Carol Channing still reigns the stage -- The star of ''Hello, Dolly'' has still got it

By Jess Cagle
Updated June 02, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Off comes the white robe, and the willowy figure sways in white stockings and white T-shirt, under a shock of white wig. “It’s the Apollo Strutaway,” declaims Carol Channing in her oozing baritone, going into a dance she learned years ago at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre — a dance she wanted to include in her current road tour revival of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! but, she says, was deemed too “dirty.” Briefly, the dingy Nashville hotel suite becomes her stage. The arms swim. The legs bike. She moves. She works. Then it’s back to her postshow supper of salad and water. The robe remains in a heap on the floor. “Have you ever been to the Apollo?” she asks. “Oh, it’s wunnnnnderful.”

Dance, Carol, dance. At 74, she is relishing a moment in the sun in what might have been the twilight of her career. Her 47-city Dolly! tour, now in California and destined for Broadway this fall, is a surprising, in-your-face success. After 31 years and more than 4,000 performances, her Dolly has sold out houses and generated glowing reviews from Cincinnati to San Antonio. And on June 4, Channing will be honored with a special lifetime achievement Tony.

“She’s become a national monument,” The Denver Post raved when her tour opened there last July, “sort of like Mount Rushmore. God knows why they made it.. But you’ve got to see it at least once in your lifetime.”

But who is this pop-eyed monument? She’s a San Francisco native, a Bennington graduate, a Los Angeles taxpayer, and, according to columnist Liz Smith, a “closet intellectual.” She’s a wife (to third husband — of 39 years — Charles Lowe, a former TV producer, now her manager), a mother (to son Channing Lowe, 40, the syndicated political cartoonist), a devout Christian Scientist, and an avid Democrat. Says her friend Sharon Stone — yes, that Sharon Stone: “She’s the cat’s ass. I mean, she is great.”

She’s also a onetime Oscar nominee — for Thoroughly Modern Millie (Best Supporting Actress, 1967) — though Hollywood never really got her. Marilyn Monroe was chosen to play Lorelei — the role that made Channing a Broadway star — in the 1953 movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Barbra Streisand played Dolly in the 1969 disaster. “In hindsight, it would have been disastrous with me, too,” Channing concedes. “I would’ve gone down the drain!” But as long as there’s a stage, a truck, and chorus boys, she will work, on the road again and again, aging strangely seamlessly. “Dolly’s bawdier and sexier now,” says Channing, fanning her lettuce leaves with her great fluttering false eyelashes. “She’s freer and unabashed about her five physical senses. She’s gonna do a windup and a bump and there’s nothing you can do about it.”