In Part 3 of his ‘Encounters’, theatre and film critic RAYMOND STANLEY recalls his 1972 meeting with stage and screen legend Carol Channing, when she came to Australia to perform her one-woman show Carol Channing and Her Gentlemen Who Prefer Blondes at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre.

20230215 124621Carole Channing as seen by cartoonist Hirschfeld. From the cover of the Princess Theatre program, 1972. Frank Van Straten collection.There was great excitement in May 1972 when Carol Channing1 appeared on stage in Melbourne. Although not very familiar through films, but slightly more so via television, she was nevertheless, one of the legendary names of Broadway, mainly because of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!.2

About a fortnight before Channing’s first night, attending another opening, I was having drinks in the interval in a room set aside for Press and VIPs for that purpose. Suddenly impresario Kenn Brodziak3 walked into the room with an extraordinarily tall woman, with a blonde ‘gollywog’ hair-do and the most enormous brown eyes. It was Carol Channing, and I was introduced to her briefly.

Brodziak had booked Channing to play Melbourne and Sydney, but unfortunately the sudden demolition of the Theatre Royal in the harbourside city had meant that she could only appear in the one city. The 1,600 seater Princess Theatre obviously was too vast to sustain a four and a half week season to packed houses, so business was not as great throughout the run as might have been hoped for.

As to the first night, perhaps I should quote from my review in Variety:

It’s impossible to recall any single overseas entertainer having such an overwhelming first night reception in Melbourne as Carol Channing in her non-stop 90 minute performance at the Princess Theatre here.

Wisely, entrepreneur Kenn Brodziak had provided no supporting ‘warm up’ acts and certainly the blonde star needed none. The premiere audience – a star-studded one, embracing most theatre, tv and radio personnel not working – commenced applauding immediately the eight-piece orchestra struck up the ‘Dolly’ tunes in its overture. The red stage curtain rose to an empty stage of royal blue curtains, and the audience wildly applauded an invisible Miss Channing. Eventually the blue curtains parted to reveal the star herself in dazzling tangerine and with such enthusiasm was she greeted it was about three minutes before she had a chance to speak.

Cleverly she went from one number to another intervening patter to cover her costume changes, partially hidden by side screens as she did so. The chatter seemed almost off-the-cuff and again and again, quite naturally, brought in allusions to people, places and things only familiar to a Melbourne audience – and always in the right context.

Most of her songs she must have performed hundreds of times, yet they came out fresh and true: ‘Calypso Pete’, ‘I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock’, ‘Cecilia Sisson’, ‘You’re the Cream in My Coffee’.

Accompanied by Aussie guitarist Bruce Clarke, there was a branching out into a new field with country and western songs, while her impressions of Carmen Miranda, Brigitte Bardot as Lady Macbeth and particularly Marlene Dietrich were surprising eye-openers to he immense and versatile talent. At the end of course came the show-stopping numbers, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ (with ‘rocks’ thrown into the audience) and ‘Dolly’.

Again and again there were all-round gasps at the stunning dresses, some evocative of the ’20s, as were her songs and dancing.

It was very nearly a one-woman show. Six male dancers … efficiently performed on cue.

The applause at the end – handclaps, cheers and feet stamping – was sustained. The audience in the stalls rose to their feet to applaud, and one lost count of the numerous curtains as the star was called back again and again by an appreciative crowd that just refused to leave. For about the first time ever, Australia was seeing a major Broadway musical comedy star in action and right at her peak. For Carol Channing it must have been a memorable occasion: to make one’s debut, so successfully, in a strange land where hitherto one was mainly only known as the originator of the Hello Dolly song, some tv appearances and a role in the pic Thoroughly Modern Millie. But from now on a lot of Aussies are going to think of Carol Channing when they think of America. She is a first-class ambassadress.

The morning after the first night I had a telephone call from Kenn Brodziak.

“How did you like Carol’s show last night?”

“I thought it was great, just great.”

“Have you doe your review of it for Variety?”


“Carol and Charles [Charles Lowe, her husband4] would like you to have supper with them after the show one night next week?”

The venue for supper was a Chinese restaurant and Brodziak and his right-hand man at that time, Robert Ginn,5 also were present. In fact, I was taken to the restaurant by them, so that we could await the arrival of the Lowes.

I already knew from Brodziak, indeed the fact had been in the Press, that due to an allergy, Channing could only eat organic foods and carried her own food around with her to restaurants. According to Brodziak, this was the first time he had heard of organic food and, informed of it before hand, he had scoured the countryside for vegetables and meat.

Soon Channing arrived, dressed in a man’s tuxedo, looking very tall and elegant. With her she brough two flasks, one containing food, the other apparently water. She made no fuss about it, but just took food and liquid from the flasks as we ate. There was no embarrassment at all.

She refused to call Brodziak by his Christian name: “He’s my boss, just like David Merrick,”6 she told me, “and I always address him as Mr. Merrick.”

It was pleasant chatting to Channing and her husband over the meal, but hardly anything memorable cropped up.

Although she had played in Shaw’s The Millionairess some years before,7 she seemed to have no yearning to appear in other classics. She did mention, however, that Laurence Olivier was interested in getting her to appear in a play at London’s National Theatre some time.8

Before the season ended, I attended another performance., and went backstage afterwards. With great ceremony, she insisted on giving me one of the rings which she usually threw into the audience during the performance.

According to the very experienced press agent for the Princess Theatre, Channing was the most co-operative star he had ever worked with. She had notified him in advance that she would do whatever he arranged, and she went through with a television appearance at 7 am and other assignments until the following midnight.

“When we met, she told me: ‘You’re the expert. You do the public relations with no interference or backseat driving from me.’ We understood each other.”

She was to finish her show in Melbourne on the Saturday night and would be flying back to America via Sydney on the Monday.

“Would it be of help to you,” she asked Brodziak, “if I do two shows in Sydney on the Sunday?”

The large Regent Theatre (which was housing another show during the week) was booked and a small classified advertisement inserted in one of the Sydney papers.

Immediately both performances were booked out and on the day scalpers were selling tickets at greatly inflated prices.

Aware that, due to the over-length of the season, houses in Melbourne had not been as packed as they might have been, Channing insisted on performing the two Sydney shows without any fee.

There was one amusing anecdote Brodziac later told me. For some reason Charles Lowe was out of Melbourne one Sunday, so Brodziac arranged to take Channing to whatever she wanted to see. She opted for the film A Clockwork Orange.9 They agreed to meet near the box office of the cinema.

Standing there awaiting the star, Brodziac was approached by a man whose face seemed familiar but to whom he could not put a name. This was nothing surprising as, acquainted with so many people, this has frequently happened to him.

Acknowledging the unknown standing before him, Brodziak said: “Well, it’s nice to see you again, but I have to go now. I’m waiting for Carol Channing.”

“I am Carol Channing!” came the response.

Without her wig, and dressed in a suit, she was totally unrecognisable to Brodziak!

Carol Channing is one of the few stars Brodziak has kept in touch with throughout the years, always seeing her when in New York, and exchanging cards at Christmas.


Endnotes compiled by Elisabeth Kumm

1. Carol Channing (1921–2019) was an American actress, singer and dancer. Carol Channing’s season at the Melbourne Princess ran from 17 May 1972–17 June 1972. In 1970 Channing had performed a version of her one-woman show at Drury Lane Theatre. Titled Carol Channing with Her Ten Stout-Hearted Men, it ran from 22 April to 23 May. She also toured the show throughout the USA during 1971.

2. Channing played the lead roles in the first Broadway productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and Hello, Dolly! (1964). She revived both roles throughout her career, including playing Dolly on Broadway for the final time in 1995.

3. Kenn Brodziak (1913–1999) was an Australian theatre entrepreneur, often referred to as “Mr Show Business”. Through his company Aztec Services, which he founded in 1946, he oversaw the tours of a diverse range of performers, from Winifred Atwell to Marlene Dietrich, and Bob Dylan to the Beatles. From 1976-1980 he was managing director of J.C. Williamson Productions Ltd.

4. Charles Lowe (1911–1999), American theatre producer. He married Channing in 1956 and was seen as ‘the guiding force’ behind her career. Yet after 41 years of marriage, they divorced, and it was revealed that their relationship had been abusive and loveless.

5. Robert Ginn (b.1944), Australian theatre producer who worked closely with Brodziak.

6. David Merrick (1911–2000), American theatre producer. An unauthorised biography by Howard Kissel published in 1993 had the sub-title The Abominable Showman.

7. During July/September 1963, Carol Channing toured the USA in The Millionairess. The play did not open in New York. In 1952 the title role had been performed in London and New York by Katharine Hepburn.

8. Laurence Olivier (1907–1989), British actor and manager, was the first director of London’s National Theatre, 1963–1973. The largest of the three theatres within the National’s new building, opened in 1976, was named in his honour.

9. A Clockwork Orange (1971) was 1971 dystopian crime film adapted, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name.