They were both accused, at times, of being corny caricatures, but as human beings the legendary President from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Hollywood and Broadway actress Carol Channing were – and are (Channing recently turned 91) exuberant and enthusiastic about what they love most.
And in an historic convergence nearly a half-century ago, they loved each other more than anything else.
Even before Carol Channing stepped onto the stage of the St. James Theater on the night of January 16, 1964 to star in her signature comedy musical theater role as Dolly Levi, the entire nation had already heard its title song, Hello Dolly!
In December 1963, while the musical A Damned Exasperating Woman, was in rehearsals and pre-Broadway tryouts, the legendary Louis Armstrong recorded the show’s title song for its publisher to use to help publicize the show. The demo was released as a single and took off with such a velocity of popularity that it hit the #1 spot on the Billboard chart. The 64-year old Louis Armstrong’s recording knocked the Beatles from the top of the pop charts and went on to win the Grammy Song of the Year in 1965. It earned Armstrong a gold record when it was made into an album, and won him Best Vocal Performance Grammy. Immediately, the producers agreed they had to scrap the show’s title and just take the title song – Hello Dolly!
Seven months later, following Senator Barry Goldwater’s mid-July nomination as the Republican Presidential candidate, the show’s modest lyricist and composer Jerry Herman learned that the Republican candidate’s campaign had taken his hit song and reworked it into Hello Barry! and used it at rallies. The show’s very Democratic producer David Merrick gingerly approached the Goldwater campaign to remind them they had violated copyright law – to which the Senator politely responded with apologies and his campaign immediately ceased use of it.
Liz Sutherland had come to Washington on the eve of World War II, and went to work for the first time as a reporter. As she long loved recalling, in perhaps her most legendary line, “I came to Washington with my journalism degree in hand and virtue intact. I still have my journalism degree.” Along the way, she and her husband, a fellow University of Texas grad, Les Carpenter had made many a powerful and famous friend. During a stint as theater critic for Variety, Les Carpenter met Carol Channing and when he introduced his wife to the actress, decades of fireworks began.
With the National Democratic Convention scheduled to begin on August 24 in Atlantic City, Liz approached Carol Channing with the idea of using the hit song for the Democratic candidate, the incumbent President Lyndon Baines Johnson who, as Vice President, had assumed the presidency upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy nine months earlier. It was Liz Carpenter who had quickly composed the poetic and moving first words that the new President LBJ had spoken to the nation upon arrival in Washington from Dallas. Officially, Liz worked as the First Lady’s Chief of Staff and Press Secretary, but she also polished speeches and wrote jokes for LBJ.
And, naturally enough, it was Liz Carpenter who adapted Jerry Herman’s lyrics to compose one of the catchiest campaign show tunes in the history of presidential campaigns.
Carol Channing was rushed by limousine from Broadway to Atlantic City on the opening day of the National Democratic Convention and, occasionally glimpsing at the new lyrics scribbled out, premiered the political hit song of ’64 – Hello Lyndon! Here is an except:
So catchy, in fact, that LBJ became downright obsessed with the song. “He wanted it played everywhere, everytime, day and night, Christmas and Easter. Monday to Friday, weekends too. Every stump speech, every whistlestop, every chicken dinner, every auditorium – LBJ wanted to hear that song, over and over and over again. Hello Lyndon! Well, hello Lyndon! And he truly believed it helped him here and there, to pick up votes with, I don’t know, I guess the musical theater bloc. I mean we couldn’t stop him, like was he just taken over, I’m telling you!” Carpenter regaled and remembered for me in 2001.
On Election Day, 1964, right after he and Lady Bird had voted the man to be known before the night was over as “Landslide Lyndon” placed a call to the St. James Theater while Channing and the cast were rehearsing. LBJ, however, did not wait, hang up and return calls, or hang on and wait for someone on the phone. The stage manager finally ran and got her. “We’re counting our blessings darlin’,” he told her, “and you’re one of our blessings.”
Three weeks later, one day and one year after the assassination of President Kennedy, when they first moved to New York, the widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy took her children, Caroline, 6, and John, 4, to see Hello Dolly! Not long afterwards, her brother-in-law, the former Attorney-General and the newly-elected U.S. Senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy came to see Hello Dolly! and went backstage to meet Channing. As if to confirm the show as a Broadway extension of the National Democratic Party, in the first week of December, Lady Bird Johnson arrived for a Wednesday matinee.
Carl Channing later recalled the honor of performing while having the First Lady in the audience:
“You know, whenever a First Lady is in the audience, all heads are turned toward her.
When Lady Bird came, she must have known this because she wore long white gloves and, after the first song, both of her arms shot straight up, clapping as high as she could.
To us onstage it looked like a grand gesture of “I approve of this show.”
She threw the attention off her and onto the stage.
We treasured her for it.
It worked! She let them know where they should be looking.”
When LBJ had interrupted rehearsal on Election Day, the show’s director Gower Champion had fumed.
When next they spoke, Channing gently told the President, “Lyndon, you must never interrupt me during rehearsals.”
So smitten was he, LBJ cooled his legendary temper.
In fact, he invited her to perform at his Inaugural Gala, on January 18, 1965, two days before his swearing-in ceremony.
Champion cooled his temper too, and let Channing run down to Washington for the Gala rehearsal and performance.
And she did Hello Lyndon!
The event was a time capsule of Mid-Century Modern Pop Stars, including performances by Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Alfred Hitchcock, Bobby Darin, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews doing a duet, Harry Belafonte, Ann Margret, Mike Nichols and Elaine May doing a comedy sketch, Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Peter, Paul & Mary, Elliot Gould, Sophie Loren and Carlo Ponti, John Reardon, Gregory Peck, and Allen Sherman.
The lovefest never seemed to end. Liz Carpenter recalled how even in the Oval Office, LBJ couldn’t get enough of Hello Dolly! and asked to hear it – and Channing’s other recorded songs, played repeatedly as he worked. Sometimes he just wanted to talk to Channing and if unable to reach her, would call Liz in her office and ask, “Where’s mah girl?!”
In fact, LBJ wanted everyone to love Carol Channing.
At a January 17, 1967 dinner honoring Vice President Hubert Humphrey, House Speaker John McCormick and Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Johnsons invited Carol Channing and the Hello Dolly! cast to come down and do excerpts of it for them and guests on the small stage which Mrs. Kennedy had built for performances in the East Room. “Tonight offered the most star-studded entertainment the White House had seen in a long time,” the First Lady recorded into her daily taped diary, “Carol Channing doing thirty minutes from Hello Dolly! It was enchantment!”
After the performance (seen below in a rare recording), the Johnsons wheeled out a massive pink cake in celebration of the Broadway hit:
And after Carol Channing had performed, the most dancingest of all dancing Presidents himself twirled and twirled the actress around the marble North Entrance Lobby of the White House.
Invited to the December 1967 White House wedding of First Daughter Lynda Bird Johnson to Charles Robb, Channing got almost as much attention as the bride, wearing a yellow bubble skirt, mini-bloomers and leg tights. “I thought it was what you wear to a wedding in the year 1967,” she told Newsweek.
Even after LBJ left the White House in 1969, he and Channing stayed friends, inviting her to the LBJ Ranch in Texas, attending her opening night parties or sending their daughter Luci Nugent, still grateful for the song. In fact, as the exhibits in the new LBJ Presidential Library were being assembled, she was asked to donate her large feathered headdress from Hello Dolly! where it was displayed in a hall where the recording of her singing Hello Lyndon! was played for museum visitors. Over and over and over and over and over again.
Finally, Lady Bird Johnson would not go near the exhibit where the recording was heard, admitting, “Carol, you know how much I love you, but I just can’t hear that song again. I just can’t. I can’t take it.”
After the former President’s 1973 death, his wife continued the friends with Channing. The actress entertained at the 1982 LBJ Library Trustees meeting and dinner and for Mrs. Johnson’s 80th birthday celebration in Austin, in 1992, she sang Hello Lady Bird! – originally planning to do it as she emerged from a birthday cake. When she did a revival of Hello Dolly! in 1994, Lady Bird Johnson helped to get the Clinton Administration State Department to attempt to get the show into China, but it was no dice. Still, for the show’s opening in Dallas, Mrs. Johnson sent a massive basket of roses, and before the final Austin performance, she arrived backstage with a hand-picked bouquet of Texas wildflowers for her friend. “I gave my coveted Diamond Award to Lady Bird Johnson for making America beautiful,” Channing piped up. “I appreciate her sensitive aristocracy.”
It’s not clear why, but she didn’t attend the memorial services for either Mrs. Johnson or Liz Carpenter, in 2007 and 2010, respectively.
“The last time I saw her, she couldn’t speak,” the actress remembered of Mrs. Johnson in an Austin Chronicle interview, “but she clapped her hands together. And I thought, what a sweet way to let you know that she’s glad to see you.”
There was one political postscript to Carol Channing having helped elect Democrat LBJ in 1964. In 1973, she found herself on the famous “Enemies List,” created by the staff of his successor, Republican President Richard Nixon. “I read it in the paper, and it was terrible,” Channing recalled in an interview. “There were no As or Bs, so I was the top one. My parents were Republicans, and my mother read this, and she almost verplotzed! I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what the problem was. Why didn’t Nixon like me? I thought maybe he didn’t like my singing because I sang Hello, Lyndon!