Carol Channing

jeff's picture

I know I won't get a damn bit of writing done until I write about the night I just had. Actually, I tend to never work on my novel on Fridays, so given the late hour, and that I need to get this story out of my system, I guess this will be another Friday without progress.

Tonight, I went to a Carol Channing book signing. Every few days, I pass by a bookstore in the Castro near my gym. When I unfortunately pay retail for my books, this is the one store I let charge me full face value on books. In their window recently is a picture of Carol Channing, and a notice that she will be signing her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, tonight.

At first, I figure that will be one interesting scene and pay no attention to it. But, the more I think about it, I decide to show up. My friend Will, whom I don't think reads or knows about this diary, well, he seems like someone who would appreciate a signed Carol Channing book, so I figure he should have one for Christmas.

But the more I think about it while I was standing there tonight, I caved in and got one for myself, too. I figure the book has to be a train wreck, and I want to see how crazy it is. I mean, Carol Channing, as near as I can tell, exists solely outside of reality. Despite any claims to the contrary, she is basically known for playing Hello Dolly since it opened on Broadway until, well, she'll probably tour it next year again. That I have yet to see her as Dolly amazes me, given how much I like theater. Of course, at this point, it would be more spectacle than theater.

So, I walk by the bookstore a half hour before signing time and the line is already huge. Unfortunately she is only signing, not reading or taking questions, which I think would have brought out more drag queens and turned it into more of a freak show. So, I get in line, hungry, as I didn't have dinner at this point.

The line snakes out the door and who know how far down the street. Behind me, there is a lesbian wearing a matching suit, coat, and tie. Very dapper. We hit it off, mainly after I start cutting down the crowd to her amusement. Everyone around me seems obsessed with the fact that they are going to meet Carol Channing. I'm indifferent, but I'm sure other people are including me as they do their sarcastic take on the evening. "Look at that one, total theater queen, probably rare for him to be out on a Friday and not home listening to cast recordings."

A few overly-coiffed gay boys start clearing a path, making the line against the wall single-file, just obviously clearing the way for Carol to make her entrance. They work the crowd like gay secret service, and out in the street, we hear applause. And then, she appears. She looks kind of... out of it. Like, I'm sure she knows where she is, and stuff like that. But there is something not right about her. I expected the wig, the big eyes, the wide mouth with the lipstick outlining her lips a bit too widely. But there is something not quite right with her. She starts chatting randomly with people she doesn't know in line, mainly non-sequitors and randomness. She bends down to pet a dog someone brought, making the gay secret service nervous and prepared to make sure if she tumbles over, as it looks like she might, she won't hit the floor.

She wanders toward me and stares into my eyes, looking for some sign of recognition, looking like someone a bit sauced after a night of drinking. Finding nothing in those few seconds, and me having no clue what I'm supposed to be saying to her, she turns and has a moment with the lesbian behind me, who says she is fabulous, and no matter what seems to come out of her mouth, it is just random. I mean, I knew she was bit looped at this point in her career, but I'm certainly looking forward to seeing how cohesive the book is. If it follows her seemingly daily thought patterns it will be Hello Dolly meets Naked Lunch. She eventually makes her way to her signing table out of our view, and I immediately know I'm in for the long haul. No way she's going to be banging out 'Carol Channing's in 5 seconds and moving this line quickly.

I figure, I'm in a bookstore, so I grab a copy of Kitchen Confidential, the book I'm currently reading, find the chapter I'm on, and figure I'll make some headway. Then, the line shifts enough so that a few people from across the aisle get to join me and the well-dressed lesbian in the Carol queue. The gap exists so people can still shop in the store and make it to the registers, etc.

Anyway, two guys meet behind me in line, total autograph collectors. I mean, don't get me wrong, half of my bookcase is probably signed, but every single one was signed in my presence at some event. I never write gushing fan mail asking people to send me signed stuff back. Apparently, this is an obsession with some people, and two autograph nuts together in line, there was no shutting them up. Well, the older one mainly coached the younger one, if that's what you can call it. It was mainly a laundry list of celebrities and whether or not they will give autographs. I could barely make it through my book for a few lines without the older one piping in:

"Fay Wray refuses to sign. Her, Shirley Temple, none of them sign anymore. I'm actually going to buy a letter Katherine Hepburn wrote on eBay just to get her signature."

This laundry list of most B- and C-actors will continue for the next 40 minutes in line. I try and read my book, but the barrage of autograph insanity never ends.

"What you have to do is act fast. When you see someone who you think might be famous, drop them a line and they're more likely to sign something. Kirsten Dunst, I liked her early on, and I got her to sign a few things. But after she did that cheerleader movie Bringin it on home, that was it, just pre-prints." (which begs the question, how often does he bother these people? I mean, for him to know she doesn't sign anymore after Bring It On (the actual title of the movie), means he tried to get her to sign after then, as well).

Pre-prints, I would learn, are what you get from big celebrities. 8 by 10 photos with signatures printed as part of the photograph. The cast of Friends, all pre-prints. Most big stars, pre-prints. My sole pre-print in life may be when I got a signed photo of Donny Osmond after sending a letter.

One of the gay secret service is now working his way down the line with post-its, standard operating procedure for big signings. He says it is so Carol knows how to spell our names, but then in B-I-G exaggerated type, he writes "JEFF" and "WILL" and affixes them to each book, on the page she will sign. My guess, this is written big so she can actually read it.

"I wrote Woody Allen a few times already, and nothing. I have a lot of Robert Redford. Never got Carroll O'Connor, and now he's dead. I have Ed Asner. I have Frank Gorsham, you know, the Riddler on Batman? He was especially nice. I sent him a letter, and he went through and circled and marked up specific passages of the letter, and wrote 'How nice of you to say this' and different things on the letter, and sent it back to me with a signed photo. I have Nicholson, my friend in L.A. actually knows Jack."

I fight ever urge to find a beat in his conversation to ask him if Marlee Matlin signs, but I am in the Castro, so the crowd could easily turn on me if I cross the PC line, so I just smile, amused at my own joke, and persevere trying to read my book.

Ahead of me are the serious Carol fans, older men with their cast recordings sharing tales of Broadway legends. No one, that I can tell, has read Channing's book, although all claim they are going to. To be fair, I'm not even sure when it came out, so this might not mean much.

"Nic Cage doesn't sign anymore, unless you meet him in person. Bill Cosby will sign. I was lucky enough to get Doris Day to sign. With a lot of the younger stars, you really have to wait until they become less popular and have more time, before they will be able to respond to mail inquiries for autographs."

Despite the laundry list of B-celebrities, and my own wonderment at what kind of sick, obsessive hobby this must be, I do get some reading done. Four chapters, I think. I am about eight people away from Ms. Channing when I finally pitch the book on a random, nearby shelf, making note of the new chapter title, so I can update my bookmark when I get home.

"Barbra will sign, but you have to run into her, or buy one on eBay."

I start mentally planning my dinner menu. I know I'll be eating at Tin Pan, an Asian noodle place a few doors away, and I plan to get sweet vegetable buns to start, and "Very Veggie," a nice, spicy stir-fry dish made with thick, chewy rice noodles, tofu, and a lot of fresh veggies.

Finally, autograph man blends into the background as I am finally in view of Ms. Carol Channing. She travels with her own contraption so that she can write on a 30-degree angle from the table, it's like a square of wood with notches, so she can adjust the pitch of her makeshift desk.

What I quickly learn about Ms. Channing is that there is no multi-tasking. If she is taking a picture with someone, she grabs their hand, looks stoned and trying to focus and hold steady while looking toward the camera, and then one of the gay secret service with the camera says "It's 1-2-3 time again, Carol," and then counts, "1..2.. 3" On 3, Channing brightens her eyes slightly and smiles wide, for a millisecond of camera flash, then back to glassy-eyed and kind of out of it. When she signs, she mouths every letter as she writes it, even in her own name. I can't believe they even have her personalizing these books, it seems like the 13 letters in her own name would be enough trouble.

Finally, it is my turn. She looks into my eyes like she is trying to figure out why she knows me, which she does to everybody, but of course, she doesn't know any of us. I tell her I saw her in Vegas two years ago, when she surprised Tommy Tune at his revue. And, you've got to hand it to her, she looks out of it but she immediately recalls the entire moment. "Yes, he signed his book onstage for me, such a nice, nice boy."

She looks off in the distance, probably thinking about Tommy Tune. I remind her that she even danced a few steps and sang a line or two of Hello Dolly that day when she got up on stage. She says "Yeah, such a nice day," and then immediately turns back to all glassy-eyed and longing, the moment gone.

She signs both books, and I decide I have to stick around and see what crazy autograph guy is like around her, since it's only five more people. Most people don't interact with Carol Channing, they interact around her. The secret service guys say "This is Shelby. This book is for Shelby." And, inside the book, of course, in big block letters, it reads: SHELBY. So, Carol signs "To Shelby," something, "Carol Channing."

The salutation seems to be when people decide to talk to her, and throw her off. She concentrates heavily on the name, so once she starts in on the Xs and Os, people figure that is a good time to say whatever it is they need to have their moment. It is when I talked about Tommy Tune, when everyone talked about whatever else. But, it seems that this is pure distraction to Ms. Channing, and it shows in the books. Shelby's book had a few cryptic marks there. In my book, it's XXS (after which she paused for a second, staring at the page, no doubt wondering why the hel there was an 'S' there, but then just jumped down to start her name). Will's book, has OO and what seems to be a backwards 2. A few people before autograph guy smile, said thank you, and if they said absolutely nothing during the signing, they got a pristine XXOO, with Carol mouthing "X,X,O,O" to herself as she remained in deep concentration with the book.

Autograph guy was actually very normal and personable when meeting her. He apparently works in radio and said he played a song of hers or something on the air that day, which made her light up. Since he didn't end up being as strange as I had hoped, I left before she even started signing his book, and photograph, and whatever else he had. I'm sure in a week from now, he'll be online somewhere saying "And I have an autographed photograph and book from Carol Channing..."

As I walked out of the store, the line was still out to the sidewalk, meaning after 75 minutes already, she still had a good 90 minutes ahead of her. Not to mention that the store had about 80-100 copies of the book in stock behind the counter, which they will want signed. So, you have to give it to her, she is a trooper and definitely earning her stripes as an old school, workhouse performer.

I know it may seem like I'm mocking or ridiculing her in some way, but I'm really not. She's going to be 83 years old in January, she wrote a book, people are lined up around the block just to have a moment with her. I could care less about her and I bought worth of her books (which at full retail means only two copies, of course), and I got well, six pages of insanity typed out of the experience as a result.

I think she is the model for not giving in or giving up. I swear if you had a karaoke machine with a Hello Dolly tape, she would have jumped up and started singing, that is the generation she is from. The show goes on, no matter what. I'm not even admitting that I've missed the boat to see her do Hello Dolly on stage. I guarantee they would do a whole show with her hardly moving, center stage, kind of out of it, but saying all her lines, hitting her marks, and belting out songs with that inimitable voice. And the audience would give her a standing ovation, more so for the fact that she did it than anything else, but that's still saying something.

I hope I get to be a crotchety old man, with gay secret service men walking my cranky, dazed ass somewhere, and a huge line of people showing up, but I don't think that's our generation, though. They are a dying breed. Today, any actor who was known for primarily one role, odd personal appearances, and being a regular on Hollywood Squares, that would be considered failure. But, she's had a career for 50-plus years in show business? There's no other word for that but success.

And, to top it off, you just know that book is going to be insane...