Spider Duncan Christopher
Spider Duncan Christopher: Dancer, Carol Channing’s First National Company
Spider- Duncan Christopher is the name that many people have known him for many years. In 1965, Christopher Calkins, as he was called then, joined Carol Channing’s first national tour of Hello, Dolly!
When Christopher moved to New York, there was another Christopher Calkins and there were always crossed wires and confusion, so THIS Christopher changed his name.
The OTHER Christopher Calkins was in Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Christopher is still legally Spider’s last name.
Christopher left Seattle, Channing’s home town as well, on a Ford Grant. He went to San Francisco and joined the San Francisco Ballet Company. His dance partner was Ann Reinking! This was a summer stint. At the end of the summer, Ann went back to Seattle and school. Christopher was already graduated, having graduated at seventeen. In San Francisco, they lived in this big house and there were many dancers and lawyers staying there. Christopher grew up with his parents being avid newspaper readers. Christopher, on the other hand, was interested primarily in theater and read only those articles pertaining to the theater. Christopher feels that it was divine intervention that someone in this house happened to be reading The San Francisco Chronicle.
Gower Champion would be holding auditions for dancers for the national company starring Carol Channing. The auditions were at the Curran Theater, where the show would eventually play. Channing, in her memoirs states the first time she stepped foot on a stage, it was the Curran and she knew she was standing on hallowed ground. Christopher cut class to go to this audition. He was already familiar with the music. Having the cast album, he knew every song by heart. He considered himself a total “musical theater geek.” He went to the library every Sunday to read the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. He started choreographing professionally at sixteen. He started getting work. He did Bye Bye Birdiewith Tom Poston and Patte Findlay right out of high school so he really was already in the game. He was also doing a little producing with his younger brother in high school. When every musical would come through town, Christopher would get them to perform for his class. At five, he was having his friends dress up and “let’s put on a show!” in their back yard. By the time he was seven, all his family and friends knew about this passion. His mother was a costume designer, so there was always lots of material. This was all he ever wanted to do.
When he saw the audition for Dolly, his goal was to just meet Gower Champion. He thought that was worth cutting a class to do. Approximately eighty-five dancers showed up for that call. He was one of five chosen. They were flown to Los Angeles for a big audition there.
He had never been on a plane before and here was a free plane ride! At that audition, there were about eight hundred people being flown in from all over the country. He was one of eight chosen from that audition. There were a group of them, Blake Brown, Andy Bew, among others that were selected. He had just graduated from high school! He gave up his Ford grant; they were nurturing him to be part of the San Francisco Ballet Company. San Francisco was getting pretty crazy at that time anyway. Lew Christensen and his brother, Mormons from Utah, ran the ballet company…and were very homophobic! They were always trying to get the dancers to marry. Christopher didn’t really want to hang out in that environment much longer.
When Gower chose Christopher, he
was thrilled! Gower took Christopher under his wing and he was very fond of Gower. He was the only tall Barnaby Tucker ever.
Christopher understudied Harvey Evans, who played Barnaby. It was actually between Blake and Christopher, but Blake could not sing as well as Christopher. Blake also had dark hair. Most of the Barnabys were blonde and short.
Christopher was a tall Barnaby but he could act, sing, and dance. He had many auditions before he got that role. This was in August of 1965.He had brown hair then, when he had hair! It was a very important time for Christopher in terms of shaping his future. It meant a lot that Gower took him seriously as a actor, dancer, singer. It was a life changing experience. Gower became Christopher’s mentor, and he basically fashioned his whole director/choreographer career after him.
Christopher was an enthusiastic disciple of Gower’s.
Christopher is a high spirited, positive person. As a kid, he had a big smile on his face. That was appreciated by everybody he worked with. He gave it all every performance. One night, after eighteen months, he came on stage and realized that his heart was no longer in it. He gave his two weeks’ notice that night and he was no longer in Dolly two weeks later. He was trained that if your heart was not totally committed, to move on. Carol was very inspiration in instilling in Christopher that you never miss a performance. He also continued to work on improving his performance. That was another reason why Gower thought so much of him. Every time Gower came back to visit the show, he would pull Christopher aside and say how much he appreciated that Christopher was the most improved and that he could see new things and how much he appreciated how much he appreciated the improvement in Christopher’s dancing. He would enroll in a dance class in every town they were in.
He was one of the youngest in the cast. Gower was so encouraging that it spurned Christopher to always do his homework, to always give it all he had/ .
Christopher loves Harvey Evans.
He was so sweet to Christopher. Harvey let Christopher go on once. He worked it all out when he knew Christopher was ready and gave up a matinee for him. Carol was thrilled, Harvey was thrilled, everyone was thrilled, and Harvey’s fan club was there that day and they started a fan club for Christopher, which was very flattering. It was a very exciting time. The tour started in San Diego the first week in September for a tryout before going to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA in mid September 1965. Christopher had just turned eighteen. They were in LA at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the Watts Riots.
They could see the hotel where a lot of this was happening from the rehearsal studios. It was a very scary time. Businesses tried to roll in the sidewalks by six pm. They were at the Dorothy Chandler for five weeks. While at the Dorothy Chandler, they did an Actor’s Equity benefit with the biggest names in Hollywood in attendance including Jimmy Stewart and the royalty of Hollywood, every famous person was that audience. They went crazy. Everyone that was alive in Hollywood that was a big name was in that audience. It was the hottest Actors’ Equity benefit ever and they raised a fortune. That was a real highlight so early in the run. They were sold out for their entire run six months before opening! It was such a big deal that the joke of the day was that even God couldn’t get in to see Hello, Dolly!
A big highlight of this tour included entertaining at the White House, a command performance for Lyndon Johnson, whom Carol had campaigned for. “Be our guide, Lyndon! Ladybird, at your side, Lyndon!” to the tune of Hello, Dolly!
This was January 16th, 1967. It is documented in the documentary, Jerry Herman: Words and Musicproduced, directed, and written by Amber Edwards for PBS.
From there, they went to the Geary Theater in San Francisco. Georgia Brown had become a friend of Christopher’s and she was doing Oliver in town. They would go each night to a very favorite watering hole across from the theater. They used to have brunch every Sunday with Charles Pierce. A guy by the name of Jody Burke LOVED to cook. His sister, Sandy, was a wardrobe mistress in Hollywood. He unfortunately got some disease which distorted his neck. He was very close with Carol Channing. He was an outrageous “queen” even in the sixties. He had a long cigarette holder and had outrageous clothes and was quite the spectacle. Christopher said there were lots of parties and Sunday brunches. Channing and Lowe were not always at these parties, but she threw her own parties from time to time. She was very generous to the company. I have written about this before, and Christopher remembers fondly the midnight movie showings that Carol sponsored. They would get on a bus with boxed dinners and see screenings before the films were released. One night they saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf before it had opened. Every city they played, there would be an opening night party thrown for them. Carol would ALWAYS make an appearance at those. The entire tour took two years. Christopher did eighteen months of that tour.
On the Chicago leg of that tour, Channing left the company for three months to do Thoroughly Modern Millie. Eve Arden filled in during that time. Those are Christopher’s two Dollys. Carol was iconic. Christopher began a very special bond with Carol on opening night in San Diego. Harriet Beal was her own dresser and personal assistant who took very good care of Carol, a very sweet woman. She also loved Christopher. Since he was from Seattle, he wanted Carol to know that since she’s from Seattle. Seattle place is a really cool place to come from. Carol and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was just two and a half weeks old.
Seattle is a creative artistic town to come from. Christopher wrote a note for Carol and gave it to Harriet. This was just before half hour in San Diego in September 1965. It began a lovely connection right from the beginning. It was very, very sacred. She was very specific about everything she did and Christopher respected that. Between working with Carol in Dolly and Chita Rivera in Sweet Charity, Christopher has worked with two masters.
They are masters who can act, sing, and dance. They both had the Meisner approach to acting. When Chita did Sweet Charity, Christopher was her Charlie Dark Glasses.
That was where he bonded with her. He was also assistant stage manager on that production, took very good care of her, and they are friends to this date. Carol had these specific moments, whether it was in the title number, or whatever.
There were always moments of contact with Carol. He got to play Barnaby Tucker a number of times. Eventually Harvey Evans left the company. He was replaced by Doug Slater, who was Harvey’s partner. Harvey wanted to leave the company to go back to his partner. His partner ends up replacing him and they split.
Christopher was also in the last scene as the wallpaper hanger. Again, Christopher always had these little moments with Carol that were always consistent. No matter what, she never missed a performance. Her standby was Lisa Kirk on this tour. She was pretty cool and used to hang out with Christopher a lot.
The experience of doing Dolly is very significant in Christopher’s career. As stated earlier, he had done Bye, Bye Birdie with Tom Poston and Patte Findlay.
He was also part of Irma La Deuce, which was his first professional choreography job at sixteen at a theater in Seattle. He co-choreographed with a guy named Fred Clark. He became Lee Champion (there already was a Fred Clark). Christopher had done a few shows in Seattle, but Hello, Dolly is such a big name. Anytime anyone asks what he’s done, and he says Hello, Dolly with Carol Channing, they take it very seriously that he was/is a professional. Everybody knows that show even though he’s gone on to other things, including being the ORIGINAL choreographer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texasbefore Tommy Tune took it to Broadway. They did the iconic performances at the Actors’ Studio. He has done things that have been significant, but Dolly shaped his career in a beautiful way. When he came to New York, he already had that credit. One day, he met Alan Johnson, choreographer for Sweet Charity. He offered Christopher the part of Charlie Dark Glasses. He told Christopher that he was familiar with his work and that all he needed to do was go sign a contract.
Christopher absolutely believes there are future audiences for Dolly. The music is great.
He does consider Dolly one of the top five shows of his career. He is still very proud that he was part of that experience. They were constantly making theatrical history in its day.
Box office records are higher today due to high ticket prices. They were totally sold out for the two years that Christopher was with the show. There was never an empty seat. At one point that played an arena with ten thousand seats in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They shattered box office records at that time. It was a “horse barn” of a place. It was very thrilling to be part of a company in which you were sold out prior to arriving in any town. They were kind of theatrical royalty at that time. Christopher has no idea what it’s like to do a tour now, but they were always well received. They had amazing parties and everyone wanted to meet and greet the cast. When they went to the bars, it was overwhelming. This was going on in the 1960s with a lot of revolutionary change between doing something like Hello, Dolly and Hair was right around the corner. It was an amazing time to be in the theater. Christopher thinks of those years of the golden age of classic American musicals.
The one thing that Christopher carried throughout the rest of his career as a result of Dolly is a sense of discipline and professionalism which he thinks is sorely lacking in today’s theater. He was part of a great company, and a team, where you were always on time, you were always there before half hour, you were always warmed up, you were part of a great family.
He knows that that still exists today, but nowadays, you see more and more people missing performances. That didn’t exist as much in those days. He very rarely remembers anyone being out of the show, certainly not him or Carol. You just didn’t miss performances, same with Chita. It also helped in terms of being a good stage manager. Christopher was always part of the understudy rehearsals on Dolly. He knew the full blocking of everything because he had a photographic memory. He was part of the “bible” of Dolly with stage directions allowing Dolly to be put up anywhere. The stage managers brought Christopher in on this because they knew he knew the show.
It is pretty iconic what Gower created in this changing climate. It seems like every time Christopher sees a variation on trying to change this number, like Fosse, it’s hard to separate it. Look at Chicago, for example. It’s the same with Michael Bennett in A Chorus Line. It’s something you saw imprinted in your memory that it is difficult to veer from it.
The tour was not without tragedy. The youngest members of the cast were Andy Bew and his girlfriend, Blake Brown, and Christopher. Andy and his girlfriend were younger than Christopher and were being home schooled by Andy’s mother, Cleone. She traveled with the company and also acted as chaperone for all of the kids in the show. She was 43.
Andy and his girlfriend ended up breaking up.
On Sunday afternoon, August 28th, 1966, Andy’s girlfriend had snuck off to marry an older singer also in the company. Rather than having a wedding, they decided to just sneak off and surprise everybody. Andy and Blake had become good buddies. Andy, and his mother, Cleone, and Blake went out on a boating trip on Wonder Lake in Illinois. A speed boat came barreling in their direction creating a huge wave that capsized their boat knocking them all out of the boat. The boat ended up hitting the wave of the speedboat, and and killed Cleone instantly. In the original tapes for A Chorus Line, Andy’s story was there. It was depicted that he was part of a burlesque show and that Tessie Latour had picked him up in a cab. This tragic event was originally in the script. They couldn’t find an actor who could fulfill it emotionally. It was cut out of the original show when it was downtown at the Public. Going back to work the next night was the roughest time this company had. The funeral was on the 31st. It was a very difficult time to get through. Christopher and Cleone were very close and it was like losing his own mother. Christopher ended up being like a big brother to these kids. Cleone could always tell Christopher what she wanted the other kids to hear. They could hear it from him a lot easier than an “Ah, mom” type of scenario.
Other than Carol and Eve Arden, Christopher has only seen two other actresses play Dolly, Pearl Bailey, and his favorite, Martha Raye. Pearl Bailey leading an all black cast in 1967 was a unique thing at that time. It was revolutionary for Mr. Merrick to do this. Nothing like that had never been done before. Pearl Bailey is Pearl Bailey and made it her own. She was great fun. The emotional depth, however, came from Martha Raye. He can close his eyes and still see her presenting her speeches to Ephraim. He was moved to tears. It was very powerfully acted he thought. She brought something very unique to the role.
Why does Christopher think the title number always stops the show? It is built in to the character of being so loved by the Harmonia Gardens. The Waiter’s Gallop with singing and dancing waiters preceding the title song sets it up. It is the genius of Gower Champion. No one had seen choreography quite like that before. Even the sets were dancing. It was so imaginative. Christopher had never seen anything like that prior.
Horace McMahon started the tour as Horace Vandergelder. However, Carol wasn’t happy with him. He was replaced by Milo Boulton. Milo did it for quite a while. Christopher loved Horace McMahon because he was such a fan of his on Naked City. Milo Boulton was nice and okay. Originally, of course, David Burns was a brilliant Horace Vandergelder opposite Carol on Broadway. He died on stage, of a heart attack, in Philadelphia during the out-of-town tryout of Kander and Ebb’s musical 70, Girls, 70.
Christopher just loves Jerry Herman, one of the great composers of Broadway, ever. Christopher has met him a few times. Christopher had a crush on him even before meeting him. “He’s such an adorable person.” Carol’s first national company was his favorite. Everyone got along so well. Everyone was proud of what they created. It was such a huge success. The first time Christopher heard the score, he was in high school. He used to buy all of the Broadway show albums. He used to take songs from the albums and rewrite the songs to reflect things that were going on in his high school. He was the student body president. That position prior to Christopher had mostly been held by football players, one of the jocks, usually. He was the first “theatrical” president. He brought a lot of live musical theater experiences to the student body.
Christopher remembers back to when he first came to New York and you would see marquees like Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl , where you saw NAMES over the title. In more recent years we’ve seen Rent, where stars came out of productions, which seem to be a new kind of a thing. He likes seeing that more and more people are seeing how talented so many people are. It looks like it is shifting back somewhat, although we are seeing more and more TV and movie star names. There was a time where it seemed like fifty-seven new musicals were opening on Broadway and at least sixteen new plays in a season. There were really so many productions to choose from. There were more Broadway stars as opposed to TV and movie stars. It seems like now you have to go to Hollywood and become a star before getting to Broadway. They come to Broadway, which they love, but they don’t make as much money. That is the biggest change Christopher has seen over the wave of his career.
Christopher still recalls his closing night fondly. Joanne Horne, was playing Irene Molloy. She wrote a nice poem for him.
He is very proud to be part of that chapter of theater history. It really did shape his whole career from the very beginning. He felt such love and respect from the cast and crew, particularly the stage management team. Lee Murray, Henry Sutton, Mary Porter Hall were amazing taking care of a company that included over fifty people that were on and off stage. Christopher learned how important a theater family is. That has shaped everything he tries to create. Putting a show together from the very first day of creating that possibility, this will be a family that you can have friends for the rest of your life. He has these wonderful people still in his life forty-six years later.