“What is it about Dolly, the meddlesome widow of Ephram Levi that has continued to attract leading ladies of a certain age? Unless you are a Dolly addict, you might
wonder what makes the character such a perfect fit for so many different personalities. [Carol] Channing, who played the role on Broadway from January 16, 1964 until August 8, 1966, and [Pearl] Bailey, who captivated a whole new audience when she played it from November 12, 1967 to mid December 1969, were hardly similar types. During Bailey’s run the extraordinarily beautiful and petite Thelma Carpenter played Dolly at Wednesday matinees.
She subsequently went on for Bailey more than 100 times and thereafter had a successful stage, film, and television career (b. Jan. 15, 1920–d. May 15, 1997).
Thelma Carpenter, whose long roller-coaster career as a singer took her to the heights with the big bands of the 1930s and ’40s, out of show business into years as a file clerk and back to the big-time on Broadway in the title role of Hello, Dolly! was found dead in her apartment in Manhattan when she was 77 of a heart attack.
She is probably best known as “Miss One”, the Good Witch of the North in the movie The Wiz.
Thelma Carpenter was born in Brooklyn, NY on Jan. 15,1922, the only child of Fred and Mary Carpenter, and her career spanned seven decades. She was performing on radio programs like Jack Darrell’s “Kiddies hour” and the “Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour” at age five and had her own show on WNYC by the time she was 11. After winning an Apollo Theatre amateur night in 1938, she headlined at Kelly’s Stable on legendary 52nd St. while still in her teens. She was heard by producer John Hammond, who placed her with Teddy Wilson’s band, with whom she appeared at the Famous Door and made her first recordings for Brunswick in 1939. She joined Coleman Hawkins’ orchestra in 1940 and recorded “He’s Funny That Way” for RCA Bluebird. In 1943, she replaced Helen Humes with the Count Basie band, with whom she toured for two years and made numerous broadcast recordings, as well as the Columbia single “I Didn’t Know About You.” She made her Broadway debut in “Memphis Bound” with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in 1944 and replaced Dinah Shore as featured vocalist on the weekly “Eddie Cantor Show” for the 1945-46 season on NBC. She also signed her first contract as a solo artist with Majestic Records, releasing a dozen sides including “My Guy’s Come Back,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” “Hurry Home” and “Harlem on My Mind,” as well as a swing version of “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” backed by the Ames Brothers in their recording debut. She later recorded two sides with pianist Herman Chittison for Musicraft and four sides for Columbia. In 1947, she returned to Broadway in the hit revue “Inside U.S.A.” with Beatrice Lillie, followed by a revival of “Shuffle Along” in 1952 and the musical “Ankles Aweigh” in 1955. She also did extensive nightclub work and headlined stage shows at such theaters as Loew’s State, the Capitol and the Palace. She made early TV appearances with Duke Ellington, Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. She signed with Coral Records in 1961 and had a hit single answering Elvis Presley with “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight” and recorded the album “Thinking of You Tonight,” released in 1963. In 1968, she was hired as standby for Pearl Bailey in “Hello, Dolly!”, soon taking over all of the matinees as well and playing more than 100 performances. She created the role of Irene Paige in “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” and was signed by Bob Fosse to play the Irene Ryan role of Berthe in the national tour of “Pippin.” She co-starred as the mother in a TV sitcom version of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and in 1978 made her major film debut as Miss One in Sidney Lumet’s production of “The Wiz” with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. She played the mother of Gregory and Maurice Hines in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” and had TV acting roles on “The Love Boat,” “The Paul Lynde Show” and “Cosby,” as well as the movies “Call Her Mom” with Connie Stevens and “The Devil’s Daughter” with Shelley Winters. Her last major singing performance was on the 1993 all-star NBC special, “Apollo Theatre Hall of Fame.” She died of a heart attack in 1997.
Source: Alan Eichler
Thelma Carpenter in 5th ‘Dolly’ Week
By Louis Calta, New York Times
Broadway’s busiest standby these days is Thelma Carpenter, who has been substituting for Pearl Bailey in the all-Negro “Hello, Dolly!” for the last four weeks.
Every night at 8, Miss Carpenter checks in at the St. James Theater, asks if Miss Bailey is there and, if she is not, takes over the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker. Miss Bailey has been suffering from a back aliment.
Miss Carpenter is grateful for the opportunity to pinch-hit for Miss Bailey (“She’s the earth mother,” she said in a recent interview). But she does not want to make a career of it.
“It’s not exactly a labor of love.” She explained, adding, “I don’t want to be ty[ped, I’m ready to move on.”
Her own career which has included Broadway appearances in “Memphis Bound,” with Bill Robinson, “Ankles Aweigh” and “Inside U.S.A.,” with Beatrice Lillie, came to a halt about three years ago. She went to an employment agency and landed a job as a file clerk at $50 a week, after having earned as much as $3,500 a week.
After two weeks of clerking (“It was fun while it lasted”), she joined the company of “Hello, dolly!” last November as Bill Bailey’s stand-by. A stand-by, she explained, receives a larger fee than an understudy, plus “an extra amount of dollars when you go on.” She has played the role about 80 times.
Her unbroken run of performaces began Sept. 8. Two days earlier, Bills Bailey had started the Saturday mainee but had been unable to cloplete it because of her illness, and Miss Carpenter took over.
“That evening the same thing happened, and I’ve been in the show since,’ Miss Carpenter said.
Miss Carpenter concedes it is not easy to face an audience disappointed over Miss Bailey’s absence.
“What you do is to put your best foot forward and say to yourself, ‘Let me entertain you,’ and at the end of the show it pays off because they stand and cheer you. Sometimes,” she added, “you can see that people are a little cold, but that only makes me work harder.”
The performer, who began singing in public at the age of 5 on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and who had her own show on WNYC by the time she was 11, plans to withdraw from “Hello, Dolly!” in December to begin a two-and-a-half week engagement at the St. Regis-Sheraton’s Maisonette.
“The show has helped put be back on the scene,” Miss Carpenter said, “but I want to move out front again.”
*The photographer was Sam Siegel, who was the in-house photographer at Solters, O’Rourke and Sabinson. He did this photo as a favor to Alan Eichler, without Lee or Harvey ever knowing! At the time of the photo, Thelma was using Ms. Bailey's dressing (the same one that all of the Dolly’s used, on stage level). When Thelma started going on so often, and had to change costume scene by scene in case Ms. Bailey “fell out,” they made a small area in the basement for her, where all the musicians and stage hands hung out, with a circular curtain around it, and that’s where she had to change.