Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
Forever known as Dolly Levi, Carol Channing is one of those entertainment icons that wraps around us like a warm blanket. Her continued presence over the years has made her a staple of television and theatre and her creation of the lead role in "Hello, Dolly!" has made her a legend. This is the focus of "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life," a documentary that lovingly tells Channing’s story.
As directed by Dori Berinstein ("Show Business: The Road to Broadway"), the film includes extensive conversations with Ms. Channing, as well as her fourth husband (and childhood sweetheart) Harry - who just passed away December 26, 2011. Berinstein also interviews other icons of the day including Betty Garrett, Phyllis Diller, Tyne Daly, Mary Jo Catlett, and Debbie Reynolds - all who regale us with stories about the irrepressible Channing.
While we do get a brief look into her childhood and early career, a good portion of the film focuses on her creation and never-ending legacy with the role of Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" Oddly, most of the clips shown of the show are from the 1994 revival when she was in her 60’s, which begs us to wonder if there is any footage of her from the original performances in 1964.
Regardless, the film is full of fascinating tidbits about this big chunk of her life like the fact that she only missed half of a performance because of food poisoning and she allegedly performed the show over 5000 times! Other bits of info involve her struggles with ovarian cancer while touring with the show and (still never missing a performance), and how she was turned away from being in the motion picture of "Hello, Dolly!" because she was too "big" for the silver screen.
These stories make you realize what a lovely and charming woman Channing really is. As a child, I found her almost cartoonish with her zany over-the-top nature and crazy raspy voice. I remember her visit to the "Muppet Show" and a variety of variety TV specials, but other than that, I didn’t think twice about her. Here, I was privy to her story and I fell in love with her. Is the film perfect? No. It spends too much time on "Hello, Dolly" and skims over different areas of her life that begged for more examination.
That said, I enjoyed the trip through Channing’s life and learning about the woman behind the persona. A few moments stand out, particularly when a dancer who performed "Hello, Dolly" with her both in 1994 and in recent showcases, tells about her concern for a fellow dancer dealing with an HIV diagnosis. Her tenderness and care made such an impact on these men, that you truly see what a gentle and caring person she was. In the same vein, her love story with her recent husband Harry is a delight.
Having met in grammar school and then losing touch shortly after, the two met again in 2003 after a friend of Harry’s read Ms. Channing’s autobiography where she mentioned her one true love. The friend called Harry and said he must contact her. He did, the two met the next day, fell instantly in love, and were engaged weeks later.
These are the stories that make Carol Channing the star she is. Not just because of her dedicated work ethic, but because she is a genuinely caring and kind person. As one of the interviewees states, no one has ever said anything bad about Ms. Channing either personally or professionally. And in the business we call show... that’s a rarity. And so is Carol.
"Larger than Life" she is. And life is all the better because of it.