Thursday, January 31, 2019

Carol Channing - A Product of San Francisco And Its Public Schools

Carol Channing spent her entire youth in San Francisco.  She was born in Seattle on January 31, 1921, but her family moved here when she young. She lived all of her public school years in San Francisco and only moved away from the Bay Area to attend college in the East.

Her father, George Channing, was born on November 21, 1888 and died May 29, 1957.  Her mother Adelaide Glaser was born in Nebraska on December 10, 1886 and died May 3, 1984 -- nearly as long lived as her daughter who recently passed away at the age of 97 on January 15, 2019.

Before she left for college in 1937 Channing learned from her mother of her father's African-American ancestry.  Although he claimed to have been born in Providence, Rhode Island, he was actually born in Augusta, Georgia. His father was German-American and his mother was African-American. Channing's official birth certificate lost in a fire evidently noted that he was "colored." After his father died, his mother moved north where he and his sister could pass for white and attend public schools.

He was born George Christian Stucker.  His sister, Alice Estelle Stucker, gave Georgia as her birthplace for the 1930 census. George Stucker/Channing must have been a remarkable student. He was awarded a scholarship to Brown University where he was an excellent orator and debater. In his senior year, 1911, he won Brown's Gaston Prize Medal for Excellence in Oratory.  He later studied law at Yale and went overseas during World War I as a corporal in the Artillery Corps.  Afterwards he worked in newspapers in Detroit and later was the city editor of the Seattle Star.

George Stucker's 1911 Yearbook Photograph (Liber Brunensis)

At the opening of her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol Channing recalled that his voice could alternate between "New England stentorian sounds" and a dialect imitation of Eugene O'Neill's eponymous Emperor Jones.  This ability to elide two manners of speaking and presentation made it seem natural to her to explore the vocal possibilities of character.

While living in Seattle her father became a Christian Scientist. When he moved to San Francisco he initially worked selling advertisements for the Christian Science Monitor.  The 1926 City Directory noted that for a time her worked as a salesman for a washing machine company.  Later directories listed him as a "Christian Science Practitioner" and as a member of the Christian Science Committee on Publication.  He was also a Christian Science worker at San Quentin prison.

George Channing - source: San Francisco Examiner (May 30, 1957).

Carol Channing was a precocious child who entered kindergarten at Commodore Sloat Grammar School at the age of four and a half. A bright and voracious reader, she was able to skip the second grade.  Channing described being in awe of her principal Miss Berard.  Elvina L. Berard had been principal the Commodore Sloat school from the time it was a one room school house in 1916 until 1940. In 1922 the school expanded and added the auditorium where a young Carol Channing gave her first "performance." 

Commodore Sloat Grammar School in 1927 (the auditorium is at the right)
source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.

Miss Berard was a strong adult presence for young Carol.  In a 2008 interview she said that she "found every excuse to go into her office because I was so fascinated by the way she talked."  At home she would act out little tea parties with Miss Berard where she would serve her principal tea and then "turn into" her, imitating her "adenoidal" voice.

Carol Channing, age 7 or 8, at her family's Inner Sunset house, during her Commodore Sloat Grammar School days (source: Just Lucky I Guess)

Over the years Carol Channing would recall her stage debut at age 7 on the Commodore Sloat stage.  She had been nominated as school secretary and had to appear on stage to speak to the student body. She recounted:
You go up those five steps, and those steps are still there. I got up there; my knees were shaking. 
For her campaign speech she assumed the character of Miss Elvina Berard.  Everyone broke out into laughter, including her principal who "knew there was no malice." Channing recalled:
Well, the kids started to laugh, and I thought ... Oh! This is the most wonderful... I had never felt so close to people. It was closer than touching.

A plaque dedicating a tree to Elvina L. Berard on Arbor Day, March 9, 1931 at Commodore Sloat Elementary School

She moved on to attend the nearby Aptos Junior High School where she kept up her antics. She was happy to have "an entire new battery of faculty members and students to take home with me in my imagination." In addition to performing in plays she also participated in weekly variety shows at school assemblies.

Channing (right) as French song and dance man Maurice Chevalier at her families Portola Drive house in 1929.
Source: Rosenstein & Marchi, Hello Carol.

The already tall Carol Channing (back row, center) as a member of the Review Club at Aptos Junior School from the Aptos Journal, June 1934

Channing's earliest stage triumph and her first newspaper notice came from her May 1933 performance as Toad in the play Toad of Toad Hall at the Community Playhouse (the present day Marines' Memorial Theatre) at 609 Sutter Street.  She must have seemed boy-like playing her character because the reviewer from the Chronicle wrote of her performance: "He gave a confident, breezy performance of the part, brash, self-satisfied, the quintessence of egotism."

 Elizabeth Holloway (source: San Francisco Chronicle (August 17, 1924)

Channing gave this performance under the direction of Elizabeth Holloway and William Morwood. Holloway had been a teacher at the Children's Dramatic Studio, a school that encouraged the child "to give its own interpretation of the character."  The method practiced at the school aimed to "bring out originality and develop creative art."  She later opened the Elizabeth Holloway School of Theater.  Barbara Eden was another one of Holloway's illustrious students. (Eden describes attending the school because Carol Channing had mentioned studying there in a radio interview).

 Carol Channing (source: San Francisco Chronicle November 27, 1934).

In her next newspaper appearance, Channing appeared bedecked in stars and stripes for her performance as Columbia in an Aptos Middle School pageant entitled Builders of America.

Channing also trained at the San Francisco Operatic and Ballet School run by Adolph Bolm.  She regretted having to leave the program when she was"13 years 2.5 months old" because at five feet, nine inches she had grown too tall.

 Vice-President of the Debating Society, Carol Channing (from the Lowell High School Red and White, Fall 1936)

After completing her studies at Aptos Junior High School, Carol Channing attended Lowell High School, which even then was San Francisco's most academically rigorous public school.  At Lowell she followed the path of her father and joined the Debating Society.

Perhaps Channing's next stage triumph came in her junior year playing the role of Katherine Bence, the female lead in Kempy, the Lowell High School production from May 1937.  The Chronicle praised her performance writing that "displayed an innate sense of speech rhythm and grace of movement."

from the Lowell High School Red and White, Spring 1938

The Fall 1937 Lowell Yearbook also noted that Channing won the school's dramatics award "for her talented panoramic performance in the 'Varieties.'"  She also played a supporting role in Lowell High School's production of Captain Applejack later that yer.

The high school's drama teacher Samuel K. Polland would have her get up in front of the entire student body at assemblies to read the school minutes where she would do her impressions of the faculty.  She recounted learning a great deal from Mr. Polland (who was married to the aforementioned Elizabeth Holloway).
I learned not to be serious and how to feel out an audience. But most important, I learned to feel my way. As Mr. Polland kept repeating, 'Everybody has a way. You have to find your own now, Carol.' And he was so right.
from the Lowell High School Red and White, Spring 1938

Perhaps Channing attained the crowning achievement of her San Francisco days following in the footsteps as an orator.  She entered and won a local contest sponsored by a non-profit political organization called the California Crusaders.  The contest's theme was "American Citizenship and What It Means to Me."

Carol Channing with Floppet in her San Francisco Chronicle feature article of May 2, 1937

In a Chronicle profile she acknowledged that she preferred dancing and acting over public speaking. She based her speech upon a book that discussed the role of women in the modern world.  For her citizenship meant "freedom to develop the qualities I have, and the privilege of contributing them to my country."

She continued:
Let it not be supposed that feminine qualities are in any sense weak. Gentleness is as firm as ruthlessness is hard. What is more anchored, more dependable, more immovable than the mothering quality that gives life and therefore preserves it--that practices the art of self-preservation, art of avoiding war.
Carol Channing At Her Family's Kitchen at 1230 Washington Street in 1937 
image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

She won the San Francisco contest. She competed in the state finals on April 29, 1937 giving her speech before a crowd of 500 at San Francisco's Veterans Building auditorium. Her speech was persuasive and she won the contest and a trip to Hawaii.

Adelaide and Carol Channing on the manifest for the Malalo (source: Ancestry.com)

She departed for Honolulu with her mother Adelaide aboard the Malalo on June 24, 1937.  They returned about the Lurline on July 8.

Carol Channing aboard the Malolo bound for Hawaii (source: San Francisco Examiner April 12, 1971)

Channing's last show as a student at Lowell was a graduation present to her classmates. In song, dance and pantomime, sketches and blackouts, she took everyone on a hilarious throat-catching trip down memory lane, evoking all the student and faculty characters, all the big events "It was a last look at Lowell," she said, "and I cried at the end. Everybody cried."

During her San Francisco years, Carol Channing worked for a time as a model for I. Magnin.  But she was not all work and no play.  She recalled regularly going with friends on Saturdays to the Palace Hotel where they would dance the Suzy-Q, the Big Apple and the Lindy.

Although her career took her away from San Francisco, this account shows how much the San Francisco contributed to her later success -- both the public schools and the other creative venues that the city offered. She once said:
Performing in front of a school age audience is the best training one could have. If you can hold this impossible audience, you'll make it with others. 
In later years she often speak passionately about how the arts were so important to her in school.
The Arts bring creativity and critical thinking skills to other subjects within the schools' curriculum, not to mention enhancing social skills... The Arts truly fertilizes a young person's brains.
Toward the end of her life she formed ChanningARTS (Arts Returned To Schools) which helped fund the arts in public schools.  Without ceremony she donated funds for the theaters at her three almae matres -- Commodore Sloat Elementary School, Aptos Middle School and Lowell High School. In 2002 Lowell High School named the Carol Channing Theatre named in her honor.

 Carol Channing visiting Aptos Middle School (San Francisco Chronicle September 21, 2008)

The Aptos Journal (Aptos Junior High School, June 1934).

"Aptos To Give Pageant Again," San Francisco Chronicle (November 27, 1934).

"Ban Self-Consciousness: New Ideal Set For Dramatics," San Francisco Chronicle (August 17, 1924).

"Biographical Sketch," San Francisco Examiner (June 12, 1956).

Birch, Donna, "Lowell High Honors Star Grad," San Francisco Examiner (June 6, 1992).

"Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian: A True Love Story!," Richard Skipper Celebrities (May 10, 2011) [blog].

"Carol Channing 'On Stage' While Reading The Minutes," San Francisco Examiner (March 16, 1958).

Channing, Carol, Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

"Channing Gets Lecture Post," San Francisco Chronicle (June 7, 1938).

"Churchman Geo. Channing Dies on Plane," San Francisco Examiner (May 30, 1957).

Eden, Barbara, Jeannie Out of The Bottle (Crown Archetype, 2011).

Geduldig, Lisa, "Credo: The Inside View," [interview] San Francisco Examiner (July 18, 2010).

Iquity, Sister Dana Van, "Carol Channing Speaks about Saving the Arts," San Francisco Bay Times (September 18, 2008).

"Just Who Is This Girl? Carol Channing -- And She's A Lass," San Francisco Chronicle (May 2, 1937).

Knickerbocker, Paine, "S.F.'s Carol Channing Stars in New Musical," San Francisco Chronicle (November 14, 1955).

Liber Brunensis (Brown University, 1911).

"Lowell Girl Wins Speaking Contest," San Francisco Examiner (April 14, 1937).

"Lowell High Students Give Kempy," San Francisco Chronicle (May 22, 1937).

"Obituary: Miss Berard S.F. Teacher," San Francisco Chronicle (September 24, 1940).

"Oratory Wins Trip To Hawaii," San Francisco Examiner (April 30, 1937).

The Red and White (Lowell High School Students Association, Fall 1936; Fall 1937; Spring 1938).

Rosenstein, Brad and Joseph J. Marchi, Hello Carol: A Celebration of Carol Channing (Museum of Performance and Design, 2008).

"S.F. Girl Gets Big Break in New Screen Comedy," San Francisco Examiner (November 27, 1948).

"S.F. Girl Stars on Broadway," San Francisco Examiner (January 22, 1950).

Torchin, Joseph, "When You're Dancing With Dolly," San Francisco Chronicle (January 18, 1978).

Warren, George C., "'Toad of Toad Hall' Enjoyed by All Ages," San Francisco Chronicle (May 24, 1933).

Winn, Steven, "Channing's Memories," San Francisco Chronicle (September 21, 2008).

Zailian, Marian, "It's So Good to Have Her Back Where She Belongs," S.F. Sunday Examiner & Chronicle (January 1, 1978).

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