For the last few years, I had a burning question that I was dying to ask iconic singer/actress/comedienne Carol Channing. I had noticed that every recent story about the star or review of her work always felt the need to point out that she’s still plying her trade after almost 70 years. I finally had the chance to pose my inquiry about our culture’s age obsession to the eternally youthful performer: “Does it sometimes make you want to shout out, ‘Get over it! Focus on my ART, not my AGE!’ ?” Ms. Channing’s response was, “Oh no. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do what I love for so many years. They keep asking, ‘When are you going to retire, Carol?’ and I say ‘NEVER!’ “ That’s just the answer this fan wanted to hear! Still, it’s hard not to be in awe of the fact that the living legend and gay icon is still making music, making news, and making new fans at the age of 89. Channing may have cemented her status in American culture as the quintessential Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly”, or with her inimitable rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”… but the star’s other achievements in the worlds of theater, cinema, TV, and pop culture are no less than astonishing as well. In the last five years, Channing has used her one-of-a-kind celebrity for a cause that’s close to her heart: raising awareness of the need for the Arts in public schools. With her husband, Harry Kullijian (Channing and Kullijian were high school sweethearts who reunited and then married in 2003.), Channing formed the The Dr. Channing & Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts in 2005. The non-profit organization’s mission is to educate the general public about the importance of Arts education, and to support/encourage the artistic aspirations of our country’s youth. On Wednesday, December 1st, Ms. Channing appeared at Borders Books & Music at Columbus Circle to sign copies of her intensely personal new CD of spiritual music, “For Heaven’s Sake”. Her much-anticipated appearance was part of a whole day of events in honor of World AIDS Day to benefit Lifebeat and other HIV/AIDS organizations. For Carol, it was just one stop in what was to be a busy visit to New York City-- a visit which included a performance at The 22nd Annual Gypsy of the Year Competition a few days later. The show was a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Before heading back to her hometown of Modesto, California, Carol Channing took the time out of her hectic schedule to speak with Jed Ryan in an exclusive interview:
JR: Hello, Carol! Hope you're enjoying your time in New York City.
CC: Thank you! There is nothing like New Yorkers. They just embrace me with so much love when I am here. I’m just so grateful.
JR: So…when most people think of Carol Channing, they think of musical theater and comedy. “For Heavens Sake” is a gospel album. What was the inspiration behind the new music?
CC: Oh, well, it’s not new music. It’s been around forever. These songs were taught to me by my father. They are part of the very soil of the country. My father use to sing these songs with me. I can still hear him harmonizing with me when I sing them.
JR: What song on “For Heaven’s Sake” are you most proud of? Or, put another way, which song means the most to you?
CC: Oh, I really shouldn’t say I have a favorite, but I do. “Momma Send Me a Letter” ... oh, I just love that song. I can remember when my father taught it to me. Our postman would sing it while delivering letters. Oh, I just love singing it.
JR: It's no big revelation that the gay boys look at you as an icon. What message do you want to give to all your gay male fans… besides “Buy my new album!”
CC: Oh, they have always been so good to me. A love affair is what it is. They made me their “Queen” in San Francisco, which is much better than a “Legend“. They declared it “Carol Channing Day” and I was told there wasn't a single blonde wig left to buy in the city. Isn’t that wonderful?! They certainly seem to know who is going to be a hit before anyone else does. I’m just so lucky they liked me, and I just love them. They often make better audiences, because as a group they tend to laugh harder and louder. Applause is great, but it’s obligatory really. Laughter-- now THAT'S a reward for doing something well!
JR: Finally, what’s the next big thing you have in store for us?
CC: Well, we have a new CD coming out called “True to the Red, White and Blue“, that has these great patriotic songs on it like “Over There“, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon“, “America”, and “America The Beautiful”. Oh… and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic“. Songs that just make you proud to be an American. But more important right now than the CD is the efforts that Harry-- that's my husband, Harry Kullijian-- and I are doing through our Foundation, the Dr Channing/Kullijian Foundation for the Arts. I’m a Doctor of Fine Arts now, isn’t that nice? And, I make theatrical house calls. Yes! We are traveling all over the country to let people know how important the Arts are to developing young minds. Congresswoman Jackie Speier has authored a Resolution, H.Con.Res. 275, that has passed the House with 101 signatures of support and passed unanimously. Now it’s going before the Senate. Oh, she did such a good job writing it. It’s not too long and it’s clearly written. It requires that schools across the U.S. dedicate the second week of September to the Arts in Public Schools. Its so sad that the Arts are being cut out of the curriculum. Without the Arts, all other aspects of education suffer. Its been proven that the Arts help children in other areas of development. It's like fertilizer on the brain!