Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Carol Channing's last night as Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" was in Austin in 1997

The history was duly documented by your daily newspaper

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Carol Channing played Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" probably for the last time Feb. 23, 1997 at Ausitn's Bass Concert Hall. [Contributed by Joan Marcus]

The final curtain descended for Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly!” at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall on the evening of Feb. 23, 1997.

She opened in the role on Broadway on Jan. 16, 1964.

Channing played Dolly more than 5,000 times.

She died Jan. 15 at age 97.

Why Austin for the last hurrah? She had longtime friends here, including Lady Bird Johnson, but also Austin-based producer Charles Duggan, who gained fame for the “Greater Tuna” series. He partnered with the tour’s producers to tack on five performances over three days in Austin at the very end of the run.

The Internet Broadway Data Base confirms that Feb. 23, 1997 was final date on that tour. Other online sources attest that it was Channing’s last appearance in the role.

We attended that last performance. But due to theater union rules, the Bass staff would not allow the Statesman's photographer access to document Channing’s final curtain call.

The history lover in me still burns.

By the way, another “Hello, Dolly!” tour is on the road now, starring Texan Betty Buckley.

Here’s my 1997 report, which landed on the front of the Metro section.

Whether or not history was made, Austinites made it clear that Carol Channing was welcome to spend her last night as Dolly Levi at Bass Concert Hall.

Sunday, during her final scheduled performance in the signature role, Channing made every effort to engage the audience personally in this possibly historic "Hello, Dolly!''

After whooping fans showered Channing with applause, she asked if anyone had seen the show during her past 33 years performing the musical.

Most of the approximately 1,600 people responded in the affirmative.

"I knew you were the same,'' Channing said. "I could smell you.''

Channing has expressed interest in retiring the role, but the star still draws crowds and charms critics. During an after-show speech, she referred to possible future tours in Europe and Asia, but those have been negotiated for years without materializing.

Using her slide-trombone voice to sing 20 notes for every one composed by Jerry Herman, Channing crossed the 5,000- performance mark as Levi during her three-day Austin stand. The part she inaugurated in 1964 is identified so closely with Channing that spectators of all ages referred to her in terms of hushed reverence.

"I feel like it's the end of an era,'' said Bobbie Terrell, 75, of Bastrop. "She's as old as I am! I can't imagine doing what she does.''

Austinite Virginia Holland, 46, could not believe Channing's voice was still "so strong, so incredible.''

"I'm amazed,'' said John Corvino, 27. "This was great, my first and possibly last time to see her in the role.''

Jason Shapiro, 12, was less impressed. "Pretty good,'' he judged. Shapiro attended the show because his mother said that he might impress girls with the story that he saw Channing in her last performance of "Dolly!''

Although there was a clear sense of closure, some cast members expressed sadness that the two-year tour was ending. "I wish it would run for another year at least,'' chorus member Kevin Hill said.

Despite the warm response, the five-show Austin engagement did not sell out.

"We are spitting distance from breaking even,'' said Austin producer Charles Duggan, who underwrote the local performances.

"Anyway, audiences are leaving happy and singing,'' house manager Charlotte Klein said.

From the stage, Channing introduced her longtime friend, Liz Carpenter, and a member of the cast, Stephanie Sheppard, who graduated from the University of Texas.

Channing said that playing Austin "made her an honest woman," since she had promised her prominent local friends, including Lady Bird Johnson and producer Duggan, that she would return if the show ever were revived.

Feb. 23, 1997, might rate minor significance in American theater history, as Channing sheds her trademark part, possibly for the last time. But as they left Bass Concert Hall, members of the audience were heard chanting, "Dolly will never go away, Dolly will never go away, Dolly will never go away again.'"