Normally, when you hear about an eighty-two-year-old celebrity marrying, you start thinking about younger lovers and wondering whether or not the person is being used and so forth. (Not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with age differences in relationships, and I’m sure it’s possible that Larry Fortensky genuinely loved Elizabeth Taylor. But.) Therefore it is with genuine delight that I must inform you that the man Carol Channing married in 2003 was her junior high sweetheart, because that is the most charming thing I’ve read so far today and seems unlikely to be beaten for that title. They worked together to promote arts education in California schools, certainly a beneficial activity.
Channing was actually born in Seattle ninety-eight years ago this month. When she was two weeks old, the family moved to San Francisco. She considered working as her school’s class secretary to be part of her artistic training. She ran for and won the job every year, and she would apparently read the minutes of previous meetings using imitations of the people in question. She said that growing up in San Francisco was a wonderful theatrical training in those days, because great shows came through and school children got fifty-cent tickets.
My whole childhood, Channing was just Carol Channing, Icon. I’m not sure I ever actually saw anything with her in it, which is why she never made it onto my Celebrating the Living list. (I would’ve gotten around to her by now if she had; people in their nineties tend to go to the top of the list!) Her season of The Muppet Show isn’t even one of the three that got an official DVD release. In fact, the first thing I think of when I think of her is actually graffiti I saw photographed in the LA Times once, where someone had written “Jesus saves from Hell” in one paint and a second person followed in a different paint with “o Dolly revivals.”
But I am definitely charmed by what I’m learning about Carol Channing the person. Her hair wasn’t bleached; she was allergic. She wore wigs. She didn’t learn the truth about her father’s heritage until she went away to college—because her mother was afraid she’d discover it by having a black baby. Her father had been passing. Her mother was German-Jewish. Her father was part German and part black. One of her few quotes on IMDb is saying that her mother said some fairly unpleasant stuff about her so she went into theatre in part because it was accepting.
I wonder if we have the same kind of legend in theatre now. I’m not as up on modern Broadway as a lot of people, but I think the closest we have is Kristin Chenoweth, who’s not entirely the same. Even if you’d never seen anything with Carol Channing in it, it was impossible not to know Carol Channing. TV had more outlets for someone like her in those days, I think, and of course the radio. (Because her career goes back to the ’40s, so you have to mention radio!) Media is different now. Still, they should’ve put her as Dolly in the movie.