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Nancy Balbirer on <i>Carol Channing: Larger Than Life</i>

Nancy Balbirer on Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Film

Carol Channing high res old

I finally had a chance to catch up with Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, a documentary as filled with warmth, humor, and good cheer as its illustrious subject.  By some weird cosmic coincidence, I watched it by accident on on January 31st, the performer’s 92nd birthday!  Hello Dolly, indeed!  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you certainly know that the first lady of the American Musical Theater is having her own Betty White-like late career surge.  I loved spending 90 minutes with Carol and husband Harry (on a bittersweet note, Harry passed away just after the film was released).

My own thoughts about the film are echoed (and expressed far more eloquently), by one of my oldest friends and Stargayzing guest columnist Nancy Balbirer, in a dynamic piece she wrote for the cultural review City Arts:

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

by NANCY BALBIRER on Apr 28, 2011 • 4:12 pm

20090508_21quests_250x255Carol Channing’s first moments in a theater took place backstage, where, as a small child she stood handing out Christian Science Monitors at her mother’s behest. The experience, as recounted by Channing in Dori Berinstein’s splendid new documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life—which is screening during TFF—was holy; Channing was certain she had arrived at Mecca. Batting her trademark mink eyelashes at the camera, her iconic platinum bowl cut tied up into what can best be described as Shih Tzu-chic, she says in that voice:

“I wanted to keeee-usss the floorboards…”

Audiences viewing this film, which had its premiere last Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, may find themselves similarly awestruck: yes, by Channing’s tales of life lived on-stage and off, but also by the heartfelt and hilarious love story so expertly told by Berinstein. At 90 years old, it’s safe to say that Carol Channing has done it all: starred on stage and screen; won a Tony for her legend-making turn as the original (and, widely regarded, quintessential) Dolly Gallagher Levi inHello, Dolly!; originated the role of Lorelei Lee on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; and survived cancer and bad husbands. Hers is a story of success and survival; drive and determination; passion and perseverance—the classic show-biz trooper who would never, under any circumstances, miss a performance (and she didn’t, as her Dolly understudy Jo Anne Worley makes abundantly clear!). Carol Channing is a dying breed: a legend from the days when people actually succeeded on the basis of talent and hard work—without a rap sheet or a sex tape.

In Channing, Dori Berinstein and her editor Adam Zucker have the perfect co-conspiritor, and fans will revel in the many kooky reflections of her colorful career, aided by a gaggle of glittery friends (Betty Garrett, Chita Rivera, Phyllis Diller, Bob Mackie). Theater aficionados will lap up the scene where Carol, Jerry Herman and Marge Champion take turns recounting the middle-of-the-night making of the show-stopping “Before The Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly! during a disastrous out-of-town tryout. But what makes this film so truly masterful beyond the heady yarns of show biz and fame and glamour, is the intoxicating tale of how Channing and her first boyfriend Harry Kullijian, whom she dated when the two were San Francisco middle-schoolers, lost and found one another, marrying, finally, after 70 years apart. It is, as Tyne Daly describes it, “a story out of a Broadway musical.”

The unfolding of this narrative—the unbridled, joyful romance, coursing through each and every frame—gives the impression that life, whether it’s Carol Channing’s or our own, must be lived large, sparkly, full of hope and most of all, love.

You can purchase Nancy’s memoir, Take Your Shirt Off and Cry 6296290

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