Legendary star spreads enthusiasm

LEARNING FROM A MASTER <br>Legendary actress Carol Channing passes on words of wisdom to a room full of college and high school students at Chico State.

Legendary actress Carol Channing passes on words of wisdom to a room full of college and high school students at Chico State.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

At 85 years old, Carol Channing says she hasn’t hit her prime yet—it must be on its way. The crowd of students gathered at Chico State laughed along with the legendary star of the theater. But mostly they were inspired by her words.

The actress best known for her 5,000-plus performances of the Broadway musical Hello Dolly! stood in front of a classroom full of college and high school students on Monday (Sept. 11) and did what she does best—she entertained.

“I remember the first time I got on stage,” she reminisced. She was in the fourth grade, and one of her classmates nominated her for class secretary. Not knowing what to say when she reached the podium, she decided to impersonate the principal. Everyone—including that principal—laughed. “There was no malice,” she explained.

She went on to impersonate other teachers and classmates with the same results.

“Of course I won by a landslide,” she quipped. Her wide smile beamed out to the students, and it was positively infectious.

Channing couldn’t help but reiterate that her impersonations were based on love, not hate. That’s what you have to do with a character for it to be believable, she said. You have to first fall in love with it.

“You’re so near that character, and it just becomes a part of you,” she explained. “My whole life has patterned after Dolly. I’ve taken Dolly into me.”

Channing, who played Dolly Levi for 30-some years, grew up in an entirely different generation than most in the audience. She said it herself—when she was in the fourth grade in San Francisco, the second World War hadn’t even broken out yet. So what could she possibly have in common with the youth of 2006? Simply put: a love of the arts.

“She’s affirmed for me that I’m on the right path,” said Chico State senior Amanda Brandt. “As a theater major, you get a lot of criticism, because it’s such a small art form. This whole experience has affirmed for me that I can do something great, and I can make a difference.”

It’s safe to say that was Channing’s mission in coming to Chico State, her second stop on a tour of the state universities. She performed, offered this intimate discussion for students and set up a scholarship, all in the name of expanding appreciation for the arts.

“Now I can give to the students what I’ve learned in 65 years of performing,” she said. “That’s much more important work than any performance.”

The laughter, applause and standing ovation following the hour-and-a-half workshop were reason enough to believe that Channing’s job had been done. The generation gap, in fact, was what made the event so meaningful for some students.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to experience different choreographers and musicians,” Brandt said. “It’s great to see the current talent. But there’s definitely a different feel to learning from someone who’s experienced it her whole life.”

At the end of the workshop, Channing invited her husband, Harry Kulligian, to speak. He stressed how important the arts are in education and promised that, should they live long enough, he and Channing would return to Chico State to teach some more.

Maybe she was right, and her prime is yet to come.