Carol Channing 1921-2019

Carol Channing, the legendary Broadway star who originated the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has died aged 97.

Born in Seattle in 1921, Carol and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two weeks old. Her mother Adelaide was of German Jewish descent and her father George was part African-American (on his mother’s side.) A newspaper editor by profession, George was also a Christian Science practitioner and teacher.

At sixteen, Carol left home to major in drama in Bennington College in Vermont. In 1941, she won her first Broadway part as Eve Arden’s understudy in a revue, Let’s Face It! That year she was married for the first time, to writer Theodore Naidish. They divorced after five years.

In 1948, Carol won a Theatre World Award for her featured role in another revue, Lend An Ear. Stacy Eubank noted in Holding A Good Thought For Marilyn: The Hollywood Years, that on June 16, a little-known starlet, 22 year-old Marilyn Monroe, attended the opening night at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, where she was photographed with director Bill Eythe and actor Bill Callahan.

Marilyn at the ‘Lend An Ear’ LA premiere, 1948

Illustrator Al Hirschfeld published a caricature of Carol as a flapper in the show, the first of many portraits to come. She even credited his artwork with helping her win the part of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Al Hirschfeld’s artwork for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1949)

Jule Styne’s musical adaptation of the 1926 novel by Anita Loos opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in December 1949, running for almost two years. In her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol wrote that Loos had told Styne, ‘That’s my Lorelei!’ after seeing Lend An Ear in New York. Styne promptly wrote a new song for Carol, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.’

Carol as Lorelei Lee

In January 1950, Carol made the cover of Time magazine. She was married again that year, to footballer Axe Carson, and they had a son, Channing Carson. After her third marriage to manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956, he was renamed Chan Lowe and went on to become a successful cartoonist.

Darryl F. Zanuck swiftly acquired the film rights to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Twentieth Century Fox. Carol was duly invited to Los Angeles for a screen test, but it was generally assumed that Betty Grable, the studio’s reigning blonde star of musical comedy, would get the part. In any case, Carol had already decided to take the show to London after the Broadway run ended.

Marilyn in New York, circa 1951

In mid-June of 1951, Marilyn Monroe flew to New York, where she spent several days.  Columnist Dorothy Manners would report that she had been given tickets by Fox to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – perhaps as a warning to Grable, who was then on suspension. ‘Physically, Marilyn fits the bill,’ Manners noted, ‘but whether she is experienced enough to take on a top comedy performance remains to be seen.’

In her autobiography, Carol claimed that Marilyn was instructed to see the play every night for a month, which is doubtless an exaggeration given Marilyn’s busy schedule. Chronically shy, Marilyn never ventured backstage. “Our orchestra never saw anyone that beautiful before,” Carol recalled. “For the first time they were all looking at Marilyn instead of our conductor…”

That November, after Blondes finally closed, the New York Post‘s Earl Wilson reported that Marilyn hoped to play Lorelei on the screen. In his 1992 biography of Monroe, Donald Spoto wrote that Fox informed Marilyn the part was hers on June 1, 1952 (her 26th birthday.) Nonetheless, the studio kept up the intrigue for several weeks before announcing it to the press, still claiming that Grable would star, with Marilyn turning brunette to play Lorelei’s friend Dorothy.

When the news broke on June 23, Hedda Hopper wrote that Carol had responded with a 200-word telegram to Fox, while Grable denied asking Zanuck for the part. Marilyn was now the studio’s rising star, but as Stacy Eubank observes, she was still on a standard contract and would cost Fox far less than either Grable or Channing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a golden opportunity for Marilyn, and a huge success when it opened in 1953. “I was heartsick over the whole thing, of course,” Carol admitted, and she also felt that Jack Cole’s flamboyant choreography “completely upstaged” the lyrics.

Carol with Yvonne Adair as Dorothy

“I do think it was one of her best movies,” Carol reflected on Marilyn’s performance. “Not funny, however. They didn’t use one word of Anita’s original book, which was hilarious and which was what constantly kept the stage musical on a higher level. Anita didn’t write the musical’s book. So where they didn’t insert the original book it was mundane. It was the stock formula for a dated Broadway musical. I followed Anita’s original Lorelei character ferociously…”

“You can cast Lorelei two ways,” Loos explained. “With the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town, or with a comedienne’s comment on the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town. I wrote her as a comedy, and Broadway is attuned to satire.” Carol’s broader interpretation was perfect for the stage, whereas Marilyn brought a softer, more innocent quality to Lorelei.

During the 1950s, Carol replaced Gracie Allen as a comedy foil to George Burns. “Finding roles that suit the strange and wonderful charms of Carol Channing has always been a problem to Broadway showmen,” a 1955 cover story for LIFE read. “She looks like an overgrown kewpie. She sings like a moon-mad hillbilly. Her dancing is crazily comic. And behind her saucer eyes is a kind of gentle sweetness that pleads for affection.”

Her next great role was in Hello, Dolly! (1964.) She befriended Broadway newcomer Barbara Streisand, only to lose out again when the younger actress was cast in the film adaptation. A registered Democrat, Carol campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson and was a favourite of his wife, Lady Bird. In 1966, she won the Sarah Siddons Award, and finally achieved movie stardom alongside Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), winning a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress, and an Oscar nomination.

In 1970, Carol became the first celebrity to perform at a Super Bowl halftime. Three years later, she was revealed to have been on disgraced president Richard Nixon’s Master List of Political Opponents – which she quipped was the highest accolade of her career.

With Peter Palmer in ‘Lorelei’, 1974

The 53-year-old revisited her early success in Lorelei (1974), a reworking of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes featuring songs cut from the original play, and broke box-office records by selling out for six consecutive days in just 24 hours. She also frequently appeared on television, including a 1987 Jules Styne special in which she performed ‘Little Girl From Little Rock.’

Carol Channing in 2013

In 1998, Carol separated from her husband of forty years, Charles Lowe. He passed away shortly afterwards. She would marry once more in 2003, after rekindling her romance with high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. He died in 2011. Carol maintained her faith in Christian Science, followed a strict organic diet and swore off alcohol.

Marilyn (left) and Carol (right), by Al Hirschfeld

A much-loved resident of Rancho Mirage, California, Carol had a star dedicated to her on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 2010. She returned two years later to honour Marilyn Monroe, praising her “brilliant and unique” performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Carol also attended a farewell party for Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn‘, when it left Palm Springs for the East Coast in 2014.

A Night With Marilyn and Diana

Two of the last century’s most iconic beauties, Marilyn and Princess Diana are the dual subjects of The Princess and the Showgirl, a new performance piece reflecting on the pressures of fame. The show is part of A Night With Thick & Tight, a triple bill created by dancers Daniel Hay-Gordon and Eleanor Perry, to be staged in the Lillian Bayliss Studio at Sadlers Wells from January 17-19 during the London International Mime Festival. (The title is, of course, a pun on The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn’s only film made in England.)

Cast Announced for ‘Norma Jeane Baker of Troy’

Earlier this year, it was reported here that Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a new performance piece by poet Anne Carson, would make its debut at The Shed, a new multi-arts centre in Hudson Yards, NYC, when the venue opens in spring of 2019. Carson wrote the play – which is part-spoken, part opera, and inspired by the parallels between Marilyn and Helen of Troy – specifically for English actor Ben Whishaw and soprano Renee Fleming, with Katie Mitchell directing and music by Paul Clark. And while Ben won’t be singing, in a novel piece of casting it seems that he will indeed be playing Marilyn herself! “Norma Jeane Baker was Monroe’s real name and the play’s about Marilyn Monroe – and I play her … sort of,” he tells the Daily Mail‘s Baz Bamigboye (click on the photo below to read at full size.)

Thanks to Nicola at Marilyn Remembered

Miller on Marilyn, ‘After the Fall’, in ’66

The literary magazine Paris Review has posted a 1966 interview with Arthur Miller, where he talks about his relationship with Marilyn, and After the Fall.

“MILLER: I think Strasberg is a symptom, really. He’s a great force, and (in my unique opinion, evidently) a force that is not for the good in the theater. He makes actors secret people and he makes acting secret, and it’s the most communicative art known to man; I mean, that’s what the actor’s supposed to be doing … The problem is that the actor is now working out his private fate through his role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play is the last thing that occurs to him. In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions … This is Method, as they are teaching it, which is, of course, a perversion of it, if you go back to the beginning. But there was always a tendency in that direction.

INTERVIEWER: What about Method acting in the movies?

MILLER: Well, in the movies, curiously enough, the Method works better. Because the camera can come right up to an actor’s nostrils and suck out of him a communicative gesture; a look in the eye, a wrinkle of his grin, and so on, which registers nothing on the stage.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the push toward personal success dominates American life now more than it used to?

MILLER: I think it’s far more powerful today than when I wrote Death of a Salesman. I think it’s closer to a madness today than it was then. Now there’s no perspective on it at all.

INTERVIEWER: Would you say that the girl in After the Fall is a symbol of that obsession?

MILLER: Yes, she is consumed by what she does, and instead of it being a means of release, it’s a jail. A prison which defines her, finally. She can’t break through. In other words, success, instead of giving freedom of choice, becomes a way of life.

Barbara Loden as Maggie in ‘After the Fall’, featured in LIFE (1964)

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel in the New York production that the girl allegedly based on Marilyn Monroe was out of proportion, entirely separate from Quentin?

MILLER: Yes, although I failed to foresee it myself. In the Italian production this never happened; it was always in proportion. I suppose, too, that by the time Zeffirelli did the play, the publicity shock had been absorbed, so that one could watch Quentin’s evolution without being distracted.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think happened in New York?

MILLER: Something I never thought could happen. The play was never judged as a play at all. Good or bad, I would never know what it was from what I read about it, only what it was supposed to have been.

INTERVIEWER: Because they all reacted as if it were simply a segment of your personal life?

MILLER: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Could this question of timing have affected the reaction here to After the Fall?

MILLER: The ironic thing to me was that I heard cries of indignation from various people who had in the lifetime of Marilyn Monroe either exploited her unmercifully, in a way that would have subjected them to peonage laws, or mocked her viciously, or refused to take any of her pretensions seriously. So consequently, it was impossible to credit their sincerity.

INTERVIEWER: Was it the play, The Crucible itself, do you think, or was it perhaps that piece you did in the Nation—’A Modest Proposal’—that focused the Un-American Activities Committee on you?

MILLER: Well, I had made a lot of statements and I had signed a great many petitions. I’d been involved in organizations, you know, putting my name down for fifteen years before that. But I don’t think they ever would have bothered me if I hadn’t married Marilyn. Had they been interested, they would have called me earlier. And, in fact, I was told on good authority that the then chairman, Francis Walter, said that if Marilyn would take a photograph with him, shaking his hand, he would call off the whole thing. It’s as simple as that. Marilyn would get them on the front pages right away.”

Critical Acclaim for Dublin’s ‘Misfits’

Reviews are in for Annie Ryan’s recent production of The Misfits at the Dublin Theatre Festival. It’s unclear as yet whether a full run will follow, so watch this space!

“Roslyn (Aobhínn McGinnity), first played by Monroe, is stronger, more worldly, and more sardonic than the original, and, crucially, she is a brunette, instantly drawing a distinction with Monroe … The play suffers from the same problems Miller’s original novella and screenplay did; it is an awkward narrative that constantly changes tone, and is eventually unclear in what it wanted to say. This production, though, one of the most anticipated of the Dublin Theatre Festival, does not disappoint.” – Ciarán Leinster, Reviews Hub

“If there appears to be a lack of nuance in the characters, it’s one that has been forced on them by their circumstances. It’s a strength of Miller’s writing that he is still able to reveal a humanity in the characters … Aoibhinn McGinnity’s Roslyn and Úna Kavanagh’s Isabelle hold the keys, even if in the latter case it’s just the key to the bar, both just as much misfits to the power dynamic of a very male-centred world.” -Noel  Megahey, The Digital Fix

“Stage-plays migrate into movies frequently, often with great success; the traffic is lighter in the other direction. Some of the technical challenges are here very well met by movement director Justine Cooper; the lassoing of the mustang is effective, complete with the character of Isabelle embodying the struggling horse.

All five performances are first-rate, each actor taking plenty of risks. This is a thoroughly enjoyable dramatic probe into what’s biting the American male; it ends on a profound and optimistic note.” – Irish Independent

“While Roslyn stirs their passions, she is not the flaky sex object that a visibly unhappy Marilyn Monroe played in her final movie. She instead becomes the means of exposing the men’s rootlessness, insecurity and uncertain sense of self. Miller may have seen himself as a misfit in the sense of being a political malcontent, but Ryan’s version reminds us that at the heart of the story is a wider crisis in masculinity.” – Michael Billington, The Guardian

‘All About Eve’ on the London Stage

Following the news that The Misfits will be staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival later this month (see here), London’s Evening Standard reports that All About Eve will open at the Noel Coward Theatre next February for a limited 14-week run, with Gillian Anderson and Lily James recreating the lead roles played by Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning 1950 movie. Of course, All About Eve is all about life in the theatre, and it’s not the first time it’s crossed over to the stage. In 1970, Lauren Bacall won a Tony award for Applause, a hit Broadway musical adaptation. This new take will also feature music, by the acclaimed singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey. It’s not clear yet who will play the supporting character of Claudia Caswell, whose original incarnation gave Marilyn one of her first big breaks.

Miller’s Elegy for Marilyn in Kansas City

Some Kind of Love Story, one of the plays in Arthur Miller’s 1982 double bill, Two-Way Mirror, is considered to be inspired by Marilyn. However, its lesser-known counterpoint, Elegy For A Lady – currently playing at Birdie’s on West 18th Street as part of the Open Spaces festival in Kansas City – also brings her to mind, as Alan Portner writes for Broadway World.

“Elegy For A Lady is a tiny fragment of a play lasting no more than forty minutes, but also an insight into the mind of American playwright Arthur Miller. Instead of being performed in a traditional theater, Bob Paisley and Heidi Van inhabit their characters inside a tiny lady’s boutique in the Crossroads among, rather than in front of, a tiny audience of about twenty people.

Neither actor is named in the script. They are the owner of the boutique and a middle-aged man with a longing desire to purge his soul of a much younger woman. She is his mistress, yet emotionally unobtainable. The man obviously wants more. The mistress requires a separation. The mistress is ill and soon to undergo a serious operation. The man shops for a gift before she enters treatment.

Somehow, a bond grows between the shop owner and her customer. She becomes his muse and ultimately his lover. Having the audience in the middle makes the action all the more intimate.

Heidi Van, as the shop owner, wears the iconic blond hairstyle from Monroe’s last completed film, The Misfits. Van, in costume, is close to a ringer for Monroe.

Bob Paisley as the stand-in for Arthur Miller is sufficiently tortured by his own infidelities, his love for this almost unobtainable avatar of a woman, and his need to unburden himself. Van listens, advises, then transforms into the woman about whom the Miller-like character obsesses. They make love and abruptly the relationship ends. The playlet ends. The audience wants more, but there is no more.”

Marilyn at the Edinburgh Festival

Marilyn is a hot topic in fringe theatre, though the results aren’t always stellar. At this year’s Edinburgh Festival, she’s the subject of two new shows, reviewed by Joyce McMillan for The Scotsman.

The Marilyn Conspiracy has grabbed a few headlines although Marilyn herself isn’t depicted – it’s set in the hours after her death, as some of the main players in her final months respond to the tragedy.

“The play is desperately confusing at first, and urgently needs to use its tableau-like opening moments to let the characters tell us exactly who they are … It’s a measure of the sheer power of the story, though, that the play rivets the attention nonetheless, as the two doctors in the room, and even Marilyn’s furious friend Pat Newcomb, are gradually worn down … “

However, another audience member – MM superfan Lorraine – told me, “The Marilyn Conspiracy had all the bogus theories – the ambulance, Bobby Kennedy, injections, enemas etc … I could hear people laughing a lot at some of the theories talked about … maybe the audience all knew better!” In his review for The Stage Paul Vale agrees, describing the play as a “stifling, under-developed drama that blurs fact and fiction.”

Theatregoers whom (like myself) aren’t enthralled by conspiracy theories may prefer the lighter option…

“JoJo Desmond’s cabaret show The Marilyn Monroe Story is a fragile little piece by comparison, a brief and simply staged hour of songs and biographical narrative tracing Marilyn’s remarkable life, not least through versions of some of her most famous and fabulous costumes. Desmond sings Marilyn’s songs beautifully, in a near-perfect imitation of her breathily gorgeous voice; and she, too, observes the link with the #metoo moment. Her script, though, never soars into anything like the brilliant writing a life like Marilyn’s invites and for all her charm, she is a long way from even beginning to capture the glowing charisma of the woman herself.”

Once again, Lorraine’s view was quite different to McMillan’s. “On the whole,” she says, “the show was well-researched and the costumes and mannerisms and performances of songs were spot on … the voice was accurate and she had some beautiful costumes (including a ‘Heat Wave’ replica outfit!), and you could tell that she had studied every single movement that Marilyn does in each of the musical performances.”

Where Marilyn is concerned, a diehard fan can be more perceptive than most theatre critics. Lorraine will be posting her full review of both shows soon on the Marilyn Remembered blog.

When Will ‘Fellow Travelers’ Make It to Broadway?

Fellow Travelers, Jack Canfora’s new play about Marilyn, Arthur and Elia Kazan, was critically acclaimed when it opened in the Hamptons this June (see here.) The producers are now hoping for a Broadway run – but as Michael Reidel reports for the New York Post, without a star attached it’s going to be an uphill journey.

“This issue is bedeviling a compelling new play that, if it could get a Broadway theater, would be a strong contender to win the Tony next year. Jack Canfora’s Fellow Travelers — about the real-life combustible triangle of Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Marilyn Monroe during the McCarthy era — opened in June to rave reviews at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater.

Local critics called director Michael Wilson’s production ‘phenomenal,’ ‘sharp,’ ‘witty’ and ‘gripping.’ New York’s major papers, alas, didn’t review the show. Had their reviews been good, the play would have stood a much greater chance of getting to Broadway.

Somebody slipped me a copy of the play, and it’s terrific. Fellow Travelers takes a few liberties here and there with the facts, but it digs deep into the complicated friendship — and falling out — between Kazan and Miller.

And it spices things up by adding Monroe to the stew. In his biography Arthur Miller, Martin Gottfried suggests that Kazan threw Monroe in Miller’s way, knowing that she would upend the playwright’s life.

Gripping as it is, Fellow Travelers has yet to find its way onto Broadway. ‘We don’t have a star,’ a production source says. Celeb duos are being floated — Andrew Garfield and Jake Gyllenhaal and Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy among them. If they read the script, they would leap at the chance to play such juicy characters.

Until then, Fellow Travelers languishes on Broadway’s waitlist. That’s a pity.”

‘The Misfits’ On the Stage

The Misfits will have its first ever stage adaptation (as far as I’m aware) at the Dublin Theatre Festival from late September to mid-October, as Jennifer O’Brien reports for The Times. While I don’t think the movie should ever be remade, I’m glad to see Arthur Miller’s creation getting a new lease of life.

The Misfits already has an Irish connection, as prior to filming in 1960, Arthur had visited director John Huston at St. Cleran’s, his estate near Galway, to discuss the project (while Marilyn was filming Let’s Make Love in Hollywood.) No dates have yet been announced, but it will be staged at the Corn Exchange – and I’ll be keeping you posted, so watch this space!

“The production, directed by Annie Ryan, was announced as part of the line-up for the Dublin Theatre Festival … [Aoibhinn] McGinnity, 31, said that while she was looking forward to playing Tabor at the Corn Exchange, she had not watched the film that inspired the play.

‘I hadn’t seen the film, but had met Annie to chat about the concept, and it was like, You know what, maybe don’t watch the film,’ she said. ‘We are not going to play it like Marilyn Monroe; we are going to do our own spin.’

Ryan has promised that her version of The Misfits will offer it ‘the space to come into its fullest expression’. ‘Annie is trying to rewrite it from a different angle and it brings in so many things about feminism and masculinity,’ McGinnity said.”

UPDATE: The Misfits will be staged at Dublin’s Corn Exchange from September 27-October 1. More details here.