands. It was as if she were performing just for me.
When it was over—way too soon for me—the audience rose as one and cheered, a phenomenon far less common then than it is today. The applause and curtain calls seemed to go on and on. I audibly wept. As the celebration abated and people started to leave, I remained in my seat, trying to compose myself. What had just happened to me? I walked back to the hotel in the chilled night air and thought about it for a long time. Years, actually.
I knew, sitting in the balcony that evening in Palm Desert, that sooner or later there would have to be a tribute to Channing’s most famous musical. But who would have the gall to simulate that magical performance? Toward the end of the two hours, the 28-piece orchestra suddenly launched into the famous intro and I knew the moment had come. The audience couldn’t help singing along and we knew all the words. As the song approached its conclusion, one of the celebrity emcees leaped off the stage holding a mic and gently placed it in Channing’s face. With that obvious cue, the still-seated Channing belted out, “Wow, wow, wow, fellas. Look at the old girl now, fellas.” Everyone in that audience knew it could be the last time she’d ever sing those lyrics. The cliché became truer than ever: there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And it wasn’t the first time that Carol Channing and “Hello, Dolly” had made me cry.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary, bioStories and others. Her play Life Without was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition and has been nominated for Outstanding Play by the Desert Theatre League. She has also been nominated for the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.