Dozens of Lowell High School students crowded around the star, snapping selfies with her as she glowed on the theater stage.
It wasn’t Ariana Grande they were clamoring over but a Lowell alumna 72 years Grande’s senior, San Francisco native and living legend, Carol Channing.
The Broadway baby who brought Dolly Levi to life was serenaded with “Hello, Carol!” by the Lowell chorus and jazz band (a few audience members joined in, too) when she visited her alma mater and appeared in the Carol Channing Auditorium on Thursday.
Channing is doing a whirlwind tour of her old San Francisco stomping grounds that will culminate in the show “Time Steppin’” at the Curran Theatre at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Channing will be seeing a different view because it was in the audience of the Curran where she fell in love with the theater, saving her pennies to watch Ethel Waters in “As Thousands Cheer.” At the Curran, Channing will share stories of her remarkable show business career with another stage veteran, Tommy Tune.
“I’ve known him since he graduated from high school,” Channing said after her Lowell presentation. “I was performing down south, and he came and said, ‘I want to do just what you’re doing,’and I remembered him every time he would stop by after a show.”
Resurrecting the arts in public schools has been a passion of Channing’s for a long time, and the fruit of her effort was seen in her charges at Lowell. Their lively performances and polite nature—one dropped to a knee to present Channing with a bountiful bouquet—inspired the 93-year-old performer. In fact, she belted out “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello, Dolly!” a cappella.
“Acapulco is what Jimmy Durante used to say,” Channing laughed.
“To see those children’s’ eyes light up, it’s wonderful for me. It’s the essence of life,” she said. A theater student shouted a request from the audience, and Channing delivered the Ephraim monologue from “Hello, Dolly!”
Channing spent a good portion of Wednesday at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she visited frequently as a young woman, when her uncle Bill Chandler was the managing editor.
“It was just a joy to be there. He found every excuse to put me in the paper,” Channing said. “I played ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.’ Every time I even stepped on the school auditorium stage, Uncle Bill put it right there on the second page.”
Surely, Channing and Tune will discuss ‘Dolly!’ during the show on Saturday. For 2,844 performances, Channing never missed one.
“I did shows when I had ovarian cancer. The doctor would stand in the wings. You can’t not be there. I never missed a show on the tours. Gee, I sound like I’m bragging about myself. I never meant it that way. I felt like I was trying to come up to an impossible mission,” Channing told me. “The audience, they saved their hard-earned money. They got babysitters. They drove in for God knows how long. They wanted to see the show, and then I’m not there? I can’t do that. So I got there. Every. Single. Performance. I reached to the heavens to get the show out, and that’s your best performance, the one you can hardly get out.”
Visit shnsf.com for more information on “Time Steppin’” at the Curran Theatre.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. He recently published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family several years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.