Jun 1, 2010

"The secret to the whole thing is love..."

Harry Kullijian & Carol Channing

  From Aging Famously: 
Follow Those You Admire  to Living Long and Well

Talk about mentors for love and hope. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian went steady in the seventh and eighth grades. In 1933, Harry was the leader of the Aptos Junior High School band, and Carol took the stage to run for class vice president. Together, they made up her campaign theme: “If Carol is your vice, it's a virtue.” Carol won her first audience big time.

Carol and Harry also went out for ice cream and watched Joe DiMaggio train at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park not far from where they grew up. Most importantly, Harry gave Carol her first kiss, right there at her mother's kitchen table. While innocent - and even witnessed by her father - it was a kiss Carol would never forget. And after a lifetime apart, Carol and Harry in their 80s, would seal it again with a kiss.

In the intervening 70 years, Harry, the son of an immigrant tailor, became a successful California businessman and land developer, and Carol the Queen of Broadway. In 1964, she starred in Hello Dolly! - the longest running musical of its era -- as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the charming, indefatigable matchmaker bent on bagging a rich husband.

While achieving celebrity as supreme matchmaker Dolly Levi, offstage Carol's romantic unions were less than storybook. She married three times - to Ted Naidish, an unknown novelist; to Alexander Carson, a pro football player with the Ottawa Rough Riders and father of her son, Chan; and to Charles Lowe, her publicist, manager and husband for 42 years. She divorced Lowe in 1998.

In her 2002 memoir Just Lucky, I Guess, Carol discloses many lonely years during and after her three marriages. She also remembers Harry Kullijian, her first love and the affection she still treasures for him. They'd grown up and drifted apart. She knew he'd married and had a son and daughter and done well in business. She longs to see him again. Carol writes that a mutual friend read her book soon after Harry became a widow and urged him to call Carol. Harry said, 'She won't want to see me,' but I took a chance.”

Now eager to hear Carol Channing's never-too-late-for-love story from her own lips, I write for an interview and Harry calls from home in Modesto, California. He's a first name, whatever's-on-my-mind, friendly kind of fella. “Our story,” says Harry, “is all about hope...love and respect..our love is invigorating. It makes us feel young. It's a miracle for Carol and me to be together again.”

Harry has me already and we set an appointment. Carol answers, her sandpaper and satin voice remarkably as advertised. She says she's resting, stretched between two chairs. At 85, she's an acrobat too. Carol talks fast, her candor endearing as she confesses to seven bleak years before meeting Harry again. “I was just desperate; I was so alone,“ she says,“You find when you're my age, everybody's dead, and as an only child you have no family, and that's terrible.”

Carol replays their reunion. “I was sure Harry was dead. He's a year older than I am. He called and I said, 'Well, when do we see each other?' And then all of a sudden Harry walked through my gate. Two weeks later we were engaged cause we knew each other so well. And we'd formed each other at an impressionable age. He had a beautiful sixty-year marriage..in this very house in which I'm living now.”

I picture moonstruck Carol, she and Harry marrying at a friend's house near San Francisco on May 10, 2003. She wore silk pants, Harry a dark suit. “It was wonderful when he held me in his arms. He'd even promised my parents to take care of me,” she recalls. "Of course it doesn't hurt that he was so beautiful..He's Armenian. He looks Biblical to me..like Moses sitting on Mount Sinai eating a fig.” Eat your heart out, Charlton Heston.

“Its just chemistry and I'm unaware of what creates it. Why is it with other people you don't have chemistry?” Carol asks. “What brings people together?”

Hmmmm..Maybe like attitudes? An approach to life? A shared point of view?

“Maybe,” Carol says. “I know when Harry was 13 years old and I was 12, he was the exactly the same as he is now. He said, 'Isn't that strange? Carol, you haven't changed one iota.' Isn't that something? My feelings for him haven't changed either.”

“I think you said something profound.”

“I think you did,” says Carol, making us laugh.

With the steam still rising from their reunion, Carol shares her not so simple secret. “This is my first marriage. The secret to the whole thing is love. If you do just love each other, and you don't say, 'Oh I have to love him or 'I have to forgive him.' There's nothing to forgive when you finally have a marriage where love is involved.

“You don't say, 'Now can we afford a housekeeper? You don't say, 'What kind of home will we live in?' You don't ask, 'How much money do you make?' None of that. You just love him. And he loves you.”

Just like that. So why do we make love so complicated and take a lifetime to figure it out? If Carol's earlier marriages were only preamble to Harry, what had savvy, generous-hearted Carol hoped for in her previous marriages?

Carol buzzes on, engagingly honest. “I had three marriages and mostly it was because my mother in New York - when I was young and trying to get a job - said to me, 'Carol, it's 10:30 at night and you're sitting here talking to this man. You can't do that! You can't talk to a man alone at night in your little one-room apartment. You can't do that! So I married him.I was terribly lonely trying to get jobs. And I just married three times for that reason.”

And yet Carol's marriage to Charles Lowe lasted over 40 years. “Charles kept me working and most actors are grateful for that,” she says. “Most actors want to keep working. We had very little time to be alone together.. I was working all the time. And boy did I learn a lot.”

She drops down a beat. “He wasn't interested in me. No. I was lonely. I didn't miss him. I spent my life going from hotel rooms to dressing rooms all the way around the world. I thought that was marriage.”

According to Charles Lowe's 1999 New York Times obituary, Carol filed for divorce in May 1998, saying her husband had abused her, mismanaged her money and only had sex with her twice in their marriage.

Carol swings back up. “And all of a sudden, this is my first marriage! You don't have to say anything...You just want to do things for each other. I notice in my husband's family, they're all very gentle and sweet with their wives and considerate. The husband tries to do the dishes even though he doesn't do them right. Marriage is a beautiful thing,” says Carol, consideration and sharing now her restorative norm.

Carol offers a glimpse of her “beautiful” new life. “It's never the same...Every day is different to tell you the truth. It's wonderful here. We have a beautiful rose garden. We have a white fig tree and a black fig tree and an apricot tree and peaches and lemons and
oranges, a walnut tree..everything. We say to each other, 'What will we have for breakfast?'
And then we go out and get whatever we want, just pick it off the tree. It's heaven..He also cooks or we'd starve to death..”

Carol's idyll includes daily walks in the garden or into Modesto and back. ”Walking's the best...We also have a swimming pool, that helps. Sometimes I join Harry on his “rowboat” machine,” she says. “We dance too. I taught Harry.”

On Sundays, Carol and Harry attend different Protestant churches together. Harry was raised in a religious Armenian household and she as a Christian Scientist. Her father,a newspaper editor, was also an active lecturer and editor of Christian Science publications.
Carol clarifies the credo that keeps her in good stead: “I can't say I'm a Christian Scientist. I go to doctors. But the curtain goes up at 8 o'clock at night and I've got to be on that stage. I think Christian Science's pretty good training; nothing's going to stop you from doing your work.”

No joke. Carol didn't even slow down after nearsightedness caused her several falls into the orchestra pit, the last fall emerging with a broken arm, three ribs and a collar bone. Carol's especially proud of not having missed any Dolly! performances, some 5000 in the 1960s, popular revivals in 1978 and 1995 as well as on the road tours in 1985 when under a doctor's care for uterine cancer. Carol won ten Tony awards for Dolly! including best actress in a comedy. “That was eight shows a week, sixteen in concerts. I was doing cobalt and chemo. There's nothing like sheer panic to create adrenaline. The healing process is to keep working,” she says.

Carol, still the trouper, adds that her work cure is only amplified by the give and take of an audience. “You give the audience a little piece of your soul, and they give you a little piece of your soul back again by appreciating it - or applauding or laughing or crying. It builds and by the end of the show, I either feel better or I'm HEALED! My doctor said, 'Well for gosh sakes, you are healed.”

And Carol, born January 31,1921 in Seattle, Washington, holds to the healing faith taught by her father and lifelong mentor. “Daddy used to say, 'God loves you the most when you're working because it flows through you faster.' Whatever God does. I don't know..I don't claim to know.. I think all of us, whether we realize it or not, believe. We had to have one creator. Some people don't believe that, but then no doctor could put us together and make us live. Sometimes onstage I still hear him saying, 'tell it to an understanding heart. Tell it to me.' I do and it's brand new to me. Are you an only child too?”

“Yes.” I feel quick kinship.

“That's it!” says Carol. “And then you get to worshipping your father!”

I laugh in recognition.
“Yep, me too,” Carol echoes.

Carol was only 35 when her father died; he was 68. “Too soon. I never got over it..I just grieved for decades. Finally now, it's the first time I don't have to keep his picture in front of me and talk to him. But he's still with me..,” says Carol whose mother confessed on her departure for college, that her father was actually half German-American and half African-American but had always passed as white. Carol's mother said she didn't want Carol to be surprised "if she had a black baby." Carol said afraid of being type cast, she kept her secret until publishing her autobiography at age 81.

Now reminiscing in gear with her father, Carol brings her delighted passenger along for the ride. “We'd go for a ride to break in the new car,” she recalls. “We'd sing all the way to San Jose and back to San Francisco. We also drove from San Francisco to Boston every summer so we sang ALLLLLLLLL the way to Boston and ALLLLLLLLLL the way back again. Daddy would drive and I was next to him. Mother was in the back seat. She'd clap to what we were singing. Daddy and I'd sing and harmonize. He was able to make me sound good..My voice was high and I had thin vocal chords growing up...Oh we loved doing it.

We sang Baptist hymns usually. 'Amazing Grace' and 'Underneath the Everlasting Arms'..” Given her cue, Carol unexpectedly bursts into song, reviving her childhood repertoire to full effect. The phone vibrates. “Oh roll Jordan roll, roll Jordan roll...'I am bound to shout to glory when this world's on fire...Oh glory, Halleluiah!” She takes a breath. “We continued singing right up until he died. 1956.”

Ready to tune up once more, Carol continues performing with Harry at the helm. They'll soon tour with her revue of reminiscences; The First 80 Years are the Hardest. She calls to Harry in the wings: “Where am I booked?”

He calls back: “Santa Barbara, Austin, New York.” I jot down the New York date and will try to be there.

“We open in the Feinstein Room at the Regency. They charge way too much,” says Carol with a tip on saving me the expense. “You can pose as my dresser.” I'm ready.

When not onstage, Carol and Harry have established the Carol Channing & Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, funding scholarships to encourage college students to pursue theater careers. In 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger honored Carol for her contributions in arts education in California, and in 2008, she won the National PTA's Life Achievement Award for her Foundation's support of childrens' education.

“The First Lady of Musical Comedy” studied dance and drama at liberal Bennington College in Vermont before quitting to hit the New York pavements. She debuted on Broadway in 1941 as understudy to Eve Arden in Let's Face It. Her talent was spotted in the 1948 review, Lend and Ear, by playwright and author Anita Loos who later cast Carol as the flashy gold digger Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Carol's flamboyant Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend cinched her fame.

“I'm 84 years old..I have found that the hardest thing in the world to find is exactly what you have that can mean something to your fellow man. What is it that I can offer to these students? If you find yourself, you've found it,” says Carol, entertainer, artist, teacher and role model. “All we (artists) do is recreate what was already created...so it's pretty well religious work. It is, in all the arts. It keeps anybody young.”

If Carol's “religious work” keeps her young, she's getting as she's giving. Her second phone starts ringing off the hook. It doesn't stop.
“Do you need to answer that?”

“Just a minute. Hold on. I've got to get up off this chair now.” Carol groans. “I can't do it...Oh I've got it upside down..Oh and now there's the door bell...”
Oops. I imagine Carol tangled in phone lines, wide-eyed, still playing for laughs.

“Are you ok?” I wait to be sure. “Any parting advice?”

“I think it would be the essence of ego to tell somebody else how to live, Carol says. Then, whether overture or encore, she suddenly sings: “It's just love..which is all there is..” She stops. “Well, wait a minute. What's that song? Harry and I just love it...
'Ah Sweet Mystery of Life, at last I've found Thee..” The lyrics speed up. “I know at last
the secret of it all...'Tis the answer, Tis the end of all of living..For it is love alone that
rules...You know that one?”

I know that one. And I love it.

I stay in touch with Harry and arrange to see Carol perform THE FIRST 80 YEARS ARE THE HARDEST at Feinstein's on Park Avenue. We meet backstage, just long enough to take photos that prove Carol's rechargeable batteries and cross-country grin are for real.
And to see that Harry's right, their marriage is all about hope.

A friend and I finish our salmon dinners as the lights come up and the bass, drums and Steinway hit Hello Dolly! Carol Channing enters stage left in lipstick red tuxedo with mouth to match. She struts in sequins, bumps and grinds her slim hips onstage at the Regency Hotel.

Carol wows loyal fans with her cabaret revue, a seemingly off-the-cuff blend of songs she made famous, Broadway patter and cheeky impersonations. She gives her you've-
got-to-be-kidding, gee-whiz gravel and gusto. She channels bawdy Sophie Tucker, brassy
Ethel Merman, naked and inebriated Tallulah Bankhead, diamond-decked Queen Elizabeth
at a command performance. Carol - batty to professional purpose - animates her own Al
Hirschfeld cartoon.

The dinner audience whistles and calls for their favorites. Carol feigns amazement; her dark eyes saucer: “You remember!?”

We remember and applaud for more. Carol delivers a still sexy “Razzle Dazzle” with rhinestones sparkling on her toes. She follows with Dolly Levi's rousing ballad, now perhaps her own battle hymn, “Before The Parade Passes By..”

“...With the rest of them, with the best of them
I can hold my head up high
For I've got a goal again, I've got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by..... “

Carol invites Harry to her side. Harry takes her hand, Carol's willing partner as they soft shoe into the spotlight. They end in step with a gentle kiss.

copyright 2010