Turner Classic Movies
Channing, Carol - Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

Carol Channing - The Woman With The Greatest Smile in Showbusiness

channingstairs.jpgAudiences of all ages are being invigorated with the zest of life and unending talent that the iconic Carol Channing exhibits in her one-woman show, Carol Channing and Friends. Channing has had an illustrious stage and film career, and at 83, has not slowed down. She spoke with me recently about her life, new husband, George Burns, Julie Andrews, Otto Preminger and what she loves best, making people happy.

Although every one who attends her shows wants her to sing Hello Dolly from her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly! (1964) on Broadway, Channing quips, "How can I sing to myself, I am Dolly! So I ask audience members to be the 12 Dolly boys and sing the first course and the audience joins in. It's great to have an interactive audience. It's never quite the same, and that keeps everybody happy, even my accompanist."


Channing was born January 31, 1921 in Seattle, Washington and moved to San Francisco while a baby. Her father was a newspaper editor and very active in the Christian Science movement. She found her calling when she was in the fourth grade. "I was nominated for the student body and had to go on stage and tell fellow students why they should vote for me. I was an only child and couldn't think of one reason, so I did what I do best; I did an imitation of all of the faculty members from the fourth grade. It was holy chaos. I was imitating every one in the school. For Ms Weaver from the Bronx, I'd say, €˜shut up you brats.' She was desperate, but there was no malice in my imitations, even Ms Weaver laughed. Everyone laughed, and I won."

That moment, and encouragement from her father when she related the incident to him and told him that at seven years old she knew what she wanted to do with her life, defined her future. "My father said, €˜You can lay down your life at 7, or 77 or 107, it doesn't matter. These that are the happier people, those that are carrying the banner for something.'"    

After attending Bennington College in Vermont where she majored in drama and dance, Channing hit the road to stardom. She made her Broadway debut in Blitzstein's "No For An Answer" (1948). With a repertoire of stage successes over her lifetime, Channing has been called Broadway's "first lady of musical comedy." In 2004 she also received an honorary doctoral degree becoming Doctor Carol Channing at the 44th annual California State University, Stanislaus Commencement ceremony, and she was presented with the Oscar Hammerstein Award for lifetime achievement in musical theatre from the York Theatre Company, in New York.

Carol's Stage and Film Career

She has many memories from the stage. "I worked with some great people like George Burns, who was wonderful," says Channing. "We worked together for two years on tour after Gracie died, and I learned a lot from him."

What's her favorite stage performance? "Honestly, it's the show I'm in at the moment," says Channing. "It's like being in love. You can't remember being in love with anybody else."

Channing starred in many films during her career including Paid In Full and The First Traveling Saleslady, but most notable was her role as Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award.

"Julie Andrews had a lot to do with that," says Channing. "It was her first day off of filming, and they put Julie's wig on her stand-in with the camera on the back side of her. I did that scene, "You have to love the man even if he's very rich, it won't do if you don't truly love him." All of a sudden Julie walked in. She had no makeup on and had jeans on and she took both of my hands. I said €˜Julie I wouldn't have talked the same way to your stand-in if I had known.' She said, €˜I know, that that's why I'm here.'

"Now I had just came in from Oklahoma City where I did nine shows in one week," Channing continues, "and this was my first scene with Julie. Director George Roy Hill said, €˜We're shooting from your eyebrows to you lower lips, so don't move, don't breath, just give me performance energy.'

"That's when Julie walked in, and said to me, €˜More than anyone, you know Muzzy, your character. If I were playing Muzzy, I would know Muzzy better than anyone.' I thought she's right, and I relaxed, didn't move and I gave him energy. Julie just held my hand, and she made up her mind that I was going to get nominated for an Academy Award. I never knew her before until that film. She is really a supreme star."

Although the star power was big on Otto Preminger's Skidoo (1968), Channing didn't have such a good time. Channing claims that most of the cast including Ginger Rogers, Clint Eastwood, Julie Andrews, Frankie Avalon, Jackie Gleason, Peter Lawford and George Raft, had problems with Preminger.

"He was difficult," she says. "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. And he made some good movies. I think Laura (1944) was his best."

Channing has been an impersonator and been impersonated. She has appeared in six television specials, on games shows and with one of Hollywood's most unique and recognizable voices, has done voices for characters in productions such The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars. She has cut 20 children's albums of classic stories and recorded 10 gold albums and in 2003, she penned her best selling memoirs, Just Lucky I Guess and received the Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award from the Actors' Fund of America. Channing's only son is a nationally syndicated, Pulitzer Prize finalist, editorial cartoonist.

Channing's show offers an unplugged evening of memories, humorous storytelling and signature tunes, including Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, Little Girl From Little Rock and Hello, Dolly!

So at 83 how does she still have the stamina to tour? " I have no secrets. I don't do anything unusual. I'm blessed and grateful," she says.

In 2003 Channing married her junior high school sweetheart, businessman Harry Kullijian. After a 70-year separation the two are like a billboard for happiness. "Yes, I'm so lucky. There's no formula, it just is, and I thank the Lord for it. It's a miracle. Harry is marvelous, and he takes care of me. He's a brilliant businessman, and he does my contracts."

When Channing was asked about the accolade attached to her that she is one of the brightest stars in the theatrical heavens, she was mute, but Harry piped up and said, "Yes, I agree."

"I have no formula for why we're so happy," continues Channing. "I remember when Bette Davis talked about her marriage to Gary Merrill (it did last 10 years) and how to have a happy marriage, and by the time the article came out, they were divorced. Thankfully, Harry and I are enjoying our relationship. It's paradise, and I wish it for everybody."

Channing has had a lot of back knocks in her life. It seems sometime we have to have bad stuff happen to appreciate the good. "That's right," Channing says in her adorable voice. "I never thought about it like that. My bad years weren't wasted, I paid my dues. That's why I appreciate Harry so much!"

If you get attend her show, you'll see an icon, reminisce with Channing about her remarkable career, and leave a winner for just having met this unforgettable stage star.

Find out more information about Carol Channing on her website at

Interview (2003)




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