The applause was long and loud for 92-year-old Broadway legend Carol Channing, who lit up the stage at The Town Hall on 43rd street on Monday night as part of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes: An Intimate Evening With Carol Channing and Justin Vivian Bond.” It was a celebration of both Channing’s upcoming 93rd birthday and the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “Hello, Dolly!,” a role Channing embodied for over 5,000 performances on Broadway.
Channing was charming and quick-witted during her half of the show, greeting the very supportive, incredibly well-coiffed and heavily male audience with her signature large-open-mouthed smile; meandering through her recollections of her hometown San Francisco and curling her small body in her chair like a grandmother to take pre-submitted questions via video.
Channing was cavalier about her age, joking about wanting to be buried “between the Geary Theater and Curran Theatre [in San Francisco].” She explained that she went back to San Francisco about five months ago to actually measure to space between the two landmark theaters. “There’s a fire escape there, but they’ll have to take that out,” she said, to much laughter.
The video tributes also included cheery birthday messages from fellow Broadway mainstays Bernadette Peters and Chita Rivera.
Ian McKellen was a surprise attendee at the performance, and seemed to take great pleasure in saying hello to Channing after the show. McKellen recalled meeting Channing backstage once after one of her 5,000 performances of “Hello, Dolly!”
“She had this bright red blob on her nose,” McKellen told Variety. “And I asked her, ‘Why do you have this? Are you a clown?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘No, I always did this. And I just recite the lines as the are written.’
“That’s wonderful advice for an actor,” McKellen said with a smile. “Just recite the lines as they were written.”
Justin Vivian Bond, the emcee for the night, had an easy but engaging stage presence, and performed a bevy of songs with enough casual panache to carry off the few little hiccups as part of the joy of live performance. Bond was completely at ease with Channing onstage, despite this only being their second time working together, Bond told Variety.
“Her energy is amazing, she is so perfect with her timing,” Bond said. “Neither of us are linear thinkers, which just makes it so fun to riff with her, and makes us really comfortable with each other.”
“There might be confusion, but there’s never any doubt,” Bond said.
Alan Cumming said he always thought of Channing as a big presence in the theater. “She has this amazing aura.” Cumming told Variety. “She’s really the end of those types of great American icons.
“Plus she’s hilarious,” he added. “She’s got some zingers.”
Daniel Nardicio, producer of the show, originally put together the Channing-Bond duo show on Fire Island last summer as part of his “Icon Series,” which had previously featured Cumming and Liza Minnelli, and has scheduled performances featuring Chita Rivera and Patti LuPone.
“I put out a call on Facebook and asked if Carol Channing was still around,” Nardicio said. “Turned out I was friends with her manager and he said she’d absolutely be interested in working.”
Sandra Bernhard, Michael Musto, Maulik Pancholy, John Cameron Mitchell and Lady Bunny were also in attendance.