FIRST off it's the orbs. The by-now-famous orbs fringed, well, fringed like a Kewpie doll's. You can't help but wonder who's got the mascara concession here. Then it's the outsized mouth -- a mouth outlined, well, outlined like Emmett Kelly's. But wait a minute. The basso profundo is already warning the unsuspecting observer that ``I've got my stage makeup on, and it's awfully severe.'' It is the by-now-famous voice that has belted out the likes of Lorelei Lee, Dolly Gallagher Levi, and now the latest of these bigger-than-life musical comedy roles for which she has become so famous, Sylvia Glenn in ``Legends!'' Yes, Carol Channing is back. That is, if it can be said that Miss Channing ever really went away. Ever since she spiraled into Broadway stardom first with ``Lend an Ear'' in 1948 and more resoundingly a year later in ``Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'' Channing has inextricably thrust herself into the country's cultural orbit. If the roles have been relatively few for a career spanning nearly four decades, they have, if nothing else, been enduring.
It was more than 20 years ago that Channing first descended that staircase in what was to become her signature role -- Dolly Gallagher Levi in ``Hello, Dolly!'' Channing continued to descend those steps for more than 1,200 consecutive performances, picking up a Tony award along the way for her Herculean efforts. Fifteen years later, she resurrected Dolly, a character Channing once referred to as ``our Hamlet,'' for a stamina-testing 25-city national tour. It was a run which incurred the attentions of the first ``Forbidden Broadway'' revue, whose satiric lyrics pleaded ``Oh no, no, Carol, don't you dare do `Hello, Dolly!' again.'' It was also the tour that firmly established the bubble-haired, basso-voiced Channing as one of the few remaining bigger-than-life Broadway musical comedy performers.
Now, less than a year after trundling around the country in the pre-Broadway tour of ``Jerry's Girls,'' the shortlived revue of Jerry Herman tunes (``Dolly,'' ``Mame,'' and ``La Cage aux Folles''), Channing is back on the boards with ``Legends!'' -- the new James Kirkwood play also starring Mary Martin.
Currently on its own interminable pre-Broadway trek, this comic tale of two catty film stars has been earning few plaudits from Dallas to Cleveland. The consensus is that these two Broadway greats, who are also great friends, deserve a better vehicle than the current flimsy conceit.
Channing, however, brooks none of it. ``I just love it, I just love Sylvia Glenn,'' she trumpets here in her hotel suite, Channing's proverbial home-away-from-home. ``When I read [the script], I just dropped everything. They'd given the script to Mary, and she said, `I want to work with Carol.' So I just dropped everything.''
On the road since opening last spring in Dallas, Channing describes her latest role, a combination Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, and Lauren Bacall, as ``a departure [for me]. We've all grown up with those brunette sex symbols; I think it's high time somebody satirized them.'' The opportunity to work together for the first time with Martin, Channing enthuses, is ``wonderful. When we were learning our lines, I moved into her home in Palm Springs, and we went to sleep with the lines, and we woke up with the lines.''
Yet even Channing's perennial effervescence -- she insists she won't read reviews until when, and if, ``Legends!'' officially opens on Broadway -- can't totally squelch the growing critical rumblings. ``When we opened in Dallas six months ago, we weren't ready. No one knew their lines. . . .[But] this pre-Broadway tour is an old stage for me,'' she says. ``It's not comfortable, but if you can live through it, you have a chance. I've never known a show to come easy. When we tried out `Hello, Dolly' in Detroit it was totally damned.''
As one of the last of the great stage troupers, Channing is ready, willing, and able to play from Peoria to Potsdam and fulfill many a public-relations appearance in between. ``Once you hit town [with a show] you have to let them know you're there,'' she says. ``You have to go from TV to radio to the newspaper to the mayor's office. You have to become a civic event.''
When she is not performing in New York or touring a pre- or post-Broadway show, Channing can be found working somewhere, anywhere, whether it's in a studio recording ``Winnie the Pooh'' children's albums or in Atlantic City doing a one-woman revue. Her enthusiasm for life on the road remains indefatigable. ``To drop two names,'' rumbles Channing, ``Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt were the touring people. [They said] that is your obligation. It is your duty to tour the provinces. So that you gotta do.''
Channing pronounces ``obligation'' in a haute English voice and ``gotta do'' with swaggering Dollyesque overtones. It is an undeniable gift for mimicry that conjures visions of Channing's first performance job -- a nightclub act of impersonations she put together after taking, uh, a leave of absence from Bennington College. It is also the kind of chameleon inflection that reminds the visitor that, even off-stage, Channing remains the consummate performer.
``Everything I've ever played is the character,'' she says. ``If you're a good actress, people believe that is you. But Sylvia Glenn is nothing like Dolly Gallagher Levi, and I don't see any connection [with any of them] to Carol Channing. But people think, `That must be Carol.' If you're good, it's a great compliment.''
It is exactly the kind of professional ``pshaw'' one has come to expect from this star who, when asked about her own larger-than-life image, bats those saucer-sized eyes and pronounces, ``I never think about it. I don't have perspective on it . . . . None of us is supposed to, and the moment we think we do, then there is a formula for ourselves, and it's very unattractive, and you can send people away in droves.''
Indeed, Channing's unflagging track record and her protestations that ``I'll never stop working -- do you know that 98 percent of all actors are out of work and they are all violently talented?'' only reinforce her show-must-go-on reputation. When asked how she keeps her work fresh night after night, town after town, she says simply, ``That's my talent. Each human being has a talent, and mine is to recreate . . . . That's my joy in life.''
Even after 1,200 performances?
``First off, by then I'm secure, and I'm still not secure. We're in a dangerous business. This could be the audience we never reach. If I don't feel this emotion that makes me say this line, then the audience just doesn't hear it. Your concentration, if you just let it waver one minute, you've lost them.''
The only child of the late George Channing, a Christian Science lecturer and editor, Carol Channing recounts her initial stage-struckness as a vicarious following of her father's oratorical profession. ``My dad said, and I found this out, being an only child, that when you're on stage [the audience] is willing to look at characters through [your] eyes.'' After winning her first applause in the fourth grade by imitating her elementary school teachers back in San Francisco, Channing realized: ``Oh, my gosh, I'm suddenly no longer an only child. We're all suddenly alike. We laugh at the same things; we cry at the same things. I can't live without this. I will crawl across the desert without water [in order to get back on the stage].''
It is an all-or-nothing emotion that still fuels the actress. ``I think a really good show is a human necessity. All of us experiencing an emotion simultaneously -- laughter, tears, falling in love. It's tribal.''
For Channing the route to stardom occurred as a result of this drive to perform and, as the actress puts it, luck. ``First off, I had `No, No, Nanette' [during the third year at Bennington], and I had the one comedy relief song, and -- gee -- that was lucky. Then came ``Lend an Ear'' and . . . I ran into Marge Champion, and she said, `You better see Gower [Champion], and so `Lend an Ear' led to `Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.' Wasn't I lucky? Anita Loos insisted I be her Lorelei when everybody was saying, `She's not five-foot-two, eyes-of-blue -- she's over six feet tall and has muddy brown eyes.' But Anita stuck to it. Wasn't I lucky?''
It is the same kind of eye-batting enthusiasm Channing brings to her choice of material today -- a decided preference for the old-fashioned ``book'' musical, a musical with a star and a story. ``I like a character [people can] either love or hate, or at least root for. I want somebody I can hang my heart on,'' she says. ``But, let's face it, there's never been a phenomenon like `Cats,' so it must mean a great deal to most people.''
When Channing is not working, an admittedly few weeks of any given year, she and her husband/manager, Charles Lowe, take to the other side of the boards, visiting London's West End, Broadway, and even Las Vegas. ``George Burns, to drop a name, says [Vegas] is the equivalent of vaudeville. That's where it all went. We get to see every performer in the prime of his career. Oh, it's heaven.''
Channing's pronouncements over the current torpor gripping Broadway are unequivocal. ``One thing I've learned: that since mankind began, people have been saying Broadway is dying. I've been hearing that since I was a baby. Well, right now we're in a sink, but three good hits -- two good hits -- and it'll go up again.''