Fresno, say hello to Carol Channing

Fresno Bee (California)
April 22, 2004, Thursday FINAL EDITION

Fresno, say hello to Carol Channing

by Donald Munro THE FRESNO BEE

She offers a scoop of trademark gravel with her first cheery greeting
over the phone.

That voice — recognizable to generations of Broadway musical-comedy
fans, along with a sizable contingent of 1970s-era television
watchers who never quite figured out why she kept popping up on “The
Love Boat” — is raspy.

It’s distinctive. It’s endearing. It’s like taking a shower in
itty-bitty pebbles. It’s an aural national landmark, as much a part
of the cultural consciousness as Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No
Business Like Show Business” or Richard Nixon croaking “I am not a

And today, over the phone, that voice is preoccupied at the moment
with Carol Channing’s new favorite topic: reuniting with her first

“I always liked the sound of my name,” the 83-year-old Channing says
in that chirpy, gravelly growl. “But I think Carol Kullijian is just
as euphonious.”

She isn’t giving up the Channing moniker, of course. But these days
she also considers herself Mrs. Harry Kullijian.

Last year she married Kullijian, 84, her sweetheart from junior high
school. They’d lost touch for a whopping 67 years.

If that isn’t a story that would make Dolly Levi — the czarina of
all the matchmakers and the character that molded Channing into a
cultural icon — oh-so-proud, then what would?

It’s also a story that explains why Channing is coming to the Tower
Theatre on Sunday for two performances of “Hello, Fresno” to benefit
the Armenian Home for the Aged.

Kullijian’s sister, Lucille Pilibos, lives in Fresno. Kullijian has
long been involved in charitable Armenian causes.

Channing fondly recalls her early teen years with Kullijian at Aptos
Middle School in San Francisco.

But they lost touch when he went off to a military academy and she, a
precocious young talent determined for a career in show business,
went to Bennington College in Vermont at the age of 16.

She says she often thought of him, particularly during those tough
early times in her career when she was looking for jobs in New York.

“I often thought that if I could have just talked to Harry, he’d have
me straightened out,” she says.

But she managed just fine on her own, it turns out. A lot happened in
the nearly seven decades it took for them to reconnect.

She starred in two of Broadway’s biggest smashes (“Gentlemen Prefer
Blondes” and “Hello, Dolly!”) and many other plays, cabaret shows,
recordings and movies.

She played opposite Clint Eastwood in her first movie, 1956’s “The
First Traveling Saleslady,” and later would receive an Oscar
nomination for 1967’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

She hobnobbed with hundreds of show-biz greats, from Ethel Merman and
Tallulah Bankhead to George Burns and Yul Brenner. She met Queen
Elizabeth. She was married three times and became a cancer survivor.

He, in the meantime, got married, became a prominent Modesto
real-estate entrepreneur, was elected city council member and became
a widower.

After so many years, they each thought the other was dead.

But then came “Just Lucky, I Guess,” Channing’s amiable memoir heavy
on breezy show-biz anecdotes and light on the celebrity dirt that
usually sells such books.

(She does dish a little at Barbra Streisand for stealing her “baby,”
the starring role in the movie version of “Hello, Dolly!”)

In it, she wrote fondly of Kullijian.

“Everyone writes about their first love,” she says. “I wrote absolute
poetry about him. I thought he was gone by then.”

But he wasn’t gone. Far from it.

One of his friends, Mervin Morris (of Mervyn’s department stores)
read the book and urged him to call Channing.

They arranged a meeting at her condominium in Rancho Mirage.

“He walked through my front gate, and we just continued the
conversation we’d started nearly 70 years ago,” Channing says. “Two
weeks later, we were engaged.”

They were married at Morris’ Atherton home. The couple is one month
shy of their one-year anniversary.

Her marriage coincided with something of a career renaissance that
was sparked by her memoir.

Kullijian is handling her business affairs now, booking her new show
in venues across the country. (It most recently played at San
Francisco’s Geary Theatre over Easter weekend.)

The ultimate goal: a regular run in New York.

“We never stop,” Kullijian says. “But we’re having a ball. I’m so
pleased with the resurgence of her career, even if we are busy. You
know, if I was an old, old guy, I don’t think I could handle this.”

The show she’s bringing to Fresno is mostly ad-libbed.

“I get to talk as myself,” she says. “If you’re lucky enough to be in
two smash-hit shows, the traffic of the world goes through your
dressing room. I might tell what it was like to know Yul Brenner and
Lena Horne, Sophie Tucker, Gertrude Lawrence.”

Also scheduled is a cameo appearance by Fresno native Mike Connors,
with whom Channing has had a long friendship.

When she performed the show in New York for a trial run as part of
the Singular Sensations series at the Village Theater, she did
imitations of Merman, Tucker and Ann Miller.

She also sang what she calls her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — the
anthem “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the signature number
performed by Lorelei Lee, the gold digger from Little Rock, Ark., in
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

In an enthusiastic New York Times review of the show in November,
Margo Jefferson wrote: “Let’s hope she just goes on talking — and
singing — anytime, anyplace and everywhere.”

Channing might have “retired” from Broadway in the 1990s with a last
revival of “Hello Dolly!” after more than 5,000 performances.

But she isn’t annoyed when people identify her so closely with that
show’s meddling, assertive, kind-hearted, take-charge character.

The play is about a woman making a conscious decision to change her

There’s no doubt she did that, she says, when she hooked up again
with Kullijian.

She told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that her favorite part of
“Dolly” every night was Dolly talking to her late husband Ephraim,
telling him she plans to marry Horace Vandergelder.

Dolly asks Ephraim to let her go. She’s waited long enough.

“And God knows I waited a long time for Harry,” Channing says.

In her new life in Modesto, she lives in an Armenian farmhouse
surrounded by orchards of black figs, white figs, peaches and

“For a person who spent her whole life going from a hotel room to a
backstage dressing room, it’s unbelievable to be able to live in a
farmhouse,” she says.

She even got talked into joining the Modesto Chamber of Commerce,
though she says it’s hard to make the meetings because of her busy

There’s a wistful lilt to her voice now on the phone. (Jefferson, the
critic writing in the Times, describes her impeccable enunciation:
“She handles each vowel, each consonant, each syllable with the care
and relentless glee Lorelei bestows on diamonds.”) When Channing
talks about getting a second chance at love, you can’t help but feel
as if the very telephone lines are tingling just a little more than

In any of the cities to which her show travels, you’ll get a big dose
of show-business memories. But the Fresno show will be special
because, well, it’ll be like family.

“I fell in love with Armenians when I was 12 years old and met
Harry,” Channing says. “Now after marrying him all these years later,
all of a sudden I have 32 Armenian cousins in Fresno. All these
relatives — I can’t tell you what it means to me at my age.”

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559)



What: Carol Channing in “Hello, Fresno.”

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Tower Theatre.

Tickets: $40 matinee, $45 evening.

Info: Patrick’s Music, (559) 224-7287; Tower Theatre, (559) 485-9050.

Channing will make a special appearance at Gottschalks at Manchester
Center at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. She will answer questions and sign

GRAPHIC: Carol Channing
ASSOCIATED PRESS Carol Channing appears in “Hello, Dolly!” — a
musical that’s part of the entertainer’s legend. Her memoir spurred a
recent career renaissance.