I first encountered Broadway legend Carol Channing through a teenage homosexual, which seems apt, because she really killed with the gays. I was in a dressing room at my arts high school, and this gay was doing a spot-on Carol Channing impersonation: the huge, gaping smile; the alarmingly-lit eyes; the raspy voice with incomprehensible phrasing. I'd never encountered a person like this before. What's wrong with her, I thought, and how can I be wrong like that, too?
"I've met Carol," he said. "She's incredible. Did you see that video of her after she was robbed at gunpoint?"
He showed me:
The bank robbery video really sold me on Channing, but then we went deeper. What the fuck is going on with her here?
I'm not sure what's happening in her brain, but "JAM TOMORROW! JAM YESTERDAY! BUT NEVER EVER JAM TODAY!" was stuck in my head for the rest of high school. And what wild dancing! It's like she's on poppers!
Carol Channing is a master class in uniqueness. She's an example of one of the great truths of entertainment, which is that a star must bring something new. Unlike what's taught in conservatory training programs across the country, Channing's success is largely due to her surreal, indelible charm. She stood out. She couldn't be easily described. Why did she sing like that? What the fuck is going on with her arms during that dancing section? Obviously, her performances lend themselves to camp.
Born in Seattle in 1921 to an interracial couple, Channing reportedly didn't discover that her father was black until she was 16. At the time of her birth, her father was a city reporter for the Seattle Star, but they moved to San Francisco when Channing was a newborn. Her father later became a Christian Science editor and teacher.
Channing first arrived in the national conscience by way of Broadway, starring in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, then, later, Hello Dolly!, The Vamp, and Lorelei, among many other shows. A legend on stage and screen, she continued making an impact well into her 90s. Early this morning, her publicist confirmed that Channing had passed away.
The great musicals were (literally) made for Carol Channing. Like all legends, it felt like she plugged into some cosmic energy when she was onstage. The only thing that can explain her wild, energetic performances is divine intervention. She's hard to look away from, which is a talent that shouldn't be overlooked in the theater, a space that's usually more nap-inducing than riveting. Hopefully Channing's spark gets reincarnated elsewhere. She will be missed. May the gays impersonate her forever.