Charlie’s first performance of the original Hello Dolly! with Carol Channing was the show’s very first audience performance in the out-of-town tryouts in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre in November of 1963.
The originally scheduled out-of-town opening night was the night John Kennedy was shot. Obviously, it was postponed. Charles said he will never forget that date Kennedy was shot on November 22nd, 1963. They were onstage in costume during a short break from the dress rehearsal, the afternoon of their opening night in Detroit. The doorman rushed in and interrupted Gower Champion, to whisper something in his ear. Gower's head dropped into both hands, and he paused for about 10 seconds. Then he looked up with tears in his eyes and told us President Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas. There was total silence and no movement at all for about 5 minutes. Then Gower said, "Tonight's opening will be postponed until the 23rd. They're going to need what we have to offer."
They opened the next night to an audience response, the likes of which Charlie had not heard to that point, nor since. At the conclusion of the two numbers, “The Waiters’ Gallop” and “Hello, Dolly”, which were purposely staged without interruption and melded together to be presented as one big production extravaganza (the genius of Gower Champion), the audience, to a person, literally exploded–standing, shouting, screaming, yelling, clapping, waving the arms and stomping their feet.
And Charlie says he is not exaggerating when he says it lasted at least, a probably longer, ten minutes. It was as though they were communicating to the actors on stage, “Thank God. Finally, a real musical the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Gower Champion had already, by that time, established himself as the genius of Broadway.
Working with him was an experience that’s difficult to communicate, to say the least, but Charlie said he would do his best. “OMG!!! That about sums it up. When he choreographed “The Waiters’ Gallop” (incidentally, I was the only singer in the dance portion of that number) he would stand down stage center on the apron looking at us moving his hands and arms in all directions so as to sort of paint a picture in his mind’s eye of what he wanted to do with us. This would last for maybe five minutes. Then he’d proceed to manifest his genius and tell each person exactly what to do, and if you did exactly what he said, it was magic.”
Peter Howard, who later became their conductor, was at that time, the dance arranger, rehearsal and pit pianist. When he was playing his arrangements and they were dancing, if Gower wanted him to stop, he would very softly make a clicking sound by sucking in on his teeth like some guy trying to pick up a girl.
How Peter ever heard him with all that was going on is beyond Charlie, but he did, and he’d stop playing till Gower was ready to start again–then he’d make that same very quite clicking sound, and Peter would start playing again.
“The Waiters’ Gallop” was an extremely complicated number with a very rapid tempo throughout.
In order for Gower to stop and start at various parts in the music, he would assign those spots whatever name suited them, and Peter would write that name down on his composition sheet, which later became the published piano vocal score.
One such spot, to which he returned quite often, was when Charlie would be carrying a stack of plates underneath a staircase at an extremely steep angle and at a pretty rapid pace. So, appropriately, Gower named that spot, “Charlie’s Entrance.” Peter wrote “Charlie’s Entrance” at that spot on his composition sheet, and it later became published as such in the first printing of the original Hello Dolly Piano Vocal Score. Unfortunately, it was discovered and removed for the next printing. Charlie has yet to find a copy of that first printing. The saddest part is that he didn’t even know it was there until after they removed it. Peter showed him his copy, but of course, wouldn’t let me have it.Their Horace was, of course, David Burns. “Davey,” as he
was affectionately known to virtually everyone, was a unique individual. He had the most amazing sense of humor and totally fearless attitude toward practical jokes, especially dirty ones. As the consummate pro he was, he would be at the theater every night a full hour before half-hour, get into full costume and make up and go out on to the stage and run every single one of his lines throughout the entire show, with blocking.
Then he’d return to the dressing and continue to playfully annoy everyone with his practical jokes, most of which are not fit to print! But just as a mild example–Charlie’s dressing room, which he shared with Peter Howard (conductor), David Hartman (Rudolf) and Jerry Dodge (Barnaby) was adjacent to Davey’s on the second floor landing above the stage at the St. James Theatre.
So Davey would frequently go into their dressing room to talk or simply to annoy hem, which they all loved. One evening he walked in in full costume, with the exception of his pants. He said something or other, which wasn’t really significant, and then walked away with a 10-foot stream of toilet paper hanging out of his shorts, and of course, didn’t say a word. And, as I said, the others are simply not fit to print.
In the summer of 1963, Charlie says he was about as green as a newcomer to New York could be. He had just returned from a one-year tour of MILK AND HONEY, and DOLLY was his first audition after getting back to the big apple. In those days, there were no EPA’s. You just showed up, all 500 of you, and waited all day long to get the chance to sing and/or dance for Gower Champion. When his turn came up, he sang his usual audition ballad, I’LL NEVER SAY NO from THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. When he finished, Gower asked him if he had an up tune. His response was, “What’s an up tune?” He answered, with a smile, “That’s one with a slightly brighter tempo than what you just sang.” So, Charlie said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I don’t.” Gower said, “Why don’t you go over and talk to Peter Howard (who at that time was the rehearsal pianist and dance arranger), and see if you can work something out.”
Charlie tells me he had no idea that, at that time, Peter Howard was probably the premiere ragtime piano player in New York, So, he asked him if he knew ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND. He said, “I think I can manage that one. What key?” Charlie said, “I don’t know. Just give me a starting note, and we’ll take it from there.” Well, Peter wailed and Charlie wailed and it was just a ball. Next, Charlie had to show Gower whether or not he could walk with very small steps and an extremely rapid tempo. Charlie said he would try, and the result was that he was the only singer in the cast used as a dancer in THE WAITERS’ GALLOP.
At the first day of rehearsal, Gower felt obligated to tell us all that after having seen and heard over 3,000 people over the past year, he wanted to let us know that we “…were the cream of the crop,” and that we “…should all be extremely proud of yourselves.”
Of course, the first Dolly Charlie worked with was Carol Channing, who, in his mind is the only Dolly. It’s as though the role was written for her, not only by Michael Stewart, the book writer, but Thorton Wilder, the original author of THE MATCHMAKER. What can one say about Carol, except that she is the personification of Dolly Levi–or at least what Charlie thinks Dolly Levi should be having done the show for over two years on Broadway with Carol and with Ginger Rogers. Ginger, on the other hand, was Ginger, which is nothing bad of course. Ginger Rogers was a delightful lady and multi-talented. She was a superb actress, and of course, her dancing is legendary. Charlie understudied Cornelius (Charles Nelson Reilly) on Broadway and performed the role with both Carol and Ginger. Doing it with either of them was a delight and a thrill, but in a different way. In the DANCING number in the hat shop, dancing with Carol was a dream knowing that he had his arm around the waist of a Broadway legend. But the first time he put his arm around Ginger’s waist, the first thought that came to him was, “OMG–Fred’s hand was here.” Then he was in a different kind of legend heaven. He was now dancing with a dancing legend of the movies of the 30s and 40s. Ginger once said, “I’m not really a good dancer–I just wear long dresses.”
Charlie was with the show from its inception in September 1963 (first rehearsal) to when he left the company in the summer of 1966 to pursue other goals.
To tell you the truth, Charlie doesn’t remember what he felt like on his last performance. He’s sure if he were there now, it would be quite a mixed reaction.
Where was this (for each)?
As Charlie mentioned above, the reaction of the audience in that first performance in Detroit was perhaps the most exciting memory of all. But the most comical memory was when Carol actually fell off the ramp that went over the orchestra and landed in the laps of the people in the front row. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The only thing I can say about it is that it didn’t actually happen the way Carol usually tells it, and she’s told it all over the world to practically everyone alive.
Charlie says he learned what it means to be a pro in Hello, Dolly! They don’t come any more pro than Carol, Ginger or Davey Burns. When you’re exposed to the mastery of that quality of performing eight times a week for over two years, if you don’t learn something about how to be a professional and the biz, you’re an idiot.
I asked Charlie for his thoughts on Jerry Herman and he had the following to say:
There’s so much to be said about Jerry Herman. He is such a “mensch.” In Yiddish that means he’s the real deal. He treats everyone with kindness and respect, and he’s far and away one of the most talented American Musical Theatre composers of the 20th and 21st Centuries.
I’ll never forget one thing he said to me the first time I went on for Cornelius, when he just happened to be at the theatre.
He said, “Chuck, thank you. That’s the first time I’ve heard IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT really sung by a man. Charlie Reilly was a brilliant comedy performer, but he’d be the first to admit he was not really that great a singer. Oh, he pulled it off dozens of times in a number of shows, but in a comedic way, and brilliantly, too. BYE, BYE BIRDIE and HOW TO SUCCEED… are two perfect examples.
Charlie’s thoughts on Gower Champion
Well, I’ve already spoken quite a bit about Gower. To add to it, I’d have to say that, like Jerry Herman, Gower was unique, both in talent and persona. He respected every performer equally, and he was kind to everyone. There may be some around who would disagree with that, but I’d bet that they were the kinds of performers who didn’t measure up to Gower’s standards. He was one to let those performers know how he felt about not giving 150%.
Describe the first time you heard the score (if you can)
The first time we heard the music, of course, was during rehearsals, but only with piano, which was exciting enough. But the first time we heard the score with an orchestra was one of the highlights of my entire life. It was the first orchestra rehearsal in Detroit before we opened. The orchestra, the entire cast and the entire creative team were all assembled in this one relatively small room at a rehearsal studio. The minute that orchestra began playing Phil Lang’s orchestrations, it was orgasmic. To hear what he did with PUT ON YOUR SUNDAY CLOTHES was akin to having the greatest orgasm of your life. Unfortunately, we never heard it quite like that again, what with the vagaries of various theatres’ sound conditions, etc. Of course, the rest of the score was equally exciting. When they first started playing, I noticed Gower over in one corner of the room literally pulling at his hair as though he was going to pull it out from excitement. Jerry began weeping, and David Merrick simply smiled, which, for him, was over the top.
What one major change have you seen in the industry since Dolly?
The end of truly great musical theatre. Sure, there have been some wonderful shows since then, but I fear we’ll never again see or hear the likes of HELLO DOLLY, WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY, THE MUSIC MAN, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, MAME, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE KING AND I, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, KISS ME KATE, GUYS AND DOLLS and I’m sure some others I can’t think of at the moment. But that kind of musical theatre is gone, and I fear never to return. The relationship between cost and quality is definitely an inverse one. Even the revivals haven’t measured up to the originals–NOR HAVE THE PERFORMERS!!!
Thank you Charlie Karel! I Love you!!