When you talk to Carol Channing, you don't just speak with Carol, or even Dolly. You also talk to Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Lyndon Johnson and, if you're lucky, Winnie the Pooh -- who sounds a lot like Winston Churchill.
It's not that the actress suffers from a multiple personality disorder. It's that she's an expert mimic, and in addition to her own trademark gravelly voice, the voices of figures from her past have a way of popping up in the conversation.
The figure she is most closely associated with, of course, is Dolly -- and rightly so. The actress has played the meddlesome matchmaker more than 4,000 times. She hit that mark during the current 30th anniversary "Hello, Dolly!" tour, which comes to the Lyric Opera House Tuesday. This latest revival of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical will move to Broadway next season.
But, Channing insists, "I'm not Dolly at all! I think if I were anything like her I wouldn't find her funny. People who are bossy and railroad other people's lives around don't think they're funny. So if I were anything like that, it wouldn't be amusing."
Instead, when she created the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi in 1964, Channing envisioned the character as part Lyndon Johnson, part her own grandmother, and part Mary Baker Eddy. She was reminded of this recently when she looked over her original script and noticed that in one of the margins she had written the initials "M.B.E.," referring to the founder of the Christian Science religion. (Channing's father was a well-known Christian Science lecturer, writer and editor.)
"As I was finding my way with the character I thought, I want that sly sideways look Lyndon Johnson had when he'd get on television and say, 'I'm an honest fella,' " Channing says, with a Johnson- esque drawl. "Then sometimes she goes from that to Mary Baker Eddy. There are all kinds of people she is. There are certain lines, if I can just see my grandmother's face, I can get it just right."
Channing has always had a talent for impersonations. Before she even learned to talk, she was mimicking the faces that peered into her crib. Her mother told Time magazine that tidbit in a 1950 cover story on the actress' overnight success in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
Channing's earliest memory of this ability dates back to age 7, when, as an only child, "in my room alone, I would talk to whoever I thought was exciting or eccentric or whoever thrilled me that day, and we'd have tea parties. . . . I would just move from chair to chair. It's nothing unusual, I understand. What it did, it exercised, like a bicep, those muscles for being other people."
This was around the time a classmate nominated her for student-body secretary at her San Francisco elementary school. You had to tell your fellow students why they should vote for you. I wasn't prepared. I stood there with my knees shaking. I couldn't think of one reason," she recalls. Instead, she came up with the idea of imitating the faculty, which she demonstrates again now, giving her impression of the principal, who sounds like Julia Child, and the social studies teacher, who hailed from "Noo Yawk."
"Well, they all applauded," she continues. "While I was standing there, I thought: 'Gee, what I think is funny, that's what everyone else thinks is funny. What I like, they like.' I thought, 'We're all alike.' Suddenly I was no longer an only child, and it was the safest place in the world to be -- right in the middle of the stage. Nobody seemed hurt, not even the principal. I ran off the stage, into the cloakroom, and I started to cry because I thought, 'Oh God, let me get back on that stage again.' "
Impersonating ever since
Impersonations have been part of Channing's repertoire ever since, whether in conventional formats, such as her nightclub act, or in her children's recording of "Winnie the Pooh." "That's my favorite because Winnie, I decided, was Winston Churchill -- a bear of great stentorian tones and very little brain," she says in a gruff, Churchill voice.
Not all her imitations have been graciously received, however. Marlene Dietrich walked out of Channing's Las Vegas act and later told the press: "They don't want stars in Las Vegas anymore. They just want this cheap claptrap like Carol Channing," recounts Channing in her best Dietrich tones.
Of course, Channing herself has long been a favorite of impersonators. "I have seen so many -- and they're all men! It's not very flattering," she says. "They all do it alike, which proves there must be some semblance, but I don't see it. Sometimes they look like my father."
As a Christian Science lecturer, Channing's father was the first member of the family to go on the road, starting a tradition that once led the actress to quip: "Our family is geared for touring. We have our feet firmly planted in mid-air."
Her first tour was "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," which brought her to Baltimore in 1952. She's returned many times since, but in the 1970s she underwent a series of minor disasters here that might have led a less stalwart trouper to write Charm City off the itinerary.
In 1976, when she was here in "The Bed Before Yesterday," her white mink coat was stolen from her Hilton Hotel suite while she and her husband slept. The coat was recovered, but three months later a warrant was issued for her arrest because she failed to appear in court to testify. When she agreed to appear at a new hearing, the warrant was dropped.
In 1978, she was in town appearing at the Mechanic Theatre in another tour of "Hello, Dolly!" when two fires struck the Lord Baltimore Hotel in a single night, forcing her and more than 400 other guests to evacuate the hotel. "We got the matinee done that day without a wink of sleep," she recalls.
Channing holds none of these events against Baltimore. "I judge every town by the audience. The audiences are very good in Baltimore. Baltimore's a good city to play, and I don't care if they have two more fires," she says, adding: "I don't have a fur coat now -- it's out of fashion."
Something else she no longer takes on tour is prepared organic food. The diet, she explains, was the result of an allergy to hair bleach, which she had begun using in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and which made it impossible to tolerate food additives or chemicals. "I was promised all my life that I would get over it," she says. Now that she has slowly weaned herself off the diet, she can eat whatever she wants. "It's just heaven."
Although she's a practicing Christian Scientist, Channing admits she has consulted doctors about her allergies, as well as to set broken bones. Some of these bones, she's quick to add, were fractured on stage, but she didn't let that stop a performance.
God of activity
"My father, who was a devout Christian Scientist, said: 'God loves you the most when you're active. The more active you are, the more He flows through you.' [My father] said, 'You just get your fanny up there on stage.' "
She also invokes Christian Science when it comes to her age, which has been variously reported, but is probably 74. "Christian Scientists, at least in my family, don't believe in birthdays at all."
Channing hasn't suffered any broken bones on this tour, but the rest of the cast has been passing a cold back and forth. "I didn't get it -- well, I did, but it didn't matter," she says. "It's like Tallulah Bankhead saying, 'I've got laryngitis.' I said, 'Tallulah, who can tell?' She didn't get it."
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
$ Call: (410) 889-3911
To hear excerpts of Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of "Hello, Dolly!" call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6147 after you hear the greeting.