“Hello Lyndon!” How Carol Channing Helped LBJ Win the Election

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.

President Lyndon B. Johnson dancing in the White House with Actress Carol Channing

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!

Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing both hit the big time with 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!

Channing with composer Jerry Herman at a recording session for Hello Dolly on March 29, 1964.

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.

Days later, that rapid-thinking, quick-witted P.T. Barnum of Texas herself – Liz Carpenter, had a great idea.

Lady Bird Johnson consults with her friend and Press Secretary Liz Carpenter who introduced her and LBJ to her friend Carol Channing.

Lady Bird Johnson consults with her friend and Press Secretary Liz Carpenter who introduced her and LBJ to her friend Carol Channing.

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.

The One and Only…Liz.

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.

Channing belts out Hello Lyndon at the 1964 national Democratic Convention.

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.

Channing and the LBJs.

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.”

Bobby Kennedy, recently elected as the U.S. Senator from New York visits Channing backstage. (photo courtesy of the number one website about Robert F. Kennedy http://www.soundzen.org)

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.

On December 5, 1964, a month after LBJ’s sweeping landslide, Lady Bird Johnson went up to New York to catch her friend Carol Channing on Broadway in Hello Dolly!

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.”

Channing with singer Barbra Streisand at the 1965 Inaugural Gala rehearsal.

Channing with composer Jerry Herman and social dowager Perle Mesta at the 1965 Inaugural Gala.

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!

Again.

1965 Inaugural Gala.

Carol Channing performing Hello Lyndon! at the 1965 LBJ Inaugural Gala.

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.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and 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.

Channing dances with LBJ 1967; at right, in pink is White House Social Secretary Bess Abell and Congressman and future President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty Ford, in white.

Attending the state dinner where she would later perform, Carol Channing with her husband Charles Lowe and President Thomas Jefferson, on the mantle.

The 1967 wedding of Lynda Bird Johnson and Chuck Robb.

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.

Carol Channing with the hat from Hello Dolley which she donated to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.

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.”

Mrs. Johnson receives an award from Channing in 1971.

Lady Bird Johnson cuts her 80th birthday cake in December 1992.

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.”

Carol Channing and Liz Carpenter in Manzinita, Oregon July 2001.

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!

Carol Channing recently turned 91.

 


Categories: History, Hollywood & The White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Presidential Campaign Music, Presidential Campaigns and Elections, The LBJs

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25 replies »

  1. Carl- this made my morning. For some reason Carol was floating around in my imagination last night (perhaps because I had just looked over my old copy of Anita Loos’s delightful coffee-table-book/autobiography “Cast of Thousands”). At any rate- VOILA! there was Ms. Channing this morning in my in-box. This is an excellent micro-history. Thank you so much for gathering these delightful images and telling the tale of “Hello Lyndon!”. BTW- here’s a link to the Loos book- a real steal and a must have! http://www.amazon.com/Cast-Thousands-Anita-Loos/dp/0448122642

    • Jason – your response was the first to this article and even though I am in the midst of editing hell on a book right now, I had it waiting in the wings, so once posted got back to editing and then your encouraging response popped up so that has made my day. And then, I looked at your website and wow – talk about interesting, seriously. I would urge all my regular readers to sign up for your well-thought and well-wrought articles – http://myeyeinthesky.wordpress.com. I mean, talk about interesting. It reminds me of the Atlantic Magazine. Thanks for writing – I really appreciate it.

  2. great article, thank you sir! thanks for that bobby K pic.

  3. I heard that when she performed on stage in NY during her later years, the dancers on stage with her were slipping and falling from something wet on the stage.
    The stage director had to send someone out to the local apothecary for Depends for Miss Channing. A true testiment to an artist at any age, the show must go on!

    • Never heard that. But human beings are just that – human beings, not plastic personae. If that is true, it shows a remarkable ability to focus on what is important in terms of self-focus and achievement, and not caring about what other people think. We should all be lucky enough to find that passion which drives our living fully. I know that my friend Liz Carpenter who is an integral part of the article was driven by a passion to write and did so to the day she died, always working on the next book.

  4. Very enjoyable. Where/how do you find all of the these wonderful photos and recordings?

  5. You moved me to tears on this one. Tears and laughter. Genuine emotions. My favorite ones. Thank you for that.

  6. In the 1971 British election, Margaret Thatcher’s campaign song was “Hello, Maggie!”

    Hello, Maggie,
    Well, hello, Maggie
    Now you’re really on the road to Number Ten

    • Perhaps if Channing does another revival of her famous show later this year or in 2016, another Presidential candidate can run their campaign adapting Hello Dolly. God knows there hasn’t been any catchy campaign song with simple lyrics easy to remember since 1972’s “Nixon Now” or Jimmy Carter’s – “Man from Plains” I think it was called and Jerry Ford’s “I’m Feeling Good About America,” a true Bicentennial theme song. Since then, the popular songs which have been occasionally used don’t change the lyrics. For example, the 1992 Clinton song “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” makes no reference to him. It’s just the same familiar song. No pep, no zing, no wink.

  7. Another great one Carl! If only more teachers could be as interesting as you, we’d have a much better world; it’s so sad the way all the humanities are taking a beating in our high tech world. Treasures like your web site will hopefully encourage more endeavors like this. I have very vivid recall of LBJ’s Convention and Innaugeration, following death of Kennedy. I must admit some sharp pangs of negativity came into play, reading this. I truly resented watching the Johnson’s in all their glory. When Carol started in with Hello Lyndon, I just stomped right out of the room. I was also unable to watch Innaugral Balls.for any length of time.
    (It was a hoot when Lester Lannon played a real cornball song for LadyBird, I recall writing to you about that:).

    Watching the pagentry of LBJ’s Convention & Innaugral Ball(s) reminded me of the loss of my handsome Prince of a President and our Beautiful 1st Lady. Ladybird said it best herself, in one documentary; she mentioned that on her 1st public outing as 1st Lady(during State Funeral) , it was clear to her, that the people wished it were she and Lyndon who were going away. I’m not sure if we were that mean-spirited, but she came close. Before he became V.P. LBJ was a very powerful presence in DC, a brilliant legislator who was widely respected, if not liked! The children of the 60’s, the Boomers, did not understand who he was, and many of us did not like him at all. Carol Channing was a campy.old hag. Perfect in pitch for Johnsons.

    • Thank you for the good word Susanne. I’ve never seen the LBJ Inaugural Gala – I would so dig that. I think the great thing about them – even with bad music as you say, is they’re time capsules, snapshots of pop culture and politics, performers and politicians that so distinctly define an era. I think there was a bit of that resentment towards the Trumans and – believe it or not, Andrew Johnson and his family after Lincoln was shot. People never change.

  8. Hi Carl, An interesting one, as always. Just as a footnote, living here in Palm Springs, I’ve gotten a little bit acquanted with Carol and spent some time with her and her wonderful, recently deceased husband Harry. The thing that she said really endeared me to her was that once we got talking, I told her I wanted hear everything about her friend Lady Bird. She shared wonderful stories and now whenever we meet, even though she is very frail, she calls me her “Lady Bird friend.” She’s a dear.

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.523362500858.2037897.66702515&type=3#!/photo.php?fbid=529582940048&set=a.523362500858.2037897.66702515&type=3&theater

  9. Carl – Like any American of my era (I’m a Gen-X’er), I’ve recognized Carol Channing as a celebrity since childhood…but I had zero understanding of what she had done that had made her famous.

    Watching the “Hello, Dolly!” performance @ the WH State Dinner was a treat. I had no idea that Mrs. Kennedy had erected a stage in the East Room. Seems like it was quite useful. I’ll need to dig into your other material to figure out who decided it needed to go. (By the way, it seems unlikely Mrs. Reagan would have gone toppling over with her chair had the stage still existed in the 1980s instead of those makeshift daises that the White House has been using, post-Jackie’s stage.)

    I also enjoyed watching Carol perform LBJ’s campaign song. Indeed, it reminded me of Frank Sinatra singing JFK’s version of “High Hopes” in 1960.

    Your postings are a real treat. Keep up your fabulous work.

    • You know I’m not sure when or why that stage was no longer in use. I know the Nixons had a lot of events but it may have been quite a bit of effort to construct and deconstruct and it may have been alright just for small performances. I think it might have been the Nixon years because I don’t recall that the entertainments during their Administration having any backdrop or framing, other than the East Room itself. Meanwhile, I think Channing is one of those people with a wide swath of talent who became so singularly identified with one particular role – being Hello Dolly – that its hard to separate the two personas. Thanks again for writing. Greatly appreciate it.

  10. Thanks so much for this! I’d read about this song in Carol’s book ‘Just Lucky I Guess” but never actually heard her sing it until you uploaded this video. Thank you a ton from a CC fan ;)

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