Sadly, Carol Channing died this week at the age of 97. In my 2014 book of short stories, Moments of Truth, I wrote about an enjoyable encounter on a train with Carol Channing in 1963, when she was 42. For over an hour I was her sole audience, albeit a captive, receptive, and appreciative audience.
Late in the summer of 1963, I was in the dining car on a Pennsylvania Railroad train bound from Washington for New York. It was early in the evening. I was sitting alone at a table for four, the last table in the car, and had just been served my meal when the train pulled into Philadelphia. There was the usual clamor one hears on a train as people rushed on and off, moving bags and themselves. Amidst the clamor I heard a high-pitched laugh and a loud mirthful voice coming from behind me.
"Oh dear, there seems to be no room at the inn," the funny sounding voice said. The next thing I knew, a caricature of a tall overdressed woman with large eyes and silver hair flowing out from under a wide-brimmed hat was looming over me.
"Are you alone, sonny?"
I swallowed hard and opened my hands as if to welcome her and her male companion. "It's Carol," she said extending her hand, "and, this is Charles."
I swallowed hard again, overwhelmed by this dominating figure. "I'm Neal, please join me."
"What do you do, Neal?" she said.
"I'm in my last year at Georgetown Law School."
"Well, just what we need, another lawyer," she said laughing.
I was off my game and well, speechless, when she said, "Don't let us disturb you. Go on with your dinner."
I looked down at my food and continued with my meal all the time wondering who was this formidable woman sitting across from me? I racked my mind and then it came to me: Carol Channing. She was playing on Broadway in The Millionairess. I finished my meal and was waiting for the waiter to return so that I could order coffee and dessert.
As I waited, I listened to their conversation. Most of the people in the dining car were hearing part of the discussion, too, given her loud voice. Charles, sitting next to me, who turned out to be her husband and manager, kept raising his right hand and then quickly lowering it, signaling her to lower her voice. Something had happened in Philadelphia that day that had her in great spirits and she was finding it hard to curb her enthusiasm. I never did find out what that was.
When the busy waiter finally arrived and took their orders, I placed mine for coffee and apple pie. It was then that I got up the courage to ask her if she was Carol Channing. Ah, the moment of truth. When I did, her face widened into the biggest smile that I have ever seen. Along with the smile she raised her hands to chest level and clasped them together as she thrust her chin up and swiveled her head back and forth all the time holding her smile. "Yes, darling. It's me, the one and only. How'd you guess?"
I laughed and continued laughing for the next hour as the train sped towards New York. She invited me into their conversation and I left the train in Penn Station feeling like I had known her forever. What you see is what you get, and she is one memorable person, a genuine star.