Let me tell you what I think about when I think about Carol Channing: “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never, ever, ever jam today.” And then she turns herself into a sheep.
That’s not a fever dream: it’s one of the more absurd scenes from the 1985 TV movie Through the Looking Glass, featuring Channing as the batty White Queen. Channing’s 60-year career spans film, television, and theater — she’s probably best known for her iconic roles in Broadway shows Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And yet, in my mind, she’s waving her arms wildly and ranting nonsense at poor Alice.
In a way, that’s fair. It’s difficult to get a handle on Channing. I don’t think she could do it herself.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said when I asked about the longevity and diversity of her career. “We’re all surprised at everything that happens to us.”
At nearly 90, Channing continues to perform. She’ll be in San Francisco for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s 16th annual Help is On the Way benefit concert. AIDS relief is one of Channing’s longest-running causes, inspired by a longtime friendship with the queer community.
“Way back in 1950, I don’t know what, we opened in San Francisco with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she recalled. “They tell me there wasn’t a blonde wig left in San Francisco. They all came dressed as me.”
And because of her pioneering work, the gay community has continued to support her. Well, that and her status as Broadway legend: it kind of goes with the territory. Until talking to her, however, I had no idea about the politics of being a gay icon.
“They made me their queen, for life,” Channing explained. “The empress is only for three years — but they made me their queen.”
I didn’t have the nerve to ask where Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand fit into this hierarchy for fear I’d stir up tension and incite a coup. But Channing is more concerned with her current cause, the Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, which seeks to preserve arts education to keep kids in school.
“This is a crisis now in our country,” Channing lamented. “Not everybody gets it.”
Luckily, she laid it out for me: “Each of us sees the world differently. All the artist does is recreate what was already created, but as they see it. And once you start expressing how you see the world, it opens up the brain.”
And you were expecting “Raspberries!”
HELP IS ON THE WAY XVI: THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT
Sun/15, 7:30 p.m., $75
401 Van Ness, SF