LOS ANGELES — For men of a certain age — and it is mostly men — Carol Channing was something of an obsession. They waited by stage doors from Broadway to Tampa for her to emerge. They devoured the “Hello, Dolly!” cast album as teenagers, watched her on television and in the movies and, at times, dressed up in drag to impersonate her — the exaggerated red lipstick, the drone of a nasal voice, the wide-eyed comedic delivery and the burst of puffy hair.
So there was an audience ready and waiting when much of the Channing estate went to auction last month, more than two years after she died at the age of 97 in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
All 400 items sold out in eight hours, of course, and the auction, authorized by Channing’s heirs, raised close to $406,000 from 6,000 registered bidders, with some of the proceedings going to charity. Fans snatched up the Tony and Golden Globe Awards, the gowns, shawls and shoes, the tattered scripts, the needlepoint pillows and the wigs. Some of this Channingabilia was quite costly: A 1964 Tony for “Distinguished Achievement in Theater” went for $28,125, while a glamorous red costume she wore parading down a staircase in the title role of “Hello, Dolly!” drew $23,750.
“We have held celebrity sales in the past, but this was different,” said Joe Baratta, the vice president of development at the Abell Auction Company, which is handling the estate. “There were items that were worn, were used, were touched by her, and gifts that were given to honor her career.” (Another 300 Channing items will be auctioned in September).
Given the pandemic, there was no in-person thrill — paddles in the air, an auctioneer with a gavel on a podium. It was all done online and by telephone, with bidders, and lurkers, at their screens. People who wanted to inspect the merchandise could head to the Abell warehouse in Commerce, a city just east of downtown Los Angeles. But most of the items were bought sight unseen.
By whom? Here’s a look at three superfans who brought their checkbooks (or at least Venmo accounts) and walked away with a piece of Carol Channing’s six decades in public life.
David Turner: Hanging onto the ‘zing’
David Turner is an actor (most recent Broadway show: “The Boys in the Band” revival) and a commercial pilot who flies for Angel Flight East. As a college student, he waited hours for Channing by the door of a Hartford, Conn., theater after a “Hello, Dolly!” performance. He was a trouper; by the time she emerged, Turner and his boyfriend were the only two fans left.
“I didn’t say a word,” Turner, 46, recalled the other day. No autograph request, either. “I felt it would be predatory. I just watched her move.”
By that night in Hartford, his Channing bona fides were beyond dispute. Back in 1977, he was already playing — and playing and playing — a song off the “Free to be You and Me” children’s compilation on which Channing performed (more talking than singing) “Housework.” As a 15-year-old in New Jersey, he began doing an impersonation at the suggestion of an 18-year-old boyfriend who told him that when he had a cold, he sounded like Carol Channing.
He still does it to this day, and is hoping that one of the Channing gowns he now calls his own can be pressed into service for a drag performance, assuming he can squeeze into it.
“I do ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,’” he said of the song from her breakout role as Lorelei Lee in the 1949 musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
It was Turner’s first auction, and he found it a little intimidating. But by the end, he had bought 25 items: an Al Hirschfeld sketch of Channing, eyes wide and with an exaggerated grimace; a few dresses and costumes; a blouse monogrammed with her initials; a pair of tap shoes; and that 1964 Tony.
Truth be told, it made him a little queasy — was this ghoulish? he wondered — before deciding that this was a fine way to preserve the memory of someone who had been such a huge part of his life.
“She had a way of getting a room to zing,” he said. “For me, being part of the auction was wanting to hang on to that feeling.”
“I loved her,” he added. “And Carol is in many ways a very weird person. She was the first person who really took whatever it was that was weird and hitched her wagon to it.”
Nicky Ciampoli: Almost family
Nicky Ciampoli lived with Carol Channing for the last years of her life. Don’t read too much into that. He was her personal assistant, a job he began when she was still touring, and he stayed on as age caught up with her and she stepped out of the spotlight.
Channing divided her time between Modesto and Palm Springs, and Ciampoli remained with her in both places.
For $25,000 he snagged 18 pieces to hold on to the memories: the wedding outfit from her 2003 marriage to Harry Kullijian (she later repurposed it for book signings); two flapper dresses by Bob Mackie; a red tuxedo Ciampoli helped her put on for performances.
“I would have bought more if I could,” he said. “I didn’t buy the stuff because it was Carol Channing, the Broadway actress. I bought it because it was very sentimental on a lot of levels for me.”
Ciampoli met Channing in January 2006, when he was 21 and working for a theater producer who had booked her in Tampa for three performances of her solo show “The First Eighty Years are the Hardest.” He was assigned to attend to Channing and Kullijian during their stay. A bit later, back in California, she called to ask if he could become her full-time personal assistant.
As part of his job, he would go through a large garage in Modesto crammed with artifacts of her life — costumes, wigs, letters from people like Joan Crawford and Barbara Walters. Much of that material was destroyed by water, bugs and rats, and at one point, he hired a 1-800-GOT-JUNK dump truck.
“You wouldn’t believe what we threw away,” he said. “Old phone books. Pictures and scripts. Scrapbooks.” But some was saved — “scrapbooks that didn’t have rat poop” — and made it to the auction.
Ciampoli never got to see Channing in “Hello, Dolly!,” which, over several stints on Broadway and on tour, she performed some 5,000 times. And now? You guessed it. “I have started impersonating Carol,” he said. “I’m not just a fan. I had so much personal involvement with them.”
“My bedroom was right next to them in Palm Springs,” he added of Channing and Kullijian, who died in 2011. “They were like grandparents to me. I used to sit in her bedroom watching old TV shows — Andy Griffith.”
Brig Berney: Pouncing on a Tony
Brig Berney logged on to his computer on auction morning with his eyes on one big item: the 1995 Lifetime Achievement Tony that Channing won for bringing “Dolly” back on tour. Berney had been company manager for that revival, overseeing the day-to-day business affairs of running the show, from payroll to travel.
But that was way down on the list of trophies on the block, and Berney, now the company manager for “Hamilton,” decided that waiting it out in such a competitive auction was too risky.
Instead, he snapped up her special 1968 Tony in a winning bid of $14,000.
It is now is perched on “a lovely old music stand” in the living room of his Manhattan apartment. “If you have a Tony Award, you might as well display it in a place of honor,” he said. “No reason to put it in a drawer.”
Also in his take: needlepoints that fans sent to Channing and a Theater World Award naming her a promising personality of the 1948-49 season.
Berney had actually met Channing years before he started working on her shows. “Hello, Dolly!” came to to the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore in 1978 and Berney, a wide-eyed teenager, wrangled his way backstage to get his program signed.
She no doubt forgot that encounter some 20 years later when they connected again. But she was, he said, charming and patient as he peppered her with the questions of a theater fanboy: “What was David Merrick like? What was it like to open ‘Dolly’ in New York?”
“I loved asking questions,” he added. “She loved to talk, and I loved to listen.”