The year 1967 was a tumultuous one for Carol Channing. After years of being a popular presence on stage and television, Channing finally achieved movie stardom with her role as the madcap millionaire in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She would receive an Academy Award nomination for that sparkling and hilarious performance. But 1967 also gave Channing a stunning defeat: producer Ernest Lehman ignored her landmark performance in the Broadway musical “Hello, Dolly!” and announced that Barbra Streisand would take Channing’s role in the movie adaptation. Channing reportedly reacted to the news by announcing: “Is there a window I can jump out of?”

Somewhere between the dizzying height and crushing low in 1967 was the TV special “Carol Channing and 101 Men.” While the title might suggest some perverse gang-bang activity, the production was actually an entertaining (if decidedly corny and often weird) revue which allowed Channing’s decidedly unique talents to shine.

“Carol Channing and 101 Men” came on the high-heels of the star’s 1966 TV special “An Evening with Carol Channing.” This time around, Channing surrounded herself with an all-male guest list – and, boy, what a bunch of men! There was Walter Matthau, country singer Eddy Arnold, the rock group The Association, the United States Air Force Cadet Chorale, a squad of male dancers, and an unbilled appearance by George Burns. I guess that adds up to 101. It is easy to get the idea the guest list was chosen from scraps of paper picked out of a crumpled hat, but for the most part it works. Sort of.

The one major goof in the show is Walter Matthau, who clearly looks as if he’d rather be doing something else. Matthau’s trademark indolence was in overdrive here, to the point that he barely seemed to be paying attention to his surroundings. When required to play a Cagney-style gangster in a 1920s skit or a sawdust melodrama villain in a silent movie spoof, Matthau is so sluggish and visibly bored by his task that his presence is an embarrassment. The most painful part comes when George Burns tries to “teach” Matthau how to act the part of a straight man. Burns and Channing do a third-rate imitation of the patter routine which Burns used to perform with his wife Gracie Allen, pausing to allow Matthau to inherit Burns’ role. Channing, great performer that she is, was a woeful substitute for Gracie Allen and both Matthau and Burns are clearly uncomfortable with the act. (Ironically, both men would reteam much successfully nearly two decades later for the film version of “The Sunshine Boys.”)

“Carol Channing and 101 Men” also responds to the alpha and omega of 1967’s spirit. The youth culture is represented with The Association, introduced by Channing with the comment that “we teenagers are mad about them!” Despite the anachronism of having the band dress up in Victorian garb while running about a Scrooge & Marley-style accounting house, The Association creates a brilliantly effervescent moment in performing their classic tune “Windy.” Channing refrains from horning in on this tune (though the notion of having her play the figure “who’s bending down to give me a rainbow” can bring smiles or shudders, depending on what floats your boat). But she appears in a psychedelic mini-skirt to dance the frug while The Association turns their song “Along Came Mary” into “Along Came Carol.” The number is spiced by having a male dancer in Victorian garb (a young man made up to look elderly) trying to halt Channing’s gyrations, only to join her in the loose-limbed dance.

But for viewers who might have been turned off by those long-haired types, “Carol Channing and 101 Men” brings on the crew-cut members of the United States Air Force Cadet Chorale: 80 young men, all very stern in their gaze and composure, who sing out the theme songs of U.S. military branches. Remember this was 1967, when American opinion about military operations in Vietnam was becoming increasingly negative, so having this military presence on-screen was as much of a political statement as a musical number. Channing joins the cadets for a passionate (if somewhat wobbly) rendition of the gospel standard “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

Country music star Eddy Arnold shows up to perform “I’m the Richest Man in the World,” but that fine solo is followed by Channing roping Arnold into a labored comedy routine in which he teaches her how to reel off Dixie-style aphorisms. Channing gives us “I am happier than an ant in a box lunch” in a ludicrous Scarlett O’Hara-style drawl. (And you wonder why the South lost?)

For the grand finale, Channing gets the entire cast to serenade her with “Hello, Dolly!” in several languages. Having Walter Matthau sing that song to her is wildly ironic, given that he was cast in the “Hello, Dolly!” movie and not her.

“Carol Channing and 101 Men” was broadcast on ABC on November 16, 1967. The network must have thought strongly enough, for it reran the program on February 29, 1968 (Happy Leap Year!). And from there, the show disappeared from official circulation. I do not know the source of the bootlegs which are currently in circulation – no one had VCRs in that era, and the bootleg I have has both the network introduction (alerting viewers “That Girl” and “Peyton Place” were being pre-empted for Channing’s revue) and the original commercials hawking Monsanto carpets. The quality of my bootleg (from a private collector who sells his goodies on the Net) is surprisingly strong, with the garish colors typical of 1960s video productions at their brightest hues.

“Carol Channing and 101 Men” also represented something of a last stand for Channing’s Hollywood work. In 1968, her appearance in Otto Preminger’s poorly received acid-trip comedy “Skidoo!” ended her movie career. She also lost the Oscar to Estelle Parsons’ performance in “Bonnie and Clyde.” Channing would host two more TV specials in 1969 (a lumpy production in which she was poorly paired opposite Pearl Bailey and something called “Carol Channing Proudly Presents the Seven Deadly Sins”), but after that her TV work was strictly limited to guest appearances on variety and game shows and voice performances in cartoons. For most of her remaining career, she was a fixture on the stage, reviving “Hello, Dolly!” twice for extensive tours following sold-out Broadway runs.

If Channing never found a niche in Hollywood, she can claim goddess stature in the theater. From a personal viewpoint, I can happily recall when my mother took me to see Channing in the 1974 Broadway show “Lorelei.” Channing’s warmth, humor and star power was more than evident to a little boy like me, and the show remains (to this day) one of my all-time favorite theatrical experiences. “Carol Channing and 101 Men” never comes anywhere close to the rapport which the star conveyed to a live audience, and perhaps that is why Channing was never a Hollywood fixture: some people are best experienced in person and not on a screen. Go figure!

CORRECTION: I received word from a Film Threat reader of a minor boo-boo in a recent column. It seems “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” was broadcast again after its initial run on “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” – HBO reran in during the mid-1980s. I appreciate the updating on that.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on September 2, 2005 in Features by

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