For most theatergoers, watching Carol Channing perform on Broadway was a wonderful treat. Being up there with her on stage, however, was something to be treasured for a lifetime.
Debra Pigliavento, Michele Tibbitts and Monica Wemitt were all lucky enough and talented enough to earn a New York theater credit with Channing in "Hello Dolly!" and with the passing of the Broadway legend last week, all three Capital Region performers were happy to share their memories of one of show business' biggest stars.
For Pigliavento, who runs the Orlando School of Dance in Schenectady with her sister Michele, the opportunity to be a part of the dance ensemble with the show and perform with Channing on stage came in 1978.
"It was my dream to get to Broadway, and getting there with Carol Channing, well, it's something you really don't think is ever going to happen," said Pigliavento, who along with the four-month stint in New York also got to tour with Channing and "Hello Dolly!"for nearly two years."I was beyond thrilled."
Tibbitts, a 1988 Shaker High grad now living in Niskayuna, performed with Channing on Broadway in the 1995 revival of "Hello Dolly," and was also a part of Channing's final national tour in 1996 and '97.
"I had been working in New York for many years, and then I got on Broadway and I can tell you it was not your typical Broadway debut," said Tibbitts. "She was iconic. People loved her, and there was no word to describe the show, every night. It was unbelievable how much people loved her. We thought, 'well, things will calm down in a while,' but they never did. It was the same every night, and she gave 110 percent every night."
Channing died early Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 97. She had suffered two strokes within the past 12 months, and her last public appearance was four years ago in Manhattan when she was part of a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of "Hello Dolly!"
Born in Seattle on Jan. 31, 1921, Channing headed east to Bennington College in Vermont to study drama and dance. She never finished there, dropping out during her sophomore year to head to New York and pursue a career. She made her Broadway debut in 1943 in "Let's Face It," and had her first big success in 1948 in "Lend an Ear," for which she won the 1949 Theatre World Award.
Later that year she was in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," performing what would become her signature song, "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend." She was nominated for her first Tony Award in 1956 for "The Vamp," and was nominated again in 1961 for "Show Girl." She won her first Tony in 1964 for "Hello Dolly," would be nominated twice more, and also recieved two special Lifetime Achievement Awards. She was also the recipient of a Grammy Award for "Hello Dolly! and earned a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in 1968 with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore.
Wemitt, a Chatham native and currently associate producer and company manager with Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, got her chance to play alongside Channing during the national tour and Broadway revival from 1994-1997.
"She told us many times how she felt like she was put on Earth to entertain people," said Wemitt. "I remember that opening night in 1994, she just walked on stage and the audience gave her a standing ovation for seven minutes. That was something I'll never forget. She was a master at comic timing, and when I heard the news of her passing I was sad to think that people aren't going to learn from her anymore. I think her greatest gift was that she really cared about people."
According to Pigliavento and Tibbitts, Channing was always happy to interact with her fellow performers.
"As a young dancer in the show, she was always gracious during her interactions with us," said Pigliavento, who left the "Hello Dolly!" tour in 1997 and was replaced by her sister, Michele. ". "She had her handlers and her people, but if you just asked them if Carol could say hello to your parents or friends after the show, she never said no. She was an indominatable spirit, a beloved personality and a wonderful person. She cared about all of us in the show."
"She considered all of us that were in the show part of a big family," said Tibbitts. "Most of us stayed together for two and a half years and we felt like she had a bond with all of us. You felt like she was relying on you as much as you were relying on her."
Tibbitts and Pigliavento really got to know Channing up close and personal. "Hello Dolly!" opens with Dolly Levi, Channing, entering the stage on a horse. The horse was actually two actresses in a horse's costume, and Pigliavento and Tibbitts both had several opportunities to carry Channing out on stage.
"They wanted the smallest dancers in the show to carry Carol out, and there were several times that I was the hind end of the horse," said Pigliavento. "But every night, there I was, waiting in the wings right next to her waiting to go out on stage. It was an unbelievable experience every night."