One of our Valley’s most beloved residents is Ms. Carol Channing. At 92, she is still the beaming ray of light we know from stage and screen – gracious and kind, full of positive energy and endearing spunk.
If you ask Carol how she accounts for her long, healthy life, she will tell you that lead theater people make health a priority because they have the weight of the show on their shoulders. “Now the chorus, they can eat anything they want,” she says with a smile.
However, after reading her memoir Just Lucky I Guess and spending time with Carol, it is easy to see that there is something else at work. I believe it to be her combination of healthy choices; a life full of purpose and giving to her beloved audience; and the effervescent creativity which ignites her soul to this day.
She is known for her unwavering work ethic, including never missing one of more than 5,000 performances of Hello, Dolly! Eight shows a week required a lot of stamina which she supported with a diet rich in protein and vegetables. “I never bothered with desserts or starches. No potatoes, pasta or bread. Just protein and vegetables still today.” She also avoided milk to save her voice. (Thespians were among the first to realize that dairy creates excess mucus). She learned what worked for her body and stuck to it.
On tour, she preferred fish between the matinee and evening shows as lighter fare. She tells the story of her beloved dresser, Tivis Davenport, who would heat her dinner in the wig oven. This lasted until members of the troupe finally told Tivis, “We love Carol dearly, but we can no longer stand her fish smell” as her wigs shared the same oven.
Carol always traveled with her own food, even when dining with heads of state. “My dear friend Lady Bird Johnson said, ‘I have to tell you. You are only the second person registered in the White House with any President who didn’t trust the food.’” The other was the lavish King Farouk of Egypt. Carol’s top priority was giving her best performance for each audience, and she feared having a negative reaction to something that may be hidden in prepared food.
Her purpose in life became clear at a very young age when she began imitating students and teachers, captivated with the resulting laughter and applause – even from those she portrayed. It became a lifelong passion with unwavering dedication. “When you are on stage, there is nothing else in your life but the audience in front of you.”
A surprising discovery in her book is the uterine cancer she suffered during the first two runs of Hello, Dolly! She was flying back to New York every other weekend for cobalt and chemo treatments. When asked about it, she said “Oh yes, I forgot about that” and can only attribute her steadfast stamina to sheer adrenaline from performing night after night. “I later heard people say that this treatment completely drains you. Dr. Bill was so wise not to tell me.”
Dr. Bill Cahan was her beloved physician. “Wasn’t I fortunate he was the uterine cancer specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering? I mean, after years of piecing me together from falling in the pit, I finally came in with something in his territory.”
Due to her near-sighted vision, Carol often had mishaps onstage. “I remember falling into the audience one night and landing in the lap of a dear woman who fortunately laughed and blew me a kiss as I crawled back on stage.” She even finished a show with a broken arm, not leaving for the hospital until after the curtain fell. Dr. Bill believed her many broken-bone performances were made possible by ‘a combination of sheer willpower and Mary Baker Eddy’ referencing the Christian Science founder and religion with which Carol was raised.
The creative work of show business has long been a part of her healing power. In her book, she mentions Bill Moyer’s Healing and the Mind. ‘It covers methods of healing all over the world. It spoke of cancer patients who were given one week to live. They were brought to Big Sur California and told to create something, anything, every day – a poem, a song, a painting, a story, even a sand castle would do. They lived and lived.’
Carol still loves performing and creating to this day. George Burns told her once that she would be “just like him” performing until the day she died. She adds “Now that I’ve told you, I’ll have to do it. I can’t let George be proven wrong.”
Her schedule still takes her back to the bright lights of New York and LA. This August, she returns to Fire Island, a place they say she helped build, for an appearance at the Ice Palace. “I’m the Queen of the Gays, you know, or so they tell me,” she adds. “And I am very proud of that.” When on tour in Las Vegas, there were 8 performers impersonating her in 8 different night clubs. “I even entered a Carol Channing lookalike contest once in New York – and placed third!” she jokes.
Carol is looking forward to slowing down a bit and getting more involved locally in the Desert. She is grateful for her loving family and close friends including Barbara Walters, Debbie Reynolds, and Tommy Tune. Her inspiring life is one lived with passion, dedication, laughter, and healthy choices along the way. We are the lucky ones and look forward to seeing more of Ms. Channing in the many days to come.
LOVE THIS LADY!!!!!!
Thank you, Cedric. We will let her know. She is as gracious and wonderful as you would imagine.
All the best ~
Lauren Del Sarto
A very close friend Jason, who is 10 years older then me still talks about seeing Carol in Hello Dolly when she came to Jackson, MS. I’m 40 and feel like she is close friend! I’ve read her autobiography and have her songs on my iPhone which I listen to going to work and especially when I’m having a difficult day. I also ordered a copy of Carol Channing: Larger Them Life the day it came out on DVD. I made sure I sent Jason a copy! I’ll admit when Harry told the story of going to New York and seeing Carol from a distance tears came to my eyes. I think we all have had moments like that. If we’re lucky that person you were meant to be with will comeback into our lives! The way Harry looked at Carol you would have thought no time had pasted since they were teenagers! I would love to find out where can I write to her and request an autograph for Jason and myself. Or maybe Ms. Channing could sign our books! Thanks much for taking the time to read my post and respond! I got so excited!
On a cruise in 2009 my partner and I got to meet the fabulous Ms Channing and her charming husband Harry. They were so cute together. We were seated at a table in the ships dining room next to Ms Channing and Harry and they kindly asked us to join them … It was awesome…we talked about so many things…she was surprised to hear that I saw her in a play with Sid Ceaser many years ago called Four On A Garden….and that I knew about Ten Chimneys, the summer home of The Lundts…(Broadway Legends) that Ms Channing used to visit in the summer. I will never forget that cruise. Then by pure accident we happened to hire a contractor who said he worked for Ms Channing who lives here in the desert about a mile or so from me. When he told her that he was doing some work for us too she sent us a sweet note and a signed picture. She is still very active here in the Palm Springs area and luckily we have had several chances to see her since the cruise….she is still as lovely as ever…it is just to sad that she had to lose her beloved Harry.
That is a wonderful story, Jack! Thank you for sharing. She is a forever gracious and charming woman. Absolutely love her!
My mother was a Television star in St. Louis Missouri for 25 years, so everyone passing through, promoting where they were appearing was on her show. Ms Channing came through and it was instant friendship for them both. This one time, my Aunt Vivian was planning on making her famous Chicken and Dumplings,at Moms’ home in Webster Groves, Missouri, the sisters, were planning on spending some time together. Charlotte’ secretary, Cathy Harberding called, from KTVI the television studio and mentioned for Vivian to put an extra potato in the pot, one more guest was coming. Vivian assumed it was Moms’ secretary. 6:00 p.m., a knock was heard, Vivian opened the door, and there stood Carol Channing in all her happiness, apologizing for any inconvenience Vivian was put through by her showing up. Aunt Viv was speechless and delighted, and for the next month it was the topic in her bowling group.
A wonderful story, Pat! Thank you for sharing..and for reading Desert Health!
I’ve always loved and appreciated the style and class of Carol Channing Classy and talented in every role. Thank you Carol for doing Hello Dolly and Thoroughly Modern Milli. Was great to see you at a Hollywood stage theatre 5 or 8 yes ago. Cheers to you always!