An Evening With Carol Channing
Richard Skipper received the 1998 Bistro Award for his cabaret show, Carol Channing's Broadway, and this year he is nominated for another prestigious award, the MAC Award for Best Impersonation for his new show An Evening With Carol Channing. His impersonation is so uncanny that even Carol Channing had to blink twice. This week, Richard opens in the Plush Room in San Francisco. A few days ago I was able to have a little chat about how this all began.
VJ: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Miss Channing!
RS: (in that unmistakable voice) Thank you. It's so nice to be here!
VJ: Richard, you actually started in the business with an acting background?
RS: Yes, when I was thirteen I was in a production Mame. No, I didn't play Mame but I was a 13 year old Patrick Dennis. That was my first show. Then, years later, in 1979, I moved to New York to pursue an acting career.
VJ: Then, how did all this come about? You know, the Channing thing.
RS: Do you want the Reader's Digest version?
VJ: I have time, but I'll condense it for our readers. You do Judy Garland, too. Were you doing her before Channing?
RS: No, Channing came first. I had seen an episode of a Lucy show where Lucille Ball was impersonating Carol Channing. That was the first time I saw her and I was one of those kids who would mimic anything I saw on television. I would go around mimicking Lucille Ball's version of Carol Channing, not knowing, growing up in South Carolina, that there was a real person, Carol Channing. And then shortly after that I saw a television special that Carol did with Pearl Bailey and other shows, and I just fell in love with her. And I would just do the voice with no plans or idea that someday I would be impersonating her.
VJ: When did you start performing your impersonation?
RS: Well, in New York in 1979, there use to be this place called the Piano Bar and on Thursday nights it was Broadway night. This became my Thursday night hangout and I would go and I would get up and perform as Richard Skipper doing a couple of numbers. And then one night I had a couple of friends come up from South Carolina. I got up and I sang and the pianist said, "Do you have anything else planned?" And my friends yelled out "Do Carol Channing?" And he said, "You do Carol Channing!" And I said, "Well, not in public." I was all of 19 at the time and the response I got was more than I expected. And I'll never forget there was this woman by the name of Leola Harlow, and she came over to me and said, "What's your drag name?" And I didn't even know what that meant. She was shocked that I had never done it before. She said, "I want to dress you!" And, famous last words, "No, no, no, no, no! It's not for me. This is not a direction I want to go in."
VJ: Did you do it again at the Piano Bar?
RS: It went on for several weeks and people would ask for it, and I would get the response that I got, which was wonderful, but even then I had no thoughts of pursuing this as a career.
VJ: You were pounding the pavement auditioning for shows?
RS: Yeah. I went to this one audition and this director says, "Aren't you Carol Channing?" And my heart went in my throat...and I thought, my God, how does he know this? He had seen me at the Piano Bar. The name of the show was All American Boy and there's a scene in the show that takes place in a San Francisco piano bar. When I auditioned for them, they came up with this idea that during the scene there would be this impersonator doing Carol Channing and have me do this number. And I got the job. But they were on a tight budget so they were assuming I had my own costumes.
VJ: That's great. What did you tell them?
RS: I said "Of course I do."
RS: That's because I wanted the job.
I immediately called Leola and said "I have something to tell you." She said, "Come over the minute you can, and I'll fit you." She fitted me in the gold lame gown with ostrich plumes...me, feeling like this silly ass, having never done this before. But, I thought it was a challenge and I would do it.
VJ: How long was the run?
RS: One night.
RS: I did this song "All American Boy" and it brought the house down. This is like a scene out of Funny Girl. I was in the dressing room getting out of make-up and the director and producer came in. They said, "we're very proud of what you did tonight. Unfortunately, we're going to cut the number from the show.
VJ: Oh! No!
RS: Yeah. Because it really had nothing to do with the rest of the show. It stuck out like a sore thumb and they didn't feel it was fair to the other performers. So I put the lame gown in the closet and would bring it out on Halloween. I mean, that was it, I had a Halloween costume. And for a few years I would go out as Carol Channing on Halloween and people would remember it. I would make the circuit of Piano bars and do a number or two at each one.
VJ: So then you decided to create an act?
VJ: What happened to Reader's Digest? Then what happened?
RS: In 1990, John Glines wrote a play called Mad Manhattan and he wrote a character in the show called Carl Channing. And Carl was this guy obsessed with Carol Channing.
VJ: Oh! Perfect. (laughing)
RS: He wrote it for me, having seen me perform in the piano bars. The show ran for six months and I got the best reviews of my life. Shortly after that I went away on vacation to Provincetown and went to a Karaoke bar and got up and sang "The Man That Got Away" as Judy. And then I did Carol Channing, "Hello, Dolly!"
VJ: Wait. When did the Judy voice come about?
RS: I was just flipping through the Karaoke book. And, the God's honest truth, I had never entertained the idea of doing Judy, or Carol in a show, for that matter. I just did it. Anyway, this guy came over to me who actually impersonated Carol Channing himself. He asked if I would do a show with him as Judy. Naturally, I couldn't do Carol because he did. And we did that for 5 or 6 summers in various places. But, my friends said that I was holding myself back and that I should go on my own and do Carol in a show.
VJ: So you just quit the act. What did you do?
RS: I just put the dresses in the closet and pursued my acting career again. And I got jobs here and there, but then I went one day to an audition. The casting director was so rude, I mean, she was in such a bad mood and she was screaming. And I thought 'do I need this?...to sing a few bars of music?' Why am I here? The show is probably already cast and she's not going to listen to 3 or 4 bars of music anyhow. So, I decided there and then that I wanted to do a club act as Richard Skipper. I still wasn't thinking of doing Judy or Carol.
I called a director who was recommended to me and told her that I wanted to do a cabaret act, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had seen Tommy Femia as Judy, and he does a more comical version, and I decided I wanted to do a serious version. We came up with the idea that we would do a behind-the-scenes look at the taping of The Judy Garland Show.
VJ: That's a good idea.
RS: We opened at Don't Tell Mama, but I was getting nowhere with it, sort of spinning my wheels. Tommy was already doing his show and he was doing very well with it. We couldn't get any press, but I did about 45 weeks of the show and decided to end it. My friends said why don't you do a show about Carol Channing.
RS: But, I really didn't know if an audience would sit through an hour show of someone impersonating Carol Channing. It's one thing to do a guest appearance, but an entire hour?
VJ: This is what? 1995?
RS: Right. And this is when everyone was telling me to jump on the bandwagon because of the revival of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. However, I didn't want to push the envelope with Channing.
VJ: You had no doubt you could impersonate her.
RS: I had no doubt. I just didn't know if I could hold an audience's attention for an hour. We put together Carol Channing's Broadway and did it at Don't Tell Mama. The reviews started poring in and they were favorable. And then we got a few bookings in Atlantic City. Coming back to New York I had heard the news that I had won the Bistro Award.
VJ: Well, obviously, you can, and you did, and you are! Has Carol ever seen you as Carol Channing?
RS: Yes. A friend had told me about a party where Carol and Jerry Herman were going to be and I crashed it, fully made up and dressed as Carol.
VJ: You're kidding!
RS: No. I came in with the attitude that if she did not like what I'm doing I will never do it again. I didn't want to offend her in any way. If there was anything that was the slightest hint that I was doing anything disrespectful in any way I would stop doing it. I walked in and it was like the parting of the Red Sea. They brought me over to her and she was the most giving and incredible gracious person. We chatted and I said before I leave, "I'd like to do a song for you.
Carol Channing: You'd like to do a song for me? How long have you been impersonating me?
RS: Who's to say that you're not impersonating me?
I did my act for her on stage with her, on a stool, sitting right in front of me. When I did "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" she was doing the arm movements and I slipped a bracelet on her wrist, and she began to cry. She slipped a ring on my finger and said, "As long as you wear this I will be offstage with you." Then, she turned to the people who were there and said, "Most people who impersonate me are nasty, and mean, and vicious. This is the first time I have been shown with so much love and respect.
Carol Channing: And there are only two things I don't like about your act. You look better and sound better than I do.
VJ: Hahaha. Thanks Richard. I'll see you on Wednesday at the Plush Room.
An Evening With Carol Channing opens Monday April 3rd and continues through Sunday April 9, 8p.m. (dark Apr. 4th) Monday-Saturday; Sunday's performance is 5p.m., The Plush Room, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco, tickets $20 and $25. (415) 885-2800.
See you on Thursday!
Special for our Readers: If you're heading over to Roundabout's production of the hit Cabaret at Studio 54, click HERE for a Talkin' Broadway discount through April 30, 2000.
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